Friday 1 January 2021

It’s not a choice it’s a disorder

CN: discussion of anxiety I am constantly on. 

Anna, President of Student Minds Cambridge, writes about her experience with mental illness. Republished from the Student Minds Cambridge blog: 

- Anna Mckeon 

It feels as if I am buzzing. Not the good kind of buzzing though; not that hum of excitement ahead of meeting up with friends or the anticipation before an evening out. No, it is the unrelenting, uncomfortable sensation of feeling permanently anxious. It is the kind of buzz that I desperately wish I could turn off so that for once, I could feel even the vaguest semblance of calm.

You see, almost every day I feel this way – on edge, on guard, constantly on adrenaline. My limbs ache as if the blood running through them is acidic, my face burns and my brain feels like a swollen cactus, pulsing and spiking. My mouth is dry, my throat tight and my voice shaking. My stomach, like the rest of me, is in knots. And I rock backwards and forwards, holding my hands together in an attempt to keep myself from being sick.

Sometimes I’ll go a day, or even a few days where I’m free of this all, but sadly that is not often. Most of the time, I can just about manage to keep my head above the water. I can bear it if all is going to plan but when something goes wrong, I fall apart almost instantly. It doesn’t have to be an existential disaster, but something doesn’t have to be truly awful to completely knock me off balance. For instance, my supervisor providing me with some negative feedback on an essay can be enough for everything to feel much tougher.

When I handed it in, I knew that it was not a strong piece of work. However, it is painful and even embarrassing to have that spelled out so blatantly. Immediately the feelings of self-doubt flood back along with the sinking feeling that I shouldn’t be at Cambridge and I recall my old teacher’s sneer when I mentioned applying to Oxbridge. “It’s just an essay.” Yes, I know. But having that kind of perspective does not keep the panic and distress at bay.

It may seem illogical getting so upset about one essay, one essay that does not count and will doubtless be forgot in a couple of days. However, my body will still respond as if the world is burning and it is entirely my fault. As someone so naturally inclined towards self-criticism, it takes a lot of effort to remind myself that actually, this response is part of having an illness and it isn’t my fault. Even writing this is difficult – I feel a part of myself sneering that I’m just making excuses, that I’m lazy, unintelligent, incapable etc. etc. etc. The list always goes on.

I cling desperately on to my diagnosis to convince myself that yes, I am truly suffering here and I have a doctor’s note to prove it. At the same time, I know that if a friend was in my situation, I would recognise their struggle.  I think that the reason why I can’t seem to show the same compassion to myself is perhaps part of the anxiety – it feeds off of self-doubt, and what better way to strengthen itself than convince me, the sufferer, that it is all in my imagination and that there is no need to get help? I certainly can’t claim to have mastered the art, but being kind to ourselves does seem so important.

For more support on balancing online grad courses and adult life, you can check out additional Student Minds resources here. 

My name is Anna and I'm a final-year history student at the University of Cambridge. My experiences with anxiety and OCD have prompted me to get involved with initiatives to help people struggling with their mental health and alongside being President of Student Minds Cambridge, I am a Crisis Volunteer for Shout, the UK's free, confidential, 24/7 text support service.

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