Monday, 28 November 2016

Tackling the Broadgate Tower Stair Climb

Katherine writes about why she chose to take on the Broadgate Tower stair climb and fundraise to support Student Minds' work.
 -  Katherine Hockley

Mental health is still a uniquely scary thing. When it’s not a physical affliction, when it’s an invisible illness, there’s always the worry that it won’t be taken seriously or that there is no definitive cure.

My legs hurt.

Preparing for this 877 step stair climb has certainly been a test of will. I leave for work at 8am and get home at 7pm, so it’s been pretty tricky fitting in the ol’ fitness training regime.

But I’ve certainly tried. My boyfriend looked on in dismay as I did 100 squats a day in his room, and cursed me for forcing him to do Shaun T’s notoriously gruelling Insanity workout every couple of days.

In fact, my legs really hurt. Who knew I had muscles in my inner thighs? Certainly not me. But I understand that the pain I’m currently feeling is nothing to that I used to feel when suffering from depression at university.

I was actually first diagnosed with depression at 17, but it came raging back at 19 during my first year within Higher Education. I’d moved away from home and have always suffered with chronic shyness, so I was understandably nervous about the social aspect of university. But I assumed it’d be fine, and I packed off happily to Sheffield for the next three years of my life. In reality, it was a major shock to the system and I did not deal with the tumultuous change very well.  

Without getting into too many details, I was drinking heavily and self-harming. At one point I got gastritis, which basically means I drank so much booze that my stomach lining became severely inflamed. If I had even a sip of alcohol I would be doubled up in pain, and it lasted a very long time. So not only was I depressed, I had to stop drinking, which was my one and only crutch in my battle against social anxiety and unhappiness. Midway through the first academic year, I was barely leaving my room and didn’t attend any lectures. This in turn meant I wasn’t making any friends on my course, which made me even more miserable. When I did attend the odd class, I sat alone and left immediately after, feeling deflated and angry with myself for being so different.  

Slipping through the cracks at university is painfully easy to do, especially if you’re quiet and have a very small support network. However, I was lucky enough to have an incredibly responsive and helpful mental health service provided by my university, and this is probably the only reason I didn’t drop out and end up in an even more dire situation.

So when Student Minds presented to us in our All Staff Meeting, I couldn’t help but choke up and quickly force myself to brush away a few tears. These kinds of charities and this type of work is so sorely needed that I made a note on the organisation and vowed to send an email signing up to the Stair Climb.

Being me, I immediately forgot and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that it struck me to send that email. Once I had, I spread the word on Facebook and the donations came rolling in.

Mental health is such an important issue that it demands everyone’s attention. Climbing up and training for an 877 stair climb is a holiday compared to going through the vast upheaval that university life can bring. Charities like this can fill the gap where student services are lacking, and I’m always glad to see these kinds of causes thriving. Mental health is still a uniquely scary thing. When it’s not a physical affliction, when it’s an invisible illness, there’s always the worry that it won’t be taken seriously or that there is no definitive cure.

By undertaking this challenge, by discussing my past and by writing this blog I hope that people understand that mental illness can affect anybody and everybody, regardless of age. It must not be taken lightly, and mental health is an uphill battle that doesn’t always have a finish line. I still struggle with anxiety, recently relapsing and being put back on anti-anxiety medication.  

But because it is such a difficult thing to tackle it needs extra care and attention. The happy-go-lucky, lazy stereotype that is often conjured up when we think of students needs to be re-addressed, by care professionals as well as their peers. Knowing that you’re going to be taken seriously is crucial in young people coming forward and getting the help they need, and organisations like Student Minds will make this a lot easier for those suffering now and in the future.

So instead of raising a glass to Student Minds, I raise a foot. And the other. 877 times, in quick succession…

Christ, my legs ache even writing about it.  Wish me luck.

We did it!!! 

Monday, 21 November 2016

Freshers' Week for a tee-totaler

Cecilia writes about how she dealt with university life when her tee-totalism was causing her to be singled out

I knew university wasn’t going to be like the way it’s portrayed in the films.

You know, the Pitch Perfect, Legally Blonde situation where you get accepted for who you are, somehow get on Dean’s List without doing any work and end up kissing someone amazingly hot during the closing song. That’s not the way life works, I get that.

But if you had told me that university was going to be bleak and nasty as it was, I probably would have begged my parents not to make me go, and I would have joined a convent….in Tibet.

I knew that university was going to be particularly hard for me. I’ve always been slightly out of step, bullying being a constant chorus in the musical that is “The Life of Cecilia”. But I thought at university, at least that would stop - we’re all adults now, right? We might not like each other, but we wouldn’t treat each other badly…would we?

My main issue was the fact that, at 18 years old, I was a tee-total. I know, odd. But I had my reasons, personal ones that I don’t have to share with anyone. I had never drunk so much as a unit of alcohol before moving to university. I knew the five girls I was going to be moving in with would think that was very strange and might have some questions, but that would be it. Sure, we might not become BFFs, but I was fine with that. We just had to get along.

I hoped to hide in my boringness, my anonymity. I was the court jester of our flat, ridiculed and insulted. I was ostracised, treated like a second class citizen and made to feel like a prisoner who had committed some terrible offence. It wasn’t like the school bullying, I didn’t get to go home at the end of the day, curl up on my bed and watch ‘Friends’. I had to live with them as they whispered whenever I left a room. Eat with them while they side-eyed each other whenever I said anything. Go to lectures with them while they texted each other about me. All because of the type of liquid I chose not to put into my body, something that didn’t even affect them. Please understand, I had no problem with other people drinking, I wasn’t preaching in the slightest, it just wasn’t for me - the same way some people don’t eat meat or don’t smoke. So why was it such a bit deal? My only possible explanation was that humans hate what is different.

At university I was meant to be free, but I was trapped. I was meant to be living my life to the full, but I was just existing by this point.

The saddest part of it all wasn’t losing my friends. It was losing me. I started to believe all the things they thought about me, began to question all my basic beliefs and values. Began to hate the very person I was. That self-hatred led to a deep, dark pit depression and regret, something I told no one about. Even now, three years later, it’s really hard to admit, which I know it shouldn’t be.

So I moved out. I begged a room out of the university and with the help of a couple of amazing friends, slammed the door on that part of my life for good. It took a good while, years really, but I began to feel again. I eventually got help and went on anti-depressants and went to mental health classes. I surrounded myself with the people who I loved and loved me back, and things got easier.

Thing is, I know I started this by saying I knew life isn’t like films. But I have been accepted for who I am, I just had to find the right people. I have been on Dean’s List every year, I just had to do the work. Ending up with the perfect guy? A few mis-steps later, I’m still working on that, but that’s okay. Because I’m so happy now.

So my advice to lonely Fresher’s? Hang on in there. Stay strong. First it hurts, then it gets better, then it feels like freedom. Talk to someone, even an anonymous voice on the end of a helpline. Get fresh air. Eat. Go to your lectures. Find good people, don’t settle. Accept yourself. I got through, you can.

For more information on starting university, click here.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

I Am More Than My Mental Health

For many students, University is a time to "find yourself". For Caitlin, this meant finding an identity beyond her mental illness...
- Caitlin Bracken

I used to only see myself in terms of my mental health. Honestly, I saw myself as a failure; someone who couldn’t cope with what everyone else seemed to find so simple.

I was the girl who fell apart in French lessons, couldn’t stammer out an answer in History and, for some unknown reason, found a way to flourish in Sociology – but even then, on the dark days, my word-tap would switch off. (The word-tap being the best analogy I can think of to describe how anxiety can just turn you silent at the drop of a hat: like the turning off of a tap.) I saw myself as that girl; the girl who couldn’t cope.

It’s taken a long time for me to realise that I am not defined by my mental health, but I’m getting there. I have come to terms with the fact that my anxiety will rear its ugly head from time to time. It means that, afterwards, I can accept that it happened and move on; not that this makes the panic attack any easier at the time!

If I forget my planned response and stammer over a few words, I am better at realising it’s not the end of the world. I know that I have the power to keep going, or to just stop if that’s the choice I want to make.

It’s okay for me to decline every invitation to join in student nightlife; although this is partially linked to my fear of losing control, when I’m not in a familiar place, clubbing simply isn’t my cup of tea. That’s okay.

I’m so much more than the girl who wrung her hands to infinity and beyond. Nowadays, if I feel the need to fall back on that, I’ll pull a tube of hand cream from my bag and use this once-destructive action to do something productive. Sometimes, in school, I’ll lean on the old favourite, “hands in a basket.” Although making me look like I’m trying to be prim and proper, it doesn’t give away any clues.

I also work hard to fill my head with other things, like sock animals. They’ve become my speciality, and I’m proud that something so quirky and beautiful could have come from my need to occupy my time. I know where busy stops and manic starts, so distractions are key.

I’m more than my silence. After reading Susan Cain’s incredible account of introversion “Quiet: Growing up as introvert in a world that can’t stop talking”, I’ve learned to celebrate my introversion. I like being quiet. I enjoy social gatherings that aren’t overcrowded and intimidating. I would never have dreamed of being a writer, if I hadn’t learned to use my own company to my advantage.

Ploughing through books isn’t so easy in a mass of people either. I don’t have the extrovert buzz of being around others, but I’m realising how this can be an advantage. My introversion and anxiety have a strange, complex relationship, but for the most part (not always) they seem to work well together. This was not always the case, but right now it’s working out well.

There’s enough information out there about university being the place to find yourself, so I’m not going to turn this into a deep (yet obviously one-sided) conversation about discovering myself. It seems obvious now that I’m more than my mental health, and yet it’s something that is so difficult to remind myself of on difficult days.

When I look in the mirror, there is no stamp on my forehead that says “ANXIOUS ABOUT EVERYTHING,” because this isn’t the case all the time. Yet even if it was - and it certainly used to be - there still wouldn’t be visible clues as to the world inside my head.

I am Caitlin. I happen to have issues with my mental health, but I am not my mental health.