For as long as I can remember I have always been a worrier; however, when I left the family home in the summer of 2012 to go to university, I do not think anybody (including myself) realised quite how difficult it would be. I suddenly went from being surrounded by a large support network whom I had shared all my worries with to being alone and bottling-up all my thoughts. This, alongside a doubt about whether I was good enough to be at university, led me to obsessively throw myself into my studies, an obsession which soon became out of control. Family members became increasingly concerned and eventually convinced me to reach out for help from the University Wellbeing Service.
I still remember how mortified and embarrassed I was attending the service for the first time. Despite being a worrier all my life nobody had ever talked to me about mental illnesses, I never knowingly knew anybody who had one and my only references were those gained from films and TV programmes where those with mental illnesses are often depicted as weak, unstable and/or dangerous members of society. Many questions ran through my head: Am I mentally ill? Will I be put in a psychiatric hospital? Should I self-harm? Should I have suicidal thoughts? I had completely lost myself in this narrative which was terrifying and so when the therapist tried to suggest I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I was not ready to hear and accept this.
The remainder of my undergraduate degree was challenging but I built up a safety blanket around me – I found friends I was comfortable to share my worries with, I would constantly ring my parents for reassurance, and I continued to throw myself into my work to avoid unknown situations that could lead to worries. This allowed me to successfully complete my undergraduate degree in chemistry and driven by my desire to always achieve greater I enrolled on a PhD course, despite concerns from family members.
Managing mental illness and a PhD
I entered the PhD full of enthusiasm, falsely believing all the safety nets I had previously built would continue to protect me. However, the first few months were a struggle: being in a new environment surrounded by new people with new responsibilities brought with it a whole new set of anxieties and compulsions. Another referral to a therapist, and the second suggestion that I had OCD alongside Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) was enough to make me realise I had to take this seriously. I knew I had to tell my supervisor what was happening, and I vividly remember crying in her office because the emotions were so raw. However, despite telling my supervisor very early on in my PhD, I was still very much embarrassed by this part of my life and I believed it must be kept a secret for fear of being seen as weak. I felt ashamed that I needed help and often wondered if it was just me being melodramatic and if I should just ‘get on with it’. I spent almost 4 months working with a cognitive behavioural therapist in secret and learnt how thought processes from my youth had become innate in my adult life. However, I found the treatment incredibly difficult and believed it often led to more distress. This was something I was not prepared for and so when my therapy came to an end, I left wondering if my anxiety would always control me.
Two years later and towards the end of my PhD I had a big decline in my mental health and was back seeing a therapist again. This time I knew what to expect and I was prepared for the treatment to come. However, I knew that if I was ever going to get the most out of my treatment I had to learn to accept my mental illness and this meant no longer being ashamed or embarrassed by it.
For months, on my commute to work I had read a Samaritans poster ‘It is okay to not be okay’ and I believe the day I finally started to open up about my mental health was the first day I began to believe those words. Opening up was an incredibly daunting process and there were days when I questioned if I was doing the right thing, but I knew that for me accepting my mental illness meant no longer hiding it.
When I told my colleagues the response was incredible, not because everyone flooded me with compliments or sympathy, but because everybody treated me exactly the same as they did the day before. Learning that those around you accept you for who you are with or without your mental illness allowed me to accept it myself, and detach my mental illness from my identity so I could treat the mental illness without feeling like I was changing myself. For the first time, I started therapy believing that I deserved the treatment and that if I wanted to get control of my mental illness, I needed to give the treatment 100% without fear it would change who I was.
Since my last series of therapy, I have completed my PhD and now begun a post-doctoral position. I still have, and will always have, OCD and GAD but for the first time in my life I feel in control of the conditions. However, it has taken a long eight years to get to this point and I have learnt a lot along the way:
1. Mental illnesses are no different from physical illnesses.
Just like physical illnesses, mental illnesses can vary in severity, but you should never feel ashamed for accessing help. I often worried that I was not ‘mentally ill enough’ to deserve treatment, but I now realise that there is no such thing. Just like all physical illnesses deserve treatment, all mental illnesses deserve treatment too. Equally, looking after your mental health on a daily basis should be given the same priority as physical health.
2. Be patient and kind to yourself; change will not happen overnight.
I spent my first few years in therapy frustrated at how difficult I was finding the treatment and I would therefore get angry at myself for not being able to change. This vicious cycle of self-destruction was incredibly harmful and I believe severely limited my progress. I have now learnt to be kinder to myself – when I have a ‘bad day’ I focus on doing better the next day rather than punishing myself for the past. Unfortunately, the nature of many of the treatments means they take time and practise which can feel frustrating, but the biggest thing I would say is never give up hope as there are so many treatments out there and it can take a while to find the right one for you.
3. (If you can) Open up to others about your mental health.
Opening up to others about my mental health allowed me to normalise it with others; and it also reduced the feeling of isolation. I believe a major part of me being able to complete my PhD was having the support of my supervisor and being able to be honest during the times I was struggling (I cried in her office on numerous occasions and was never made to feel weaker than my colleagues for doing so). On reflection, I regret hiding it from my colleagues, as it was genuinely exhausting hiding my compulsions on a daily basis and joking about worries that were actually causing me so much distress. However, I do understand that it is an incredibly daunting process, so my advice would be to start by confiding in those closest to you and hopefully this will give you the confidence to tell others. Remember, “vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage” – Brené Brown.
4. It truly is ‘okay not to be okay’.
Our mental health is fluid and fluctuates throughout our lives; just like we can get a cold which affects our physical health, anybody can go through occasions when their mental health is suffering – this is nothing to be ashamed of. I believe self-awareness of the days that I am not okay has made me a better researcher and we must not bury these thoughts just for fear of being judged in the highly competitive academic world.
Overall, I learnt that I do deserve help for my mental illness and this does not make me weak or change who I am. My conditions will always be a part of me, but they will never define me.
So, if you are out there struggling please do speak up and get support – you deserve it!
Lucy recently completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research focussed on DNA-based nanomaterials. She has recently begun a Research fellowship at the same university, within the Healthcare Technology Institute, focussed on improving the adhesives in Stoma care products. She is passionate about inspiring the next generation of Scientists particularly in early years and enjoys developing activities for Primary Schools. Lucy began opening up about her mental health as a means to accepting her own conditions and now hopes that sharing her story will encourage others to do the same. You can follow her on Twitter @lucy_arkinstall