The Leaving Certificate…It wasn’t an educational exam or gateway to colleges and career opportunities for me…no it was my very first mental health exam and I bloody failed miserably!
Would I go back and pass if I could…..not a chance!
There is no doubt in my mind that the leaving certificate was the most stressful anxious horrible time in my entire life!! Why am I so confident in that statement?? Easy answer, I had a mental health breakdown! When I say a breakdown I don’t’ mean I was carted off to a dark isolated secret hospital, on a trolley strapped up in a white coat screaming like a banshee! No but unfortunately that’s the image we think of when we think of mental illness and breakdowns!
Anyway, why did this exam cause such a dramatic effect on me? Because quiet simply, I was so anxious, so worried, so stressed about it that eventually I cracked! However I was more like an egg placed in hot water, I was bubbling away there for a long time before I cracked! Who placed me in the hot water?? My parents? No!!! They never put any pressure on me! They only ever supported me and my mother’s motto in life is ‘Everything always works out in the end!’ So no not my parents! Was it my teachers? No, I honestly cannot recall feeling any severe pressure from any one teacher! Although I know as soon as you enter fifth year it is all warnings of buckling up now for the big leaving cert!!
So that just leaves me really! It was all me putting pressure on myself! I’ve honestly no idea why! It wasn’t as if I knew I wanted to study law or medicine and needed five hundred million points! In fact I’d no idea what I bloody wanted!! But this bloody exam just took over my life, my world, my head, my thoughts, everything! I’ll never forget walking up the path to a brand new school, brand new year, a major change moving from a convent to a community school, I was going into fifth year and happy out! However with every step I took I began to feel strange, weird (yes more strange and weird than normal lol), I was eating an apple at the time and all of a sudden I burst into tears! My friend was with me. ‘What’s wrong’ she asked so concerned…’I don’t know’ was all I could say…little did I know that was the very moment I was placed in the hot saucepan of water…
I was an average student but I was pretty good at the subjects I really liked and was able to do really well in those classes…the classes I had no interest in I struggled with…a concept not so foreign really!!
But I wanted to do well, I had to do well, I could not fail, I had to be brilliant at everything! I soon became a pro at OCD! I would write out a full page of an essay and if I spelled the last word wrong I’d rip it up and start again! I hear you saying would you not have just used tipex you idiot…but no because that was covering up a mistake whereas I didn’t want a mistake there at all, covered up or not!!!
I remember my favourite teacher calling my mother in to tell her that I really needed to relax a bit doing my homework! It was as if I was writing another textbook every time I sat down to do my work in the evening and I spent hours doing my homework!
As the anxiety got worse my homework methods got worse! I was soooooo bad at languages and I remember really wanting to do well in German! I couldn’t understand why I sucked at it! Surely if I worked harder I’d get it right??
Wrong, I just couldn’t do the whole language thing and instead of realizing that languages were something my brain wasn’t wired up for, I berated myself for not getting it! I was disheartened and miserable so I came up with a crazy dangerous method of going my vocab homework…for every word I got wrong I would slash my arm with a razor blade…yes I told you it was crazy and dangerous!!!
The nearer it got to the exams the harder I worked, the more stressed out I became, the more anxious I got! I then went on to develop social anxiety! Being out in crowded situations really frightened me, it made my heart beat so hard I thought I was going to die, I would start to sweat profusely and become even more anxious so eventually I’d just have to go home! I remember one night being out and I ended up in the middle of the seat with about five people to my left and five to my right! They were all my friends and I was having a great time until bang it hit me…..I’m right in the middle! Then I freaked out (silently) and had to go home straight away, just up and gone! Were people aware….no, I told nobody how I felt because that would be admitting I felt like I was going crazy. And that was such a taboo!!!!
I cried so much too, soooooo much, I felt like I was drowning and couldn’t save myself! I couldn’t get out of the water…that saucepan, and the damn water was beginning to boil. I could feel myself cracking! And nobody could get me out either! So medication was introduced! It dampened my feelings of hopelessness but certainly didn’t alleviate it completely. But back then, (no I’m not that old it wasn’t the dark ages,) I didn’t really know about all the other ways I could have helped myself…mindfulness, CBT, meditation, reflexology etc. etc.…
So the leaving cert came and went, I managed to sit the exams and went in anxious, stressed, upset, tired, nervous, worried and I came out alive…yet needless to say I done pretty crappy! No I didn’t fail but I certainly didn’t achieve anything near where my potential was!
So I repeated in Dublin and struggled with anxiety and depression for that whole entire year! My poor parents were distraught with me! They went through a really tough time! I advanced from slashing my arm to more severe forms of punishment if I got my work wrong and my study timetable was so unhealthy. I was performing great in class but to the determent to my health! My teachers used my work as examples within the classed and I was getting A after A in class tests! My principal was amazing and when I got too worked up in school I used to go into his office have a rant and a rave then sit down and have a cuppa and a chat! Maybe the odd cigarette but ssshhhh on that one!!!!! Lol He was brilliant and I’ll never forget what he did for me!
At this stage I was on major medication for depression and suffering from IBS but refusing to take anything for it incase it took from my concentration for study!! I was at some stage around here seeing a psychologist but that’s a blur! Crazy when I think back!!! I studied like mad although I had days where I couldn’t face life and would ring my mother to ring my school to call in sick for me. On those day’s I couldn’t face life and cried all day alone in my bed, then get up and eat, then get angry with myself for calling in sick and wasting a day so go punish myself…as you can imagine my poor poor mother…I’m going to give her a hug next time I see her!!!
Anyway…I was getting A’s and A’s…went into my exams anxious but confident as I was soooooo ready…..but nope as soon as I got that bloody paper all my work went out the window and anxiety jumped on top of me…I messed up so many of the answers, even forgot to answer some of them…it all went to pot because I was so bloody anxious!!!! ARGH!!!
But I did do a lot better than the previous year and ended up going to Maynooth to study Arts. I became a teacher in the end….because I want to be on the inside, (the classroom, the school, the school yard)……I want to be there to tell the students what I went through and what anxiety is and how it ruined my life while I was doing the leaving cert…It’s important yes of course but it’s not worth your life or your health. And in knowing that students can actually perform better! Of course there are students out there that actually need a different type of chat…’like are you going to open a book at all??’ lol
So, I failed that exam mental health wise, but in the long run I hope its something I failed so I could use that experience to help other students going through it!
Why am I a good person to tell others that the leaving cert is not something to sacrifice your health on? Because I’ve been there and I’ve come out the other side, I can look back and say wow…what a time I went through! Furthermore, look at me now, in a position to tell students coming up to the same time in their life now that they can do this!! But not only can I just say it, I can see it in others, recognize that same old anxiety creeping into their heads and I can do something about it!
That’s my dream now, to help others with that son of a bit*h anxiety, to overcome it and kick it in the ass! Will I ever achieve that dream? I don’t know but I know I can give it a good damn try! I have a passion to try and a passion to help! It feels good to replace that horrible anxiety with this growing passion. That passion that came about from that anxious time in my life…so maybe it was my path, who knows!!! But my mother was right…everything always works out in the end!
So would I change things, would I go back and pass that mental health exam? No, I don’t regret a thing; it has shaped the person I am now. It fueled my desire to help others, it has helped others already! I hope it helps more in the future!
Thanks for reading J