The old me…
This time a year ago I had just submitted my dissertation (which was nothing short of a miracle). Although the end was in sight and I now believed I may actually make it to the end of my degree (something which had seemed near impossible just a couple of weeks earlier), I was still hating my life, struggling with even the most basic tasks it seemed. I struggled to focus and would get distracted by anything and everything, my mind was constantly racing, my mood and energy levels fluctuated like crazy going from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes, I was easily overwhelmed, I had to read things over and over again to actually retain any of the information, and when it came to things people said to me or tasks I needed to do or my memory wasn’t even a sieve, it felt like a full on black hole, whereby anything said to me or a task that needed doing would immediately vanish, never to be seen again. Useless facts however seemed to somehow avoid the black hole and stay cemented in my brain, majorly overstaying their welcome.
I felt permanently exhausted, napped near enough every day and felt like a constant failure. Even being awake seemed too difficult for me to manage, let alone anything else. Yes, I had made it this far (somehow) and done reasonably well but I just wasn’t sure I was cut out for the ‘real world’ and being an adult and holding down a real job. I felt like I was barely functioning and hadn’t been for years.
I think many of the issues I struggled with had been present throughout my years at school, but they had simply been less noticeable at school as I was able to get by with ‘natural ability’, repeated nagging from teachers, very supportive/helpful friends and a LOT of last minute cramming for exams. But as I progressed through uni I could feel these struggles starting to impact me more and more. The last minute cramming seemed just about sufficient for my first year, but after this I felt it becoming increasingly less effective. My mental health had been awful for years, significantly impacting my every day life, but I think so much of it was internal (spending hours a day repeating things over and over in my head) and had gone unnoticed by others (and been completely dismissed/minimised by doctors/counsellors). I think my ‘natural ability’ unfortunately masked the impact of many of my difficulties and so, although I felt like I was struggling so much, the true severity wasn’t outwardly obvious. When I started uni it started to impact on my life even more, as the academics became harder and I had to become more independent. Certainly by my second year of uni the impact on my grades was beginning to become more apparent, and by my final year I really doubted whether I would finish my degree. I thought it would probably just finish me tbh.
By my final year I was barely even functioning, walking round in a constant zombie like state, not really knowing what was going on. I was physically present, but mentally I was nowhere to be found. It seemed like everyone else was managing but I was just failing miserably. I felt like a complete and utter failure at life. But I thought it was probably my fault and I just needed to ‘try harder’. Surely if everyone else was managing then I should be able to as well!? I couldn’t understand how I seemed to do so little and be so ‘lazy’, yet still be so exhausted. My brain was just so worn out from the constant repetitive thoughts that it didn’t have the functional capacity for anything else. My head was a complete and utter mess and I had no idea how I would ever hold down even a basic job when I could barely even function whilst doing relatively little.
In case you hadn’t already guessed, uni was not an enjoyable experience for me – I HATED it. I thought about dropping out near enough every day. Sure, there were good bits, like the nights out and the amazing friends I made. But this was somewhat overshadowed by my appalling mental health, as well as the constant feeling that I wasn’t reaching my potential or should (and could) be doing better. And when I did well, I never felt like I deserved it and always attributed it to ‘luck’. I almost felt guilty or ashamed a lot of the time when I did well because I felt like I was just ‘lazy’ and hadn’t worked hard enough. These were feelings that had been present for most of my life, having been drilled into me from a young age and continually reinforced throughout my school career. It was repeated comments like…
‘Alice COULD do well if she tried harder…’ or
‘She has so much POTENTIAL, but currently isn’t reaching it…’.
A constant feeling of falling short of expectations and disappointing people, but also that it was unfair and I didn’t deserve it when I did well – feelings I struggle to escape even now. This was understandably pretty exhausting and has been very detrimental to my mental health over the years, significantly impacting me since my early teens. Although not always outwardly obvious due to my loud, outgoing nature, I struggled with extremely low self-esteem and a lot of self-doubt, much of which I think stemmed from this constant feeling that I wasn’t good enough. I never really made the connections between my poor mental health, low self-esteem and the repeated negative comments growing up. I always just laughed and joked about these comments, but I think deep down it was having a very harmful effect and this was evidenced in my extremely low opinion of myself and my abilities. It is only really in the last year that I have realised how much everything links together and things have started to make more sense. I think many factors have contributed to these realisations but there was one defining event that made the puzzle pieces suddenly fit together – my ADHD diagnosis.
22nd May 2020 …
Not a particularly significant day to most, I’m sure, but to me this is the day that completely changed my life and everything finally started to make sense. Just 4 days before my last exam of my undergraduate degree and my 23rd birthday, I was diagnosed with ADHD. I expected the diagnosis may affect my future but I didn’t realise quite how big of an effect this would have on my perception of past experiences. It was as if I had been living with blurred vision for years and I’d finally been given glasses. My whole perspective changed and suddenly I felt like I was looking at my whole life, both present and past experiences, from a whole different angle. I began to question my whole perception of myself. Maybe I wasn’t this useless, lazy, disappointment, who simply needed to try harder, like I’d always thought? Maybe it wasn’t all my fault that I never quite met expectations or achieved as well as I could/should have? Maybe I had been putting in a lot more effort and dealing with a lot more than I, or anyone else, realised? Suddenly there was an explanation for so many things and my life finally made so much more sense! My apparent inability to reach my so called ‘potential’ wasn’t simply due to a character flaw and perhaps I wasn’t inherently lazy like I’d always been made to believe. There was help available and even just knowing that it wasn’t my fault, and that I wasn’t a complete failure or disappointment like I had believed for so long, felt amazing. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest and I could finally breathe. Maybe there was hope for me? Maybe I could get a job and actually succeed in life? Maybe I could not be permanently plagued by exhaustion and have the constant need to nap?
Obviously simply being told I had ADHD wasn’t going to make all my problems simply go away and there was still a lot of worry about whether I would cope in the real world post uni, but for the first time ever I finally had a bit of hope that things might get better. I had found out a week earlier that I had been offered an interview for the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) – a highly competitive graduate training programme. A job that sounded perfect for me, but I was unsure whether I would be able to cope, were I to be successful at interview, considering I was barely functioning at uni. However, the ADHD diagnosis did give me some hope that things could get better and that I could become a functioning human being.
A week or so later I started medication to help with the ADHD and also successfully interviewed and was offered a place on the STP! I was so excited to be offered a place, however there were still a lot of doubts in my mind about whether I would be able to cope, especially considering it required me moving half way across the country, working full time and undertaking a part time masters. The thought of this was obviously daunting, especially considering how much I had struggled with my undergraduate degree, when I only had about 8-10 contact hours a week (half of which I was asleep for…), and I worried about whether I would realistically be able to cope with the demands. But the STP was such an amazing opportunity and something I really wanted to do so I knew I had to give it my best shot and I still had a few months before I started to try and sort myself out somewhat.
It was hard to know at first whether or not the medication was working. I had just finished uni and was no longer drowning in work with no motivation or mental energy to complete it. Sure I felt a lot happier and I wasn’t napping everyday like I used to, but was this simply down to the fact I had finished with uni and was back living at home with very few responsibilities?
The new me…
Fast forward to September and I was moving 150 miles away to Maidstone ready to embark on the STP, including a (very intense) 6 week block of online lectures to start and then working full time whilst simultanoeusly trying to stay on top of competencies and uni assignments. This would be the real test! Would I be able to cope?
It certainly hasn’t all been plain sailing and I have certainly questioned at times whether or not the medication is working (usually at times when I’m feeling a bit tired or stressed). But then I remind myself that it is completely normal to feel like this sometimes, particularly when undertaking a programme like the STP, which is known to be a lot of work! Also, I am aware that medication isn’t meant to magically cure everything, but just make things easier and hopefully allow you to find and implement strategies to help yourself. But when I sit and properly reflect, I realise that there has definitely been massive changes. I am now able to focus better, I feel more motivated, my head feels clearer, my sleep is better, I don’t feel constantly exhausted and need to nap everyday, and I feel like I can function reasonably well. Whereas before I was barely functioning at all. Now I feel like I’ve got my spark back. When I was at uni my spark would come and go as my mood constantly switched between happy and excitable to depressed and exhausted, but I now feel like it is there a good proportion of the time and more people are getting to appreciate my bubbly personality without so much of the depressed, grumpy part of me.
I am now just over 7 months into the STP, and whilst there have definitely been ups and down, I have coped reasonably well with the demands of the programme, working full time, whilst staying on track with my competencies and completing the required uni assignments/exams, and I actually haven’t been that stressed on the whole!! Compare this to a year ago where I struggled to make it through a single lecture without falling asleep, was constantly exhausted and barely functioning. I am a completely different person now. It’s crazy to see how much my life has changed in a year and I believe so much of this is due to finally getting that ADHD diagnosis, it really did change my life for the better. Of course I do still struggle with my mental health a lot and my memory is still absolutely shocking, but these are things I’m learning to deal with and I now actively look forward to getting up and going to work in the morning, a stark difference to when I was at uni and all I’d ever think about was when I could next sleep…