Tuesday 31 October 2017

Assignment 1: Accepting Me

Charlotte discusses her experience with grief and ongoing anxiety regarding her decision to change university course.

-       Charlotte Stevenson

When my granddad passed away from cancer, I was 17 years old. It was incredibly hard - not only had I always felt closest to him, but I had also been caring for him. The weeks which followed are a blur of grief, and my brain seems to have erased much of what happened. This is largely because at the same time, I was also learning to cope with my own anxiety and panic disorder.

Grief and anxiety are difficult to handle together. At first, both seemed entirely out of control; whenever I managed to control one, the other would rear its ugly head. For a long time, I tried to ignore it all and get on with life as ‘normal’ - which back then meant giving all my attention to A level's and not really listening to my brain. Instead of allowing myself the time and space I needed to process everything, I threw myself into schoolwork and extra-curriculars. While these things mattered to me, they didn't distract from my larger problems. If anything, I now realise that it was merely to create the illusion that I was fine.

Until this point, I had spent most of my life preparing to be a classical singer. This dream had led me to sing with choirs and orchestras all over Europe, audition for elite conservatoires, and take extra exams to prove my vocal ability. However, the high-pressure environment of classical singing isn't for everyone. When I began a conservatoire course after A levels, I was excited! But upon arrival, I found that all my hard work, even at my ideal school, wasn’t a time machine that could take me back to my former self. In fact, throughout my entire time at music college, I felt like a failure; nothing made sense and I didn’t feel like I belonged. I decided to try moving home to complete the first year of my course.

Once I returned home, I told my mum everything. I had been incredibly worried because I didn't want to upset or disappoint her after everything we went through with granddad. But once I had told her (and we both spent that evening crying) I felt massive relief - now it was out loud, it was real. I had acknowledged anxiety for the first time. After that moment, which was a long time in the making, I was then able to learn how to care of myself and my mental health properly. I started speaking about it more, balancing my workload, and generally putting myself first. It isn't easy, and still isn’t 100% natural, but I’m gradually adjusting.

The most important step I made towards self-care was re-applying to university for a subject I love: English Literature. When you train for music all your life, it’s very easy to put on a pair of blinkers, thinking it’s your only possible future, but there were always other subjects that I enjoyed studying. In fact, now I want to learn everything I can in my lifetime. Getting accepted to my dream literature course was another confusing milestone. While I was over the moon, I also thought that I had let my granddad down. Before he passed away, he made my mum promise that I wouldn't give up music. I spoke to mum, and she said that while it was hard, I had made the right decision for myself and my own happiness - which is all that granddad would have wanted. She was right - studying English quite literally saved my life.

If there is one thing that I hope you take from this, it’s that putting yourself first and talking about your problems – especially when it’s difficult – is the best way to take care of your mental health. Too often, because it’s not physical, we call the problem 'imaginary'. But you would seek help for a broken leg, and it's the same for your brain. Telling someone you trust can be the first step to recovery - not straightaway, but gradually. It might not seem so now but I can promise you, reaching out does make a difference.

Hi, I'm Charlotte and I'm a student at York St. John University. My ambition is to be a writer, and I have worked on projects with UCAS, the Guardian, and the Travel Pocket Guide. Writing about anxiety, how I have dealt with it, and the importance of putting mental health first, is some of the most important work I have yet produced, which is why writing for Student Minds matters so much to me.

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