Today I had a moment of epiphany that made me understand something about the last two years of my life.
It was the words “Completely Inadequate”.
That phrase was used in an email describing a part of my MPhil thesis. It was only relating to one small part of my thesis – literally only 2,000 words of the full 30,000 that I need to write. Iknow that the person who wrote it was intending to be constructive. But those two words – “completely inadequate” – seem simply designed to destroy the person they describe.
I’m not a machine. I can’t always run at 100%. Sometimes my work isn’t my best.
But the problem with my brain is that I never stop thinking. I can’t stop thinking. At university, I don’t even have the time to stop thinking. My brain grows tired, and worn out. And still I can’t stop thinking, and rethinking, and overthinking.
In 2012, as an undergraduate, my thesis supervisor told me two weeks before my deadline that my work was “inadequate”, and I was risking failing the paper. I had spent that term with a smashed knee, in a full leg brace. With limited mobility, I went to very few classes and almost no tutorials. I didn’t live in College and I stayed inside my house for the entirety of that term, eating very little and socialising even less. I was so tired all the time because it took so much energy to get anywhere. All I could do was sit in my bed and think. I couldn’t even get across town to see my tutors or the counselling service. I felt more isolated in my pain and in my mind than I had ever felt before. In those last two weeks, I didn’t sleep – I just thought and rethought and overthought and wrote and rewrote until I finally staggered into the Exam Schools, still on crutches, and handed in my paper.
And I couldn’t stop. I tried really, really hard, but my mind had put itself into a pattern and I was just thinking myself into oblivion. That inadequacy, that worthlessness, I began to feel in every aspect of my life. I was not only inadequate as a student, but as a person, friend, sister, daughter. I couldn’t sing, or act, or dance, or run, or do any of the things that I once loved. As my mind turned to the future I realised that I’d be worthless as an employee, girlfriend, mother. I would take any possible role, imagine myself in it, and see myself failing. I was – in everything I thought, or felt, or did – “completely inadequate”.
Later that year, I was handed my final degree results. I’d got a high first for the thesis that I believed so strongly to be “completely inadequate”. I felt nothing.
I spent that summer sat in my room, reading and rereading the thesis I got a first on, trying to work out where I went right. I urged my friends to read it, trying to get some verification for something that I still didn’t believe was possible. I couldn’t understand how something that had triggered me to feel so terrible about myself had been given such a good grade. I was terrified about starting my Masters degree, something I had applied for in October 2011. A part of me knew that I was not good enough, that I had never been good enough, and that I had just been fooling myself by applying in the first place. Of course I was inadequate. I felt like a failure in everything I did.
I remember vividly going to a tai chi class with my mother. I felt that I needed to reconnect with “myself”, because things were getting weird. I didn’t even know who “myself” was any more. Halfway through the session, there was a pose that put a strain on my injured knee, and I stumbled. I spent the rest of the class sobbing uncontrollably.
There is nothing more ironic than hearing the gasps of your own lung-tearing sobs echo around a gym to the soundtrack of soothing meditation chimes and running water. If I hadn’t been so sad, I would have laughed my ass off. I was now so inadequate that I was failing at relaxing.
On the way home, my mother, a GP, expressed her concerns.
“I think you need to see your doctor.”
I still refused to believe that there was anything wrong with me. But if I stopped thinking, even for a second, I thought I’d break and shatter into a million pieces.
I went back to college, met new people, but the threat of my own inadequacy still hung over me, ominously, like a shadow. I couldn’t get through a single day without crying or feeling overwhelmed. Social drinks? People would only laugh at me. Writing an essay? My work was terrible. Lecturer talking just a tiny bit too fast for me to take notes? I’d hide in a toilet for hours and cry and cry and cry.
There was no point to anything, and I wanted everything to stop. Honestly, if somebody had presented me with a button that would turn my life off right there and then, I’d have pushed it and happily melted into eternal oblivion. I wasn’t necessarily suicidal, but I didn’t want to live any more. And I was now scared of the dark places the thoughts were taking me.
I rang my surgery and wept into the phone. I saw a GP the same day, and was immediately put on medication. I finally confessed to my housemates – my closest friends – how I’d been feeling. I showed them the medication leaflets, informed them of possible side effects, and asked them to look out for me if they possibly could. They were tremendously understanding and supportive.
That marked the beginning of a difficult and weird few months. I stuck with my course and constantly battled with waves of insomnia, anxiety, and utter despair. I spent many sleepless nights trapped inside a body that would uncontrollably spasm, tremble, and panic. There was one week where I convinced myself that if I fell asleep for a moment, I would die. I felt so tired that I had to lie down, but I was utterly terrified of sleep. Somehow, I knew that everything I did was going to result in my own death. I would have a panic attack every day. I would screech disturbingly animalistic screams into the dead of night because I couldn’t find the words to express my fears. I would crawl into a housemate’s bed because I was afraid of my own. If I slept, I would sleep with my door open, because I was terrified that I would die and nobody would ever know.
I hated my counselling sessions, because I would go to them and explain all of these feelings, and my counsellor would just sit there and say nothing. The last session on the NHS came and went, and as I left, he just said, “I wish you the best of luck”. I felt like the world was giving up on me.
If I were alone in the house, I would desperately crave company. If I were around people, I would wish that I’d stayed at home. I had serious thoughts of self-harm. I once wanted so badly to destroy myself that I tore all of my photographs down off of my walls and trashed my bedroom floor, tearing up old letters, cards, pictures, posters, clothes. I would become uncontrollably angry. I was an utter nightmare to live with. I took a kitchen knife and stabbed at a wet towel that a housemate had left lying on the bathroom floor, tearing it into tiny shreds of fabric. I would smash plates and hurl glass bottles from third-storey windows. I had a recurring nightmare in which I ended up in a Bell-Jar-esque 1950s psychiatric ward. I hated myself for making everybody’s life a misery.
I felt like I had finally gone insane. I still have no idea how I managed to complete my coursework with what had been diagnosed as a “Major Depressive Episode”. I was going through the motions of Oxford life – get up, go to class, write an essay, go home, go to bed – but forgetting to do other important things, like socialising, eating, washing. I would suddenly find myself wandering the streets and have no memory of how I got there and no idea where I was trying to go.
I went back to my GP, who upped my medication. Things began to plateau out after that.
I slowly began to feel normal again, and put feelers out into the world that I was now so afraid of. I went back to the things I used to enjoy – and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was enjoying them again. When people reached out to me, I began to reach back. I reconnected with old friends, and made new ones. I began to really feel the love that I wasn’t allowing myself to feel before, back when I truly believed in my inadequacy.
My journey is far from over. That’s the problem with people who think and rethink and overthink. The journey can’t be over, and it will always be difficult, because we make it for ourselves. But I am changing for the better, and I have strategies in place should this ever happen to me again. In first week of Michaelmas, I fell off my bike and tore up my knee again. Fearing a repeat experience of my Finals, I arranged with my department and college to take the term out to recuperate. I went back to counselling, and found somebody who works for me. I still have feelings of hopelessness, but I know now that they are only temporary – these too will pass. I’m no longer afraid of my own feelings, no matter how painful they may be - and that is an absolute joy.
If I could have given myself any advice, it would be to not be afraid to tell people about how I was feeling. I would also tell myself to tell the counsellor I was seeing that his methods weren’t working, and ask to see somebody else – there was nothing ‘wrong’ with me, I just needed to find the therapy that I found to be supportive and nourishing.
For everyone in Oxford, I would urge you to look out for others, and not to be afraid of the stigma attached to mental health. Anybody can have an episode, and it can very easily be triggered by emotional vulnerability in this high-pressure environment. If you know somebody who is injured, unwell, grieving, going through a breakup, having financial difficulties – take some time to see if they are okay, then take it easy on them. And if you’re having a tough time, take it easy on yourself. You are not inadequate, no matter what you feel. You will thank yourself later.