Mind Over Masters | Tips For An Undergrad With Mental Illness
Curled up in the Boole Library, I am sipping hot coffee and marvelling at the past four years. I survived an undergraduate degree with chronic anorexia nervosa. Nothing is harder than fighting a demon that whispers you don’t deserve to be happy, to laugh or to breathe to you on a daily basis but to battle it while also being thrown assignments, exams, portfolios, moving out and meeting strangers is unbelievable. Yet I also dredge up the times I scratched my scalp till I bled, tossed and turned in cold sweats till six a.m., emailed lecturers with frantic fingers and wondered why I ever applied. Here are a few tips I wish I had known.
The first and most important advice is to get out of your room. Addictions thrive in isolation and when you’re on your own, you’re in addict’s company. Use the library, don’t fall into the trap of hibernating and speaking to nobody but the bin man outside your window at dawn. I know it’s uncomfortable and I know it’s hard. But listen you are a human and we need each other. I wish I was a hedgehog too; I’ve forced myself to communicate when all I wanted was to dive under my sunflower duvet and never resurface. A lot of the time I was too ashamed to eat in front of my housemates but when I did, it was a giant f you to my eating disorder and that cold sweated thrill was always worth it. Do not trust the mental clatter, you are a lot tougher.
Avail of the services that are set up with you in mind. I didn’t look for a councillor in UCC for months because everyone told me the waiting lists were bursting. Yet when I did go, I got an appointment for the very next morning. Register with your Disability Service so if you find yourself in need of extensions, you’re not jumping through hoops to get them. Talk to your lecturers, facilitating students is why they chose to teach in the first place and people like to feel needed so give them the privilege.
It took me a long time to find a concrete support team. I have a therapist in the Eating Disorder Centre that I pay for privately because I need someone who is specialised. Equally, I travel to Dublin for a dietician because I could not find one to meet my needs in Cork. I feel guilty for the amount of money I spend, but if I had an amputated leg or a diseased kidney I would not feel unworthy of help and neither should you. If you don’t have an income, support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Aware for depression and bipolar disorder do incredible work. Moreover, there is always a doctor on campus. Don’t give up if you have a poor experience. If I had given up after a nutritionist told me to “try seaweed” or a therapist told me to “just eat”, I’d be dead right now.
If you have anxiety in the kitchen, pre-preparing meals is a life-saver, especially in those times were assignments are stacking. It can be exhausting to come in from a lecture to pots and grease splattering everywhere. Buy a horde of cheap Tupperware and pick a day a week where you hack away at it. Bang the tunes to keep up momentum, I also recommend a podcast hug from BlindBoy. If you’re going to recover from a mental illness and survive college you have to fuel your body, get enough sleep (earplugs are a vital investment), shower regularly and keep your clothes and space clean.
Pack something from home that makes you feel fuzzy, whether it’s a mug with a kitten on it, a microwavable teddy or a picture of you as a toddler eating tissue paper. A constant supply of tea and coffee is a must and you can never go wrong with a fluffy hot water bottle from Penneys. Skype your loved ones when you crave their cheeky smiles and the sound of their voices. Don’t be ashamed of needing people. I used to avoid going home because I thought it was proof I wasn’t coping. It is ok to be lonely, you’ve likely been part of a family structure and you’re searching for an identity outside of it, you’re going to wobble a little.
Journaling is a must, I used to track my moods in daily graphs. The chart would drop dramatically around five pm because I was forcing myself to run for an hour in rain, wind and snow, with aching bones and lagging muscles. Remember Storm Ophelia? I do because I was jogging and weeping in it. Seeing that descent in a physical way, allowed me to take responsibility for my self-destruction and to make the necessary changes. I also used to make lists of things that went well and things I struggled with and it helped me appreciate the imperfection of my life. On those mind-numbing nauseating days I would look back and see all the “bad” things I survived and remember that they weren’t as fatal as I thought they were.
This one is tough but try not to compare yourself to others. I know how tempting it is, you’re all the same age, maybe in the same course with identical interests. Yet campus is a bag of pick and mix. There are parents returning to education, students on Erasmus, transgender students, disabled students and we are all quirky in our own ways. I often felt like I was the only one in UCC with an eating disorder which is ridiculous. I could walk around the university right now, in the dead of summer and find someone exhibiting symptoms of disordered eating. Having a mental illness does not make you special or different, in modernity, it almost makes you mainstream. College is the best time to embrace your weirdness and not to allow it to alienate you, trust me, there will be plenty of suit-wearing in the years to come.
Do not limit yourself to campus. Wander in your local parks, feed the ducks (only green veggies please), go to plays and the cinema, check out museums, learn about the ground that is holding you up. Support the small and local businesses, I know you’re a student but coffee is cheap. It feels so good to be anonymous, often with mental illnesses, you can become your diagnosis and there is nothing more suffocating. Finding an identity and building a life worth recovering into is absolutely vital. I cherish the relationships I’ve made where they never knew the “sick” me and the only way I could form them was by getting out of that warm and lonely comfort zone.
Finally, just take it easy and breathe, despite every hardship, you are still here. Any time something goes wrong, just think of all the wars you have fought because trust me if you can survive a mental illness you can do anything.