My mother used to say I was pretty much always this way. She would say that she could never leave my brother for even a second; else he would bash his head or throw a fit. She said I would just sit still. She could have left me for hours, she said; of course, she didn’t. I would play with one toy, and then wait, consumed by anxiety, until she gave her permission that I could play with another. This confused her. She had never once told me that I needed her permission to play.
Sometimes, this anxiety took the guise of an intense desire to do well. I was keenly focused on my studies. When I discovered that my teacher had only taught me half my course the night before my A-Level exam, I stayed up half the night learning the other half. Because of his oversight, most people failed. I got one hundred percent on that exam.
I soon entered a prestigious university. In the holidays, just before my final year, my anxiety became overwhelming. I had also developed other mental illnesses. I spent time under section in hospital for suicidal thoughts, depression, self-harm and bulimia. After my discharge, I struggled to make it to seminars and lectures; having to bring my cuddly toy sloth Nigel along for support. I lived with a bully who would tell me that my mental illnesses made me a burden to her. I felt as if I were being blamed for something over which I had no control.
I am now studying for a Master’s degree at the same university, and have again found the stigma of hospitalization difficult. I still suffer with crippling anxiety attacks, persistent depression, and an eating disorder. Sometimes I have taken on reading groups and other initiatives, when I was feeling well, and then found during a particularly anxious week that I had become overwhelmed.
Twice I have left my department’s study room in tears because of ignorant comments my peers made. One comment that I have found profoundly upsetting was from a man who claimed that mental hospitals were “asylums” and I was “mad”. However, most individuals in my department have been kind and caring. My dissertation adviser was a beam of light in the darkest times. I remember clearly how, struggling with a dissociative episode, he sat with me while I cried and listened. It did not matter that he did not seem to understand what I was experiencing. He would tell me I was an asset to the university community. I cannot explain how helpful this was, when I was feeling as if everyone would be better off without me.
Sometimes friends tell me they are unsure what to say. In my own experience, it isn’t about saying the right thing – but instead about just being there for support.
After relying on others for support (like asking friends to go to the supermarket with me to buy food when I am too scared, or sitting with me when I am anxious) I often suffer from panic attacks from fear that I have lost my friend through becoming a “burden”, or not being “happy” Lizzie. Much of my anxiety derives from this perfectionism; to be the “best” student, the “best” friend. I have a support worker who tells me to focus on the "now”, on the moment itself, instead of focusing on living up to my self-imposed ideals. One friend, who comforted me after I had cried about university stress, told me never to apologize for crying after I had approached him the next day, worried he would not want to be my friend anymore. I try to think of this now, when I feel that worry.
I have lost many of my close-knit support system, who have left my university on completion of their own undergraduate degrees. I miss them deeply. However, I have gained new friends, a supportive boyfriend, and kept in contact with many of those who are now geographically distant. I am inspired to continue studying, and I intend to complete a doctorate after a year off. The department issued me with an award after I completed my Bachelor’s degree in recognition of the struggles I had faced in achieving my degree.
Although things have been extremely difficult, I am proud of myself for getting through those tough times. I have recently given my first public academic presentation; something which would have seemed impossible last year - when I was often so anxious, I was immobile. For a long time, my pool of happiness felt shallow. Recently, I have struggled immensely. However, I try to remind myself that recovery is not linear – and that these blips are natural.