Co-written with Serin Rayner and Anon.
University is not an easy ride. During the last four years spent studying a BA in Theatre and Performance at the University of Leeds, the three of us have been on a rollercoaster journey of great times, horrific times, medium times, fun times, confusing times, stressful times, and times when we wanted to either kill ourselves or everyone around us. We have suffered through broken bones, broken hearts, panic attacks, paranoia, insomnia, and next week we will hold our middle fingers up to our mental illnesses and walk across a stage in our caps and gowns and collect our degrees. We did it. Against all odds, we are graduating.
615 million people worldwide suffer from anxiety or depression and one in four people will experience at least ONE diagnosable mental health problem in their lifetime (World Health Organisation, 2016). Studying theatre at university presents an odd cocktail of experiences: the pressures to simultaneously get at least a 2:1 in every essay and performance AND have a social life AND get a job so you don’t have to mooch off your parents AND get involved in plays and musicals AND get involved in other societies AND figure out what we’re going to do with a theatre degree, and and and. University is an ongoing series of ‘ands’. Doing a million things at once, consistently biting off more than you can chew, AND struggling through mental illness, is hard.
Along with all these ands, is a but. Yes, it’s hard, it’s challenging, BUT theatre people are the best people to have around you when shit hits the fan. The best thing about our degree is that from day one we spend so much time working together, on degree projects and plays and presentations, that it immediately creates a strong kinship with one another. Although we’re not all ‘friends’, and some of us are barely acquaintances, what our degree does is cultivate really incredible collegiate relationships. We all did this together, and we all made it out alive, and as a result, we will always be there for each other, and we will always help each other.
Now, as we bid farewell to the student life and wonder what the hell we’re going to do now, the three of us would like to share with you our top pieces of advice for surviving a theatre degree when you suffer from mental illness (featuring photos of the things that make life that teensy bit better).
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Depression and Anxiety
Firstly, I am so grateful to have been asked to write about this, and I am so grateful you have taken the time to read it. Whether this be to educate yourself or understand for a friend, or yourself, thank you. I briefly want to explain to you a little about how my mental health impacts my life. I have been struggling with chronic mental health problems since my first year of university. First, it started with depression, second came anxiety, and then full blown demonic Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The first two were kind of manageable, I mean I went through a period of self harm, I didn’t used to eat as a form of punishing myself for feeling down, I was suicidal. But the OCD, that ‘quirky’ illness that people chuck about like it’s a joke – that came inches from destroying me. OCD is where you experience disturbing, repetitive intrusive thoughts and use actions, called compulsions, to get ‘rid’ of the thoughts. After a series of tragedies my manageable OCD turned into the biggest monster I had ever, ever experienced. Within a week my parents couldn’t recognise me anymore.They said to my doctor ‘I don’t know where my daughter has gone’. I have been battling contamination OCD. For example: 7 showers a day, washing my hair 5 times per shower. I sprayed my body with anti-bacterial spray in the shower. No one was allowed in my room except me. I could peel layers of skin off of my arms as they were so damaged by all the washing. Eventually, through a horrendously gruelling year out of uni, I started my recovery.
OCD is an addiction and you have to go through mental health rehab. I am better than I was, but now all my efforts are resisting the addiction and my intrusive thoughts still bombard my mind but I can dress myself, wash my own clothes, go out the house and shower once a day now. I have recently been struggling with health anxiety, which is proving to be HORRIBLE and so incredibly nasty. But I am using my skills learnt through recovery to try and manage every day. Yes it’s a battle, but I am getting there.
My advice to anyone struggling at the moment is to firstly, go to your GP. Even if it takes you 10 attempts to get there. Get on the therapy waiting list and ask about some kind of medication. Ask for a crisis helpline.
Secondly, be honest. A theatre degree is so challenging, like any degree. But people watch you, people examine and look at you – which is fine, because you are perfect all the time, but when you’re in a rut, it gets to you. People notice and people talk. People notice when they look into your eyes that you’re not there anymore. The worst mistake I made was I wasn’t honest about what was wrong. I said I had ‘mental health problems’. People didn’t understand. I know it’s not for everyone, and articles like this help to reduce the stigma, but once I explained how hellish my life was, people began to understand why I wasn’t making it to uni every day. So be honest, with yourself, your peers and your tutors. See your tutor. Ask for extensions on your work, get mitigating circumstances, go to the disability centre for advice and help. If you aren’t alive, you can’t do your degree anyway – you are 1000x more important.
Relax. I was so physically and mentally exhausted every day I used to collapse in the lounge after uni and watch TV all evening. I actually wasn’t capable of doing anything else. Know when you are over doing it. It’s ok to drink a milkshake, eat pizza and sit in your PJs all day, because if you don’t look after yourself first, you can’t do anything else.
Get support from friends. If you live in a rubbish house with rubbish ‘friends’, can you spend time at another friend’s house sometimes? Can you skype a different friend? Can you find a forum with likeminded people as yourself? If you live in a lovely house with lovely friends, can you teach them about your mental health and ask them to support you? My housemates saved my life in third year. They supported and challenged me at the same time and I owe my life to them. Take a role in a performance that supports your mental health. I recognised during my third year production that performing as an actor would prove too stressful as I couldn’t get to all the rehearsals. Instead, I composed the music from the safety of my own room and brought it into rehearsals on the days I could make it. Trust me, I was disappointed at the time, but it was such a good decision.
If it’s too hard, don’t be afraid to take some time out. I deferred my place at uni for a year from January 2015 to January 2016 and it was the best decision I made. Yes, you won’t graduate with your pals and you might finish a year later, but you can keep in touch with old friends and next year make new ones. A year, in the scheme of your life, isn’t long.
And lastly, (excuse my language) but f**k them; this is your life, not theirs. Do what is right for YOU, only YOU can call the shots. F**k it; f**k what anxiety tells you to do, f**k what depression is saying to you, f**k what is tying you down. Get that anti-establishment, protest feeling. You are BIGGER, you are BETTER and this will not destroy you. Feel good when you tell it to piss off, eat a massive tub of ice cream, have some champagne, buy that top you like – WHATEVER. You wake up each morning to fight the same monster as yesterday and that makes you a warrior, not a weakling.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BDP), Anxiety, Depression, Body Dysmorphia (related to gender dysphoria)
I’m no stranger to dealing with mental health problems. A decade of medication, a year as a full time outpatient in a mental health unit when I was 14, multiple suicide attempts and thousands of hours of therapy made me think I was pretty prepared for University; that I knew how to stop myself tumbling into the depths of despair again. Oh how wrong I was.
My time at Uni has encompassed countless panic attacks, several more suicide attempts, flirting with alcoholism, a score of new scars, and a brand new diagnosis – BPD. It’s also been full of joyful, encouraging, beautiful and life changing experiences. But these have been framed by the very brutal reality of living with a permanently pressed down self-destruct button.
Since BPD is so misunderstood and personality disorders in general are incredibly stigmatised (I have been called manipulative, an attention seeker, and untrustworthy because of my illness), I feel I need to explain how it affects me. There are nine signs of BPD involved in the diagnostic criteria, and you have to have at least five of those in order to receive a diagnosis. The symptoms that affect me the most are:
- Alternating between idealisation and devaluation in my perceptions of others. This is not something BPD sufferers can control and we hate it – it messes up our relationships. It’s often called ‘splitting’ & means your perceptions of others are unreliable, but can be controlled with the right techniques.
- Frantic efforts to avoid abandonment. This is something that’s always haunted me and framed much of my anxiety. When it’s bad I tend to deal with it by shutting myself off from those who love me, my rationale being that they will eventually abandon me and if I remove myself first, at least it’s on my own terms.
- No solid sense of identity. It’s hard to explain this one. Imagine you have no idea what you like or dislike, what your hobbies are, what your morals are, who you’re attracted to, what you look like. And then multiply that by 100. It often results in periods off intense obsession, depersonalisation and derealisation. However, with management of BPD comes a more stable sense of self.
- Impulsivity. This is any kind of destructive impulsivity – spending loads of money on coke, getting really drunk before an assessment, self-harming, unsafe sex, etc. etc.
- Recurrent suicidal behaviour and ideation
- Chronic feelings of emptiness. This often comes out as apathy and no sense of purpose.
- Extreme mood swings. Remember puberty mood swings? Times that by 100. People have said it’s like a very quick cycling bipolar disorder – one minute you’re depressed, suicidal; the next minute you’re on top of the world – manically planning the next adventure. It’s exhausting and extremely disruptive to your everyday life.
Now you have a basic understanding of some of the issues I face, here’s how I’ve dealt with it all whilst studying Theatre and Performance. Hopefully it will help you in some way, even if that’s just feeling less alone.
Let people know how desperately terrible you’re feeling. Your friends, your tutors, and most importantly, your doctor. It’s scary, but your GP will be able to help refer you to the right people, give you the medication you need to simply get through the day, and talk to the uni on your behalf. If your GP doesn’t seem to be understanding your situation, or is discriminatory in any way, ditch ‘em. It’s taken me a long time to find a GP who really understands my situation, and has made my experience of going to the doctors so much less anxiety-inducing. Don’t feel you have to put up with shitty docs – you don’t. The uni can also offer help through disability services. You can be assessed for Disabled Students Allowance, and through that I’ve received a mentor who helped me with time management and understanding assignments, as well as a Dictaphone and printer that have been useful when my information processing has been impaired. I’ve been lucky enough to be in a department where most of the tutors are pretty in tune with mental health problems, and even when they’re not, they’re generally willing to help. My tutors have helped me apply for extensions, worked out ways for me to do my work when my social anxiety made it impossible for me to get into uni, and helped me come to the extremely difficult decision of taking time out of studying. Which leads me to my next point…
It’s not the end of the world if you need to take time out. Halfway through second year I was planning on doing a year abroad, had been accepted into a great Uni in Canada, and was having dreams of skating down the river in winter, and doing modules I’d never have the chance to in the UK.
At the same time, I was incredibly behind with my work, regularly replacing dinner with litres of cider, staying up all night, putting myself in dangerous situations, and trying (not) to kill myself. The decision to stay in the UK and not go on my year abroad was devastating. I was completely heart broken but knew that, realistically, if I was having to go home every weekend to my parents just so I ate a proper meal and was forced to take a shower, then going to live on the other side of the world probably wasn’t going to happen. It was at that point I resigned myself to being ill. Fuck it, I thought, if I can’t go to Canada I’m going to give up. Nothing matters anymore. This is one sign of the all-or-nothing thinking that BPD brings up. That obviously didn’t help my studies and it was at that point I had to take the decision to have a year out of uni in order to do something about my mental health. Luckily I was able to get onto a Dialectical Behavioural Therapy course which was the most helpful therapy I have ever encountered, and though challenging, saved my life. The skills that I’ve learnt through it have been so hard to put into practice, but through doing so I’m able to live a life approaching normal. I returned to uni after a year and enjoyed everything so much more (as well as being able to achieve much higher results!). Remember, your life and happiness is so much more important than your studies.
Don’t underestimate the impact of your living situation. At the end of first year my partner was living in a really unsafe bedsit and so I asked him to move in with me until he found somewhere safer. This carried on into second year when I was living in a house of five (most of whom had mental health issues, oops). Spending all day at uni being surrounded by others because of the collaborative nature of a theatre degree, and dealing with intense social anxiety, only to return to a full house where I was sharing a room, was just too much to deal with. It’s important to recognise the space you need and not feel bad about making time for yourself. In third year I splashed on a studio flat for myself, where I could safely return to whenever the world got too much. Considering the stress of third year, this is exactly what I needed, and so worth the extra money.
Choose the path that best fits you. The modules you choose can actually have a massive impact on your mental health. For example, by the time third year came around I knew that working in large groups was a stressor for me and would lessen my productivity, so I chose to do a different module based on the fact I could work in small groups. I ended up forming a brilliant partnership with a great friend and putting on an event that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It was the best module I did at uni. Whatever it is, however best you work and survive, follow that. Not what other people are doing or expect you to.
Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are the two most common mental illnesses, although they affect each person differently. In lieu of an explanation, I recently published a poem on the subject entitled ‘Let Me Explain’, so feel free to give that a read for some context. Here are my top tips for coping when things get tough:
Be honest – with your doctor, with yourself, and with those around you, especially when you’re working on a show or group project. This not only lessens the stigma of mental health by being as open about it as you would be about any other illness, but it means that your peers are able to adapt, and you will feel safer. If you’re open about your situation, people will understand when you say that you can’t make it to that meeting or rehearsal, and will be much better equipped to help you if you have a panic attack during a workshop or need to take it easy for a few days.
DON’T bite off more than you can chew – you will crash and burn. In first semester of final year, I was simultaneously on the committee for a society, working at The Old Bar, doing my final performance project, writing my dissertation, trying to go to lectures and write essays, stage managing two shows, and training for a race. I was having panic attacks constantly, my bedroom was a pig-sty, my housemates grew increasingly frustrated as my dishes piled up, and my sleeping pattern was non-existent. In October, I had tonsillitis three times in as many weeks, and the combination of physical illness (my body’s way of telling me to slow the fuck down) and mental illness on top of all this nearly destroyed me. I missed my stepsister’s wedding, had to drop out of a show, and my GP put me back on medication for depression and anxiety (not an easy decision). You MUST listen to what your body is telling you. Take breaks, take it easy, and do not bully yourself into doing too much. Don’t measure what “too much” is by what everyone else is doing. Pay attention to your body, and listen to the people close to you when they tell you that you need to take a break. Often, they can see how it’s affecting you a lot better than you can.
Go to the theatre. See plays, talk about them, engage. It will make you a better actor/director/writer/etc. and it will bring you joy. Or, at least, it brings me joy. Join societies – learn to swing dance, get involved in charity work, join a sports team. Learn a new skill, and let yourself be proud of what you’re doing. This is harder than it sounds, but force yourself to do it.
Appreciate the little things. Eat the goddamn pizza. Take a minute to actually see the sunset. Give your housemate a hug. Call your sister. Feel the happy when you feel it, because sometimes it doesn’t last (this one may sound a bit depressing but it helps me in the moment).
Cultivate a safe, secure, and comforting home environment. Clean your room, do your dishes, pitch in around the house. I am very lucky in that this year I lived with four of my best friends, all of whom were very understanding and sensitive to what I’m going through. What they didn’t do was let me use my mental illness as an excuse to shirk my responsibilities in the house or leave them cleaning up after me. Yes, they were probably a lot more tolerant and patient with me than they would have been otherwise, but they also all have their own shit to deal with (we were all in our final year) and they all had to live there too. Don’t let it get to the stage where you’re scared to be in the house because it’s teeming with passive aggressive tension and houseflies. A clean house is a clean mind. A clean house = happy housemates. (This is advice I seriously struggled to follow and my anxiety has tried to convince me on countless occasions that they all hate me. I am grateful that they don’t.)
Celebrate tiny triumphs. You got out of bed today, YES! You took a SHOWER, hot DAMN! You LEFT THE HOUSE YOU BRAVE SUPERSTAR! You DIDN’T cry when someone yelled at you! GOLD STARS ALL AROUND! Seriously. I once could not leave the house for four days because I ‘knew’ if I did I would die. These things are tiny but harder for me than for most other people. I give myself a little pack on the back every time I achieve one of these little victories. It’s important.
[Cover photo taken from the University of Leeds website, showing the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at Leeds where we studied.]