By Caitlin O'Rourke
When I was high school and my brother was at university I went to visit him on campus. I remember reading a sign on the notice board in the common room which read something like “Feeling homesick? Feeling lonely” and giving the contact details of some support like a uni counsellor or something. In my naivety I said “How can you feel alone when you are surrounded by people?”
Little did I know that I would be feeling this exact feeling, 3 years later when I was at uni myself.
Where to start? Well first up I’ll tell you how uni was all I expected it to be for my first year. I did well in my subjects, I made heaps of friends, and went to all the social events. I had a great time (minus getting glandular fever, but that didn’t stop anyone right?). Funnily enough a physical illness didn’t stop me from achieving what I wanted. Mental illness however, for me was a whole other ball game. I once read this quote on the wall of my Headspace waiting room:
“Mental illness is like fighting a war where the enemy’s strategy is to convince you that the war isn’t happening.”
It sums up my experience perfectly. After a great first semester I returned to uni with not quite as renewed enthusiasm. It took me a good four weeks to get back into study and I just wanted to stay in holiday mode. After a while I began feeling that things weren’t quite right. I wasn’t feeling motivated and actually felt bored. I briefly saw a counsellor and put it down to the fact I wasn’t 100% excited about my subjects (namely organic chemistry). The end of the year came and I applied to become a student leader on campus for the following year. Looking back, I’m not really sure why I applied. Maybe because of the fact my two best friends were and I was a bit of a FOMO. I also felt guilty about the amount of rent my parents were paying for me, and student leaders got a discount. Anyway, as you’ve probably figured out, I got the position. I was what they called an SDO, or Student Development Officer, which involved running twice weekly events for students, working 8hours a week in the office and weekly meetings.
A few weeks before students began moving in we had training. Already I was feeling a lot of pressure and expectation. Not only did I have to be a model student, I put a lot of effort into the job and it’s not easy coming up with exciting ideas for events and actually helping to run them. It hadn’t even been 3 weeks into the official start of semester and already I was feeling overwhelmed with the amount of time I was committing to SDO as well as my studies, not to mention actually going to uni classes as well. I was living from week to week. I thought “If I can just get through these classes, that lab, do that assignment I’ll be ok” Come Monday it would all start again. I thought it would all eventually pass and I would return to normal. But that wasn’t so. I had stopped going out with friends, I didn’t attend any of the big calendar events like Harbour Cruise and Cross Community Ball. “What you’re not going to Harbour Cruise?!” Someone asked me in disbelief. I remember snapping at them “I don’t want to ok. Just leave me alone” and storming off. Who was this girl? The one who at the beginning “was such a happy and fun person” I hated taking meals in the dining room and just wanted to spend hours alone in my room. As cliché as it sounds, I did listen to sad music and cry. But in all honesty, it was excruciatingly frustrating to actually be so low. I felt hopeless, desperate (for what I don’t even know) and just incredibly sad for no reason at all. I don’t think my friends really had much idea at all, or if they did they didn’t make me aware of it. Either I was really good at hiding it, or they felt too uncomfortable or scared to ask me about it. Looking back, this was a massive barrier to me getting help, as both me and my friends allowed ourselves to go on pretending that all was good. Just like the enemy convincing you nothing is happening right?
For me depression was very much like an autumn. The first cool winds began to blow, but it was just a breeze and I didn’t take much notice. The leaves on the trees began to gradually change colour and slowly they fell until they tree was empty. It’s not like one day the leaves were there and the next they weren’t. Depression was a gradual change, and one day, out of the blue I woke up in a dark winter.
My boyfriend of the time couldn’t understand why I was always crying. “Why can’t you just be happy?” he asked me. I didn’t know the answer and that made it all so much worse. Why couldn’t I be happy?
One day I was sitting in the dreaded dining room trying to eat breakfast. I just sat there with my baked beans on toast and silently, tears began streaming down my face. I wasn’t sobbing. I was just completely empty, I couldn’t even properly cry anymore. Some other students tried to comfort me, asking me what was wrong (which of course I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know myself), and they took me to see the head of the campus. She took me into her office and asked me if I was ok. I said no and just burst into a big sobbing mess. After talking to me, we decided I could step down from SDO completely (I had reduced to just doing office work earlier as the event running was getting way too much). Having someone actually genuinely ask me if I was ok was probably the turning point. It was a question of actual concern, not just an “oh no, are you ok?” because I was crying. It was an ‘are you ok’ as in “Are you coping with life?” I was not ok and it was a relief to finally have someone ask me, rather than blame me for not being fun anymore.
When I am well my internal dialogue is positive, quiet and just in the background. As my depression advanced, a negative version of myself appeared in my thoughts. It was nasty, mean and insulting. The “good” version of me would be shut down by the bad one and eventually became non-existent. I remember sitting on the swings in a park by myself and picturing myself jumping on a train back home, leaving uni without a word to anyone and turning up on my parent’s doorstep. I remember one day writing down all the feelings I was experiencing on piece of paper. They included things like despair, frustration, sorrow, anger, sadness, hopelessness and complete emptiness. This made me feel so distressed and I just didn’t know what to do. It was at this point that I called my mum and said I was booking a flight home. Exams were only a week or two away and because I finally had accepted I wouldn’t be able to sit them I managed to get a doctor’s certificate and deferred them. My parents actually had no idea that I was as bad as I was. I was very good at hiding it, and I didn’t fully tell them because I didn’t want them to worry.
One night I began hearing voices inside my head. It was internal (so it didn’t sound like it was a person talking to me) there were a few voices and they were saying things like “you will be ok” “you are safe, we’re here for you”. I wasn’t scared, and just allowed these thoughts to float. I went to sleep soon after and slept quite soundly. In the morning when I woke up my mum commented on how pale I looked. I told her about these voices and she was super worried. She immediately rang the doctor’s surgery and they advised her to take me to ED. So mum took me up to the hospital. I wasn’t terribly worried but more wanted to go because of how scared for me my mum was. Once I was triaged I had to wait for a long time and eventually spoke to a mental health nurse. I told her my story about how’d I taken on too much and gradually withdrew from everything and ended up crying uncontrollably all the time. After speaking to their psychiatric doctor they decided I wasn’t at risk and made an appointment for me at Headspace in about two weeks time.
When I went to Headspace for the first time I saw a youth worker, who I retold the story to for probably the third time. Thankfully she explained my situation to the GP so I didn’t have to relive it again. I saw the GP straight after talking to the youth worker and he said to me “You’ve got depression” and this time I cried again. But it was a cathartic sort of release. I was actually relieved and somewhat pleased even, to finally know that there was a very good reason I was feeling like this! I was prescribed with antidepressants. The medication helped to reverse the nasty internal dialogue into a nice one and lifted me to a place where I was able to function again. I was having regular sessions with my youth worker and the doctor.
Since then I haven’t returned to uni but I did complete a diploma at TAFE and I have been working fulltime for a year and a half now. After having that first episode of hitting rock bottom, I am much more self-aware now. I can easily recognise the signs of low mood and am able to get help much sooner. I have accessed Headspace multiple times since, still take medication and am currently seeing a youth worker again. This time it is a different one to the first time. I want to emphsise that treatment isn’t a quick fix. Persistence is powerful. I originally didn’t get along with my first psychologist and said “I don’t want to see a psychologist again”. But after giving a few different people a go over the years, have realised it is actually really helpful when you find the right one!
Life isn’t going to be happy and perfect all the time, but as long as my good days outweigh the bad, I know I’m doing ok.
My final message I want to share with you is that if I had someone ask me if I was truly ok a lot earlier and I had honestly answered (it’s so easy to put on a mask) I believe I would have realised much sooner than I wasn’t. It just seemed easier to push on through than admit to myself that things weren’t right. Had I realised sooner, I would have been able to get help and therefore not fallen so far.
But now that I can recognise the signs that things might be going downhill, I can practice self-care and talk to someone about it rather hiding it and pushing on alone.