It’s two days before Christmas and I’m in a freezing, dingy Edinburgh flat. There are bars on the windows and that kind of spiky carpet that itches your legs when you sit on it. I’m staring at the cheap, dirty mirror on the wall and I can suddenly see my matted hair and blood shot, sunken eyes. And I’m skinny, properly skinny, in fact the trousers that fit me beautifully when I arrived, are hanging off me now. This was only 12 weeks after I started university, but I knew I needed to leave.
I am writing this for anyone who is at that crisis point now. I want to tell you that you will be okay if you drop out. It is an incredibly tough choice to make, especially if, like me, you’ve grown up being told that being a “drop-out” is synonymous with being a failure or being weak. This is a lie. When you leave university, you don’t suddenly lose your personality as an academic or your strength. In fact, 4 years on, I look back now and see my choice to drop out as one of the bravest things I have done so far in life. So, if you are suffering at university now or if you are trying to recover after leaving, I promise there are ways to sort it all out.
I dropped out of university first when I was 19, and then dropped out of a second uni last year. I am now, healthily and happily studying again, part-time with the Open University. Both times I dropped out, I reapplied and got accepted into several Russel Group universities to study law. In my experience, universities genuinely understand that we make mistakes, things go wrong, and lots of us have to give it a few tries before we make it all the way through a degree. This is especially true in a time where so many young people are suffering with mental illnesses.
To be clear, I am not saying you should drop out the second things get rough. Uni is challenging and almost everyone I know has considered leaving, usually more than once. I know people graduating now who swore they wouldn’t be going back for second year.
There is a lot of support available through charities, the universities themselves and the Disabled Student Allowances offered by the government. But, if things are anywhere near as bad as they got for me, and you haven’t managed to get that support set up, at least give yourself the option of leaving. Step back and take stock. Would it be better to bow out now, get some therapy, maybe even some medication, and reassess whether you made the right course and/or uni choice?
From personal experience, sometimes, things get so bad, so fast, that you are too deep in by the time you notice what has happened to recover without stepping out completely. It is hard to describe how quickly, and completely, I fell apart during my first semester at uni. I had always been an intense studier but, by Week 3 I was only getting broken sleep from about 3AM to 8AM. No, not because I was being a crazy fresher living it up in the big city, but because I was reading until I fell asleep with the monstrous political textbooks on top of me. I had stopped doing anything I enjoyed. I stopped making music and doing water sports. I stopped going for walks and baking. By Week 5 (Mid-Term week) I was having heart palpitations, sweating, and shaking uncontrollably whenever I was left alone with the endless reading and my mind. This worsened and worsened until I felt terrified all the time, completely convinced I was failing everything. I regressed to a sort of childlike state, where I gripped my childhood monkey teddy at night and literally begged for things to get better. I still have no idea how I made it through my exams. For the two weeks leading up to them I was so anxious that I couldn’t keep food down, hence the gorgeous gaping trouser look that I found myself styling ready for Christmas. But, thankfully, I got myself home and made myself take a hard look at the situation.
I have since been diagnosed with PTSD, Depression and Anxiety. Everything I experienced during that first semester at university was a result of these illnesses being triggered by being far from home, in a really tough university, studying a high-pressure degree, with no support in place. I am now on medication and I have done LOTS of talking therapy, but it takes a long time to pick yourself back up. I personally made the mistake of jumping back in too quickly, without the right support system around me, when I went to my second university. It is easy to get wrapped up in the idea that you are getting left behind, thinking you will miss your chance at a successful life if you don’t get straight back on the horse and keep racing. But the chances are, if you only take a quick break and then try to carry on living exactly as you did before, you will end up right back at crisis point. Listen properly to your own body and mind. These kinds of mental struggles, crazy as it seems, can be hard for others to notice and appreciate. Only you are living in that amazing, self-sabotaging brain and you need to recognise when it is time to prioritise your health over any personal or family expectations. I’ve found that recovery requires you to be brutally honest with yourself about what you can take on.
This also requires genuine self-compassion.
I am literal living proof that it is very possible to get up, get healthy and try again…and again. I was the biggest academia snob when I was in school and never foresaw this happening to me, but it did, and I am perfectly okay. I will never know what would have happened to me if I had stayed at my first university. I do know that I have learnt a huge amount from taking the road less travelled by (to quote The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, the inspirational, double-drop-out poet). So, as a surviving, hopefully one day successful, drop-out, I am telling you, you will be okay if you choose to leave university.