Studying while Recovering: Learning to be Authentically Me by Lizzie Salter

TW: Suicidal ideation, eating disorder

In 2017 I started my Undergraduate course in BA Geography. Going into it, I had my own perceptions of what a ‘perfect’ student, researcher and scientist looked like. I thought to be successful you needed to have an empowered, independent, and busy personality. The ‘hustle’ movement of glamorising all-nighters and drinking as many energy drinks as you can to give you the anxiety buzz needed for staying awake. I thought my diary needed to be full of study days, extra sessions, and experience in the field. I struggled with all of these because as a recovering anorexic with bipolar disorder and a long history of perfectionism I found it hard to meet both the expectations I put on myself and the reality of university life.

It took a lot of courage for me to be able to talk to my supervisors, my tutors and my institution about the mental health issues I was facing, and it took an admission to the mental health crisis team to finally take that step of saying, “Hey—I am not okay and I need support.” For the remaining two years of my degree, I constantly battled between wanting to be the best I could be and do the best I could do, but also struggling with being a student with a mental illness. In my third year, March 2020, I hit a rock bottom with that struggle and it nearly ended my life. I was underweight, severely depressed and I had little energy to function without thinking about dissertations, research, and lectures. 

Fast forward to present day: I am a Post Graduate Researcher in Law and Criminology working on research that I believe has changed my perceptions of not only academia but also life in recovery. My aim with this blog is to share some of my coping strategies I have learned along the way with you.

Seeing Research as a Shared Value with Other Academics 

When I first started as a Postgraduate Researcher, I was advised by my institution that research may become isolating due to being in a much more independent environment compared to my undergraduate degree. I quickly began to understand why this is the case. As an independent researcher you are working on your own research. Only you truly know the “ins and outs” of your research and, sure, you can talk about it to others in your field, you can talk about it to friends, partners, and family but you are the researcher. The only one studying that niche. Compared to being one of the hundreds of students undertaking the same undergraduate degree, who you can meet in corridors to discuss shared assignments, it can seem pretty isolating. 

What really helped me challenge this perspective was not seeing myself as a researcher working on my own project. Instead, I started viewing my research as a small and important contribution—like a jigsaw piece—to the collective work of many academics working together to investigate and find more out about the world we live in. Going to conferences, talking to a wide range of academics and reading journals, I began to feel empowered and energised by not the energy drinks I used to consume, but by the hope, courage and determination I was seeing around me in my peers. I even began reading research that was completely different to my field. I started asking questions that I never thought of asking before and from that I gained new knowledge I never thought I would. It brought elements to my research that I had never considered before, but also got me making conversations that I would never have made if I looked at my research as an isolated piece of work. 

Building the Right Support Network 

We hear the phrase ‘the power in a cup of  tea’; however, I do not think we use this to its full potential. For me, the big difference between completing my undergraduate degree to now being halfway through my Masters, is the fact that I have created and built a tight support network around me with people who all value me as an individual, a researcher, and as someone recovering from mental illness. Throughout my undergraduate journey I was constantly arranging coffee catch up’s and trying to seek out the people around me who would simply sit and listen to me. From that I gained an understanding that some people won’t stay; however, the “keepers” will, and they are your tribe. They are the network of people you need and will value being around you throughout not only your professional journey but your personal one too. 

Before starting my research, I ensured I had people around me who I knew would support me and see the potential in me even on the days I could not see it myself. These are friends, supervisors, health professionals, colleagues, and family. These are the people with whom I can be vulnerable with and get into deep conversations without the fear of judgement and shame. These are also the people who I believe can make a difference to the reality I face on a day to day basis. They are people who can act and have the tools and capability to do so. I regularly call my medical specialist,  my therapist and my GP (primary care physician) and say, “Hey, I feel this way, I think we should look at this.” By having that relationship and that trust, action is more likely to happen. Something which has made the difference for me is simply sitting down with a cup of tea and having conversations with people who support me and calling out some truths about how I am feeling and what is going on. 

Checking in With Yourself 

Being a student, I found this tip really useful throughout lockdown and while at work. It’s also something that has helped me manage my well-being and self-awareness: When you become too stressed, overwhelmed or busy, a key indication to slow down is when you become unaware of the environment surrounding you and the situations you find yourself in. Are you sitting in a messy environment that you are yet to clean? Have you not made enough time for doing what you love to do? By looking in and checking in I have found that balance between going into deep, effective work, but also allowing myself time to be “unproductive”.

I used to hear the word “unproductive” and automatically think about it negatively with so much shame and guilt. However, self-care, winding down and being “unproductive” can mean so many things. Being “unproductive” in one aspect of your life can allow you to turn to other needs of your happiness and can allow progress in a new aspect. For me, I have changed the way I view “productivity” and I have allowed myself to view other aspects of my life other than research and work as areas I need to work on and in fact that’s pretty productive. While writing this I am just starting data collection for my research and I am finding myself needing to recharge my batteries before I really emerge myself in analysis. For me, writing this is a form of self-care. I have never been the sort of person who can sit for hours doing nothing, watching a load of movies, or spending the day in bed. That’s not me and that’s not my definition of self-care. To me self-care means doing things I am passionate about, sometimes doing things that I have been putting off, such as cleaning the house or finishing a project. However, the point I am getting at is that ‘self-care’ means different things to everyone and it’s finding your definition and rocking it that matters most. 

‘Thinking Walks’

When I told my family and friends I was writing this blog, one of the things they said to me was, “Are you going to include your thinking walks?”. This is something that was introduced to me by my current work manager and it’s a hack that I will never forget; it has changed how I tackle most things within all aspects of my life. When I get a big task, or a challenging ‘to do’ project, the first thing I used to do was panic. I would get the planners out and begin to “over worry” about the pile of things I had to do. As a result of this, I had no way of seeing the best, realistic way to achieve the task. However, the new way I manage this anxiety and uncertainty is through walking.

In the past, I used to glue myself to the desk and let this negativity build up because I was immersed in this ‘productivity chamber’ that I generally used to think, “I don’t have the time to make time for me.” However, I have found that by writing about the task, recognising what it involves and then walking, I will pick up ideas, creativity and inspiration during that walk. Sometimes it doesn’t come to me straight away and it’s only when I get back to the desk and feel calmer that I am able to tackle it.  Sometimes during my walk I will get a creativity overload and I cannot get back to the desk soon enough, but I take that time to let my brain absorb the task and think about it rationally while doing something else. 

Being my Authentic Self

Exploring these coping strategies and integrating them into my work, research and personal life has meant that I am able to balance the work I need to get done, but also benefit and look after my mental and physical health. As a researcher with mental health challenges it’s important to me that I see the progress I’ve made in recovery; this is not something to hide and avoid during my time as an academic but something to recognise and work with to be my best authentic and creative self. 

Throughout my mental health journey, I have always had this passion and this motivation to do something in the world that made a difference. Additionally, I have always been a ‘doing’ person and someone who loves to see their work pay off in the world.  What I didn’t realise until recently is that my mental health journey along the way can make a difference too. Given my research is based on community and the need to understand citizens when making decisions that ultimately will change their lives, it seems apt. During my time as a researcher and as a worker I have picked up these tools and strategies to really help me recover and help me keep that balance between doing my best work but also living my best, authentic and recovered life. I hope you can find that balance too.

Lizzie Salter

Lizzie Salter is a current Law and Criminology Post-Graduate Researcher in the UK. Her research looks into community engagement and the emergent theme of co-creation in changes to the built environment. Using this practical planning tool her research uses themes of place psychology to access the importance of ‘home’ to citizens and why co-creation; the integration of citizen voice in urban planning, is essential to sustaining place. Alongside her research, Lizzie works at a ‘Community Interest Company’ to practice co-creation in multiple community engagement projects across the country and enjoys engaging with people to share their story and to amplify their voice. You can contact Lizzie on Twitter @Lizzie_Salter22.