Starting University for the first time is probably one of the most daunting things you will ever do. Moving to a completely new part of the country for many, seeing unfamiliar faces everywhere you turn and feeling completely and utterly overwhelmed. Now imagine doing it a second-time round, only this time you know the city and you know some of the people – although all your friends are now a year ahead. Coming back to university after taking medical leave due to your mental health is all this and more; not only do you have to go through it all over again, this time round you feel you have even more to prove. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you that you aren’t a ‘failure’ and coming back is the ‘brave’ thing to do, you can’t help but feel isolated and even embarrassed that your mental health deteriorated to such an extent that the only option was to re-do the year.
When faced with the ultimatum to leave completely or return once I was in a ‘better place’, of course I jumped at the latter. I didn’t want to lose something I had worked so immensely hard for. My mental illness had already taken so much; made me miss out on years of education due to being in hospital or attending outpatient appointments, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice yet another goal. Despite the doctor’s letter that validated I was ‘fit to return,’ I certainly didn’t feel ready on the first day back in October. I felt sick; worried history was going to repeat itself, worried about being in an entirely new year group whilst my friends would graduate before me, worried I would be judged or seen as a let-down but most of all, worried I was making the wrong decision.
To anyone else who has been in the same position, you will know just how challenging these thoughts can be, and how they can make writing an essay or turning up to a tutorial feel like an impossible task. I was lucky in the sense I was living out and therefore still able to be with my friends from first year, but that didn’t make sitting in the lecture theatre, surrounded by a completely new set of faces, any easier. Of course, these thoughts are normal and validated. It would be somewhat unusual if you weren’t apprehensive about starting again from scratch and I wish someone had been there to tell me this.
It can sometimes be hard to describe to people why you feel so alone in such a beautiful city, bursting with students and societies and social events. The thing is, mental illnesses are reassuringly familiar and it is naturally easier to gravitate towards what you know, even if you also know what the final outcome of that will be.
Epiphany term is a tough one. It’s cold and wet and gets dark about 4pm, making the days seem short but the nights even longer. Everyone seems to be busy with something and the work is piling in at a quicker rate than you can keep up with. This is a time when mental health can be neglected and before you know it, you’ve spiralled into a full-blown relapse. It then becomes easier to shut yourself away, not wanting to burden anyone with your problems and so, the cycle of self-destruction continues. But believe it or not, people DO care. There are people to talk to, even when you might not feel like talking. Just chatting to a friend you trust or a GP (there a few good ones at the UHC) really can make you feel less alone and give you a point of contact should you ever need it. You don’t have to be defined by your illness or your time away – a new term is waiting and ready to be whatever you want it to be.