I was 12 when I read teen fiction book ‘Wintergirls’. The storyline focuses on a female teen protagonist who, after losing her best friend to suicide; struggles with being guilt ridden and spirals into her own world of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. This book threw me into the raw and riveting world of mental health; and in a time when these issues seemed ignored and taboo, it gave me a reality check on how important psychological well-being was as it affects not only the sufferer but also the people around them. If you’ve read my previous article, you’ll know this book opened the gate for me to mental health, and in hindsight, to the start of the rest of my life, although I got a little lost along the way…
When I started high school, I did so with one of the highest admission scores. Just minutes from me, it was ranked as fifth best in the country with the results to show for it, and I recall being delighted to attend such a highly reputable school. It was very academic- all the work was to prepare us for the best degrees and professions; natural sciences, biochemistry, dentistry but most notably, medicine.
I suppose I can’t put a finger on when exactly my interests and focus shifted from psychology to medicine, but I was very influenced by where I was and the people surrounding me. Being such an academic school, students were not only encouraged but expected, and sometimes pressured, to obtain high grades; to the point where those who achieved B’s and lower were looked down upon. As a result, the outlook of lesser-known degrees such as psychology seemed less attractive; and as medical and science-related careers were more promoted; I was slowly indoctrinated to the ideal future everyone else had for me without realising. Throughout our lives, we are asked what we want to be when we grow up- the silly answers are acceptable until we’re expected to decide our futures at 16. Except I didn’t feel like I had a choice. My school and teachers told me what I should have- a great future in medical school. My friends followed the consensus and were happy. My parents wanted me to follow a financially stable path in a medicine. Altogether, I slowly adapted to the idea that what everyone else wanted for me is what I wanted for me; but it wasn’t until a career’s evening in the first year of A-levels that when questioned what I wanted to do and I automatically replied “medicine” that I was fully convinced.
However, it is one thing to say you want to pursue a career in medicine and another to actively do it. When I started high school, I was a happy and bright student- hard work and academia fitted me well; but the reputation and work ethics always loomed over me and I remember when I received my first B, I was kept behind and asked why. I was humiliated because it felt like being asked why I was stupid, and for the first time, I felt stupid. There was more pressure and I was harder on myself to be as good as what my friends were and what the teachers wanted, to the extent I developed anxiety for tests and getting homework back because I was terrified of being treated as dumb. You can guess what happened- my grades dwindled- rapidly. My mental health plunged and the vicious cycle of pressure, anxiety and failure began.
I think the darkest years of my life was 16 to 18. I didn’t have friends I would call genuine friends. My grades were the lowest ever. I would wake up every day feeling empty, filled with dread and considered the possibility of ending it all so I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. I was tired of seeing low grades and tired of being unmotivated to improve them. I was tired of being disinterested in what I was learning. I was tired of being surrounded by people I didn’t like. But most of all, I was just tired of being tired. I felt weighed down- my heart was heavy and my head was clouded. I tried to pick myself up and work hard in the months leading up to my AS exams, tricking my mind into thinking I was in control when I was the complete opposite, and they went past in a blur. I only remember hoping and praying from the day I finished my last exam to results day that I got the grades for medicine. If it’s what everyone wanted, it’s what I wanted, right?
You can probably guess what happened- I didn’t get the grades. It was like I hit a wall at 70 miles- bricks exploding, glass shattered, whiplash, bones broken…my entire world fell apart. I was numb, sitting in my own failure at what I thought was rock bottom. My parents and I had a meeting at school to discuss my grades and future, where I stubbornly echoed “medicine” to that question…they didn’t laugh but they might as well have- we all knew I wasn’t going to med-school. I had an ultimatum to pick up my grades or get kicked out, and I chose the former because I had a gut feeling I wasn’t finished, so I went back in September for my final year. The first chemistry lesson back, my teacher kept me behind and asked how I felt about my results; and when I admitted I didn’t know, said “you’re never going to be good enough to do what you want to do”. Remember when I thought I hit rock bottom? When I heard those words from someone who was supposed to be supporting me, the bottom gave way and I kept falling again. 3 years on and I still remember. 3 years on and I still can’t find peace.
I went home and cried myself to sleep. When I woke up I took some scissors and did what I never thought I’d do. I picked up ‘Wintergirls’ and read again, and a strange feeling passed over me as I related in a new way and it clicked. I went back to school and realised how I felt in psychology lessons. I researched psychology universities and courses. I re-wrote my personal statement. I found some motivation and studied hard again. At the last parent’s evening, when that teacher looked me in the eye and said, “you’ve improved a lot, your efforts have been marked”, my mother smiled. I wished I could have marked their face.
September 2019, I started university: BSc Psychology. I found friends- something I didn’t really have in high school. I enjoyed the 9AM lectures, excited to learn content I was passionate about, I never had that in high school. My grades flipped from C’s to commendations. I saw the brightest colours I had missed out on for seven years. It’s funny, my university doesn’t know about my academic background and never read my personal statement- the ones in clearing don’t, but I’ve learned that a good match doesn’t depend on this. I found my footing, worked hard and never looked back.
In hindsight, this story is bittersweet but clear. I dreamt of attending my high school and being a doctor, with nothing to support it. It’s okay to give dreams up when you realise it’s not what you imagined. I’ve learnt that an environment of hard work and pressure works sometimes but isn’t for everyone. I’ve learnt being called “stupid” or “not good enough” enough times makes you believe it- I believed everything I was told. It wasn’t until I was seventeen when all the doors shut on me that the right one opened. The worst year of my life was also the best, and if I could go through it all again to get here, I would. All I wanted was the chance to make my own decisions and mistakes, and for the first time, at seventeen, I did. I learned the difference between what other people wanted for me and what I wanted for myself. I know it’s so cliché, but I believe life has a funny way of showing you where you’re meant to be, and what is meant to be will be, and I know I was born to do this.
I’ve known hardships and struggle. I’ve known battling the people I once blindly trusted and I’ve known battling myself. I’ve seen what I thought was rock bottom and I’ve felt the worst betrayal when I fell even further. When giving up was the easiest way out, I lived and fought through it all. Sometimes we have a huge support network when we are vulnerable but other times we just have to put ourselves back together again. I took the best of what I had and turned that into the best of me. I learned, grew harder, saw laugher and happiness come back and found myself again. I’m not 100% healed- there is peace I haven’t and may never find, and forgetting I can’t imagine, but I know progress when I can tell light from dark because I’ve been there and I know what it’s like.
Be nicer to yourself. Believe in yourself. Trust yourself. Chase your dreams. Don’t give up.
If you were waiting for a sign, this is it.
Short Poem 1:
I do not fear you–
I fear there is truth to what you said.
I don’t want an apology,
I want you to learn from your mistakes instead.
Short Poem 2:
You don’t know how many times I have been back
just hoping to find some peace in it all.
How lovely would it be to not be haunted after all these years?
Maybe in 13 or 30 I can go back-
not to bury memories I no longer want,
but to find comfort in familiarities
in the place I used to call home.