She’s feeling pretty resilient now, but Megan (27) has had to work hard to feel this way. She has been through periods of stress, gloominess and other problems. ‘But if you wallow in that, it only becomes worse.’
The history degree course wasn’t right for her. Megan knew that after a year. She gave it up and worked in a bookshop for two years. She was still attracted to the idea of studying and at a friend’s advice she chose Dutch literature and language. ‘Why?’ Out of vanity, I think. My entire peer group had gone to university en mass, I couldn’t stay behind.’
Megan is now 27 years old and she has been studying Dutch for almost five years now. It took her over eighteen months to write her bachelor’s thesis. She began her master last spring.
Increased level of alertness
There are some issues that prevented a smooth study: stress, for instance. ‘That comes the moment I look in my diary and think I may not manage it all. That’s when I start to procrastinate. I don’t sleep well, I’m at an increased level of alertness, but nothing happens. I do go to the library, but I sit there doing nothing in front of a screensaver. Once the stress has subsided, I become very dejected. It’s like an after effect. During those periods, I don’t feel anything apart from very unhappy. It’s like I’m putty, that can’t move. It’s usually a matter of waiting for it to pass, often in September. At first I’m still out of sorts and agitated because I have to get back up to steam, but in October I feel fantastic again. Until the deadlines start coming. Then everything falls apart again.’
Another issue is that, since the age of fourteen, Megan has been deliberately harming herself, by scratching or cutting into her skin. This became worse at university. ‘Especially when I was studying history and shortly afterwards. I had just moved to Amsterdam. I thought it was a stinking city and I thought the VU was a stinking university. The lecturers were a pain. I didn’t like myself at the time either. I had no idea what I was doing there.’
She never talked about her secret. ‘I’ve only started talking about my problem the last two years or so, before that I never told anyone. It wasn’t until I went to my GP with an inflamed cut, that he asked me if I had done that to myself.’
She finds the word self-mutilation a rather grotesque word for her problem. ‘People immediately think of serious mutilation, whereas the psychologist says it’s more like neurotically pulling your hair from your head, or biting your nails until your fingers bleed.’
Megan thinks her tendency to self-harm is stress related. ‘I don’t respond well to stress: I really hate that frightened and hunted feeling. Stress manifests itself physically with me. I don’t know if self-mutilation is a direct result of that, it might be. Studying means sitting still and concentrating. That’s very difficult when you feel everything has to be finished quickly. Perhaps that’s why stress and studying don’t match.’
Whatever the case may be, Megan finds that her tendency to feel depressed is easily enhanced by study related stress. At first she complained about feeling so down, but now she accepts it as a part of her life. ‘If you wallow in it, it becomes worse. Of course depression is serious, but it’s very common. It irritates me when people get together and start acting depressed. That’s asking for it and cherishing it. Of course it makes you feel special when you think you’re the only one who’s depressed, but once you start to recognise the medication strips around you, it’s suddenly a lot less exclusive, it makes you a bit of a moaner.’
So seeking professional help, wasn’t at the front of her mind. Until her flatmate ‘sent’ a friend to see a psychologist, because he wasn’t doing anything anymore. Megan: ‘The way I saw it, he was a relatively successful boy, almost graduated, he had a good resume. I always thought he would make it. When that turned out not to be the case, I realised that you don’t have to be crazy to see a psychologist. That made it easier for me to go.’
She didn’t really dare talk about her problems with the first psychologist she saw: ‘That was a very stern man.’ But she did realise quite quickly that there’s no point in seeing a psychologist if you’re not prepared to talk about all aspects of your personality. ‘You have to take the bull by the horns’.
At a friend’s advice, she went to see a student psychologist. ‘He taught me that it’s possible to take responsibility for your own feelings. It’s just like riding a bicycle. You learn through practice. When you can’t do it yet, it seems incredibly complicated, but once you can do it, it’s easy. You have to grab hold of yourself. That sounds very simple, but it did take a while.’
Force of nature
She has become harder and tougher on herself and doesn’t wallow in self pity as much anymore. ‘At first you feel the depression is a force of nature that swallows you up whole. And the first few times it is, but after that you start to recognise it. And then at a certain point you get a grip on it. I have become better at stopping myself from going too far. I also suffer less from mood swings and when I do have them, I don’t take it out on others anymore. It’s not their fault, after all.’
She has learned a lot during her time at university and she has become more resilient. ‘It was a roller coaster ride. I think it’s all part of growing up. I wouldn’t say I am now great at dealing with depression, but I am slowly getting better at it.’
Now she wants to graduate quickly and find a nice job.