It was about 2 am on a Tuesday morning in late May 2009, I could hear the noise of the city muffled by the rows of houses that lay between my little house and the North Circular road.
My notes were spread out over the desk and I was swinging on the back 2 legs of the chair but my attention wasn’t on the notes, it was shifted to the small hatchet, whose blunt end I had been using to hang some pictures with, that was sitting in the gloom of the room where the light of my desk-lamp was striving to get to.
At that very second as I looked at that small hand tool lying there I was very seriously considering smashing the bones in my right hand with it. My heart was thumping and the tension in my forehead was almost unbearable.
The physical manifestation of worry, panic and terror felt like I had fallen into a massive cavity that opened up in my chest. I felt if I just picked up that hatchet and brought it down firmly 3 or 4 times on my right hand I had a justified excuse for missing the exam that I had to sit in seven hours’ time.
It was the second exam in my 3rd year of college and by all accounts the one I had just sat on the Monday morning had been a tougher preposition, However I had sailed through that exam and out the other side to a nice chicken fillet roll and home for a rest before starting into the last few hours of study for the exam that I now found myself facing.
Thankfully, I didn’t allow myself to wield the hatchet that night and I managed to pull myself together to sit the exam, which went reasonably well and I celebrated with a tasty chicken fillet roll afterwards. Hours later however, the horror returned as my body physically broke in the light of the huge mental pressure that was coming to bear on the thoughts of sitting my next exam on Saturday morning.
Looking back, it made no sense, exams had never been an issue for me. I breezed through my Leaving Cert brushing off the huge pressure that so many of my peers faced. At the other end of the scale, the imminent failure of a complete college year in my first attempt at 2nd year was met with utter ambivalence as I strolled out of exams after only half an hour to go home and chill-out on my new trampoline!
On the face of things, I had just met a beautiful new girl and was getting on extremely well with her. I had a couple of jobs and was never short of a few Euro to treat myself to the finer things in life including my sports car and all the clothes, music and nights out that I could handle. Life was good.
My exams at the end of my second go at 2nd year had been challenging but I had come through it with the support of my folks. Throughout 3rd year I had worked steadily to achieve solid grades going into the end of year exams so this terror was a new phenomenon for me. It completely enveloped me, and for the second night in a row I sat in the scantily lit room in an end of terrace house in Phibsborough giving serious contemplation to viciously self harming myself which I in some way felt would free me of the crippling panic that gripped me.
My parents were extremely worried at my current mental state after a late night phone call and they enticed me to come home to try and prepare for the next exam. I agreed contending that the isolation of living alone in Dublin couldn’t be helping the situation.
Unfortunately I couldn’t get my head around sitting the next 4 exams and the mere thought of it induced wild fear and panic. I was medically assessed and was able to defer the exams until the supplemental in September.
A huge load had been lifted. Although my plans for a summer abroad were ruined, decisions were made to quit one of my jobs and to scale back the hectic lifestyle.
My mother put forward the idea of speaking to someone professionally but I shot that suggestion down explaining the route of the anxiety attacks as being sheer exhaustion as a result of too much work, study and play. I would take an easy summer, get some study done and would be back to my old self by the time the supplemental exams rolled around.
By the time my first exam approached, I felt very relaxed, well rested and back to my old self. The first exam went very well. However, in the final hours leading up to the second exam a small shred of doubt crept into my mind and the terror was unleashed again. Another mental meltdown and missed exam, a full blown anxiety attack unaided by the prospect of two more exams the following week.
I managed to get the other two exams out of the way yet it was obvious that something serious was going on in relation to my mental health and this time I fully agreed with my mother when she suggested I go and talk to someone.
I called on the help of the college counselling service who were excellent. It was a place to go and really enabling to get a load off my chest: we discussed the painful break up of a 4 year relationship, my excessive work habits and the relative failure of the social aspect of college.
Having the chats with the counsellor really put me at ease going forward and by Christmas I felt I was in a position again to go it alone. My grades were very good; I was only working Saturday nights and had made plenty of new friends at college.
The anxiety which I had been largely free from for the past 9 months came back with a vengeance, rendering me incapable of moving for a period of up to an hour. The tension in my head was unbearable. My heart felt like it would explode.
The topics I had been so sure of became foreign to me. I couldn’t recall any of the information that I had spent weeks pouring over. I gripped my left hand with my right hand and dug the nails deep into my palm; my knuckles were white with the strength I applied. Running my fingers through my hair I just stopped short of pulling massive chunks of it out. I felt trapped in a mental hell and wanted to escape at any cost.
The anxiety experienced during the exam gave way to complete devastation afterward. I called my parents and explained what happened but no words could ease the pain and despair I felt. I had worked so hard only to fall at the first hurdle.
My parents have always been hugely supportive of me and they did everything in their power to help me get my mind back in order. However I was on a slippery slope and nothing they could say or do seemed to help. By the Saturday morning I couldn’t get out of bed and was barely eating. I simply had no desire to do anything.
As much as I love to write, priding myself on my descriptive prowess, I cannot explain the feelings I felt in those days. I was blank. I was dead.
A trip to the doctor on call visibly shocked the young doctor as to the mental state I was in yet all she could do was write a prescription.
My family never gave up and continued to give me as much positive support as was humanly possible. After nearly a week I sat at the desk with a book in front of me and started to read. Day by day I managed to do a little more work, motivated by the simple little goals of getting to my lunch hour with a fresh roll and some tomato soup and a double bill of NCIS or the time when my brother would arrive home from school to watch funny videos on YouTube with me.
I sat the remaining 3 exams achieving the grades I knew I could achieve. The disastrous 1st exam means that my overall result is subpar. Despite all this I consider it a huge victory because of the mountains I had to climb to recover from the crippling anxiety attacks and despair I plunged into after that first exam.
At the end of the day one could say it was just a set of exams, it wasn’t the end of the world but the funny thing about a mental health issue is best described by Viktor Frankl;
No matter how trivial the issue may seem to be, if it isn’t dealt with properly it can grow into something very harmful. Perhaps if I had dealt with the issue when it first arose it may not have reached the depths it did or have the longer lasting implications it has had.
To this day anxiety bubbles just below the surface, always striving to rear its ugly head and cripple me when I am at my most vulnerable.
How did I triumph? I triumphed with the help of my little brother and the simple distraction of watching stupid videos on YouTube. With the constant reassurance from my parents of how proud of me they were despite how epically I felt I was fucking up. With simple hugs from my sister reminding me she still looked up to me (She’s only 5’4!). With the loyalty and enduring respect of my best friend despite what I was going through. With the willingness my girlfriend had to listen to me and try and sort through the shifting sands of my mind for weeks on end.
Yeah I failed in the traditional sense of not achieving the right grade on a piece of paper in which I had spent 5 years of my life in pursuit of. I could feel ashamed at my failure but that situation defined who I have become which has meant so much more to me over the past 5 years than a good grade on my college transcripts.
I accepted and owned the situation that I found myself faced with. I fell; I fell again and got back up only to fall a third time harder than before. As much as I wanted to run and hide, in the end I had to face it. Thanks to my support network I didn’t have to face it alone.
I have continued to take ownership of the little situations life has thrown at me giving me the belief and knowledge that I can own anything life has to throw at me in the future.
I look back on that terrifying time of my life with pride. I look back with a victorious grin on my face.
I have #NothingToHide.