Image description: A dog surrounded by trees in a wood.
CW: Suicidal thoughts, anxiety, depression, ADHD.
Before deciding to suspend, you could say I had a Teflon life: nothing would stick. The only consistency I had was the deep-set feeling of gloom within my chest.
Two big solutions loomed over my head: end my own life or suspend. In my depression-addled eyes, only one option came with consequences. Suspending meant failure; giving up and leaving myself open to negative judgement.
When I would talk to my mam about everything, it made me know I couldn’t settle on the former. I’m very lucky to have parents who understand mental illness. It motivated me to make myself better at handling stress and symptoms of depression. I realised that “to keep going” didn’t have to involve education, and in suspension, I had to learn to extricate my life and my self-worth from what I produced academically.
When I sent off the email to say I wanted to suspend, it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. This might sound unbelievable, but absolutely everyone was very supportive and understood why I suspended.
Suddenly, I had a yearlong deadline to get my life together.
I really didn’t want my year away from university to be the ultimate practice in procrastination, Nor did I want to simply press pause on my uni life and all its struggles, wait a year, then press play at the same horrible point. This was no time to build up some thin armour against all the parts of uni I was afraid of, just to have it knocked down when I returned.
I wanted to not need armour, I wanted to live my life properly and not hide from the things that scared me, but take them in and embrace this difficulty. So I did.
I walked my dogs in the woods and appreciated all the greenery. I also appreciated the ‘worse’ moments… like each day when I’d have to use a dog poo bag! The times when the dogs would jump up and muddy my trousers, I would laugh. Even when I wore shorts in the summer and got insect bites and bramble scratches all over my legs, there was always something to appreciate and learn.
Finally, I learned that when it’s not working, it’s not working.
I started doing proper cardio exercise (thank you, Joe Wicks and Davina McCall). Even though I’ve been exercising most days for around a year now, I can still get to the point in a workout where I’m like “what on earth am I doing, this sucks!”, because I’m sprinting wildly when deep down I just want a hot chocolate. But getting your heart rate up by jumping around or lifting weights really helps with ADHD, depression, anxiety, and stress. Endorphins are magical, and now I can lift my office chair (and more importantly my dogs) without asking for help.
I reintroduced myself to studying in a way that was healthy and suited me, as I had been properly dealing with a fear of reading books and writing essays. I wouldn’t even read the instructions to a new pair of headphones, at one point. I started by reading magazines, comics, and no-pressure teen novels. Then I read some older novels like Frankenstein, and some more complex longer novels and self-help books I had always wanted to read. I discovered audiobooks courtesy of my library card. Eventually, I began chipping away at my reading list by reading and listening to assigned books whilst also reading for leisure. I don’t have a perfect relationship with studying, and I don’t think I ever will, but it’s better than it was before.
Finally, I learned that when it’s not working, it’s not working. When my day just feels rubbish and my mental health isn’t great, that’s what’s going on. That’s it. I don’t force myself to work or suffer whilst not working – instead, I say to myself “I’m not going to push myself anymore,” and walk away. It’s something I learned from exercising. If my knee starts twinging when I’m halfway through a workout, I just end the workout prematurely, stretch and do whatever I was going to do next. It’s no big deal, I don’t want to force myself through pain and make things worse when I could just rest and try again tomorrow. A day of resting and actual self-care (not just a sheet mask and a movie, though those do help) helps me bounce back way more than a day of feeling sorry for myself. It was important to learn the difference between healthy distraction and unhealthy avoidance; by distracting myself from distress I can later come to accept and face its source.
Being “back” at uni now (not physically thanks to coronavirus) is demonstrating another technique I learned from working out and mindfulness. Things are harder when you’re starting out, and as you get better at something, the part you found torturously difficult on your first go gets easier. A tutor recently told me that even if you’re beginning to write on more complex topics, essay writing can become easier as you learn to simplify and write with deftness.
Some things are just challenging, and you will have to choose to do them.
Pushing through this “OK plateau” of essays is difficult for me. But I have also learned that sometimes I have to do the things I don’t want to, to get the result I do. My depression/ADHD brain does not want to do chores, but reminding myself of the outcome I do want (a clean room) helps. No one wants to do the washing up, but everyone wants to eat off of clean dishes. Some things are just challenging, and you will have to choose to do them.
Keeping a routine was completely overwhelming for me when I first suspended. Now, it’s just kind of hard. That’s an amazing result for me. If, in essence, I spent a year away from uni purely learning how to take care of myself, I see it as a win. I basically smashed it. This doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days, I undeniably do, but I don’t let bad days become bad weeks or a ‘bad’ life. If I could talk to Bronwyn from before I suspended, I would (COVID permitting) give her a hug and tell her it’s going to be okay. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Okay-ness is the best feeling ever.
Image credit: Bronwyn Riani