During final year of University I was working four jobs, going to the gym at least four times a week, cycling around 8 miles to and from university everyday, oh and trying to get the highest grades possible.
I was running myself into the ground.
I’m not sure why I took on so much, maybe I felt the final year urge to do everything I thought I should have been doing the whole 3 years of my degree.
But whatever the reason it wasn’t good for me.
On top of all the stuff I was doing, I was also trying to figure out those big questions you feel pressured to know at 21.
Like: what you’ll do after graduation; who you want to be; and what the thing with that guy really means.
I wanted to be able to do everything.
I felt like I needed to prove I could do that. That I could manage all of these things and still get good grades. I wanted to do it all and do it smoothly.
And I did manage to graduate with a good grade and oomph up my cv with a load of experience from my jobs. Butttttt … I also had a breakdown. A pretty big one.
One night I was in my room catching up with my parents after studying and we got into a fight. It was super unusual, since we get along like a house on fire almost always.
But that night, they found out I was still dating this guy they felt wasn’t a good idea and they got mad, really mad.
The conversation actually ended with them hanging up on me.
After the phone call, I was sitting on my bedroom floor crying so hard it felt like I wouldn’t ever be able to stop.
Then suddenly my chest started to get tighter. My breaths were getting shorter. It was like I was being squeezed by my shoulders into an un-occupiable space and I couldn’t breathe.
I was experiencing my first panic attack.
But I had no idea what was going on. I’d never experienced anything like it before. And that uncertainty only made the attack worse. My heart rate sped up and I freaked the hell out.
My housemates were home and luckily heard all this.
I’m not sure who they called or what they did. I just remember being bundled into a cab that had arrived, and before I knew it I was in an out of hours surgery trembling in front of this old doctor.
He gave me a pill of Diazepam and the squeezing began to stop. I began to be able to catch my breath. Even though my body relaxed, my mind continued to turn a million times a minute.
The doctor asked me a ton of questions I couldn’t answer. I didn’t understand what was happening. I felt like a lost kid at the playground. I didn’t know what to do or what to say.
But he said a lot of things.
Out of everything he said though all I can remember is that he was referring me to a psychotherapist and university counselling.
I remember that word, “psychotherapist”. It sounded so big and scary, and so unnecessary. I just freaked out for a second, and it’d never happened before.
I felt embarrassed and ashamed. Moments before I’d just been crying alone in my bedroom like any other stressed out final year, and now I was being prescribed anxiety medication and counselling … in front of my housemates.
After that night I felt fragile.
I realised how much I’d been neglecting myself. How much pressure I had been putting myself under. And how I hadn’t taken a single second to look after myself.
Now I realise that a big part of the build up to this attack was not being able to accept help. Or rather, not being able to show a need for help. Because in my eyes, that was a weakness.
I didn’t want anyone to know I was struggling with anything. Let alone big things like anxiety and identity.
I remember talking with Lesley (my counsellor) about this. She asked what would happen if I let my housemates in? If I told them what was going on, how did I think they’d respond?
Just her asking that question made me realise that was exactly what I needed. I needed to be vulnerable with someone. And sometimes, I just needed to ask for their help.
I needed to let myself be seen. My true self. The one that was stressed and pressured and trying to hold herself together. And really unsure about a lot of things.
And I did. It took awhile and I never shared everything.
But if my housemates asked me how my day went, I’d try to be as honest as I felt okay doing each time. Rather than brushing it off with a “fine, and yours?” like usual.
For the next 6 or so months I continued to go to therapy and counselling every week. It was painstaking to say the least. But my housemates were amazingly strengthening.
During sessions with my therapist we would do a lot of work on mindset. She’d set me tasks to do like journaling before bed and breathing exercises to teach me how to manage my anxiety and stress.
Then the next week I’d feedback to her what the week was like, which tasks I felt I’d completed and which were still challenging.
Time with her was like strategy sessions. Which was not what I was expecting.
I thought I’d have to expose my deepest darkest feelings to her and have her evaluate my messed-up-ness and take what she prescribed.
But that wasn’t it at all.
She came with a whole catalogue of strategies. Her purpose was to teach me how to notice anxiety or panic triggers and deal with them.
Her task was ultimately to teach me to take back control of mind when it started catastrophizing.
She put names to the feelings I couldn’t describe. And she helped put me back in my own power.
Time with Lesley (my counsellor) was incredibly different. That’s where the deep dark stuff came out. And it was terrifying.
On my way to sessions with Lesley, I’d run through in my head what I was going to say, how I was going to say it, and how we could quickly move on to less raw things.
Whenever I’d cycle up to the blue door of the university counselling building, I’d always hurriedly lock up my bike and check to see if anyone I knew saw me going in.
I remember the first time I met Lesley I was so intimidated by her. She was insanely beautiful and kind, and all I could think of was: “great, I’m meant to open up to you?”
But somehow she always managed to guide me into talking about the scary stuff. The stuff you think you’ll never tell anyone because you’d worry they’d think you were a horrible person. Or just crazy.
We mostly talked about family and the guy I was seeing. She listened and asked questions to get me to think deeper and explain my feelings more clearly.
Even though in the beginning it was really hard and I didn’t know where to start, by the end of our sessions together she helped me realise my worth.
She helped me see I was accepting less than I deserved and that I did have a voice to be heard and power to change my situations.
This was a game-changer.
Because for almost a year I’d been putting everyone’s needs ahead of mine. I hadn’t stopped to give myself any time to rest or process anything.
I cracked because I felt like I needed to do and be everything, and uphold this image of perfection.
Settling for less than I deserved in the relationship I was “kind of” in also affected my identity hugely and played a big role in my breakdown. Being half in something made me feel like I wasn’t worth being “fully in”.
Every time I updated Lesley on what was going on in the relationship and what decisions I had made she never met me with judgement.
I felt like by bringing him up again and again, in fact even just by being there talking to her at all, I felt like I was inconveniencing her.
(Even though that was exactly her job!)
This was another effect of settling for less than I deserved. I constantly felt on the clock whenever I was speaking. Like I shouldn’t hold someone’s attention for too long; I shouldn’t concern other people with my shit because they have stuff of their own.
This, partnered with my pride of not wanting people to know I was struggling was an awful combination. Because it produced a ton of messy crap I had to work through.
Crap that I had to work through while also trying to keep up with my degree.
But actually, my university was amazing after I embarrassingly had to go and explain to my subject head what had happened. They did everything they could to help.
They gave me extensions on coursework and my professors even set aside extra time just for me to meet with them to catch up on work and feel a little less left behind.
But I also had to help myself. I had to get over the feeling of being a failure and scale back on some of the commitments I’d set for myself.
Like reducing the amount of gym days to rest and eat properly (finally!). It wasn’t easy and I felt guilty doing it, but I knew it needed to be done.
I eventually figured out that trying to do everything and trying to do it alone wasn’t going to serve me very well … (obviously).
But the biggest thing I’ve learned from that brutal and stressful year was how even though it feels like you’re failing “having” to admit you need help, it really, honestly isn’t. (It isn’t!)
I think this is a continual battle a lot of us face: figuring out who to let in and when. And this was just the beginning of me figuring out how to do it. I still struggle to open up sometimes, even to my husband.
Because as much as I want to seem like I have it altogether and I’ve got this thing down, doing that actually only makes me feel worse. I constantly have to remind myself that it’s okay to be imperfect, it’s literally all that we can count on being.
Taking on so much, dealing with a secret relationship and its troubles and just being a final year student was wayyyyyyy too much for one person to deal with alone.
So once I finally got over the initial fear of “oh god, what are they going to think?!” and actually shared with people what was going on in my head and life, I was only met with understanding, compassion and a heck of a lot of me too’s.
I’m not saying you need to tell the next person you meet all about the hardest times in your life. Obvs that would be super weird.
But I am saying, if like me you struggle to open up and let people in, then I’d recommend looking at your friends and thinking who can you really be yourself with.
Because chances are they’re the ones who won’t judge you and who actually want to know you deeply. And if you can’t think of anyone, get yourself a Lesley.
Honestly, I completely understand the feeling of shame being labelled as an “anxious” person or “suffering with depression” or being recommended any kind of mental health help.
But those labels don’t define you. And it’s really worth sitting down and getting allllll that crap out to someone, rather than trying to carry it all yourself.
And yeah, it’s pretty raw at first telling that first person something you majorly fucked up and need advice with, but it really feels great when you’re heard and someone’s in your corner to help.