Thursday, 12 October 2017

Change of plan

I originally set up this blog and was planning, like every person ever, to write about my year abroad experiences. I’d been wanting to start a blog long before year abroad came around, but just hadn’t had the time to do it.  And when it came time to embark on the biggest year of my life so far, along with the fact that everyone else was doing one, it seemed like a good time. I was excited to be able to document everything I would be doing on my year abroad in two of the world’s most beautiful cities, Paris and St. Petersburg. But things haven’t quite worked out like that. 

My year abroad was always going to be a little bit different. As my friends were leaving Bristol and filtering off to their various year abroad destinations, I was hanging around to complete my second-year exams. I’d had to postpone them until the August resit period as, in second term, I went through a period of severe mental health difficulties which left me barely even able to leave my bed, let alone take exams. I’m no stranger to periods of depression; I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was 15 and have been on antidepressants since. There’s been better periods and worse periods since then, but it’s something I’ve been very much living with for the last six years. Sometimes I barely remember it’s an issue, and am only reminded of it by the pills I swallow every day, and sometimes it’s so debilitating that all I can do is curl up in my bed and ugly cry in order to stop myself doing anything dangerous. Sometimes these periods come as a surprise, but they are often in response to stressful situations and changes in my life. Even if I go into a new phases of my life with the best possible mindset and a recent history of stability, it’s hard to predict how I’m going to react. 

The period during which I had to suspend my second year exams was a really difficult one, and it was hard to admit to myself that I needed to step off the educational treadmill for a moment and look after my health. My big issue was that, even though it was always an option, I really didn’t want to have a drop back a year. I’ve made friends at uni unlike many I have had before, friends who I feel entire comfortable and myself around who I know would love and support me unconditionally. Dropping back a year would mean letting them leave for their years abroad, and then returning for fourth year with them having already graduated. I was worried about the long-term, and how uni would be without these people around to support me.

So I chose to take my exams in August, and then go on my year abroad a few weeks later. I took my exams, and, even though it was a really difficult and stressful period, I still somehow came out of second year with a first. I felt so proud of myself, that even though there had been so many moments that I had thought that I just wasn’t cut out for degree-level study and considered dropping out or, I still managed to get really good grades. I prepared to head off on my year abroad, bolstered by this success and in a much better place than I had been months before.

But once I got to France, reality set in. I wasn’t ready. Moving to a new country and trying to set up a life there is a difficult enough experience for even the most strong-willed person, and there I was, a mere six months out of a major depressive episode and having only just come out of the stress of exams. My doctor expressed concern before I left, saying that the dosage of medication I was on would indicate that I should be under specialist psychiatric care and supervision. But not heading off on my year abroad by the beginning of October would have caused me issues progressing with my degree, and besides, I felt like I was in a good place. So I hurriedly found a job and headed off to France, ready to have this amazing and formative year that I had been promised so many times by teachers and older students alike.

I’m not going to go into much detail about my time in France; I only came back to the UK last night and all the feelings and experiences are still so raw to me. But after being there for less than two weeks, I hit a point where I was unable to get out of bed, unable to stop crying for more than about five minutes at a time, drugging myself up on so much valium that I could barely walk yet still feeling like I was on the edge of a panic attack. Just thinking of going to buy food or receiving an email put me into a severe state of panic, and my thoughts started veering towards the dark and dangerous. I knew that I would never be able to survive a full-time job in this state, and if I didn’t get myself home and into a safe and supportive environment then things probably wouldn’t end well. My years of experience with depression has taught me the distinction between a natural level of worry and genuine illness, and this time, I had very much crossed that line. 

So after 12 days in France, I came home, half a stone lighter, my bank account less plentiful, with impressively dark bags under my eyes, but mostly in one piece. It’s hard to put into words how I’m feeling right now. I’m relieved to be back and somewhere I feel safe and secure, but that doesn’t negate the response that being in France has triggered. I’m not really sure what the next few weeks hold emotionally speaking, but I’m in the best place I could be, with the support of my family, friends, doctor and university around me. 

I’m also dealing with the fact that this decision means a big change to the progression of things. I haven’t finalised plans but I need time to heal and to be really certain that I’m ready before going abroad again, and therefore won’t have time to fit in my year abroad requirement this year. Part of me is sad because, as I said, this means letting my friends progress through their degrees without me. But I’ve spent far too long putting my education before my mental health, and following a certain timeline not because it’s the best thing for me, but because I feel like I should. I think it’s time, six years on from my first diagnosis, to finally stop and breathe, to spend some time really getting to the root of the issue. I want to be able to enjoy my life, even if there are periods of stress, rather than constantly struggling and just barely scraping through to the detriment of my mental state. Taking this time out will give me a chance to get some long-term medical help and to then approach my year abroad next September, mentally rested and hopefully more able to cope with the inevitable difficulties.

What I’m getting at here is that, although I originally set up this page for my year abroad, I still want to write. I’ve always loved writing and I think it helps when I can get the way I’m feeling out in a coherent way. So even though it won’t be anywhere near as impressive and exciting as what I originally had planned, I still want to document this year. And if my attempts to tame my mental health are of interest to you too, you are welcome to read along as I figure it all out. I guess you can think of this as my year (not) abroad blog.

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