Looking Back

The first week is finally over. Those were difficult days, but compared to my last attempts (yes, the plural is correct) at studying over the past few years, I have been doing better. I have not skipped classes because I was afraid, I have gone to lectures where attendance was not mandatory, and I have managed this week on my own, without talking to my therapist about it. I’m going to see him next week for a regular session (the intervals between them are three weeks now), but I don’t want to become someone who depends on the therapist for every decision – my therapy goal is to become more independent… I’d lie if I claimed I didn’t think about what I’d tell him, but I’m glad things didn’t become so bad that I had to contact him.

Something I learned from this week is how relative success really is. For the majority of my fellow freshmen, this simply is another step in their education. They go to university, sit their exams and eventually graduate, and to them it means a lot of hard work and adapting to a new way of life and new working methods. To most of them, the biggest challenge will be an intellectual one: a certain class or project they’re going to find difficult. Other than that, they don’t struggle with being a student.
If (when) I graduate, however, the real triumph will not be in reaching a certain level of education, it will be the fact that I actually beat my anxiety and stayed in university long enough to reach graduation day.

Prior to Monday, I hadn’t attended a class in a year and a half… Exactly two years ago, in October 2009, I started my last attempt at finishing my old degree in prehistoric archaeology and got assigned a rather demanding project – holding a lecture called “A Diachronic Comparison Of Small Houses On Mineral Soil”, presenting settlement patterns and building structures throughout prehistoric times with a special focus on how those patterns might reflect socio-economic structures. It was a demanding project, both intellectually and in terms of energy invested, cost me most of the Christmas holidays and saw me working 16 hours a day on it towards the end.
I hadn’t been depression free since the age of 12, but around Christmas 2009 one of the better phases – which had allowed me going back to university in the first place – came to an end and I started slipping into depression rapidly. I still managed my presentation at the end of January (which I got the best grade for), but when I was told I had to hand in a written version of it before receiving my credits, it was too much. Every day I told myself I’d start typing it, but there was so little energy in me left and the depression got worse so quickly – I just could not do it. February 2010 was the last time I attended a class. I was depleted, burned out, empty.
It had been the last audible cough of a dying beast, but the deadly wound had been inflicted years before. In spring 2002, my aunt died from leukaemia after a short ailment and an even shorter but nonetheless dramatic decline, leaving behind two children aged 10 and 16. It was a rather sad time for the whole family, naturally, and this sadness somehow morphed into depression as the months went by, because I was also hypothyroid back then. I had no energy for studying and my job caused me social anxiety, all augmented by my malfunctioning thyroid. Even as the thyroid medication was well-adjusted, I never managed going back to university for more than a couple of weeks and a few hours per week at a time despite the best intentions.
Despite some anxiety and some tears this week, it has already been a success, because I haven’t attended so many classes in almost ten years.


Anxiety Attack

I got woken up by a phone call from my mother this morning, telling me they had announced on the radio that today was the last possible day for setting an exam date for my original university degree. And she’s right. Even though I knew this day was coming, I did not expect it quite so soon (I had not checked the university website in a while as this used to be a trigger in the past and I worry enough as it is).

I suffered a massive anxiety attack and all my instincts just told me to run away and hide in some remote corner. I sent my therapist a very confused email and we’ve been back and forth since. He basically told me what to do (call the university to get some facts etc.) and I’m coming down now, progressing from utterly confused, blind panic and helpless crying to excessive, but more logical worrying.

Looks like I’m forced to make a decision about my professional future within the next few days.


Update: This is the last, most coherent email I sent to my therapist. I have a regular session on Wednesday; he proposed I could have another one if I needed it, but I think we’ll manage with the one already scheduled.

Thanks a lot for the offer. I don’t think I need an additional session at the moment because de facto I can’t finish the original degree as I’m still missing classes for it. The question is “only” whether I want to be a full-time student again from October on or whether I pronounce the “university experiment” a failure and come up with an alternative.

I had hoped to have a little more time for this decision, because I wanted to make sure that I’d manage to finish a degree according to the rules. I want neither my parents nor me to go through such a debacle again, both financially and emotionally. My father will retire in three years, until then I must not depend on his financial support anymore.

From a purely emotional point, I would very much like to have a university degree some day, but the following points scare me:
1. I don’t have any trust in my mental capacities anymore and am worried that I can’t handle the required learning anymore.
2. I’m worried I won’t manage to handle the dual responsibilities of going to university and having a job.
3. I’m afraid of financial ruin.
4. Social anxieties regarding the age gap between other students and me, longer excursions where I stay away over night with strangers, sitting exams.

Purely rationally it might even be good if I’m forced to make a decision now and don’t spend the next months going over the same arguments again and again, but my first instinct was “flight”…

Thank you for the support!

We’ll sort this out on Wednesday, as I have about a month before the deadline for enrolling for the new degree, so it’s not super-urgent. He wrote back to remind me of the progress I already made and of the feedback I had received, so that I should not let everything go now and slump back to where I was six months ago. I’m trying to keep that in mind – I don’t feel as awful anymore now that I have some kind of plan for dealing with this mess.

Can I Make Good Decisions?

At the age of 31, I am still a university student, even though that word only described me sporadically over the last six years. I spent more time hiding from professors and fellow students than in class.
Now that the depression is lifting, I can understand again what once made me want to study – for the first time in years. My brain and my talents were very suitable for entering the academic world: I used to have the ability to concentrate for hours, I needed to read something only once and could remember it afterwards, and – most importantly – I had a fervent passion for my subjects (prehistoric archaeology, geography and palaeontology). All of this died a miserable death between 2003 and 2005. I still tried to soldier on, during the short phases when my depressive symptoms weren’t quite as pronounced, but no matter how hard I tried, the crash followed only a few months later.

I am living off my parents’ support right now, which I hate, and my father is going to retire in three years, so until then I need to stand on my own feet anyway. Due to a major reformation process of the German university structure, it is not possible anymore that I finish my original degree, but I would have to transfer my credits to a new degree.
So one of the biggest questions in my life is right now: what am I going to do? If I kickstart the transfer of my credits, I need to be certain that I can last as long as it takes to finish, which I am not yet, especially since I’d need to work a part-time job additionally. (Finding such a part-time job proves really hard, as I am experiencing right now. They want students aged 21, not 31.) If I bid university adieu for good, all the time and money that went into it will have been wasted – and I don’t have a real idea what to do then either….

If the financial side were not a problem, I’d give myself another six months off (with the help of my therapist, I have been granted a sabbatical until October) and start university next spring; until then I should have fully recovered. I’d get a different degree (most likely in palaeontology) and hopefully a decent job at a library or something similar afterwards.
But since the financial side is a problem, I do not know if it weren’t better to admit defeat and start a vocational training for a job.

One of the problems is that I am not certain if I can really make a good decision yet. Depression messes with your perception of the future and your circumstances, and only one year ago, I was absolutely certain that I’d never want to go back to university again, but as I recover, this conviction crumbles away. I know now that I’d be very sad to not have a degree, so I’d need to be absolutely certain about a decision against it.

Disclosing Depression, Part 2

Last Saturday, I attended a meeting with former colleagues from my old job. It was nice, better than I expected actually; my personal criteria always are whether I start wishing I was somewhere else or feeling uncomfortable, and neither was the case.
Before leaving, I had not really been in the mood for going anywhere and the only reason I went was because I had missed my own farewell party back in February due to train strikes. I did not feel like I could cancel without a bad conscience, but the day turned out enjoyable.

I told them that I was undergoing psychotherapy for chronic depression, because I didn’t feel like hiding the fact and pretending everything was ok, always had been. The reactions were positive; I believe a few people were a little uncomfortable because they didn’t know what to say or how to react, but I didn’t mind as I can relate to that kind of discomfort, plus they were still nice about it. One of my former bosses even told me a friend of hers had been an inpatient at the same hospital last year.

Part of the reason why I mentioned it now and not when I was still working there, but already undergoing therapy, is that I do not see them as often anymore. I don’t have to deal with their awareness of my mental state every (work) day, so I can afford to disclose it since it’s not going to affect my job.

Part of the reason is that the whole team had been aware of my health problems for years – they saw me cycle in and out of severe depression without anyone having a clue what was causing the problems, including me. I was good at my job and got an excellent reference letter, despite all my issues (to be fair, they always were understanding of people being sick; not only me, but everyone) – however, I wanted them to know that I finally had an idea of what was wrong. I had never mentioned the emotional distress to them, but they were cognizant of some of the physical complaints: the muscle pain, the cognitive impairment, the insomnia alternating with hypersomnia.

Four days later, I still don’t regret disclosing that I am undergoing psychotherapy for chronic depression. The particulars of it aren’t any of their business, but I feel relieved that I won’t have to lie about what I’ve done during the past four months.