Mental Health in Cambridge

TW: mental health, depression, self-harm mention, anxiety, medication

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for a long time, and I’ve finally found the courage to do it. This is hard to write, but here we go: last summer, I was diagnosed with depression. Sitting in that GP surgery didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know. I suffered from depression as a teenager, and I knew the symptoms by heart. I recovered the first time when I was 16, and every year, on my birthday, I would close my eyes and thank a deity I don’t even believe in for giving me one more year free of the pain and the fear. I carry the scars from those years, both physical and mental. I prayed that I would never have to go back there. But I know how depression works, and I know that it is often a problem that affects people throughout their lives.

This time around, there was no obvious trigger: no family problems, no school bullies, no bodily insecurity. Maybe, if I had to guess, the stress of returning to Cambridge for my final year and the fear of finding a job when I graduate (a quest I am, incidentally, still on) proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

At first, it was mild depression. I had days when I functioned relatively normally. I had days when I struggled to get out of bed, but I usually managed it by midday. I was told to start exercising more rigorously, so I started running: I ran every time I felt sad, and it helped. I ran nearly every day, until a knee injury forced me to stop. Without my coping mechanism, my depression spiralled out of control. Daily activities became a nightmare. I would desperately struggle to drag myself out of bed every morning. Basic things like showering and cooking became insurmountable challenges. I missed nearly every single one of my lectures. I spent whole days sitting on my bed, staring at the wall in my bedroom. I cried constantly.

Still, I didn’t tell anyone outside of my close circle of friends and my boyfriend: not my college, not my family, not my crew. I was ashamed. I felt weak. When I was bullied as a teenager, I learnt how to defend myself, how to put up shields. It has served me well since, but it means that I find it hard to open up emotionally. When I told my two closest friends at home, it was through a letter: I physically couldn’t bring myself to tell them in person. When the holidays came, I worked as hard as I could to catch up. I started applying to job after job. I learned how much rejection can hurt, as one by one, every graduate scheme I had applied to rejected me.

I hit rock bottom in January. Away from my friends and boyfriend on a training camp in London, I lost my support network and I failed to cope. I was sharing a room with two other girls, and I couldn’t find time in the evenings to cry if I needed to. Instead, I walked the streets of Teddington, sobbing down the phone to my boyfriend. Between training sessions, I retreated to the women’s locker room and cried, wiping away my tears in time to go outside and cox another outing. When I came back to Cambridge, I was broken. One night, midnight, I felt the familiar urge to hurt myself, as I had all those years ago. Panicked, I ran downstairs and sat in my housemate’s room until the urge subsided. I knew I needed to get help.

Another GP, this time a sympathetic woman with kind eyes. She put me on anti-depressants for the first time in my life: and it felt like a failure. But I took them, desperate to stop feeling this way. The side effects were horrendous. I stopped sleeping for nearly a week: I would lie there, exhausted, knowing that I had to get up in the morning and work. I felt nauseous all of the time: one of my housemates introduced me to the wonders of peppermint tea, and brought it to me whenever the sickness hit too hard. The medication made me feel dizzy, and anxious, and afraid.

Yet, when the side effects passed, the depression did not. I was prepared for this: the GP had told me that it could take weeks for the pills to kick in fully. The crying didn’t stop. If anything, it got worse. I stopped eating, and it was only through the kindness of my boyfriend and friends that I didn’t starve most days. Waking up remained a huge struggle. I finally went to see my tutor: a new one, a woman I hadn’t met before. I sat in the office of this stranger, and I cried, and she sat there and awkwardly tried to console me. Later, she would take me around the fellow’s garden and point out the different trees, and the bees making honey. I went to see my DoS, and I sat through our appointment and didn’t say a word. It took the encouragement of a friend to take me back. She sat outside while I finally broke the news to my academic role model that I wasn’t coping. I finally – after over a month on the university waiting list – saw a counsellor.

My work suffered, of course: but here, a few emails from my DoS to the relevant supervisors exempted me from handing in any essays that I couldn’t cope with. My sport suffered; I would spend an hour crying in my room, and then dry my eyes and head to the boathouse. Any mistake during an outing made me panic, stressed and fearful, the new chemicals in my body introducing an anxiety I have never before experienced. More than once, I cried in the middle of an outing, hastily covering the microphone and hoping that my stroke seat hadn’t noticed. If he did, he never made me feel bad about it. Several times, my friends suggested that I leave my sport behind. But most days, it was the only thing that kept me going. Whether they knew it or not, those eight men became my support network through the worst of my depression. Even on the worst of my days, I found the energy to haul myself out of bed to go and meet them. I structured what little work I did around training with them. Most days, they managed to make me smile and laugh, even when no one else could.

Slowly, the depression started to lift: I would have good days again, in amongst the bad. I started to laugh again. I attended supervisions and lectures. I forced myself back into exercise, and baking, and all of the things that I love. By the time that exam term came around, I was roughly stable: not happy, by any stretch of the imagination, but functioning and able to revise.

Of course, this is not the end of the story. The medication I’m on still gives me severe anxiety: when I told my new GP about this, she asked me if my boyfriend was cheating on me (twice, in case my flat “…no” wasn’t enough for her) and then wrote me a prescription for two more months without enquiring further. A month ago, I put in a repeat prescription, only to be given 6 months of contraceptive instead (helpful, but not ideal when you’ve run out of sertraline and been told that the withdrawal symptoms make going on it look like a picnic.) That day, I cried outside Sainsbury’s for half an hour, while my boyfriend held me close and tried to shield me from curious passers by.

Throughout this, I have been lucky: I have been supported by my friends, my housemates, my old (and new) crew (whether they know it or not), and especially my boyfriend. Some days are hard: this morning was hard. On my bad days, I still struggle to get out of bed and feed myself. But on my good days, I laugh and cox and bake and hang out with my friends. On my really good days, I dance around my room singing aloud to Taylor Swift. My depression does not define me: it is a battle, but one that I will win.

If you’re struggling with any of the above, there are places that can help:

In Cambridge: your tutor, your DoS, your porters, the college nurse, the university counselling service, Student Minds

More generally: Samaritans, Depression Alliance, Mind

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