The final text from my dissertation supervisor reads: ‘Bind and relax :)’ and if the smiley face didn’t make it obvious, I know she means it in good will. It may seem odd to be texting my dissertation supervisor, but I often turn my Internet off when things are bad, and things were bad that week before my deadline; bad enough that she had to send me bullet pointed lists with precise instructions on what to do because when I tried to think about everything I needed to fix, I got too overwhelmed to do anything. I’m pretty sure she realised I was struggling; and after all the help she had given me, I felt like I owed her some honesty. I didn’t know how to explain to her that I couldn’t just ‘bind and relax’. I find it hard to explain to people that I have anxiety and how it makes me feel because when I say it out loud, it sounds irrational. I really wanted to be happy after handing in my dissertation, I know you’re supposed to feel happy and everyone expected me to be happy – but I wasn’t. My dissertation may have been over but my anxiety wasn’t. Talking about it doesn’t make it go away either.
The day I handed in my dissertation, I realised how easy it was to hide mental health issues. The state of being stressed is so normal in Cambridge that symptoms of poor mental health can easily slip under the radar. I was a wreck that week and it was obvious to people around me, but when they asked why, I would just reply with ‘dissertation’ and that excused anything. It excused missing things, crying at the buttery, crying in the library, and not being able to turn up to things on time. It’s so easy to brush a long term mental health condition off as tiredness, too much work, and lack of motivation, or simply ignore it by being too busy. Sometimes it is incapacitating, and sometimes it’s not. It’s easy to miss socials and have friends think you’re off having fun. It’s easy to create a bubbly persona when people only see you when you’re feeling okay. I only call people when I’m coming home from the library at night and they assume I study there all day, every day – and that’s not true. It’s easy to think things are ‘not that bad’, or it’s something I can put aside for now because I am getting through my Cambridge degree, somehow.
One of the reasons I don’t respond with enthusiasm that my dissertation is over is that now I have to pretend that I’m okay. I can’t use my dissertation as an excuse to not go out or for not looking happy. I can use exam stress as a cover and stretch it out a bit, but when May Week comes with its pressure to be ecstatically happy and to celebrate by getting ragingly drunk, I don’t know what I’m going to do. The only relief May Week provides me is not having any obligations; it’s not something I’m using to get me through exams. Compared to the worries that I always feel scared and overwhelmed when doing the tiniest things in life, exams are nothing.
The stress that my dissertation brought about is over, but the effects of anxiety it triggered are not. Yes, mental health can get worse under period of stress, but that doesn’t mean it goes away when the source of stress is gone. I still feel anxious and jittery this week, independent of revision, but I have had moments of happiness as well; not because it’s over – it’s not – but because I’m one step closer to understanding it better.