We all have those days: bad nights sleep, stepped in a puddle, tea gone cold. But sometimes we get a string of bad days, those days turn to weeks. And one day we can wake up, and just not feel right. When stress piles on we begin to think differently and it changes how we view the world. When our surroundings begin to affect our mind in such a drastic way over a short period of time, it’s definitely not a good thing.
In September of 2014 I started studying Zoology in University College Cork. I’ve wanted to study zoology since I was a boy, watching Steve Irwin put crocodiles in a headlock. I remember staring at the TV in my loony tunes pyjamas at 8:30 every morning and thinking “I want to do that!”. Thirteen years later here I am studying my dream subject (I've yet to headlock a crocodile however). After years of dreaming and hard work, life was where I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t completely plain sailing. I normally cope very well in stressful situations, I didn’t bat an eyelid going through the Leaving Cert while those around me were loosing their heads, but settling in to college was rough. Very rough.
Of the 120 students in my class I had spoken to 3 of them in the first few weeks. Out of my depth with the sheer volume of people here I spent many of my classes on my own in the back row, avoiding eye contact with everyone else. I couldn’t make friends, I lost my voice and found it impossible to speak to anyone. I wanted nothing more than for someone to come talk to me, invite me to go get tea, or just acknowledge I was even there. I was alone in a crowd.
While trying to make new friends was hard enough, it felt like my friends from school had left me behind as they thrived in the new environment. I would hear from them rarely and see them even less. They took to student life-like ducks to water, going out on a Thursday having fun and embracing the new lifestyle in the pubs and clubs of the City. The idea of clubbing terrifies me; huge crowds, drunks and noise. I was in a relationship at the time and had no reason to join my friends on the prowl. They invited me along, but when I say invited, it felt like I was hounded with a chorus of “You should come with us!” .. Should. Said like It was something expected of me from day one, something I was obliged to do. That made me feel isolated. I declined the invitation every time, knowing I’d be abandoned like an unwanted pup at the side of the road.
Come October I came to terms with the fact my mental health was slowly deteriorating, the stress of my academic life coupled with the isolation of my social life was taking its toll. I suffered daily headaches, a bad sleeping pattern and a lapse in concentration. And after a long day of college, it all came to a boil.
The world seemed against me
It was one of those days, nothing went as I wanted it to and the world seemed against me. I had just finished a 3 hour chemistry lab which I hated to even think of doing. I nearly lost myself in that lab, staring at a list of measurements and terms I didn’t understand. One of the girls in the class I had managed to make friends with must have noticed I was distressed, she came over and asked “You ok?” to which I gave the only answer I could manage: “I’m fine”. Now I was on the train home at 8:30pm after being on the go for nearly 12 hours. I wanted to cry, I just wanted to go home and cry and never have to leave again.
My brain felt like it was trying to break out of my skull, I had bottled up 2 months worth of stress and negative emotion and it had come to a head. I had to drive home that night in the dark with my head swimming and concentration crumbling and it showed, I stalled every time I had to stop the car and narrowly avoided causing a side-on collision with another driver. Driving that night was a very bad idea. Half way home that night I had a terrible, horrifying thought that still shocks me: “If I just swerve into that wall, I won’t have to go any further”. It was at this moment I realised how bad I let things get, I didn’t care what happened, my own self-preservation had been blocked out, and it scared me. It made me even more determined to get home, I didn’t want it all to end. At my house I didn’t bother turning off the ignition I just went inside and did exactly what I wanted to do in the first place: Cried. I collapsed against a cupboard in the kitchen and broke down completely in front of my parents who didn’t have a clue what to do. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. Needless to say, I didn’t go to college the next day.
I needed help
Following this episode I knew I needed help, there was no hiding it anymore and no denying it either. I had serious anxiety. I was afraid of college, afraid to go to lectures, afraid to go out, afraid to face the crowds, afraid to face my friends, afraid to look my parents in the eye, afraid to talk to anyone about it. In the weeks that followed I slowly fought a bout of depression that had reduced me to a shell. I didn’t feel anything for a few days, no joy or sadness, just emptiness. Anyone that tried to get through to me got one word answers or a nod. It was especially frustrating for my parents, when I came home every day I’d curl up on the couch and stay there in silence. Dinner wasn’t always an option, I sometimes struggled to eat and was unable to stomach food no matter how hungry I was.
On my return to college I met with my mentor, the staff member assigned to help me should I ever need it. I also met with some close friends over a few days, which helped more than I was expecting. Just knowing that others were aware of what I was going through made me feel so much better.
I’d like to say this is an isolated and unique incident for me, but it isn’t. I still struggle managing my emotions. I still struggle on nights out, when I’m bored, tired, alone, or just have too much on my plate. I still struggle with Anxiety & Depression.
I’ve shown this article to a few close friends and family in the weeks before publishing it. I’ve gotten a mix of reactions from hugs, to tears, to the odd “Ah shit :/” , but my favourite reaction was from my Mam. After showing her she simply said “I knew you had it, I’ve known for a long time.” She said I always found things difficult and recognised my social anxiety years before I had any clue, but stayed a silent guardian the whole time and always did her best to steer me away from tough situations.
Living with a mental illness isn’t easy but it doesn’t have to be crushingly hard either: I have a close network of amazing friends and a loving family that understand and care, they check up on me when they notice I’m acting differently, and always offer help should I ever need it. If I could offer any advice to someone reading this that is going/gone through a mental illness, It’s to have at least one friend that understands. Let someone know, be it your parents, a sibling, a friend, a neighbour, girlfriend, boyfriend, a trained professional, a teacher or colleague you’re close to, or even your pet! To use the cliché: A problem shared is a problem halved.