August 21, 2013

LucyLast Thursday was A Level results day, and my Twitter feed was packed with people talking about how they felt when they picked up their results, or how they still get anxious at the very thought, even though many years have passed since they were the ones waiting to open that envelope.

There were also plenty of stories about people who didn't get the results they'd hoped for who have still managed to do amazing things, and have fantastic, fulfilling careers and happy lives. These stories are massively important, and I'm very glad that people are sharing them.

I want to tell the story I wish someone had told me six years ago, when I was picking up my own results.

Results day came after I'd experienced the worst episode of depression of my life

Results day 2007 came five months after I'd experienced what was at that point the worst episode of depression of my life. They'd been cropping up periodically since I was twelve years old, with varying degrees of severity, but March 2007 had been bad to the point that I feared, whilst bumping along down in those black depths, that if things didn't improve I'd never be able to sit my exams or finish my coursework, let alone take up my offer of a place at Cambridge.

At that point, I was a straight-A student. A high achiever. I needed to get those grades, because academic success was the only metric I had by which to judge my own worth as a person. Doing well at school was, as far as I was concerned, the only thing I was good at. I had wholeheartedly bought into a worldview that I barely understood the mechanics of, let alone genuinely believed in. And I had not learnt to read or write or think critically, or to live in the world, or to love - all I'd learnt to do was study.

I learnt how to manage my condition as best I could

I got the results I needed, fortunately, and took up my University place six weeks later. And had an even worse depressive episode the following spring. The first one that I truly feared I wouldn't survive, and the one which finally got me on the long and difficult road to adequate treatment, and to learning how to manage my condition as best I could. When I graduated in 2010, I was enjoying the best mental health of my life. I felt for the first time as though I knew how it felt to be normal - how life felt when you lived it without being depressed - and that was a revelation. After years of grinding pessimism, I found to my surprise and delight that I was naturally an optimist.

The time I spent at University was, not at all coincidentally, the only time I didn't perform at the absolutely top of my game academically. Instead of pushing for a First, as some of my supervisors encouraged me to do, I spent my three years at Cambridge experimenting with different medications, taking initial forays into counselling, trying not to drink my feelings and sleep all day, and generally working out how I could live my life with this thing going on in my head in a way that wasn't going to break me or kill me.

If you're struggling with mental illness, what matters is taking charge of your health

So my message for anyone who hasn't got their grades - or who has, and is finding that a few letters on a soulless piece of paper from an exam board still don't solve all their problems - is that this doesn't matter. If you're struggling with mental illness, what matters is taking charge of your health and learning how to live by your own measures in a way that's sustainable. Not being the best at everything because you think it'll finally make you feel worthwhile, or because someone else so desperately wants you to succeed, or because it's the only thing you know how to do.

Instead of chasing the best grades, I spent my time at University learning how to get comfortable in my own skin. I did learn how to read and write and think critically, and I learnt to value myself in contexts which weren't exam-based, and I learnt how to live in the world and how to love. Yes, I still get episodes of depression, but they're much more manageable - because I took the time to learnt to manage them. The years since doing this have been without doubt the happiest and most productive of my life, and I only wish I'd done it sooner. Or even know that I had the option to.

You have the option to. There will always be resits, and other Universities, and a hundred different paths you can take. This is worth putting all of those things on hold for.

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