Up until I was 22 years old, I had only known stability in my life. I lived in the same house for 18 years, went to the same school for 13 of those years, had the same friends from a young age and did not experience any big changes in my family or personal life. In the months leading up to my undergrad graduation, the solid ground on which I’d stood on for so long, started to crack. Like most 22-year olds, I had no idea what came next. Or where. The chest pains started one weekend. The knowledge that I had to leave everything I knew and all the friends I loved, my first home away from home – was choking me from the inside out. I didn’t know what this feeling of certain doom was, but I learned to ignore it because I was in the same boat as everyone else and everybody seemed to be doing just fine.
I got a job in Vietnam at 23 and suddenly I knew exactly what came next and where. Chest pains turned to excitement. Until I got to Hanoi. I could not have prepared myself for the chaos, the heat, the traffic, the sounds and the millions of different things I experienced on a daily basis. The unknown, the unexplainable, the incomprehensible, was all terrifying. But I had gotten really good at ignoring strong, unpleasant feelings and I managed to pretend I could breathe normally until one motorbike ride pushed me over the edge. A full-blown panic attack was followed by a trip to the hospital. Then came the months of therapy with the one English speaking therapist I could find. I learned this was anxiety and that I had been living with it for over a year. I came to understand I had never learned how to deal with strong, unpleasant feelings – so I just ignored them. Despite all that I had learned in and out of classrooms, my emotional management skills at 23 were barely existent.
After finding my therapist, I discovered there were tools to deal with anxiety, there was medication, there were mindfulness exercises, there was meditation; I discovered I would recover. I spent the rest of my 20s in and out of Vietnam and the UK as I did my MSc and got a second job in Vietnam. Sometimes I was seeing a therapist, others I was on medication, others I didn’t need the extra support. In a period of not needing extra support I moved to Oxford to start my PhD. I struggled with the transition from working as a professional to being a student and with moving countries again. I felt I didn’t fit in in academia because I wasn’t working around the clock and I was really lonely. It was another big change that unsettled me and I didn’t want to be here, I just wanted to do the PhD as quickly as possible and leave. But there’s no “as quickly as possible” with a PhD; the weight of everything I had to do crushed me. By my second year I was drowning and spiralling. Luckily, I was able to reach out to my parents, who stepped in, flew me home and helped me find the support I needed.
Since then, I have learned to take the PhD one week at a time. The planner and organiser in me wants to map it all out and make sure I stick to a timeline, and if I don’t, she wants to set off every alarm in the building. I recognise the planner and organiser and tell her to focus on the task at hand only. I am learning how to be okay when I can’t control various aspects of my life. I learned how to meditate, which I’d been meaning to do since I was 23. I learned how to play the ukulele. I learned how to steam dumplings and make bread. I’ve gotten more hobbies during my PhD than in the whole decade of my 20s. With the support I’ve gotten from medication, the occasional call with my therapist and talking to my loved ones (once I finally let myself reach out) I have learned to take better care of myself and I am so much happier and stronger for it. If I have a ‘top tip’ it is to reach out – to a counsellor, your friends, your GP, your family, your housemate. Your support system is there.