[Trigger warning: This blog post contains discussion of depression, anxiety, medication, and suicide. These topics may be upsetting to some readers.]
With summer nearing, I can’t help but think about university. More specifically, graduation. I’ve already written about my 5 biggest pieces of advice for new graduates, but today I wanted to focus on the more sober topic of graduate depression, and my experience of mental ill-health after graduating.
This summer will mark 2 years since I graduated from university. Saying that seems wild. University was, as it is for so many people, a huge part of my life. Acknowledging that my undergraduate days have ended is still hard. Sometimes I’ll be reminiscing and realise I’ll never go back to those days, and it’s like it’s hitting me for the first time all over again.
Graduation day feels like a dream. My memory of it is a blur. I remember standing in a crowd of my classmates, sweating in my robes on the hottest day of the summer so far, but little else. I do remember, though, that I felt pretty lost.
Being a graduate is a hard adjustment. Uni life is like a bubble. After spending 3 or more years living among friends, studying, and being encouraged in a purpose-built environment, leaving that place can come as a shock.
At the time I finished uni, I felt ready to move on. I count my days as a student as among the happiest and best of my life, but when it came to the end, I felt pleased with what I’d achieved and ready for the next step. The idea of a starting a new chapter and figuring out the next stage of my life appealed to me.
What actually happened though was that I fell into a deep depression and struggled to do anything other than sleep or cry for several months.
Mental illness was not a new issue in my life. I’ve struggled with mental illness since I was a teenager. It comes and goes and it’s something I will always live with. But the depression that hit me after graduation still came as a shock. I’d heard of other people struggling with so-called ‘graduate depression’ after university but still I never considered that it would happen to me.
At uni, I had blossomed. I arrived on campus as a terrified fresher, horribly shy and lacking in self-esteem, and I graduated a confident, outgoing young woman with 3 years of amazing experiences under her belt. I’d never had more friends or been busier or felt more successful than I did as a student. I juggled my studies alongside running an active student society, working in at least one part-time job at any given time, volunteering as a student union officer, and still managed to find time to go out at least 3 times a week.
I don’t like to say that uni was the best days of my life, because I’m only 23 and it was, after all, only 3 years of my life. But it was a fantastic time and, even now, I wouldn’t have changed any of it.
Which is maybe what made graduation so much harder on me. At university, I had a strong sense of identity but when I graduated, I felt like I had to start afresh.
I graduated in July and by September, I was having a panic attack at a busy bus stop because I didn’t have the right change. I went from being confident and happy to feeling like a shell of my former self.
Unlike many people, I made the decision not to move home. I wanted to remain independent, get myself a great job, and continue to live in the city I had fallen in love with as an undergraduate. I found a cute little house with a friend and secured myself a job at my former university. It wasn’t my dream job but, I reasoned with myself, it was just for the summer and I would look for a better job while I was there.
A better job came. It was perfect for me. I wrote out an application, the words spilling out on the paper with relative ease because I knew I would love this job. A week later, I received an email telling me I had an interview. I was ecstatic. The first graduate job I’d applied to and I was short-listed. I started preparing for the interview and planning my presentation.
But as the interview date drew nearer, I began to panic. Doubts began to slip in. The job required relocating to a new city. It was too far to commute. I worried about logistics. Could I afford to move? Would I know anyone there? I’d just found a new house in Norwich. Was it rude to back out? It would require leaving my summer job ASAP. Could I let them down like that at the last minute? Soon I was so overwhelmed by panic and worries that, the day before I was due to be interviewed, I emailed them saying I was no longer able to make it. I backed out, because I was scared. My confidence failed me.
Looking back, that was the first sign that I was struggling to adjust to my new life as a graduate.
During the first 8 to 9 months after graduating, I worked a multitude of different jobs. I was lucky that despite becoming so unwell, I was never unemployed and I still managed to pay all my bills. Over the summer, I worked in an office at my university’s accommodation department. When that contract ended, I worked two jobs. Half the time at an internship, helping develop new modules and assessments for a university faculty, while the rest of my time was spent as a Christmas temp in the toy department of an upscale department store. I was working 42 hours a week, with only one day off.
During this time was when I was at my worst. I went to my GP and got put on anti-depressants. Something I’d never been brave enough to do during previous bouts of depression but this time I knew I had to. I couldn’t get out of bed most days. I’d go to bed early, wake at midday to eat something, and then nap all afternoon. I felt exhausted and empty, like someone had taken my brain and hollowed it out. My girlfriend had just begun a year abroad, studying in Los Angeles, and I would spend all day Skyping or Facebook Messaging her, in tears as I had panic attack after panic attack. There were days I would sit in the bathroom for hours because I was so gripped by anxiety that I was trembling and vomiting from the force of how awful I felt. I barely saw or spoke to friends or family, convinced that everyone hated me and had forgotten me. At night I would lie in bed and cry until my throat hurt because I felt so lonely and pathetic.
Some days I made it into work. At my internship, I mostly worked alone in an office with graduate students. I worked quietly, headphones in, creating databases and sending emails. My supervisor would send me angry emails when I didn’t turn up, asking where I was, and I would tell her I wasn’t feeling well. How do you tell someone that you can’t come into work because you’re suicidal? My retail job was easier, for some reason. I would spend all day on my feet, busy and talking to customers. I couldn’t cry and draw into myself. I had to be smiley and happy. So I faked it. It was an escape. Then I would go home, change out of my work clothes, and get straight back into bed. I didn’t tell anyone at work what I was going through, feeling too ashamed and embarrassed.
Thinking about that time now and how much of a struggle every day was, I feel proud of myself. Proud that I carried on. Even when I first went on the antidepressants and they made me feel so sick and exhausted that I could barely keep my eyes open. Or when I would wake up in the morning and try to get dressed for work, only to break down and curl up in a ball on the floor instead. Now I can look back and see how strong I was. I started to just take one day at a time, because thinking about the future would send me into another screaming, crying panic attack. It wasn’t easy but I kept taking my medication and trying to see doctors, even when it became clear that I couldn’t receive therapy or counselling without being put on incredibly long waiting lists. At the time though, I thought I was useless and pathetic.
Some days I saw no point in carrying on, convinced I was a waste of space and would never amount to anything. I had been such an ambitious over-achiever at university. Everyone had told me they expected great things from me when I graduated, and I expected them from myself too. I felt ashamed that, instead, I was having to work two jobs and had stopped applying to any of the impressive graduate jobs I had planned to work in originally.
Eventually I quit my retail job. Not because of how sick I was. A colleague sexually harassed me, asking prying questions about my sex life with my girlfriend that made my skin crawl, and I handed in my notice. It was the end of November, just before Christmas. I had a break from my internship while the university closed for the holidays, so I just relaxed.
It was the first time since graduating that I’d taken a real break. I had a month ahead of me with no work to do, no deadlines, nowhere to be. I stayed with my family and visited my girlfriend in Sussex. When she flew back to LA for school, I joined her for a week-long holiday. I still wasn’t perfect, but there began to be more good days than bad days. I was able to do more, see more people, dress myself.
I finished up my internship and picked up some extra work at the university office I’d worked in over the summer. I was barely earning any money and still not working full-time, but I finally felt able to pick myself up again. The heavy weight I’d felt on my chest every morning when I woke up felt lessened, more manageable now. Eventually I got a permanent full-time job in that university office. It was a simple admin job, earning very little money, but it felt like a huge achievement. When months before, I could barely leave my bedroom, now I had a secure income and every day I got up and went to work and did my job. I had the stability I desperately needed to get my life back on track.
Writing this now, I still have my bad days, but they are far fewer and I can manage them a lot better. I’m happier and less frightened by every little thing. I see my friends and family and I have a good job that I’m proud of. I still take my medication and I’m not ashamed of it. At first I was afraid once I started to feel better that I would be made to come off it, but my doctor assured me that I would only have to do that if and when I feel ready. And right now, I’m not. Which is fine.
Depression and anxiety are something I live with every day. My experiences with graduate depression taught me a lot about how to look after myself. I feel more confident talking openly about my mental health these days, and I try not to make excuses for it because it isn’t a weakness. It can affect anyone, at any time.
These days I take things a little slower, and try not to put so much pressure on myself. Thinking too far into the future still makes me anxious, so I take each day at a time and remind myself that I don’t always have to be perfect and that my thoughts don’t have to control me.
This post isn’t intended to be a downer or scare anyone who is about to graduate from university. I know if I had known that more people struggled to adjust to graduate life, I might not have felt so alone. It’s more normal than you think and there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t immediately fall into a picture perfect life after leaving uni.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with graduate depression, or any mental illness, please know that there are always ways to get help. Please see your GP or talk to someone. If you don’t feel you can talk to someone you know, there are organisations like Mind and the Samaritans that may be able to offer advice or guidance.