By Nathan Jackson
I’m 23-years-old, and at no point in the last decade has my mental health been “perfect”. In fact, more often than not, it hasn’t even been good. I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety and depression in 2007 and treated with a combination of therapy and medicine until about 18 months ago when I was weaned off the medication. I have since been treated solely through therapy. If I’ve learned anything from university, it’s that I’m not alone in this.
I think any sort of illness or disability (let’s call a spade a spade) can lead to an overwhelming sense of isolation at times. We tend to forget we aren’t the only ones experiencing what we are experiencing. We feel that others can’t empathise, because they don’t know the nuances and details of our lives. But that’s simply not true. A quick Google search will tell you that between a quarter and a third of Australian university students experience some form of mental health disorder. Of course, we all know the statistics, or at least that the numbers should be high. But, as so often happens with numbers, we struggle to understand what it means for us, and for those around us.
In the lead-up to writing this, something happened that drives my point home more than anything. I had left a social event at the Whitehouse after only an hour, because anxiety had started to set in. After taking 10 minutes or so to compose myself, I started to make my way to the bus line. Lo and behold, also waiting for the bus was Bella, who had come from the same event. She and I had chatted in the past, and so, half on a whim, half because I needed to talk about it, I mentioned why I had left early. I told her that, of late, I wasn’t exactly shining at social events. That I would start feeling nauseous and struggle to breathe properly. Her response: “Yep. That’s social anxiety”.
After she said that, a few things happened quite suddenly, one after another. Firstly, I was surprised that she had understood so quickly. Bella is a really outgoing person who chats to everyone, generally comes across as bubbly, and is always a joy to be around. Immediately, I felt awful for assuming she wouldn’t understand, because by now, I know how little outward impressions mean. And, more than anything, I was relieved. I felt safer just being in the company of someone who knew what I was feeling. We talked about it briefly, but moved onto other topics of discussion before long. There was an implicit empathy there that made me feel that I was okay, and that it was okay to feel the way I did.
We all have good days and bad days, but on an average day at the moment, I spend more time worrying and fretting about my commitments than doing anything about them. As students, we strike something of a delicate balance between personal, social, and work lives, because well, we have to. Mental illnesses, in my experience, tend to be the gust of wind that blows over our carefully constructed house of cards. I can hardly finish a page of reading without being distracted by the thought of something I have to do later that day. More than once a day, the weight of it all, along with a seemingly never-ending stream of negative self-talk, completely stops me. On the worst days, I have to adjourn to an empty toilet. There, I can be relatively inconspicuous in addressing the lump in my throat and tightness in my chest that stops me from breathing properly, a warning of a pending panic attack (the same feeling I had that day at the Whitehouse). Though most days I can get away with just sitting somewhere and addressing the self talk explicitly – I’ve started to keep a journal for this – it still eats up an enormous amount of time and energy that could otherwise be put towards some of the commitments I actually signed up for.
And this has sort of been my university life. There are ebbs and flows – sometimes it’s easier than others. But, by and large, mental illness has been a leech, a parasite that disrupts my self-confidence, my productivity, and my desire to spend as little time as possible in UNSW toilets.
I tend to deal with it by myself. Up until recently, and to some extent, even now, I’ve been reluctant to share what I’m experiencing while it’s happening. Instead, I’ve created a vicious cycle of trying to cope by myself, while letting it damage my closest relationships. And the biggest problem with this is that it perpetuates my fear that the worst of me will cost me the people I love.
I believe we owe it to ourselves, and to those closest to us, to constantly work to improve, and this is what I’m working on right now. It’s so easy to fall inside ourselves in our moments of weakness. And as hard as it is to experience it, sharing can be even harder. Whether we tell ourselves that it isn’t anyone else’s problem, that it won’t make a difference, or that nobody actually cares or understands, the common thread is that it is an excuse. People really do care, just like Bella, they do understand, and I’ll be damned if there’s ever been a time when talking hasn’t helped.
After all this time, I think I’m finally beginning to understand something: as much as it’s a burden, and as much as it drags me down at times, my mental illness helps me to understand people. And, if I’m honest, it helps them to understand me. If I’m open, and if I share what I’m going through, they will continue to support me, because they’ve already accepted me, at my best, at my worst, and everywhere in between.