Swapping the Scalpel For the Pen: Navigating My Way Through Anxiety at University
It was the summer of 2016 when I decided to irrevocably alter my academic career for good, completely turning my life around. Pacing around my university campus and pressing my phone to my ear, sweat surfaced on my palms as I finalised my decision on the phone to the admissions department, confirming my place on my new course in English Literature. That summer, I had decided to leave my Medicine course at University, abandoning the years of studying and preparing to become a doctor, to finally pursue what I had always wanted to do for as long as I could remember, but had never once been able to admit to myself. Here, I was finally taking my agency and future into my own hands – it was an overwhelming, almost crippling realisation. Growing up there was an unspoken agreement within my family and my school that I would pursue Medicine because I excelled in all my classes and had all the relevant work and volunteer experience under my belt. Leaving behind the safety net of a future stable career left me staring into an endless abyss, with my mind internally scrambling and churning self-doubt. The moment I left Medicine, I realised that every action I would take from then on would be a cementation of my decision—every next move was in pursuit of a new goal, a new future, and there would be no turning back. I had to learn to be okay with it.
I remember my very first panic attack. It came out of nowhere whilst I was lying in bed preparing to fall asleep. It was the first Christmas holiday at University, and I was back at home cramming for my first upcoming exams in January. I had been studying biochemistry, physiology and anatomy modules for what seemed like forever, worrying about how I might possibly store this vast volume of information in my head. This panic attack would be the first time I was rushed to A&E. This was the first of a long string of panic attacks, emotional meltdowns, and doctor appointments. My time studying Medicine at University quickly became laced with intense fears of failure, high-functioning anxiety and huge blows to my confidence, self-esteem, and a general sense of ‘self’. I had become someone completely unrecognisable. Defeated, I crawled further and further into myself. I would start skipping dissection sessions because the sight of whole decomposing cadavers triggered my hypochondria and the immense fear of death. Sitting in the Tube, a restaurant or any public space was enough to make my heart pound in my chest, my head feel dizzy and my lungs feel like there wasn’t enough oxygen around me. Panic attacks are difficult, if not impossible to predict and stop. You think you feel fine, you’re enjoying yourself at a party for example, and just ever so slightly, something tilts a little askew and the angle of your perceived reality shifts. It hangs there like a dark cloud, the negative voice in your head tells you that nothing is fine, everything is wrong and you can’t do anything about it. And when you finally look around, it is like your eyes have been opened and you see the world as it truly is: terrible and unforgiving. The feeling of imminent death is there, along with the terrifying thought that something bad is going to happen to you. It is the cruelest feeling in the world. I would retreat to a public restroom, lock the cubicle and shakily try to regain my normal breathing pattern. Why was I like this? Why couldn’t I function normally? Why couldn’t I just be myself again? I’ve lost count of the number of times I cried to my boyfriend, wondering what it was that changed me – what made me this miserable, anxious mess.
At this stage, I had no real ‘self-knowledge.’ I didn’t have a name for my anxiety, nor did I know how to cope with and manage it. It was steadily encroaching on my daily life, studies, and social interactions, and I was largely clueless. But I knew something had to change, and I began trying to better myself. I discreetly signed up for counselling services at the University health centre. I also signed up for yoga and pilates, which I would attend weekly, but as time went on and the pressure to study increased, I found myself devoting less and less time to myself physically. None of these things really ‘fixed’ me the way I wanted to, and so I had to gradually re-learn how to accept and forgive myself. I had to be kinder to myself.
When I was little, my mother would always impart on me phrases of self-affirmation and give well thought-out and reasoned advice. She’s the wisest and strongest woman I know. She told me that within each of us, there is an inner child that is yearning to be nurtured, loved and accepted. This inner child is an amalgamation of everything that you are, the essence of your personality and being, but s/he remains there as part of your subconscious and is often neglected. The inner child is the voice that you suppress as you grow older and mature into an adult. It is the part of you that takes the blow when you get angry with yourself for not being good enough, or for making mistakes. When you’re too hard on yourself and beat yourself up in frustration during your lowest, darkest moments; when you settle for less than you’re worth because you don’t truly believe in yourself; Your inner child isn’t a literal kid running around your head, but s/he is you at your most vulnerable, the part of you that needs the reassurance the most.
I was completely out-of-touch with my inner child. I was being far too judgmental and critical of myself, and this manifested in a crippling anxiety that followed me every day, threatening to spoil every good experience I had. My stupidly high expectations for myself were damaging, and I was mistaking my anxiety and pain for mere consequences of my ambition. I had to be brutally honest with myself and re-assess my whole academic life until that point. I had aced my GCSE exams with 11 A*s, excelled at my 4 A-levels, worked towards grade 8 piano, spent hundreds of hours volunteering at a care home, finely tuned my personal statement, painstakingly prepared for both the UKCAT and BMAT (aptitude admission tests for Medicine schools in the UK), completed work experience in the ICU of St Mary’s Hospital, spent hours practicing for my Medicine interviews, signed up for any workshop and bought every book that would help me smash my applications and get into a Medicine school – but all of this work meant nothing if it was not the path that I wanted to take. Once I let go of the notion that everything was set in stone and that this was the only route I could take, I finally felt freer than I had for most of my life. Here I was, standing at the edge of a cliff with the rest of the world to explore, ready to embark in a completely new direction: English Literature and the Arts.
I had always returned to reading and writing as a form of escapism ever since I was a child. I also loved to draw with a passion that stemmed from learning to hold a crayon to paper and making scribbles before I even learned to talk. Literature and artistic endeavours had always been a safe space for me as a retreat from the stresses of daily life, a way of complementing the predominantly science-based subjects I geared towards as I grew up. This return to literature was the kindest thing I have ever done to myself, truthfully. It was my way of exercising my self-knowledge, and acknowledging my epiphany that I simply could not envision myself as a doctor, but as someone who wanted to increase my self-knowledge and educate myself through exploring words, images, feelings. I had a whole library of life yet to explore. And so, after I made the decision, finalised all the documentation and received my acceptance letter, I finally opened my unopened copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and started to read. It was the lightest I’d felt in years.
By Liz Hew
Artwork by Casey Meyers