Disabled to Enabled: Anxiety; my weakness and my strength
The Employability and Skills team is interested in hearing student voices! We put a call out on our CCCU Careers and Disability Facebook group, asking students to share their experiences, both in life and in the workplace. Here student Rebekah shares her experience of balancing anxiety, depression and student life. Read on for her story.
My palms are sweaty. Knees weak, arms are heavy. The thought of vomit on my sweater in front of everyone in this lecture theatre fills me with debilitating anxiety.
So does walking into the lecture room, finding a seat in the lecture room, listening to the lecturer, taking notes, asking questions during the lecture, breathing during the lecture, (don’t even get me started on group work), doing the assigned reading, completing assignments, sitting exams, and the rest of life in general. University is supposed to be difficult: that’s what everyone says. When I say, ‘university is difficult’, what I mean is, ‘my debilitating anxiety and depression makes university much more difficult than it really should be’.
The World Health Organisation states that, at present, 40% of disability worldwide is due to depression and anxiety. Obviously, I’m not happy that so many people have anxiety and depression, but the widespread nature of the disability means that the people that do have it, myself included, can receive help and understanding much more easily, and it defeats stigma in a massive way. However, admittedly, I sometimes feel desensitised about my own condition, and I worry that people may feel the same way.
When talking to a disability adviser about special arrangements for sitting an examination, (N.B. if I sit in the main hall with everyone else it feels like my chest could explode at any second), I said, “I feel like I’m being a bit of a baby. I mean, everyone gets nervous about exams, don’t they?” And I was reminded: “sometimes, exam nerves can be a good thing, and can help you get the job done. The difference between exam nerves and an anxiety disorder is that yours is incapacitating rather than strengthening.”
That’s when I understood that by talking to people and asking for help, I wasn’t asking for special treatment, I’m asking to level the playing field: to make life at university accessible for me and my needs. Depression and anxiety is okay to talk about. In fact, sometimes it’s even better to talk about it than to leave people wondering. If you don’t tell someone, how can you expect them to understand?
For example, I’m not amazing at attending social events, for obvious reasons, but I am a Christian: I love God, and I love music, so joining the university’s Gospel Choir seemed like a no-brainer. On one of the first weeks I attended last year, we were told to write our name and contact details, and any special requirements on a little form. Although I’m fairly sure it meant for people to write food allergies or something, I scrawled “anxiety” at the bottom and handed it in.
I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to the choirmaster in any further detail about it than a quick text saying, “can’t come today, feeling a bit anxious/depressed/all of the above”, I know that if I hadn’t written that one word at the bottom of the form, he wouldn’t fully understand why I couldn’t attend Gospel Choir that week.
Part of my anxiety and depression feeds off recognising the worst-case scenario as reality. My anxiety says, “how am I ever going to write this essay in a week? What if I don’t get the grade that I want?”, and my depression says, “don’t even bother trying with the essay, you’re only going to fail it.” My depression says, “I physically can’t leave the house for Gospel Choir today,” and my anxiety says “Great. Now Vince, the choirmaster, thinks you don’t care about Gospel Choir and he’s going to exile you.”
There are hormones and all sorts of chemicals in my brain that either work too much or not enough, and that, apparently, is why I think this way, and I can’t stop those thoughts from manifesting.
What I can do, is fight against those thoughts. “How am I ever going to write this essay in a week?” becomes a tutorial with an understanding lecturer asking for an extension, so that I can stay calm and do my best. “I physically can’t leave the house for Gospel Choir today” turns into an e-mail or text to Vince, explaining that I’m not feeling my best and that I do, in fact, still care about Gospel Choir.
I used to think that the people who I told would think I was weak, or not trying hard enough, and so I struggled in silence. But ever since I spoke to them about how I feel and what that means, I know that they understand I’m really struggling, and I know they want to do anything they can to make life at university accessible for me.
In the future, I would love to work for an animation company (#PIXAR). One of my favourite animations, Inside Out, explores the idea that all your emotions are helpful, and that being sad or anxious can sometimes be a good thing. Ellen Degeneres (my hero), once said in an interview on Finding Dory, that “her disability becomes her strength.”
In my job at the minute, alertness is required to keep everyone safe and everything running smoothly. I believe that my anxiety helps me to be extra aware of the goings on, in a way that an employee without anxiety couldn’t do. My disability has therefore become my strength at work.
If you’re feeling disabled at university, don’t be afraid to ask for help, like I did, in order to become enabled. One of the main ways that I have felt enabled is through the Chaplaincy. I never, in my wildest dreams thought that I would ever feel confident enough to play in the worship band in the chapel, but it has quickly become the highlight of my week. Not only this, but if you have any problem at all, big or small, the Chaplaincy are there to lend an ear, and give practical advice. (N.B. e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org or ring them on 01227 782538)
One thing that I’ve learned about going through university with depression and anxiety is that there are so many more opportunities for feeling accomplished. What fills me with pride is knowing that when I graduate next year, whatever it says on the fancy-looking scroll-thing, and whatever results I emerge with, I know that I will have achieved it despite having my own difficulties.
But, I don’t even have to look that far ahead; there are so many little accomplishments that I should be commending myself for, every day: I asked a question in a lecture today, I got a first in that essay, or I made it along to Gospel Choir. I’m not disabled, because during my two years at university I have been enabled by the people surrounding me: Chaplains, lecturers, and even Gospel Choirmasters have all helped to make the university experience a level playing field.