'I should be having fun'. This was the phrase on repeat in my inner dialogue, when I started as a philosophy student three years ago at the University of Copenhagen. With good intentions, I had signed up for the mandatory intro events for freshmen, with an inner conviction that it 'this is something that you should do'.
Luckily these social events are a good start to a bright future for many students, just like the university and your fellow students normally are. But for someone like me, it was all too overwhelming. I am the kind of person you would call mentally vulnerable. Starting university studies, for someone like me, is a big hurdle to overcome.
“I beat myself up over my lack of ‘normalcy’”
I am neither an ’A’ student nor a career high-flyer, but your average Jutland child who originally hoped that life in the fast lane in the city would be the change of air that would cure my mental fragility. Shortly before my enrollment at UCPH I had completed a year of treatment in an adolescent psychiatry unit for anorexia. I was ‘healthy’ and I would not allow my medical history to stand in the way of being ‘normal’.
“How do I eat normally, how do I say no thanks to pizza, beer, cake, can they see it on me?”
Nevertheless I went through my first semester beating myself up over my lack of ‘normalcy’ in terms of social commitments and academics, and it ended in a relapse during the first examination period and a subsequent struggle on my own, to get on top again.
When I started, I faced the challenges that most people have. New people, new surroundings, new daily routines, new city, leaving home – challenges which are big enough in themselves.
On top of this agenda, there were rehabilitation issues; 'How do I eat normally, how do I say no thanks to pizza, beer, cake. Can they see it on me?' This was a parallel agenda that drained me of energy. A double agenda which made my social existence invisible, and which in the end of course ended in defeat.
I now have my bachelor’s degree (even in the required time) – but I wished that I had a platform in the first part of my study programme, where I could have dared to be open about my own social challenges due to my mental vulnerability. Then I could, maybe, have avoided feeling wrong and lost.
”I self-stigmatised; I let all the prejudices you could have about ’someone like me’ become true in my own head.”
I have nothing against the tutors and the new people who welcomed me to my new life. But as in so many other forums in the Danish welfare society, mental illness is a taboo, often and in particular for the afflicted. This was certainly my approach to the world after my diagnosis. ‘The fewer people who know, the fewer people will overindulge me or meet me with disbelief’.
“I self-stigmatised; I let all the prejudices you could have about ’someone like me’ become true in my own head.” The (false) knowledge that I would be stereotyped with the same attributes that I placed on others with anorexia – like ’her with anorexia’, or even worse ’her the fragile one’ – kept me from finding peace with what I had learnt from going through it.
This thinking kept me from going forward in my life with new strength, and was a key factor in my relapse. Because I was alone with my pain, my vulnerability, and my insecurity, the easiest solution was to fall back into the safety of the illness.
Space for difficult conversations
So what is the relevance of this for others? In order to break down taboos, both in terms of self stigmatising and in terms of the general prejudice against ‘people like me', we need to work together to create the platform that I needed. Not for sentimental Dr. Phil scenes or for big 'coming out' scenes; but a place where there is space to converse about difficult issues that are outside the purely academic. Sharing the experiences about when life goes against you and how we moved on, can only strengthen the relationships we have. It can put a lid on the pressure from high expectations about own abilities. And maybe it can be a first step towards achieving that general humanities education that we strive for in our study programmes. It can be specific and frank advice on sick leave or part-time study that will let you get back on top again. It can also be an appreciation of the quirks and habits that may be essential to keep life from moving on, but also to challenge these habits - we can all learn something.
“In order to break down taboos, both in terms of self stigmatising and the general prejudices against ‘people like me', we need to work together to create the platform that I needed.”
The human experience of accepting and being accepted should weigh heavier in the context of our study programmes; as skills in being open-minded, tolerant and without prejudice are surely elements in that type of fellow human being that we want?
If nothing else, I will do my best to understand my vulnerability as a strength. I will try to be open about what is/was difficult and share the experience that when your mental health breaks down, it also holds the potential to make us, maybe not more competitive, but certainly more inclusive human beings. This is not just a measurable target for learning, but an education that is invaluable for someone like me, for someone like you, and for someone like us.