TW: anxiety, eating disorders, mental illness
Having always been told that university would grant me freedom, I anticipated liberation from the chains of a dysfunctional family, and the chance to finally confront my long-standing mental health issues. Since accessing mental health support as a minor proved almost impossible, even being rejected for therapy just one month shy of turning eighteen, the prospect of university with new GPs and mental health services as a legal adult seemed promising – at least until I actually arrived.
While not entirely naive about Oxford’s academically rigorous reputation, I certainly had self-imposed high expectations without considering the significant gap from sixth form to university. When my first-ever linguistics essay was returned with only brutal feedback, I was left to hours of crying and a sense of doom. Considering I hadn’t had a single lecture yet, I was surely being too harsh on myself. Though it’s natural for tutors to expect high quality essays, and they should encourage improvements positively, I feel sad for being overly self-critical about a piece of work I had done my best on with the knowledge available at the time. After ages of feeling in despair, I eventually reached out to my tutor about the essay and was relieved to hear that this feeling was common among new students. I found solace in his words, expressing faith that I am meant to be here and I will thrive. Realising my tutors are not working against me and that I have the power to improve has helped this anxiety slowly dissipate, as I’ve come to the revelation that my self-worth is never determined solely by the quality of my work.
Imposter syndrome fuelled constant anxiety surrounding tutorials and feedback, and adjusting from top grades at A-Levels to 50s and 60s at university further eroded my self-esteem. The persistent pressure to excel lingered, driving me to procrastinate and submit rushed work, leaving me unsatisfied and adding to my anxiety. With what I now understand to be ADHD, I had always expected perfection. I was frequently disappointing myself because the thought of submitting something not up to my standards was frightening, yet it was a self-fulfilling prophecy since I’d put off doing work longer than I should’ve. I could not understand why my peers felt like Chomsky next to me, when I was going to the same lectures and attending the same classes. What was I doing so wrong? Did this mean Oxford was not the place for me?
Socially, the transition from home to a new environment wasn’t easy. Finding socialising draining, I struggled to make new friends, haunted by constant paranoia about how others perceived me. I worried that I’d spend my degree feeling stupid and lonely, whilst everybody else seemed to already know each other. Over time, my fear of being an outsider subsided, but there is still a voice in my head which reminds me that I will always feel alone. To say I was not coping was an understatement. I resorted to unhealthy coping mechanisms and my eating and sleeping suffered as a result.
Eventually, it became unbearable. After several visits to the GP regarding a host of mental health issues, concerns about my weight then prompted blood tests for deficiencies and weight recordings. My university counsellor, who I started seeing once a fortnight, along with the university psychiatrist, joined in overseeing my well-being. I was afraid to admit that, at times, the support was overwhelming. I was not used to people worrying about me. This strange dichotomy of both begging for help, yet pushing it away when it finally came my way plagued my brain. Despite the underfunding of mental health support under the NHS, I’m grateful for the care and support I have received here as they surpass the limited resources back home.
What I once thought were simply bad personality traits, like having thin skin and a scattered brain, transformed into diagnoses of ADHD and BPD, along with medication to manage my anxiety. I felt instantly better, even just knowing that there were names for these things! While having a label definitely helped me personally categorise clusters of symptoms, what meant the most to me was that now there was something I could do about it. Instead of aimlessly attempting coping strategies, I found that it made it easier not only for myself, but for the people supporting me, in navigating these difficult situations when I could describe my symptoms in a more organised fashion. Having someone to talk to shifted my perspective on addressing mental health openly, acknowledging the danger of burying these struggles deep in the crevices of my brain.
It is hard to believe you are not alone in your experience, but the pain is slowly soothed when you are given an opportunity to share and verbalise your pain. While Oxford definitely contributed to moments of my declining mental health, the vast range of available support serves as a source of gratitude. Despite all these challenges, I’m so glad to be here, alive to navigate the complexities of life.