I don’t think completing a degree is easy for anybody – but for me it’s become the challenge of a lifetime
There is a quote that I like that says ‘Go as long as you can, and then take another step’. Every year that I spend at university is a step I never thought I would find the courage to make.
I’m a final year medical student. I started my course in 2011. Yes, it’s taken me ten years to get to this point. So, what happened?
I always did well in exams and got through school without any great difficulty. I was always painfully shy and I hoped university would be different, a fresh start. But I found things overwhelming and I struggled academically. I failed exams – a first for me – and had to repeat a year.
It took a long time for me to seek help, but by the time I was 21, it was clear that I wasn’t well. I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and OCD and started a combination of medication and different attempts at therapy. To complicate matters further, I also developed epilepsy. I don’t think that completing a degree is easy for anybody, but for me it’s become the challenge of a lifetime.
OCD is a term that’s trivialised and casually thrown about, but I can’t really describe the destructive grip it’s had on my life. For me, it centres around this constant fear of bad things happening to my family or friends. My compulsions are both physical and mental. I can spend hours at night locked in a cycle of rituals and it regularly leaves me so exhausted that I can’t function at all the next day.
As an example of how it can manifest, I’m sitting my final exams at the moment. Mental health problems tend to flare up during times of stress. When I try to study, I have to count the number of words in every sentence that I read or write, the number of letters in every word, and then do compulsive actions to correct the ‘wrong’ numbers. It’s distracting and tiring but to me, failing to do this would feel like willing for something awful to happen to someone I love. My actions make no sense, and I know that, but I have to do them anyway. Just incase. There’s always a ‘just incase’.
It’s difficult to see doctors who used to be my classmates while I’m still a student
I’ve got used to being the one who’s always behind, the straggler. To be honest, it’s difficult to start a placement on a ward and see doctors who used to be my classmates – doctors who are four or five years into their career while I’m still a student.
Having to join new year groups is daunting, but I’ve found that other students are much more understanding and encouraging than I anticipated. I’m so grateful for that. The peers who’ve seen I’m new and reached out to say hello. The placement partners who’ve been a friendly face on the tough days. The classmates who’ve messaged me after class to check that I’m OK. People are often so kind, if you give them a chance.
In first year, I heard about a blood cancer charity called Anthony Nolan. They have a group at Queen’s called Belfast Marrow. I went along to an introductory event, not knowing that it would become my greatest passion – the thing that would give me the strength to persevere with university in the face of everyone and everything that was telling me to give up. It was a gradual process but I went from that incredibly shy and shaky first year student to throwing myself into things that I never imagined I could do, like taking on leadership roles, running marathons, making friends with students from across the UK and hopefully making a real difference to the lives of people with blood cancer.
If you’re having a difficult time for whatever reason, university can feel like an isolating place. My advice to any student in that position would be to reach out to clubs and societies. No matter how anxious or uncertain you feel, there are countless societies at Queen’s that would love to have you as a member. Whether it’s volunteering, or sport, or something creative, there are so many options and people will be so much more welcoming than you realise.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help
There’s a lot of support available at the University that I didn’t avail of in my first few years. I wish I had. The other piece of advice I’d give to other students would be to get in contact with the Student Guidance Centre if you’re struggling with something, or the Students' Union. You might also be eligible for practical support from Disability Services. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. I can see that now. Personally, I felt a bit undeserving of that support at first but then began to accept that it’s not giving you an unfair advantage – it’s actually levelling the playing field by giving you the adjustments that you need because of your disability or illness. You do deserve that help, even if your brain is telling you that you don’t.
I’ve often felt close to giving up on medicine… But I’m extremely stubborn and I’ve just kept on persevering
My university experience hasn’t been plain-sailing, but I’m not the person that I was when I arrived at Queen’s ten years ago. Somewhere along the way, I found a voice, and I’ve found the courage to use it. I’ve accepted help. I’ve found the willpower to keep on going no matter how many setbacks have got in the way. I’ve often felt close to giving up on medicine. I’ve deferred exams, repeated years, taken time out. But I’ve also discovered I’m extremely stubborn and I’ve just kept on persevering. That’s what got me to final year. And it’s what, ultimately, will keep me going into my future.
Mental Health issues can affect anyone at any time. But confidential, professional help is available through the University.
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