Living with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder at university
It took five years before I was successfully diagnosed
Let’s start with the fun stuff. Periods. I started mine just after I turned 13, meaning that the longest I could have possibly been dealing with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder is seven years and 10 months. Yes, I’m including the 10 months because that equates to 10 cycles and 10 months of additional hell.
Lots of girls are scared when they first start their periods. I was relieved, proud even. It made me feel like a woman. My best friend started her period two months before me and I was bizarrely jealous. I felt like a little girl next to her and I wanted to be a woman.
Then came the sudden awakening of different emotions I didn’t even know I could feel, each fighting to rear their ugly heads and take their turn to be swung on the shakiest of mood swings. It’s really no wonder I spent the first three years of my “menstruating life” being passed from school mentor to school nurse to school counsellor to therapist to psychiatrist to another therapist to paediatrician and every other Tom, Dick and Harry in-between, that might be worth referring me to.
As a teenager, I had various types of medication pushed down my throat. From different combinations of the contraceptive pill in order to regulate my periods, to full blown anti-depressants, without anyone actually telling me why I needed them. I didn’t fit into any of the categories of a mental health illness. I could go weeks at a time feeling perfectly fine and then something would happen that would that would spin me into a hormonal mess with zero self-esteem and no desire to wake up in the morning.
It was extremely difficult to deal with while I was studying for exams at school and it created a huge strain on my relationship with friends and family. I’m sure at times it made my parents feel as awful as I did. Especially when they watched their 15-year-old daughter recover in hospital after almost succeeding in taking her life. All because nobody understood what was wrong with me, myself included.
I eventually got diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder five years after starting my period and it gave me a huge relief to have a diagnosis. I didn’t feel like a freak anymore. I had an illness that other people had.
Worldwide, PMDD affects three-eight per cent of women in their reproductive years. Symptoms vary but the most common include sudden shifts of mood, anxiety, changes in appetite, insomnia, fatigue, irritability, severe depression and feelings of hopelessness.
I no longer let my struggles with mental health define who I am, it has made me a strong person. Nevertheless, it’s still tough to deal with at university. Mental health is still a fairly taboo subject and distinguishing a level of trust with a new friend is difficult to gauge. At a time when everyone is trying to portray themselves as being as cool as possible, nobody wants to put their hand up and admit they’re battling demons. Saying that, the friends I have made at university have been nothing but supportive. I’ve been lucky to meet such decent human beings.
Looking at the statistics of students with mental health illnesses is surprising and saddening. A survey conducted by NUS in 2014 found that 78 per cent of students had faced a mental health issue in the last year, with 33 per cent also experiencing suicidal thoughts.
My message to other students, or anybody battling a mental illness, is to remember that no situation is ever permanent. There’s always help there when you can find the courage to ask for it.
An arduous aspect of dealing with mental health illnesses while at university is trying to socialise in a healthy way. I don’t expect any sympathy for this but I still want to portray the reality of being a student with a mental health illness. A huge part of student culture involves drinking and, to a certain extent, taking drugs. Both of which have implications for physical health, and certainly significant impacts upon mental health. Yet, when most of your friends go out two or three nights a week, it can feel just as damaging to stay in and isolate yourself with negative thoughts.
Let’s admit it – drinking is fun. Nine times out of ten, going out sober and pretending to enjoy yourself results in regret and leaving early. The alternative is to put depressants into your body and wake up the next day feeling a lot worse than you might have done. It can feel like a lose-lose situation.
University is also a time where many students experience financial difficulties, it’s the first time many of us have lived away from home and learning to live on a budget can be tough. Don’t even get me started on the subject of measly student loans and the cost of accommodation.
On top of that is the whole reason why we’re all here: to get a degree. Juggling exams and assignments with therapy sessions and doctor’s appointments is tricky. However, I try to see the positives in my illness, on one hand; I have a deep sense of inadequacy that makes me believe I’m not good enough for anything. On the other hand, that same feeling pushes me to participate in extracurricular activities beyond my studies. I doubt I would have become the Volunteering and Fundraising Officer of my students’ union if I didn’t have that desire to prove my capabilities to myself.
Even seemingly simple things like ensuring you get enough sleep and eating properly can make you feel less stressed or anxious. Whether you have a mental health illness or not, it’s important to practice self-compassion. Making time to relax and do things you enjoy is not being selfish, it’s looking after yourself.