If the messages in the group chat I occasionally follow are anything to go by, then most of the other people on my course are currently stressing (and I mean, majorly stressing) about exams. A few weeks ago, I was with them in their panic – in fact, the stress was consuming me and devouring every thought. If I didn’t have an open text book or some lecture slides in front of me, I was panicking about the fact that I wasn’t working enough, and I ran myself into the ground in pursuit of… What? Letters on a page? In my mind all I had was those exam results; they were, at that point, the be-all and end-all.
But eventually the re-shuffling of priorities induced by deteriorating health and the (far too) occasional urges to throw everything away, led to a more sensible ranking of significance. I panicked when I started sleeping 16 hours a day, and then 20 – not because of what it meant, but because I couldn’t revise enough any more. And then there was no energy left for the major panic that would have eventually led to near insanity. Exams and university began to slip from the top of my list of priorities, while in everyone else’s lives they seemed to cement themselves into the number one spot. I devoted as much free energy as I could to trying to study, and the stress of failing to do so was still very much there, but it wasn’t all consuming any more – because I was slowly failing.
I ignored everything else and threw all my attention at exam preparation, until it was time to admit defeat. I reached a cross-roads, I guess. Two parts of me were hanging over the edge of a cliff – my exam preparation and grades, and my health, and I could only save one of them. So I grabbed many blankets, curled up on the sofa with my dog, and gave in to the sleep that I couldn’t fight any more. Letting go of what had been my number one priority was hard, anything below what I’m capable of is never enough for me, and I now know that I’m going to fall far short of that. My best is probably going to match what was previously my worst. If I can manage to sit these exams at all.
Still shouldn’t matter, but in truth I don’t think I ever fully let go. In the past three days, between my inability to breathe, and the chest pain, the fatigue, the swollen ankles and the dizziness (on top of the other complicated health issue that was threatening my life anyway before this) every spare minute has been devoted to revision. I fall asleep onto the pages. I struggle to focus. I feel like a failure when I see how far behind I am. But I revise, and reassuringly, I have yet to write something that I don’t understand. Am I retaining any of it? Probably not. But does it divert my attention away from much more difficult thoughts? Yes. And I need that right now. I need to not think about the self esteem that seems to have deserted me. I need to bury the self hatred. I need to override the sense of failure. I need to ignore my health… I need to shut out the world, because I don’t know how to let anyone in any more. I happen to love my degree, and once again burying myself in the work it demands of me seems to be saving me. This studying, fuelled by panic, resulted in me working my way through more lectures in three days than I had in the entire three weeks before that point. And the work that took place after that was fuelled by an overwhelming calm (and the pizza and other refreshments that I ordered, because obviously they were necessary for revision).
I no longer expect to win. I don’t expect to emerge unscathed – emotionally as much as physically – from any of this. The pressure of everyone else’s expectations was, for a long time, too much to handle. But it doesn’t matter any more. I know I’m not going to do well even if they don’t. I’m not ok with that at all, but it is no longer my focus. There is no room in my mind for any more panic, the stress of failing to prepare can’t get any worse (luckily for my heart). Family stuff can do no more damage – I am prepared for things to kick off and when they do the destructive thoughts that wormed their way into my mind last night will run from my mind like water from a duck’s back. I will carry on, and I will keep going. And this cannot get any worse. Not because I’m strong, not because I have figured out how to cope, but because I am at capacity. Breaking point has been and gone. I have finally stopped grabbing at the broken pieces – their sharp edges can no longer wound me. I will leave those pieces behind, and somehow carry on. Because there never was any way but through. (I just lose sight of that. A lot.)