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Don’t Forget To Be Kind To Yourself

 I spent the vast majority of my university years navigating my mental health. After being sectioned under the Mental Health Act exactly halfway through my studies, I was diagnosed with PDD (Persistent Depressive Disorder), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and an Eating Disorder (OSFED). Later, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). The fallout of this has meant that sometimes I am gripped by a sense of absolute dread, a sense of dismay at myself that I lost so many years to mental and physical illness.

It sounds cliché, but I felt like I was watching a movie or a TV show, except the character on the screen was me. I was watching myself. I couldn’t connect with others and I didn’t feel alive. I didn’t feel in the moment. There’s a brilliant bit in Simon Amstell’s stand-up, Do Nothing, where he talks about that kind of paralyzing feeling. He describes being in Paris with a group of friends, one of whom suggested that they run up the Champs-Elysee, to the Arc de Triomphe, in the middle of the night:

‘I just thought, “Well, why would we do that?” And then, “What’s the point?” And then, “When we get there, then what will we do with our lives?”…and everyone else, I think, is just at one with the moment, at one with joy, at one with the universe, and I’m there, as I’m running, thinking, “Well, this’ll probably make a good memory.” Which is living in the future, discussing the past with someone who, if they asked you, “Oh, what did it feel like?”, [you would say] “I don’t know, I was thinking about what I’d say to you.”’

I beat myself up because I feel this way. I become angry at myself. I lost my university years to mental illness, and my heart drops when I think about it. I could have had such a brilliant time, and I didn’t, because I was severely mentally ill.

This is just one of the things that upset me. I can become depressed about the past. Conversely, I can become overwhelmingly anxious about the future. Sometimes I feel paralyzed by the vast amount of choice available to me, the plethora of options open to everyone. In today’s world, you can pretty much do anything, and be anyone, and it’s absolutely terrifying. What if I make the wrong choice, and I mess up? What if I make a choice that is so terribly wrong, that I mess up big and create an awful catalyst, Sliding Doors style? Like a stone thrown into a deep ocean, I worry that the effects of one choice can ripple out into the water.

It took working things through on an app with an AI robot (a CBT trained robot, actually) for me to come to the realization that becoming angry at myself wasn’t really serving me well. Feeling distraught about what happened certainly doesn’t change what happened. It doesn’t make things any different. Being hyper-aware about what I’ve lost doesn’t bring that stuff back.

So, I’ve endeavored to be more kind to myself. I tried repeating affirmations, but that didn’t work. Telling yourself that you are loved, that you are cared for, is so helpful for many people. But for me, that hasn’t accomplished much; maybe because my self-directed thoughts of hatred were subconscious. They were more to do with how I see myself and others.

So, instead, I’ve had to tackle my subversive thoughts in a more underhand way. I’ve done things conspicuously, like a well-intentioned spy. I’ve sought to catch myself out. I’ve started to pencil in my diary for two hours of free time, just for myself. As I’ve grown in confidence, that light lead pencil has been replaced by a jet black pen. I’ve started to enjoy that time for myself, to feel like I deserve it.

It can be something really simple, like reading for an hour in the evening or drawing. It can be writing. It can be pretty much anything, as long as I feel like I’m doing it for myself. I’ve started learning French — or, rather, picking French back up — and I’ve found it immensely enjoyable. Part of that enjoyment is derived from learning French purely because I want to. It’s not a means to an end, but rather, an end in itself.

At the end of his set, Simon Amstell has an epiphany. He realizes that he had felt awkward and shy as a young man. He had struggled to connect with others. As a young gay man, he hid his sexuality from others and himself. This led him to, as an older man, pursue a younger man. But he realized he wasn’t actually interested in that guy; what he was interested in was the feeling that young man evoked. He was desperately trying to relive his youth and to connect with young people. But that moment has passed. He realizes that he has to move on.

And I, too, have learned that I need to move on from my university years. Ironically, I’m going back to university in September. But I’m going back to do a doctorate. I’m not going to relive my university days; or, rather, live them for the first time. I’m going to be a researcher, to join an academic department. In my own undergraduate years, I had met a pastoral member of staff. He had really helped me deal with an emerging mental illness.

He had also helped me confront the sexual trauma that lay in my past. But he had gone cold after I had been hospitalized. He had said that it was too upsetting to hear about all this trauma. He made numerous unhelpful comments about my weight. He told me that the university was going to start weighing me when I came back (my father, a legal man, soon put that idea to rest). He made me feel ashamed.

He took the side of the university — as I saw it — and tried to force me to take a sabbatical for my health. He knew that my parents were seriously unsupportive around my mental health, and he knew that I couldn’t return to my family home. A year after I left, I heard that he had been sacked. It became apparent that he was becoming over-friendly with some students. I hadn’t realized at first. Being wrapped up in dealing with my own trauma had left me insular and muffled from the external world.

There was a slow realization, on my part, that the man who had saved my life was not as great as I thought he was. Much of this, I’ll admit, is to do with how I see others. I’ve never been diagnosed with a personality disorder, but a psychiatrist said I perhaps have certain elements of EUPD, or Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (previously known as BPD). I have previously struggled to control my emotions; they’ve sloshed around inside me like a boat on choppy waters. I’ve never qualified for a full diagnosis.

But one part of the condition I identify with is a tendency to display dichotomous thinking. I’ve often seen people as angelic figures, only for them to become demonic after they’ve made one little mistake. But to err is human. I would end up becoming disappointed with others whenever I had embarked on relationships. Give it enough time, and the perfect person will make mistakes because that’s just it — there’s no perfect person. We’re all inherently flawed.

This also made it tough to like me. A small mistake felt like the end of the world. I would sit up all night ruminating over my conversations and actions that day, and castigate myself. Despite the best intentions, the promises I had made to be better the evening before, the next day would always be the same. I would be up until dawn, sometimes, angry at myself for being human.

I was very angry at the pastoral tutor. But I realized that I was angry at my ideal, rather than the real person. That doesn’t make what he did okay. I still believe he was in a position of power, and the university was right to let him go (as happens in these cases, he was only sacked after the person protecting him from the consequences of his actions died). But I’ve reconciled myself with the fact that he could never live up to my archetypal human being, and that’s okay. He shouldn’t have to. And I have realized that I, too, should be a bit kinder to myself. I can still reach for perfection. But I need to be okay with knowing that I will never quite attain it.

His university experience had been poor. He had stayed at the same university for ten years — first as an undergraduate, then as a postgraduate, and finally as a pastoral tutor. He desperately wanted to relive his student days, and that was why he wanted to be friends with the students. That was why I had come to see him as a friend, as he had positioned himself as my friend. And that was why I had felt so hurt when he aligned himself firmly with the university.

It was incredibly upsetting, and it felt like a betrayal. He had deliberately positioned himself as my friend, as my closest confidante, and then had abandoned me to keep his job. Really, he should have just been professional. But now that I have reconciled my ideal with reality, I no longer think of him as a desperately evil person. I see that he is a person who did a bad thing. The thought of him no longer evokes a kind of hatred in me, and I am ashamed to say that it had, previously. I had felt betrayed. But I have realized that it was my mental illness, my disposition to black-and-white thinking, that had caused me to idolize and idealize him in the first place. Being kinder to myself and others has led to a re-affirmation in the flawed human spirit.

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