I’m in grad school right now, studying to be a counselor. I’m a good student and I do well. But I’m jealous of classmates who seem to work more quickly, reading textbooks quicker, finishing assignments quicker and still having time to do fun things in their free time. While they’re out enjoying summer, I’m stuck at home working hard for hours struggling to finish readings and assignments and study. I’m taking fewer classes and working fewer hours, but school takes up all of my time and energy. School is so hard for me due to my mental illnesses. Why? There are a lot of reasons.
1. I have difficulty focusing.
I’m not exactly sure why, maybe it’s my anxiety or racing thoughts that are linked to a hyper, overactive mind. Either way, it takes me hours to read a chapter in my textbook because I have to keep taking breaks. I stare at a page and I can’t seem to comprehend it. I read sentences over and over trying to understand. I’m intelligent and can normally understand things just fine. But due to my difficulty focusing, it takes me a long time to read.
2. I experience memory loss due to medication side effects.
I was on this psychiatric medication for years that caused me to have memory loss. Since then, it’s been difficult for me to remember things. I have to study right before the test, before I forget everything again. I have to write everything down or I’ll forget.
3. I have waves of anxiety.
I have generalized anxiety disorder, so everything makes me anxious. I get anxious because I feel like my assignments aren’t good enough, I get anxious about tests, I get anxious about what the professor thinks of me or what my classmates think of me. Often this makes things at school difficult. I’ll be trying to study or work on an assignment and a wave of anxiety hits. Or I’ll be in class and be so nervous about what people think of me that I’m afraid to speak up, and when I do speak up, I get angry with myself that I said the wrong thing. Sometimes I feel terrified for no apparent reason. It’s at these times I have to take a break to calm myself.
4. Sometimes my mood changes and it’s impossible for me to do anything.
When I’m depressed or manic, forget studying or homework. There’s no way I can accomplish anything meaningful. I just have to ride the mood out until it passes, using all my coping skills. It’s frustrating because I never know when the mood will hit and when it will change. So when my mood is level, I go into overdrive, trying to get as much work done while I have a level mood. I work ahead in case next week the depression, mania, anxiety or dissociative episode hits and I can’t work.
5. I get panic attacks.
Sometimes a panic attack hits me out of nowhere and I have to scramble to cope. I had a panic attack during class once when a movie we were watching triggered me. I had to walk out of class so I could recover. Sometimes I have a panic attack during the week and I have to rest to recover. I can’t get any work done until the mood passes.
6. I overidentify with the course material.
I’m studying to be a counselor and sometimes when we talk about mental illness, or people with mental illness, it hits home for me and I overidentify. I’m sensitive to discussions about bipolar. My classmates are still learning, and sometimes they say ignorant things about a mental illness. I know their hearts are in the right place, but sometimes their words sting because I take it personally. I have to constantly remind myself this isn’t personal, we’re in class learning and my classmates are just asking questions because they don’t understand something. I think it will be easier in time, but right now sometimes it’s difficult.
7. I experience flashbacks.
Sometimes a video we watch in class triggers a flashback. With a flashback, it takes me a while to come back to the present. I sit in class trying to hide what is going on in my head and orient myself to time and place. I pray the professor doesn’t call on me until I’m myself again.
8. My social anxiety makes group work and presentations difficult.
Due to my social anxiety, group work is hard. I worry about how my group will perceive me and whether I am doing and saying the right things. Presentations are even worse, even with a group. Presentations cause me to panic. I have to work so much harder to prepare for the presentation and manage the anxiety that comes along with it.
9. I’m not able to stay up late to study.
I’m jealous of classmates who can stay up until 3 a.m. studying for a test or finishing a paper. I can’t do that. In order to stay mentally stable, I need to get a good night’s sleep. I also struggle with insomnia, and I need to take two different medications to help me sleep. I have to keep a schedule in order to be healthy. I wish I could stay up late studying, but it’s not an option for me.
10. Having difficulty organizing my thoughts.
Part of my mental illness is that my thoughts get scattered and disorganized. My thoughts race and flip between topics. It makes it difficult for me to organize my thoughts in order to study and complete assignments, and sometimes in order to participate in class.
11. Social anxiety makes it hard to befriend classmates.
I wish I could befriend more classmates. It would be great to have a study partner or someone to vent to when I’m stressed or someone to ask questions when I’m trying to figure out an assignment. I’ve made a few friends, but with my social anxiety, it’s hard. It would help if I had friends to support me as I go through school.
12. I often feel like I need to hide all of this.
It can be really burdensome trying to hide my inner mental struggle. I keep smiling and acting like I am OK. I don’t want my professors to think I’m unstable and not able to handle counseling. I want my classmates to think I am smart and nice. So I sit in class silently struggling. I come to class manic, depressed, anxious, dissociating and having flashbacks, but somehow I am able to hide it all It works but it so hard to hide everything inside.
13. I feel like I need to prove people with mental illness can do just as well as everyone else.
I am proud that I am able to handle my mental illnesses and still do well at work and school, have stable friendships and a stable marriage. I always want to prove to people it is possible to have a mental illness and accomplish these things. I am proud that I excel in my classes. But in my desire to prove I can do as well as everyone else, I put this tremendous pressure on myself. The pressure of trying to show people with mental illness can excel weighs heavily on me, making school more difficult and causing me to be afraid to ask for help when I’m struggling to keep up.
Sometimes I wish my professors knew how hard school is for me. It would be nice if they gave me allowances to turn work in late or take exams at a different time, on weeks where my mental illness makes studying, reading and homework nearly impossible. But my desire to prove I can do just as well in school as other people pushes that idea away. I want to be treated as “normal” and I don’t want to be labeled as mentally ill and needing extra help. My mental illness means I have to work three times as hard. But I am persisting. I believe I will do well in school, graduate, get my counseling license and excel as a counselor — despite the fact that everything is harder for me. Despite my difficulties, I’m two years into a master’s program and have gotten a 98 percent or better in every class but one. It’s hard, but I believe it will all be worth it in the end when I become a counselor and can use my own experience to help others.
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Thinkstock photo via elenabs.