Surviving with a Mental Illness

Surviving with a Mental Illness


Clare Phelan is a UKC student like any other, a daughter, a friend. She is also living with a mental illness. Read her remarkable, moving story below.

Fresher’s was meant to be a hedonistic period where I could meet new people outside my West London bubble whilst studying a subject I was passionate about. My Fresher’s is not what I’d envisaged. I am undressing under my bed, showering thrice a day, and taping towels to the bottom of my Becket Court bedroom door.

Up until now, I was conversationally paranoid. By this I mean “paranoid” in the way the word is thrown about as if it’s slang. “Clare, you’re being paranoid, of course she doesn’t hate you” is a typical example of daily conversations I’d have during my A-Levels. So here I am, not being a Fresher. I am the true definition of a hermit, even avoiding stepping outside for my beloved cigarettes.

I was convinced that the whole campus knew of me and took offense at my presence. I was certain the University’s hospitality team had placed surveillance cameras in my room to monitor me and provide comedy to my fellow students. Following one of my floormates asking me out, I was more than ready to kill myself. I knew he only wanted me to come out of my room to parade me around as the joke that I was. I had become a clown. Having fallen to 45 kilograms, skeletal-looking for someone of 5”7, I anxiously made my way to the Medical Centre to seek help for my depression and assistance in reducing reasons for everyone to discuss me.

I was diagnosed with psychosis, fast-tracked as a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, along with OCD attributes, body dysmorphia and severe depression. To give some context, in the summer succeeding my AS exams, I was the victim of a violent sexual assault outside my family home, this was my “trauma”. From this point onwards, I felt I had changed, friends I’d had no longer liked me but took pity on me, and I was no longer clean. It’s important to state the attack was probably a catalyst for a pre-existing mental health condition rather than a cause.

With talk of being institutionalised on the table, I opted to intermit whilst receiving constant help from the East Kent and West London Early Intervention teams.

The next two months of my life were what I call the “guinea-pig” months. I tried varied anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. Being highly sensitive to medicine, the first two combinations led to constant restlessness. The only way of being able to combat this was timing each period I sat down to five minutes followed by a ten minute stroll. During this period, conversation was equally restless. I could barely speak, or think, I was anxious, wary of others and exhausted.

Finally settled on my medicinal concoction, my only major side effect was fourteen hours of sleep a day. As an insomniac for the previous two years, I initially welcomed the sedation. After two months and freed from restlessness, the time had come to leave my family home for more than an hour at a time. A local Irish pub hired me and my confidence began to return, it is this job that saved my life. There is nothing more beneficial to someone who has no confidence than having to talk to strangers.

Upon my return to university my Student Support Officer and Wellbeing Support created my Inclusive Learning Plan enabling me to have my own examination room and to opt out of seminars. I see a counsellor at the Medical centre and have monthly check-ins for my medicine. It’s obviously not been an abrupt and immediate turnaround. Whilst I have not suffered from more than a dozen of sensory hallucination periods since seeking help, my paranoia remains intact inevitably followed by depression. Maybe once a week, I still need an off-day where I deliberately reduce contact with others. This said, each day does get easier now that I’m on the right medicine and frequently in communication with mental health professionals.

Whilst the benefits of medication are many, the side-effects are difficult to manage. Memory loss has manifested its way in to my daily life. Conversations are easily forgotten, laundry can be a nightmare and I can come across as rude to recent acquaintances. Ironically, the memory loss’s toll is most dangerous when it comes to taking medicine, without a diary I could very simply overdose. As a contently grumpy individual, too much serotonin means a too happy and emotional me, two attributes I am not yet prepared to have. This fear is what reinforces me ensuring to take note of when I have taken medicine.

I still shower at funny times of the day but it’s nowhere near as excessive as it once was. I no longer believe that everyone knows who I am or is laughing at me. I finally feel that I am capable of maintaining friendships out of who I am, not out of pity. I have not survived my illness and I probably never will. What I have done is learn to cope and take the illness under my stride. The stigma of mental health is more prevalent than ever and I hope my openness regarding my diagnosis with others plays a small part in lowering the taboo subject. My illness makes me self-aware but more significantly, more aware of others. Subsequently, I have become more caring and rounded in my thinking, characteristics I pride myself on.

With internships and graduate opportunities being created for those with disabilities (which a mental health condition factually is), my future is no longer a bleak concept. Frankly, I couldn’t have thought of anything worse than living. I am proud of my survival so far. I can queue in shops again, I’m able to attend cinema screenings, I can sometimes get the tube alone and even have my beloved cigarettes before my morning shower. Without my school’s office, Medical Centre, Student Wellbeing and Early Intervention teams, I would probably not be here writing this article today. I was fortunate enough to have truly loving and supportive parents and great friends, the aforementioned University’s bodies are equally life-saving support groups. If anyone reading this feels that my last few years echoes parallels to theirs: please, please talk to someone.


3 Responses to “Surviving with a Mental Illness”

  1. Nikki

    Dec 03. 2014

    Your story is really inspirational Clare. I definitely think it will be helpful in opening up other people eyes on this matter :) I am truly proud to call you my friend because you are just so lovely

    Reply to this comment

  2. Martin Spence

    Dec 04. 2014

    Hi Clare. What a brilliant and incisive story. You are so brave. I am so proud of you.

    Reply to this comment

  3. uncle victor

    Dec 06. 2014

    A chip off the old block. Well done and keep up the quality writing. Thoughtfully provoking.

    Reply to this comment

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