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.

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