When Results Day Isn’t What You Hoped It Would Be

Trigger warning: This post contains details of an emotional breakdown and mentions of self harm.

So results day is coming up. The timeframe is much as it ever was: school grades will be released as planned: A Level results will be released on the 13th August and GCSE results will be released on the 20th August. Degree results tend to depend on the specific university. Despite all of the upheaval over the last several months and the changes made to the expected academic year, many people still took exams of some kind, worked hard on projects or coursework, and pushed themselves to attain the highest marks they could so, regardless of the unusual circumstances, the anxiety around these days is no doubt mounting.

As I’m in the middle of my course, I’m not currently awaiting any grades. I completed my second module back in April and received my marks not long after. But every August (and to an extent, January, when some modules are assessed), I think of all those anxiously anticipating those numbers or letters that they’ve been working towards for months, that their lives have revolved around for so long (not a healthy mindset, mind you, but one that society has entrenched in us and one that I’d like to talk about further at a later date). I think of those young people and hope that, whatever grades they have received, they are coping in a positive and healthy way.

What with my GCSEs, some in Year 9 and some in Year 11, my AS Levels, my A Levels, all the results during my degree, and now my Masters, I’ve had many, many a results day. And the majority of them have been absolutely fine, if not better than fine. Some of them have been downright amazing. But I do have one very negative experience that I think is important to share because chance are, at some point or another, we will all have a bad results day that comes as a shock. So I want to tell this story and then share some advice for dealing with a similar situation…

It was a chilly morning in January 2013 and I was anxiously awaiting the release of the Autumn module results with my friends. The only course I’d had an exam in was Physics and although I’d found it difficult, I finished it feeling like I’d done okay. Having been absent for a lot of secondary school due to ongoing illness, I’d missed out on a lot of foundation material so I’d found the course difficult but during the most recent parent-teacher evening, my teacher told us (me and my Mum) that she had absolute confidence in my abilities and that I was on track for a high grade. So when I opened my results and saw the little printed ‘u,’ I was initially confused. Surely it was a mistake. I’d always gotten good grades and my teacher had said such positive things. I waited restlessly for the mark to be confirmed and when it was, it felt simultaneously like everything went still and like everything was crashing down around me. I made my escape and headed for the more secluded of the two toilet blocks – I felt like every emotion I was feeling was visible on my face and I had no idea how to talk about it or how to pretend that I was fine. I needed to be alone.

I was crying before I even made it into the toilet stall and I sat on the lid, sobbing so hard that my chest hurt. I was gasping for air but it was like my lungs had pinprick holes in them, the air rushing straight out again. Even to this day, I’m not sure I can explain exactly what I was feeling. It’s not especially subtle and sounds very dramatic but it felt like the world was ending. I felt like a failure and I felt like the only thing people would see when they looked at me was a failure. All I was was this ‘u.’ All I was was ‘unsatisfactory.’ I couldn’t move past that thought. Everything else disappeared.

I don’t know how long I sat in that cubicle, crying and self harming, before my friends tracked me down. I wanted to stay there and hide forever but somehow, I dragged myself up and walked out to face them. I still remember the shock on their faces; I still remember looking at myself in the mirror, my face a mess of thick, mascara stained tear tracks and my arms covered in scratches. I looked as bad as I felt.

One of my best friends – someone I still consider a good friend despite the fact that we don’t see each other as often as we used to – took control of the situation, taking me off campus to a coffee shop where she gently coaxed the story out of me over hot chocolate. We both had to go back for classes but she arranged for us to talk to a mutually beloved and admired teacher at the end of the day. I wasn’t convinced but I was operating on autopilot, drained of the will to protest. So after my lesson (a lesson in which I didn’t say a word), we went to see this teacher and in her typical fashion, kind but direct, she told me about some of her experiences and talked me through my options. Then I went home and didn’t return for over a week.

It’s worth noting that my mental health had been deteriorating exponentially over the previous year, so this happened at a time when I was completely unequipped to handle it and it was a catalyst for a lot of big decisions. I dropped out of the physics course, partly because I wasn’t mentally healthy enough to manage the number of courses I was taking and partly because I was so distressed by the experience that I felt completely incapable of going back into that classroom and continuing with the course. Just thinking about sitting in that room triggered anxiety too extreme to function. And I can admit now that there was some shame involved too: I couldn’t bear the thought of my teacher and my class looking at me and seeing a failure. So I dropped Physics, completed the rest of my courses, and started seeking professional help for what were now obvious mental health problems.

To this day, I still struggle to open exam results. I work extremely hard and then, when the results are released, I’m very careful to open them at a time when I feel emotionally equipped to handle whatever they’ll say and when I have the time to process the emotions that I’ll potentially experience. I’ve talked about this a lot with my therapist, in general terms, but then we talk about it every time new results loom. Not long ago, she referred to the experience as ‘a trauma’ and the relief of having it validated for the distress it caused and continues to cause was so overwhelming that I swear my heart stuttered in my chest. After having so many of my experiences (and the ongoing problems they caused) invalidated, it was a really emotional moment. That day had a massive effect on my mental health and my relationship with education and still triggers debilitating anxiety.

Not all results days are like this. In fact, most of them aren’t and I hope that you – you, reading this – never have to go through an experience like this one, but just in case you do, here are some of the things that I’ve learned about coping with difficult results…


IN THE MOMENT

  • Get yourself to a safe place – Dealing with difficult emotions is hard enough in itself but factors like crowds of people, lots of noise, and so on can make it even more difficult. Whether you need to be alone or with a friend, somewhere quiet or somewhere too noisy to let yourself dwell (momentarily is fine, indefinitely obviously isn’t healthy), being in a place where you feel free to express your emotions can only make it easier to cope with the torrent of emotion.
  • Give yourself time to process your emotions – I always find that, when something huge and unexpected happens in my life, my emotions completely overwhelm me and while I know what I’m feeling right then and there, it often changes as the intensity recedes. I try not to make any decisions until everything feels more stable; if I do, I usually end up regretting them. So let your emotions flow and evolve and eventually simplify. Once that happens, everything will be clearer.
  • Talk it through with someone – Talking to someone (someone you feel safe and un-judged with) about what you’re going through can you help you process the emotions and make sense of what’s causing them, whether it’s a fear of disappointing people, a fear of damaging your future, or a fear of failure in general. Or something completely different and personal to you. And then, when you’re ready, they can help you put it in perspective and decide what to do next.
  • If it feels helpful, compare with your peers – Whether this is a good idea can only be judged by you. Sometimes sharing can be a bonding experience; for example, if the exam or module was marked universally harshly, the shared emotions can help you deal with the situation. However, if you decide to compare your grades with your classmates, be careful about who you choose to talk to: some people may approach the problem with potentially invalidating positivity, some may have done worse and be sensitive about it, and so on. It’s not a straightforward choice and one that only you can make.

ONCE YOUR EMOTIONS HAVE SETTLED

  • Talk to your teacher(s) – Not only do your teachers know the system, they will also have seen and helped multiple people through experiences similar to yours. They will have useful advice and experience that they can share with you that will hopefully make it easier to decide on your next steps.
  • If you get feedback, assess areas to improve on – If your results come with feedback, read through it carefully and think carefully about how you can perform consistently in the areas you excel at and how you can improve in the areas you lost marks in. Having clear goals for your future work can improve not only your future performance but also help with negative feelings around your recent grades.
  • Think about whether you want to resit – Retaking exams can be a smart route to take because resits can give you extra time to learn the material and they can help you boost your overall grade. And if that overall grade affects your next steps, it may be possible to continue with that original plan, just a year later. However, resits eat up time, can distract you from whatever comes next – whether that’s working on new modules, new experiences in a gap year, etc – and challenge your mental health with added anxiety and pressure. Again, only you can make this choice but I recommend talking to multiple people with various viewpoints before making a final decision.
  • Consider getting extra help – Whether you’re starting a new module or resitting previous exams, support from a tutor or mentor might be helpful, both in your approach to learning and your overall grades. You might also find that you need some support with your mental health after upsetting results or in the face of moving forward in education so you may want to talk to your school’s counsellor or the pastoral care team or even your GP. It may also help to talk to a teacher, not specifically for mental health advice but for advice on who to talk to concerning this matter.

Despite the trauma of that day and the vivid images that come to mind whenever I recall it, there are three things that I actively choose to focus on:

  1. The absolute kindness of my friend – I don’t know how that day would’ve gone if my friend hadn’t come to find me, taken care of me, and taken me to talk to a teacher I trusted. While I wasn’t capable of properly acknowledging her help at the time, I am so grateful that she was there and that she looked after me in my most fragile state, nonjudgmental of my emotions, accepting of my self harming, and thinking only of how to help me. Whether we’re friends forever or our paths diverge, I will always remember and appreciate it.
  2. The words of my teacher – I so appreciate my teacher sharing her story with me and what she’d learned from it, even if I wasn’t really taking it all in at the time. I didn’t know it at the time but she helped. She really helped. I can’t remember her exact words (much of that day is a blur) but in essence, she said: there is always more than one path to get to where you want to be. I didn’t truly understand it at the time. I had a plan and I was going to follow it but looking back, she was right. I may not be literally where I wanted to be but I’m metaphorically where I wanted (and want) to be and more importantly, I think I’m where I’m supposed to be, if a little battle-scarred.
  3. It was the beginning of a very important journey – It was a horrible day with far reaching consequences but it was that day that really made us realise that something was very wrong and we needed to do something about it. Of course, if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that my mental health journey has been and continues to be full of twists and turns but if not for that day, who knows how much longer I would’ve struggled before something pushed us into action. I thought it was the end of everything but in fact, it was the start.

This post turned out to be a lot longer than I’d intended but I hope it has been somewhat helpful. I hope you remember that whether your results are good or bad, whatever you feel is valid. You have spent years working towards this moment and it’s natural and totally okay to have strong feelings about them. It would be odd if you didn’t. You’ve worked hard for this. So feel what you feel and do what you need to do to make sense of this big, messy experience that you’ve gone through. It will be okay – maybe not in the way you expect but it will be okay. I can promise you that.

I Finally Left My House

On Monday, for the first time in over a hundred days, I left my house.

I was already self isolating when the UK lockdown went into effect. My university classes had moved online, I have friends and family that I could put at risk if I caught the virus, and it generally seemed like the safest, most socially responsible thing to do. Then the lockdown was officially put in place and it was me and my Mum in the house together. Struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I don’t go out a whole lot because I physically can’t manage it but I had previously had university classes, seeing friends and family, and swimming at the gym (the only exercise that doesn’t cause me physical pain – probably because it’s non weight-bearing), all of which were suddenly gone. My Mum went out only to food shop and pick up medication prescriptions as necessary.

I’ve only been out once since then and that was to rescue my kitten who got stuck up a tree in a neighbour’s garden – we think she’d been up there for more than twelve hours. And when we did go to get her, all involved socially distanced and wore masks. It was stressful in the face of the virus but my kitten would not come down  by herself and we were all getting really worried about her.

Ever since then, I’ve stayed in the house. My mental health has been a monumental struggle during this time, especially my anxiety – to the point that something as simple as laughing from outside or looking through the window at the street can cause severe anxiety and autistic meltdowns. And the longer this goes on, the worse it’s getting. I’m in contact with my psychiatrist, taking my medication, and having online sessions with my therapist but I don’t feel like it’s making much difference to my anxiety.

The easing of lockdown only increased my anxiety. With the scientists and Public Health England still warning of the dangers of Covid, it seemed (and still seems) incredibly irresponsible of the government to be making such changes. When it was announced that hairdressers would be opening on the 4th July, my anxiety sky-rocketed. Ever since the pandemic began moving into Europe, my Trichotillomania has escalated dramatically. It’s been a problem for years but with the recent extreme levels of stress, I’m now pulling my hair out more than I ever have. It’s not only causing pain in my scalp and damage to my hair, it’s also causing terrible pain in the fingers, hand, arm, and shoulder on the side I pull from, as well as tingling and numbness that often doesn’t pass for most of the day. So while I did, of course, want a hair cut (as I think everyone did), I was also desperate for advice and help with this problem. Plus, I go to an independent hairdresser and wanted to support them.

But despite all of that, I just as desperately didn’t want to go. Even with the all the strict safety measures they’d informed their clients of, I still felt overwhelmingly unsafe going out, especially into town. To make it feel more possible, we spoke to them and they arranged my appointment to be as stress free as they could possibly make it: we cancelled the colour to reduce my time there (it felt unnecessary as it was something I could do at home – I’d booked it way back when when it had looked like it would be (or feel) safer, they scheduled my appointment first thing on a Monday morning so the environment would be as clean and safe as possible, and they were happy to have my Mum come with me in case my anxiety got too bad. When we made those arrangements, it felt as good as I thought it was ever going to  and we moved on, the appointment still a few weeks away.

But as it got closer, my anxiety grew and grew until I was having panic attacks over it. I didn’t want to go. I really, really didn’t want to go. It felt so unsafe to be going out, even with a mask, gloves, hand sanitiser, and safety measures in place. I didn’t want to go. The anxiety was unbearable and I had multiple awful panic attacks.

In the end, my anxiety just wiped me of all my energy and on the morning of the appointment, I just didn’t know what to do. I had nothing left. So Mum took over, got me up, and took me to the appointment. Even being outside felt terrifying: I felt so unsafe and exposed and vulnerable. We got there and the hairdressers was almost empty, as planned, and my hairdresser was as lovely as always. I’ve been camouflaging my Autism and my anxiety for so long – I’ve spent my life building a mask to help me manage in difficult situations, something that I want to write about more in the future – that most people see the ‘usual’ me but in reality, I was so anxious that I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly (and that had nothing to do with the facemask). I almost destroyed the fidget toy I’d brought with me and the whole experience was just exhausting. It felt like it only added to the trauma of the pandemic and lockdown.

(I do want to make it absolutely clear that that has nothing to do with them as people or a business. It was all about going out and feeling so unsafe outside my house.)

My hairdresser is awesome and so lovely and we had a good conversation about the condition of my hair and the textures that trigger my pulling. We talked about what might improve the condition of my hair and therefore lessen the textures that trigger me, which products might be helpful. So we’ll see how that goes. And simply cutting off the dry ends of my hair will hopefully help with the pulling too.

We were there less than an hour but I was completely exhausted. I was barely functional all day and ended up falling asleep on the sofa at about 10pm, hours earlier than I usually get to sleep at the moment. And it’s taken days to regain enough energy to concentrate and actually do things again. Even now I’m not sure whether I made the right choice or the safest choice but it’s done and I can’t go back and change it. Several people have said to me that going out would make going out again easier but if anything, it’s made it feel even scarier so, for the moment at least, I’m not going anywhere.

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The next challenge, I guess, is when gyms reopen. As swimming is the only non-painful exercise I can do, my exercise has been severely limited during lockdown and on a personal level, I’m desperate to get back to it. I love it, I miss it, and I miss how it makes me feel, physically and mentally. But I just can’t imagine how on earth it can be safe. So there’s a lot of investigating to do, a lot of thinking and weighing the pros and cons to do. I’ve never been so jealous of people having their own private pools.

365 Days of Kittens 2.0

A year ago today, we were unexpectedly blessed by two new kittens, Sooty and Sweep, also known as “the beans.” And what a year it’s been.

Last spring, my Mum and I were toying with the idea of a last round of kittens before we had our younger two cats spayed. The experience of raising kittens had always been such a positive one and we liked the idea of doing it one more time. Of the two cats, we thought Mouse would be the better choice and so we had Tiger spayed but left Mouse to wander. But a couple of months later, my mental health plummeted and the idea of getting attached to kittens only to have to let them go just felt too much so we took Mouse to the vet for the pre-spay check up. The vet was happy with that but said she could probably do with losing a little bit of weight. I did wonder if she was pregnant but the vet categorically disagreed and explained the spaying process to us again.

Less than a week later, my Mum and I came home from a family dinner to find Mouse pacing on the doormat just inside the front door. As soon as she saw us, she started yowling and headed upstairs, pausing every few steps to make sure I was following. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure but it was exactly the same behaviour that Lucy had displayed when she had her two litters of kittens. So I followed Mouse up to my room where she curled up in the cat bed and within a couple of hours, our two little black furballs were born. Girls was my guess and I was right.

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So that was a bit of a shock.

But, of course, they were gorgeous and I was immediately in love. Unfortunately, Mouse wasn’t the natural mother that Lucy had been to her and her sister. She’d curl around them, feed them, and clean them, but then she’d get up and leave them for fairly considerable periods of time. And since kittens can’t regulate their own body temperatures, I was worried, even though it was summer and the weather was very warm. So we had to take somewhat drastic measures: I set up camp on the floor next to the cat bed and every time Mouse went to leave, I turned her around and nudged her back inside. Most of the time, she simply climbed back in and curled up with them; it was like she just didn’t know that that was what she was supposed to do but with a bit of encouragement, she started to get the idea. I stayed there for two weeks until I was confident that she didn’t need my direction although I didn’t stray far, just in case.

To make matters more complicated, we were in the middle of a heatwave and I was worried about them all overheating (we even ended up at the emergency vet at one point). Mouse – a very fluffy cat – did have to leave from time to time, just to stretch out and cool down, although she had by that point gotten the hang of things and didn’t leave the kittens for long. I struggle with the heat and so we’d just bought a pretty expensive fan but we ended up mostly using it to keep the general room temperature down. It was a stressful balancing act.

The arrival of the kittens also changed the general cat dynamic in the house, as well as my relationship with them. The living room (where we’d moved the bed with the kittens – it was easier to manage the temperature in there and still allowed me to work while I kept vigil) had always been the central hub of the house, where we all – cats included – hung out. But suddenly Lucy and Tiger were nowhere to be found and since I was on kitten watch, I barely saw them. That was quite upsetting as I was used to Lucy always sticking close and Tiger constantly climbing all over me. I missed them. I just had to hope that things would return to normal once the kittens went to their new home (the plan my Mum and I had discussed and felt comfortable with, especially if they could go to the same home).

Then Mouse started trying to move the kittens out of the bed, into different corners of the living room. It would have been cute if she didn’t keep trying to stash them in potentially problematic hidey-holes: amongst the wires behind the TV, behind the sofa… She even got one of them half way down the stairs a couple of times. That wasn’t exactly ideal. In the end, we managed to compromise – yes, I was compromising with my cat… I built her a new nest under the TV, carefully covering all of the wires with a blanket and then another in the crate we still had from the last litter.

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The best part of having kittens is when they open their eyes and started stumbling around, exploring and playing clumsily. They’re so in the moment, all of their focus on what they’re doing. It’s so mindful and so calming to watch. And their innocence is just good for the soul. There’s something magical about knowing that you’re giving these open, trusting little creatures the best possible start in life, giving them as much love and attention and care as you can.

While I do kind of love the idea of having a big litter of kittens running around, there’s something really special about just having two. They were partners in crime, always  snuggled up together, playing together, or getting into trouble together. They were constantly getting stuck in ridiculous places, no doubt due to their boundless curiosity. There was one particularly memorable incident where I scraped up my arm, forcing it behind the bookshelf to retrieve one of them when she got trapped behind it. How she got behind it in the first place I have no idea. Safely rescued, she shook herself off and was off playing with her sister, no worse for wear.

We did end up naming them, for ourselves at least. It wasn’t like we could refer to them by colour since they were both ‘the black one.’ So they became Sooty and Sweep (I’d always wanted to do matching names – even if it was just going to be for a little while and just for me), Sweep being the fluffier of the two. Due to their birth order, it should really be Sweep and Sooty but oh well. You can’t win ’em all.

(In the second photo, they’re watching the TV.)

Mouse has slowly become a really good mother and to this day (spoiler alert: we kept them, as the title suggests), she’s still very close to them, especially Sweep. We often find the two of them cleaning each other or curled up together. It’s very cute. She’s close to Sooty too but more often than not, Sooty snuggles up with me. They’re both very people friendly cats, inquisitive about new people, obliging when we want affection, and downright cuddly when they want affection. They have really lovely characters, both of them.

Lucy and Tiger eventually stopped avoiding them, curiously checking them out. Sooty and Sweep were very enthusiastic, always wanting to play or snuggle. The older cats were more reserved but after a while, they formed a little pack: we call them our pride of cats. Now they eat together, play together, and contently share the cat tree.

Lucy and Tiger also returned to their normal behaviour. Lucy spends her days stretched out on what she considers ‘her’ chair, hanging out with me while I work or write or practice, and Tiger, while fairly independent, comes to lie on me every day, sometimes multiple times. That always makes me really smile-y; I’d missed that.

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They weren’t quite old enough to go to new homes when my mental health suddenly plummeted, my depression dropping to new gut-wrenching levels and my anxiety through the roof: sometimes it was so bad that I could barely speak. And in the middle of that, I started my Masters and started the release cycle of my first EP, both of which were incredibly stressful. But the kittens helped in a way nothing else did or could, their mindful behaviour very soothing.

As I said, we hadn’t intended to keep them but with the stress I was under, Mum was happy to leave the process of finding them a new home until I felt a bit more settled and emotionally stable. But I continued to struggle – having meltdowns almost everyday, leaving me physically and emotionally drained – and it turned into a landmine of its own. The thought of them going was physically painful and I couldn’t bear to bring up the subject, knowing that the conversation would just cause yet another meltdown. And with the amount I was having, I was desperate to avoid actively causing them.

Weeks after they originally would’ve gone, me and Mum had had a few brief conversations about the situation and how difficult and overwhelming I was finding it (on top of everything else) and we realised that, somehow, the decision had made itself. We were keeping them. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed with relief and Mum held me until I was all cried out. I was exhausted but a weight had been lifted and during this awful period where everything felt wrong, something finally felt right. I don’t think either of us have regretted it for a moment (well, except maybe when it seemed to take Sooty forever to transition from using the litter box to the garden).

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I’ve loved every second with our pride of cats but they’ve truly been a life saver during this pandemic, one of the very few things that have helped with my mental health, helped calm (or at least manage) my overwhelming fears; cuddling or stroking them, even just watching them, can pull me out of an anxiety spiral. They’re completely unaware of the pandemic, of the bigger picture, and when I get lost in my panic, watching them exist in their own little world – waiting for their next meal, chasing bugs in the garden, stretching out on the cat tree, or demanding my attention – helps me rein in all the ‘what if’s and reestablish a sense of perspective. As much as possible anyway.

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And now they’re a year old. I kind of can’t believe it. Somehow it’s simultaneously flown by and been the longest year of my life. But as I said, I’ve loved every moment with them. My family of cats is one of the most precious things to me and the addition of Sooty and Sweep has been a true, if unexpected, gift.

(One second a day of Sooty and Sweep’s first year.)