I have now completed three weeks at university – one of introductory talks and freshers events, and two of lectures. Besides being slightly exhausted, I’m pleased to say that so far it has been going really, really well. (Yay!)
In my first week, I met a lovely bunch of women at the LGBTQ+ and feminist societies, as well as a couple of friends in my classes. Starting afresh anywhere can be very difficult, so naturally I had all sorts of anxieties about meeting new people and attending yet another university (fourth time’s a charm, right?). Luckily, everyone has been really lovely and welcoming, newbies and seasoned students alike, which has made my transition back into the “real world” far easier to handle. I have already been to various society events, including a weekly coffee meet and a BAR CRAWL (I know… me… on a bar crawl… it’s been two weeks and I’m still in shock) as well as meeting people outside of class to scour the centre for the best places to get hot chocolate and vegan eats. I feel very lucky, not only to have had to opportunity to attend so many different events, but also to have met some wonderful individuals with whom I share so many interests and already feel very comfortable around.
Aside from becoming a socialite, I have also started attending classes. Having been out of the education system for a while, I was incredibly nervous about how my language skills were going to match up to those of my classmates. I’m happy to report that my academic abilities are much the same as before, even if a tad rusty, meaning I haven’t totally forgotten how to speak Spanish or learn new things or read or any of the other silly concerns I had convinced myself to be true. Plus I have found the majority of my classes super interesting and engaging, and in contrast to when I was an utterly miserable student, I am now participating in lectures and actually wanting to go to my seminars.
Whilst things have been mostly positive academics-wise, I have had a few emotional wobbles and internal struggles about my age and how ‘I should have graduated by now’. I am dealing with these by recognising that most of this pressure comes from myself and acknowledging that I wouldn’t change anything from the last four years. I need to remember that it is OK to sometimes feel a bit out of place and that it is going to take a little while to adjust, rather than berating myself for being ‘behind’. It is also OK to not have a degree or a masters or a job yet, because each person’s life happens at its own pace and it just so happens that my life has taken a much more… eventful path than I ever could have imagined.
I was also unsurprised by the fact that these first few weeks have also triggered some strong PTSD symptoms in the form of flashbacks. I’ve had flashbacks before, mostly about the night of 20th November 2014 when I was in a huge protest in Mexico City that ended up going wrong. However now they are more varied, including images of events that I witnessed leading up to that night, as well as memories of graphic photos and videos that were shared on social media around the time. I’m not going to lie, seeing these unwanted images in my mind has been quite distressing, but I can see where they are coming from. The university campus reminds me of UNAM, I have taken a class about the Revolutions of the 20th Century (OK yes I realise that this seems like the dumbest idea after everything I’ve been through but I swear there’s method in my madness) and in Spanish-American Texts we’re currently reading Neruda’s poetry about the Spanish civil war, which includes detailed descriptions of innocent people being attacked and killed.
It’s important for me to know what is triggering these images and flashbacks, so that I am then able to deal with them. I cannot change what my new campus looks like, but I can meditate on the fact that it is NOT the same one that I frequented two years ago, nor is it still 2014. As working in Latin America in the future is a dream of mine, it is integral for me to know about its history and culture. This means facing up to all sorts of events that have troubled the continent, but may unfortunately remind me of unpleasant things that I have witnessed. I’d rather do this now, in the safety of an English university close to home, than have thrown it at me again when I inevitably go back. I suppose I just want to feel prepared next time I decide to engross myself in another countries political issues (which I reckon is fair enough).
This ability to acknowledge why everything is happening, coupled with various techniques I have learned over the past year for dealing with anxiety and panic attacks has meant that although these flashbacks have been unpleasant, I have been able to deal with them. I know that working through PTSD is going to be an ongoing process for me, but I have surprised myself with just how well I have been coping with it. Much of my self care over the past few weeks has simply consisted of making sure I get the basics right, that I am eating, sleeping and drinking enough, and that I have an adequate amount of alone time to process everything that is going on. I have also done a lot of writing, forcing myself to focus the good times of Mexico and my early twenties rather than the bad, and celebrating everything else I have achieved up until now.
So all in all, I’ve been doing really well. Aside from one panic attack last Thursday during which a new friend gave me lots of hugs and reassured me that I was doing great (you know who you are, you beautiful human, and thanks again), I’ve managed to keep my anxiety levels pretty low the majority of the time and in doing so, have had a really fun start to this new chapter of my life. I am so much better equipped to deal with unexpected symptoms, panics and anxieties than I ever have been, which reassures me that returning to university definitely was the right decision to make this time.
I am so flipping proud of myself. I feel like being all badass and yelling something like COME AT ME WORLD but I’ve learned better than to tempt fate, so I’m going to settle with a little victory dance and a bottle of home-brewed cider that a good friend has dared me to try. Who knew life could be this good again, eh?
Tips for the anxious, exhausted or emotionally drained for surviving big life changes:
- Sleep, eat and drink enough. Getting the basics right is paramount for normal day to day functioning, let alone starting something shiny and new. These three should be an absolute priority before anything else.
- Check in with yourself. When things are new and busy and exciting, it’s so easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of fun and not pay attention to the little things that your body is telling you throughout the day. Make sure you take some time ask yourself: Are you happy right now? If not, why not? Are you tired? Just need a bit of alone time? These may seem like small things but if you let them pile up, mole hills become mountains and everything is a lot less fun than it should be.
- Reverse thinking. This is something I am working on in therapy at the moment. Remember, the thoughts that you feed yourself are very important. If you constantly tell yourself that you are ugly and everyone hates you and you’re never going to make any friends, it is going to be difficult to believe anything else. Instead, tell yourself that you are beautiful and there are lots of reasons that people would want to spend time with you. Even go as far as listing these qualities, if you feel up to it. The world has enough bad people in it without you being your own worst enemy too.
- Positivity mantras. Linking with reverse thinking, you turn your insecurities and negative thoughts around. My current mantra is: ‘I am confident, I am strong, I deserve to be happy, I can do this’. I repeat this to myself whenever my anxiety tries to convince me otherwise and it makes me feel like superwoman (or just a little less terrified). Seriously, try it, you’ll be surprised at just how effective it can be.
- Don’t give up. Whilst the first few weeks can be the most exciting, they can also be the most challenging. You are not a failure because you didn’t make friends straight away or struggled on your first test. Everything comes together in time, so just keep at it.
As always, if you are really struggling please do not hesitate to seek help. Most if not all universities have some kind of counselling service or disabled students office which you can visit at any time. If you don’t know where to find these, contact your personal tutor, student union or even do a quick online search of the university website. I promise there will always be someone to help and listen.
For more information on PTSD, its symptoms and therapies that can help, visit the Mind website. I am also currently reading a book called ‘8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery‘ by Babette Rothschild, which I would highly recommend, especially for anyone struggling with flashbacks.