returning to university (part two)

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This is part two of Natasha’s experience in dealing with mental health
at the University. To read the first part, where Natasha talks about dropping out and dealing with grief, click here.

– Natasha

Unlike before, I no longer had an education to dive into, so I found a job a 30-minute drive away, with hours from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. five days a week. And it helped a little – it pushed me out of me and I learned how to communicate with people again. It wasn’t until the pandemic broke out in March 2020 and I was on leave that I realized that I had nothing to do but talk about my feelings. I found someone who is professional and over a year later I still speak to her regularly.

Lockdown brought its own challenges. I got separated from my family and boyfriend, but it also gave me time that I never had before. I read for pleasure for the first time in years and took an online mental health course to understand what is happening to my brain. I also missed studying. My goal was to return to university and complete my studies. I worked so hard to get there and felt like I had to prove it to myself. My mother always described me as a core of steel; I never believed her, but I knew that going back to university would prove I was worthy of the compliment.

September 2020 came, almost a year since I dropped out, and I returned for my second attempt in the sophomore year. But that’s not how I planned it; I signed a studio lease in February because I knew that living with strangers would be too much for me. However, COVID has completely changed the university experience. A week before I left, I was informed that my degree was online. I felt that all of my hard work was wasted. COVID prevented me from meeting “my people”.

I remember reading for my first seminar and all I could think was, “How on earth did I do this?” No wonder I fell so hard. It was soon time for me to submit my first essay and I was beside myself. I’d always measured my worth by my academic performance, but I didn’t work on that in therapy. My results came and I got a high 2-1, just a few points behind a 1st and I was disappointed. My perfectionism was still a very big part of me. This time, however, I took a step back and thought, “Actually, I just did this after a year off, that’s pretty cool!”. I started to believe that I had it in me. I knew my mind was going to make me doubt myself, but I realized that I didn’t always have to listen.

I decided to apply for internships. My dream was always to do a year abroad, but that couldn’t be guaranteed due to COVID, so I decided to do an internship. I wrote application after application and passed so many aptitude tests. I still remember getting my first job interview email – I ran down the stairs just yelling at my mom! I couldn’t believe a company wanted to meet me. The night before my first interview, I couldn’t stop panicking, feeling like a cheat for not mentioning my academic year on my resume or cover letter. I was afraid of being rejected when I explained the void on my resume. In the end, the interview was unsuccessful as they asked about the gap and I lied. I tried to portray myself as someone other than someone I didn’t know at all. I can safely say that I wasn’t offered the job.

A second interview came through and for the first two minutes I was overjoyed, then doubts came and I was scared. To my horror, it wasn’t just an interview: I had to give about 15 people a 15-minute presentation (which I wasn’t expecting). I gave the presentation and practiced on my mother the night before, but I couldn’t get past the introduction. I broke down and refused to do the interview, I would retire. I thought the company would think, “What a waste of our time” and “Was there a mistake? Did we send the email to the wrong person? ”.

The next morning I knew I would regret not trying, so I did the presentation and the interview. They asked what was my greatest personal success and in a split second I decided not to lie. I told them. I told them that my greatest achievement was realizing that I had to quit university and get help, and that my second greatest achievement was returning. Two hours later they offered me the job and my answer was, “Me? Why? Are you sure?”.

I finished my sophomore year last month. It was painfully difficult to find the motivation to finish the job, especially since COVID meant there was no breathing space, no chance to relax and escape. But I did it. It took me two years, but eventually I finished the second year and was offered an incredible internship opportunity. Now (sometimes) I believe my mother when she says I have a core made of steel.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have struggling phases. Days when my depression got out of hand and I overslept all day, but now I’m better equipped to deal with it. Some days I wake up and think: “No, I need the day for myself, the job and the assignment have to wait”. Instead of the 4 years I thought I would graduate from, it takes me 5 years. That was a thought I hated when I first left university. But now I’m just thinking, “What’s the rush?” That is my life; it doesn’t have to be on the same timescale as the people I went to school with.

For those students who are struggling, who feel alone and trapped in their thoughts, I want to say that your mental health doesn’t have to stop you from being who you want to be. Sometimes it can even make you a better version of yourself. It just means that you are unique and that is nothing to be ashamed of. It took me 18 months to acknowledge that and write this blog to really help me realize this.

Hi, I’m Natasha, an undergraduate student studying history
at the University of Southampton. I’ve struggled to know where I am
fit into the world and what gives me joy, but then my mind hugs
Health Issues I’ve discovered that I enjoy reading (mostly
historical fiction), draw and speak honestly about mental health.

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