Mental Health Update (September 2020)

Trigger Warning: This post contains mentions of self harm, but it’s simply a statement that it happened and there are no descriptions, graphic or otherwise. If this could upset or trigger you, please don’t read any further. Please always put your mental health and emotional state first.

I feel like it’s been a while since I posted a mental health update. And while most of my recent posts have mentioned mental health, I haven’t really felt able to write anything mental health centred. I’ve tried but it’s been really hard. Since the pandemic hit the UK and we went into lockdown, my mental health has basically been a black hole of anxiety and depression that I can only occasionally distract myself from. So it’s been hard to write about it, to write anything beyond “my depression is overwhelming and my anxiety is off the charts.” And there’s only so many times you can say that before it just makes things worse. So I’ve been focussing on things that might be helpful in lockdown, music things, and the day to day approach that I’ve been taking to things. The blog itself has been a method of managing my mental health. But now I’m going back to my Masters (my first classes – all online – are tomorrow) and I wanted to try and describe where my mental health is before I take on that new challenge. I guess it’s something to measure myself against, to see whether I’m coping or whether I’m struggling even more, because I really don’t know how these next few months are gonna go. So here we are, this is the state of my mental health at the beginning of my third semester of my Masters in September 2020…


My anxiety has been – and still can be – paralysing. Early in lockdown, it was a constant, debilitating state but it has evolved since then. It’s easy to get sucked in but day to day, I seem to be able to manage it with a combination of flexible tasks to distract but not restrict me and large amounts of Diazepam. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage going back to university classes with deadlines and uncertainties but as I’ve previously said, I need to try. I will reevaluate if my anxiety starts to become unmanageable again.

My depression has almost become background noise at this point, just a deep, dragging feeling at the back of my mind. I’ve had days where everything just felt so overwhelming and insurmountable that all I could do was stare at the TV and breathe but most of the time, my anxiety has just taken up too much of my attention to really feel it. This still seems to be the case: my anxiety is just too demanding to allow it much space in my brain.

My OCD, which manifests as a compulsion to write down everything that happens to me, has been easier to manage in lockdown with not much going on. I was majorly behind when lockdown began and, because this period of time is so unknown, I wanted to document it in real time so I started a new notebook with the plan to catch up with the old one as time passed. Unfortunately I still haven’t managed that and with multiple stressful things happening in the last few weeks, I’m behind in my current one so I’m going into a new academic year already trying to juggle that. My attempts to balance my OCD and my anxieties around Masters work was a really challenge last year and it looks like it’s going to be just as bad, if not worse, this year. So that’s really not fun and causing me a lot of anxiety already.

My Trichotillomania really spiked in the first few months of lockdown when I was so anxious that I could barely do anything. I’m currently writing a post about the triggers of hair pulling (not to be confused with the causes) and three big ones were really present here: stress, not having something to occupy my hands, and feeling out of control. So I was pulling a lot – to a painful level – back in March, April, May. But as I’ve slowly been able to distract myself and get things done, I’ve been pulling less – significantly less. It never completely goes away but I’ll take whatever I can get.

I’ve had multiple autistic meltdowns since lockdown began. Living with such a high level of anxiety, it doesn’t take much for something to trigger a meltdown. I’ve had about twenty (which I’m pretty sure is more than the whole of last year but I don’t have last year’s tracker in front of me); most of them have been ‘normal’ for the meltdowns I have but a couple of them have been significantly worse, taking days to recover from. They’re really, really horrible and I feel awful afterwards, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

While there have been periods of time where I’ve self harmed consistently, it’s more often than not a one off occurrence with big gaps of time in between. I’ve always considered it a coping mechanism for very specific emotional scenarios rather than a habit or addiction. Given how much I’ve struggled emotionally during lockdown, I’m kind of shocked that I’ve only done it once but then, with my Mum around all the time, maybe it’s not all that surprising: I know that it upsets her and that only makes me feel worse so I have suppressed it in the past. But there was one occasion where I just couldn’t. So it could’ve been a lot worse.

I’ve missed a lot of therapy sessions over the last few months. If I’m honest, I’m finding it really hard to know how to approach them. Obviously, the biggest thing is the pandemic and my pandemic anxiety but we can only talk about that so many times before running out of things to say and yet, I feel so mentally fragile at the moment that tackling any of my other issues feels like just too much, like the process of digging into something difficult might disrupt my delicate, carefully maintained ability to function. So I’m not really sure what to do. I’ve just started having regular sessions again so I guess we’ll see how it goes.


Am I ready for this next semester? I have absolutely no idea. I really don’t know how I’m going to manage it with my mental health as it is but as I’ve said, I need to try. The only thing worse than trying and failing would be not trying at all. Maybe that’s a naive approach to things, considering my mental health problems, but that’s how I feel. I can only hope that, if there are any warning signs that things are getting worse, I can see them and make the appropriate response.

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 March 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.

Talking About Self Harm

Self harm (also described as self injury) is still a topic that people struggle with. That’s understandable. It’s a hard thing to think about. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. So, since it’s Self Injury Awareness Day, I thought I would write down some of things that I’ve learned, things I’ve found useful, things that I wish other people had known during my ‘self harm journey…’ So, without further ado, here are some dos and don’ts for talking about self harm, from my experience at least…

DOs

  • Try to stay calm – Simply put, don’t freak out and say something you might regret. It’s a hard thing to find out about anyone, let alone someone you really care about. You’re allowed to feel your feelings but try to control any outbursts of upset or frustration.
  • Ask – If you don’t know what to say, ask them. It’s okay not to know and asking, ‘how can I help you?’ or ‘what response do you want/need to hear?’ is better than anxious rambling or silence.
  • Offer what you can – Even if it’s only being a person to call, assure the person that you are there for them and that you will support them through whatever it is they’re going through. But don’t make promises you can’t keep by overcommitting.
  • Remember that it’s not about you – A person doesn’t self harm because their parents nag or because their friend said they couldn’t hang out. Yes, negative interactions and experiences can trigger it but a person wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t something really serious going on internally. It’s not about you, it’s about them and what they’re going through.

DON’Ts

  • Grab the area that’s injured or scarred and demand an explanation – A confrontational or accusing attitude won’t help either of you and it’s NOT okay to touch someone without their consent even if you think you’re trying to help. Try to stay calm, and allow them to direct the conversation if possible.
  • Judge – Unless you’ve struggled with self harm, you can’t know what it’s like. That’s okay. You’re not expected to understand it but that doesn’t mean you can’t be compassionate and supportive. Try to keep an open mind while having these conversations.
  • Simply ask them to give it up – If it were that simple, no one would self harm. If someone is hurting themselves – going against their body’s survival instinct – there’s something seriously intense going on and so just stopping isn’t possible. And that inability to stop can turn into a lot of guilt and self blame so it’s a sensitive subject in itself.
  • Ask them to give up for you – I know it can seem like positive motivation (and maybe it works for some people) but it actually just creates more pressure and more pressure is exactly what they don’t need right at that moment. I’m not an expert but from my own experience, pressure leads to feeling even more guilty and all the negative emotion just builds and builds and makes the whole thing worse.

I hope these things have been helpful and I’d love to know what else you would add to this. Awareness and understanding are so important and every conversation matters. And if you’re someone that struggles with self harm, I hope you remember that you’re doing the best you can. Obviously everyone wants you to be in a place where you don’t feel you need self harm but that’s a really big thing. It’s not a place you can necessarily get to over night but every day that you get through – every hard moment – is a success, however you get through it. It’s a process and whatever speed you travel through it is okay. Living is hard. You’re doing fine.

More information here.