I normally cope very well in stressful situations, I didn’t bat an eyelid going through the Leaving Cert while those around me were losing their heads, but settling in to college was rough, Very rough.
Of the 120 students in my class I had spoken to 3 of them in the first few weeks. Out of my depth with the sheer volume of people here I spent many of my classes on my own in the back row, avoiding eye contact with everyone else. I couldn’t make friends, I lost my voice and found it impossible to speak to anyone. I wanted nothing more than for someone to come talk to me, invite me to go get tea, or just acknowledge I was even there. I was alone in a crowd.
While trying to make new friends was hard enough, it felt like my friends from school had left me behind as they thrived in the new environment. I would hear from them rarely and see them even less. They took to student life-like ducks to water, going out on a Thursday having fun and embracing the new lifestyle in the pubs and clubs of the City. The idea of clubbing terrified me; huge crowds, post pubescent drunks and the noise. I was in a relationship at the time and had no reason to join my friends on the prowl. They invited me along, but when I say invited, it felt like I was hounded with a chorus of “You should come with us!” .. Should. Said like It was something expected of me from day one. That made me feel isolated. I declined the invitation every time, knowing I’d be abandoned like an unwanted pup at the side of the road.
On a trip away with the college surf club I had my first experience of panic from people. While there was a party going on in the hostel we were staying in I was lying in my bunk and content to stay there. One of my friends however tried to convince me otherwise so I decided to join her in the party room. I stood awkwardly in the corner, strobe lights, loud music and a tight knot in my stomach. I stayed for less than 10 minutes and ran from the building. I couldn’t deal with the people, the expectations and sideways looks I got for just standing there cowering. I ended up on the beach at 1:30 in the morning on my own just listening to the waves and the wind in the dark. I stayed there for 2 hours fighting with myself and pacing the promenade and the shoreline, I was too afraid to go back in.
Come October I came to terms with the fact my mental health was slowly deteriorating, the stress of my academic life coupled with the isolation of my social life was taking its toll. And one Thursday, after a long day of college, it all came to a boil.
It was one of those days, nothing went as I wanted it to and the world seemed against me. I had just finished a 3 hour chemistry lab which I hated to even think of doing. I nearly lost myself in that lab, staring at a list of measurements and words I didn’t understand. One of the girls in the class I had managed to make friends with must’ve noticed I was distressed, she came over and asked “You ok?” to which I gave the only answer I could manage: “I’m fine”, while on the inside I was screaming. Now I was on the train home at 8:30pm after being on the go for nearly 12 hours. I wanted to cry, I just wanted to go home and cry and never have to leave again. My brain felt like it was trying to break out of my skull, I had bottled up 2 months worth of stress and negative emotion and it had come to a head. I had to drive home that night in the dark with my head swimming and mind crumbling and it showed, I stalled every time I had to stop and narrowly avoided causing a side-on collision. Driving that night was a very bad idea. Half way home that night I had a terrible, horrifying thought: “If I just swerve into that wall, I won’t have to go any further”. It was at this moment I realised how bad I let things get, I didn’t care what happened. My own self-preservation had been blocked out and it scared me. It made me even more determined to get home, I didn’t want to just give up. At my house I didn’t bother turning off the ignition I just went inside and did exactly what I wanted to do in the first place: Cried. I collapsed against a cupboard in the kitchen and broke down completely in front of my parents who didn’t have a clue what to do. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. Needless to say, I didn’t go to college the next day.
Following this episode I knew I needed help, there was no hiding it anymore and no denying it either. I had serious anxiety. I was afraid to go to college, afraid to go to lectures, afraid to face the crowds, afraid to face my friends, afraid to face the outside, afraid to look my parents in the eye. In the weeks that followed I slowly fought a bout of depression that had reduced me to a shell. I didn’t feel anything for a few days, no joy or sadness, just emptiness. Anyone that tried to get through to me got one word answers or a nod. It was especially frustrating for my parents, when I came home every day I’d curl up on the couch and stay there in silence. Dinner wasn’t always an option, I struggled to eat sometimes and was unable to stomach food no matter how hungry I was.
On my return to college I met with my tutor, the staff member assigned to help me should I ever need it. I also met with some close friends over a few days, which helped more than I was expecting. Just knowing that others were aware of what I was going through made me feel much better. I’d like to say this is an isolated and unique incident for me, but it isn’t. I still struggle with stress, anxiety & depression and managing my emotions. With exams coming up and not being able to see some close friends over next few months it’s going to show. Even as I write this my head is just emerging from that difficult place again. Living with a mental illness isn’t easy but it doesn’t have to be crushingly hard either: I have a close network of amazing friends that understand and care, they check up on me when they notice I’m acting differently, and always offer help should I ever need it.
If I could offer any advice to someone reading this that is going/gone through a mental illness, It’s to have at least one friend that understands. Let someone know, be it your parents, a sibling, a friend, a neighbour, girlfriend, boyfriend, a trained professional, a teacher or colleague you’re close to, or even your pet (Never underestimate the healing powers of your pets!) It’s true what they say that a problem shared is a problem halved.