Fair warning – this is gonna get personal, and potentially pretty intense.
This week marks two things: Mental Health Awareness Week; and my dissertation hand in. It’s been a frantic week, people editing and writing to the wire. Not much sleep has been had, many coffees have been consumed, and hugs distributed en masse. Pictures have been taken, and congratulations sent. It feels like an ending. Sure, we still have exams, but there is something so final about dropping that wad of paper that we’ve been working on for over a year now into the submission box. It’s made me mad reflective.
Coincidentally, it is Mental Health Awareness Week. This year, there’s been some fantastic work done online, as well as a bunch of new content and projects being pushed into the limelight. It’s really nice. Since I got to uni, mental health has been at the forefront for me nearly constantly, whether that be my own, through my work with Student Minds UK, or my dissertation – the initial reason for me starting this blog. And now uni is over. The battle goes on, though, and I am incredibly lucky to have secured a job after I graduate working for The Shaw Mind Foundation and Trigger Press, a mental health charity and their publishing division. In my interview, they asked me what the five-year-plan was, and I responded, ‘Honestly, this was the five-year plan. I guess I’ll have to make a new one’. That got me thinking, as I’ve always been the sort of person to look to the future. Where sometimes it is terrifying, I was always taught growing up that the future is exciting, that it is going to be good. Coming to university, I figured out fairly quickly what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and I pushed for it. The plan kind of trailed off after that, as I didn’t know where I was going to be once I graduated. Now that I do, and now that university is coming to an end, I wanted to do something I tend to avoid: I want to take some time to look back.
A few weeks ago, during a particularly strong spell of nostalgia, I decided to look through some old diaries. I have always been terrible at keeping up with diaries – I never do them every day and usually lose the will after a few months. There will be three-month gaps where I write nothing, then a week where I write every day. I do believe diary-writing can have its benefits for mental health, but I remember finding that around this time last year, so much was going on, and so much of my time was geared towards what comes next, that I didn’t have time to dwell too much on what was happening, or had just happened. It started making me sad, so I stopped.
Looking back on those entries, I cannot believe what I read. I messaged a friend as I went through it, and asked him how I couldn’t have seen how bad I was feeling. I was writing all this stuff about feeling trapped, or slow, or weighted down, but it was always followed with an ‘Ah well, such is life!’ kind of comment. Some of it was quite profound. One particular entry was based around me feeling slightly lighter than usual, and feeling completely caught off guard with it. Those days seemed so few and far between, and I had no idea. At the time, I was just getting through it as if it was normal. I was working, I was handing things in on time, I was going to the gym and seeing friends. But I was also writing things like ‘Whenever I’m with people, all I’m thinking about is when I can be alone again’. That day where I wrote about feeling better, I wrote to myself, ‘Your friends seem like people again’ and ‘Laughs reach your throat now. Not quite your heart, not quite your stomach, but it’s getting there’. Reading all this stuff, frankly, hit me very hard.
Reliving those moments made me see myself now incredibly differently. At that time, I was consistently, continuously tired but, because of who I am, I didn’t think it was that bad. It was just how things were, and I should be thankful for those days when I felt lighter. Those were the days that I held on to, so tightly, without even knowing why. Now, I can see why. Now, from a distance, I can see how much I was struggling, and how much I was working to get through it, and how tired that was making me. And it was exhausting. Now, I’m not tired unless I’ve been working all day, or out all night. Now, I look at my friends, and I feel so much for them; I wake up and I get up. I worry, but I don’t have to shut it down for fear of spiralling. I am mindful naturally, instead of forcing the calm to come. Now, I don’t have to feel thankful for the light days.
What I wanted to say with this is that I did something I never do, in looking back. I took the time to actually see something for what it was, and to give myself the acknowledgement that yeah, things were shit, really shit, for longer than I thought. But by doing that, I’ve been able to see how much things have changed. How different things are, not just with me, but with my relationships, my family and friends, my career. I am, for all intents and purposes, an entirely new person. I have different motivations, and goals. I want different things. But I am this way because of that time. The precedents I put in place then help me now, without even realising it. The time I spent trying to know my own mind, to calm it down, mean I do it without thinking now. The times I forced myself to be social, to smile, to interact, means I do it now easier and smoother than ever. Things that felt like chores then, are second nature now. And if that isn’t the best feeling in the world, then I don’t know what is.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to think about how, with all the talk of living in the present, of mindfulness, and of acting for the future, it is also okay to think about the past. Looking back on myself this time last year has shown me how far I have come without realising. How things changed because I did things to change them, and how things do pay off eventually. We often think about the past through rose-tinted glasses, melancholic and nostalgic for the way things were once, and how we wished we could get them back. And that’s okay. It’s natural to reminisce. But it’s also important to recognise that it was bad sometimes, too. Things sucked sometimes. Acknowledging that not only gives you an immense power, but sometimes, like in my case, immense pride. I am scared of growing up, moving on from university and into the real world – massively scared. But looking back, I’ve done much more in a much worse frame of mind. And if I could achieve all this, after all that, then nothing seems all that scary anymore.
Long story short, take the time this week to think about your past, not with a wistful eye, but with a look to the future. Miss the things you miss, but realise that there are a whole host of things you can be so glad are over. We need to change in order to grow but knowing where those roots came from is important. Be proud of them. I certainly am.
Here’s a list of people/organisations/content/resources I have used over the past year that have been invaluable to me:
- Student Minds UK, a mental health charity run by students, for students.
- The Shaw Mind Foundation and Trigger Press, for raising the voice and opening the discussion towards mental health (and also for giving me my first real job!)
- Insight Healthcare, for helping the people I care most about in this world.
- Headspace, an app you can get free with Spotify Premium that talks you through meditation in an accessible, doable way.
- Insight Timer, for those longer, bedtime talk-downs.
- Daylio, which tracks my mood so I can see that yes, PMS really does make things worse.
- Happy Place, a podcast by Ferne Cotton where she speaks to celebrities and public figures about their experiences with mental health in the most calming manner.
- Dodie Clark, for showing me that it’s okay not to know what you’re doing, but doing it anyway.
- Matt Haig, for writing Reasons to Stay Alive, a book I needed before I needed it.
- My friends and my family, who are all as mad as me, but endlessly loyal.