When the news broke of a fire in Ramsis, it was as though I could feel its very flames engulfing my heart. I first thought of you and of the grand walls of the station that housed our big smiles and a warm embrace after days apart. I thought of how its platforms delayed the trains, almost as if to give us some more time for extra kisses and long goodbyes.
Then I thought of the girl I met on the train one day, who sat next to me studying for exams that she travels three hours to sit. How she told me about her dreams as I tested her on questions I didn’t know the answers to. I thought of the father standing at the platform, holding his little daughter and how they both waved profusely as his wife got settled into her seat – how they ran and ran alongside the train as she waved and smiled back until they could no longer catch up
I thought of the elderly woman I saw, who jumped the tracks with kilos of flour and bread on her head. She was about my grandmother’s age working in the blistering heat trying to make a living for her children while I was on my way back to Alexandria to spend what I didn’t know would be my grandmother’s last days.
I thought of the single mother I had spotted on a train one morning, with two children and not a single train ticket and how the man sitting next to me paid for three tickets just so she could make her journey.
I thought of my friend, John and of the first time we met – how he offered me a seat by his bookshop and charged my phone on a night when my train got delayed and I was waiting alone. He offered me a seat every time I went back to Cairo and gifted me a book to remember him by.
As I waited for my last train that summer, all the others stared and stared at the sight of young love on Cairo’s platform. John gave me a tissue to wipe my tears and reminded me of the rarity in having a love that hurts to leave behind. Little did we both know, that I was leaving it behind on that platform for good. I thought of the last time I was at Ramsis. How I was no longer leaving behind love, but a friendship that grew out of it.
I thought of all these people. If they got a chance to say goodbye. If they were on their way to say hello. If Ramsis was their first stop or their final destination.
Sorcha Doyle is a 23 year old MA student at Trinity College Dublin. She is studying to become a secondary school English and Religion teacher. In her own time, Sorcha writes poetry, performs stand-up comedy and runs a healthy-living Instagram account: @unislimsorcha. I got to ask Sorcha some questions about her personal journey with mental health, weight-loss and learn about the correlation between both in her life. We also talked about social media and the role it can play in body image and young people’s mental health.
MERIEM: Can you tell me a bit about the correlation between your mental health and your eating habits? When did you start to notice that you were using food as a way of “comfort” when dealing with issues like anxiety?
SORCHA: This question for me, is about my journey with my body and my body image – which is a long one. I suppose, my direct answer is that I really had no idea up until maybe, 2015 or 2016? I’ve been suffering with anxiety and depression for years. I was diagnosed at 16. My mom brought me to the doctor because I couldn’t get out of my bed for 2 weeks after my first heartbreak. My boyfriend and I had broken up, and I obviously took it extremely hard – but even before that, God, I had textbook symptoms. I didn’t know what I know today. I was heavily stigmatizing it and I didn’t understand at the time what I was feeling. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to a doctor, because, in my head, that was losing. When I was in primary school, I was definitely heavier than my peers. People noticed it in primary school. I don’t necessarily feel like I was bullied – I was actually quite popular. It wasn’t until secondary school, that I became hyper-aware of my body. From the summer of first year to second year, I lost a lot of weight, even though I really wasn’t trying to. I got a lot taller, so I stretched out completely. My body completely changed. I was actually quite skinny until TY. Of course, in my head, I was still “heavier” than everybody else, though the reality might have been that I wasn’t really. Like many kids my age at that time – I was also spending all my days, nights and weekends on Tumblr. I became, or at least I wanted to be, this like, “emo, scene” kid. When you’re suffering with anxiety and depression, you can feel like no one in the world could possibly understand you. I now had this community or circle on Tumblr that did understand me, or at least, it felt like they could. I was on Tumblr for a sense of belonging. I thought everybody online was very cool. Of course, with everything that was going around on Tumblr at the time, like Pro-Ana blogs (pro-anorexia), everything you could imagine a horror story of a teenager coming across, I came across there. It kinda fucked me up to be honest. I had a skewed sense of what was “beautiful” and what I looked like in comparison. I was gaining weight at the same time that I was going through the process of being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and so I suppose there is a correlation there. I gained weight very quickly. I went from a size 14 to 16, at the age of 16. Up until I was about 18, I was between a size 16 and 18. Then, when I started at UCD, just after my CAO, I was a size 20. Looking back on it now, at the time, I was accepted for a performing arts school in New York, and for one reason or another, mostly financial reasons, I couldn’t go. I had to forfeit my place. That really spiraled me. That was my dream, it was all I wanted. I took it extremely hard. Going into UCD, I was a size 20. It’s impossible to express the anxiety and the fear of doing everyday tasks. From the age of like 17, I hadn’t worn a pair of jeans, because I literally couldn’t fit into any. My first few days at UCD, I felt so out of place. Luckily, I had a great group of friends, Andrew and Luke, and that was all I needed. One weekend, we went out for a friend’s 18th birthday. I was wearing a dress and heels. I was dancing and my knees buckled underneath me. What had happened was that my knees had been worn down over time from carrying the weight of my body. That meant that the joints had no more cartilage between them, and it was now only bone to bone. I put it down to being drunk and I went home. I was mortified. The next day my knees had blown up and I went to St. Vincent’s hospital where they told me that I had rheumatoid arthritis. I was put on diafene, which is a really strong anti-inflammatory drug. They told me this was because of my weight. It really solidified my negative feelings about myself. I was angry. I was angry at the world and the hand it had dealt me. I felt like I had nothing, even though in the grand scheme of things, that wasn’t true. The thing about mental health is and I’ve always said this, is that your views and your experience with your mental health is your reality. For one person, spilling food on your trousers, could be just that. For someone who is at the fucking edge, that could be the thing that pushes them over. I mean that so seriously. There was points in my life, and I’m not proud of them, where I felt like there was no reason to be alive. It’s horrible, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody – but it’s how I felt, genuinely. It wasn’t until I got my hands around my treatment, my medication and started therapy, that I became more self-aware of why I was feeling this way (which was all rooted in my self-esteem and eating habits). It was then that I knew that if I didn’t do something about my weight – I might die. I was pre-diabetic. I had rheumatoid arthritis. I was on 9 different medications a day to get through a day, pain-free. If I didn’t change something, I would die from what I was putting my body through. Instead, I decided to live. I decided to join UniSlim. I don’t believe that losing weight cures depression. I just mean that for my personal journey, with my depression being so rooted in being “wanted”, in wanting to be “normal”, to “fit in” – and I know being “skinny” doesn’t make people happy, but for me, it made me healthy. I know that probably sounds problematic. I had people message me to tell me that it’s problematic but at the end of the day, my experience is my journey, and my truth. I don’t care what other people have to say about how I helped myself.
MERIEM: What did it mean to you to become Unislim’s Youth Ambassador in 2016? Was there a certain pressure that came with that title, or was it all just pure joy and a sense of accomplishment?
SORCHA: This is an extremely sensitive topic for me. When I entered for UniSlimmer of the Year, I had accomplished so much. I had lost 5 and a half stone and I was in such a good place. Then, I made a very poor decision – which was to throw myself into the public eye. I had such a positive reception, and I don’t mean to place any blame on UniSlim or the awards. Again, it comes down to my perception, and my perception being my reality. I put such an unfair pressure on myself. When you lose weight, sometimes, and for me this was the case – it took years for me to have a clear understanding of what my body looks like. I had spent years being huge, so when I was tiny, I had no idea. I could see on the scales, my weight going down, my clothes’ sizing getting smaller, but I just didn’t “feel” skinny. When you struggle with mental health issues you can have extremely negative coping mechanisms, and mine, were all rooted in validation. I wanted people to love me, to want me. When it came to the UniSlimmer awards – my brain snapped in half. Even though people were so kind to me, I also saw people commenting that I was “too skinny” and other awful things. The UniSlim plan works. It’s based on healthy eating, but I took it too far. I was cutting meals. I was over-exercising. I hadn’t eaten crisps or chocolate or take-away for a year. I stopped drinking alcohol for a really long time. Which in themselves are positives but when I eventually had a minor slip up, I went off the wagon entirely. With the awards I could see how many people were voting for me, what people were saying, and on the UniSlimmer awards website, for a long time, I was first. Then, I was second, and I would see the numbers changing and I was so concerned with my place. I don’t mean to put blame on UniSlim, but coming up to the awards, head office did ask me to lose more weight to meet the awards’ requirements. I don’t know if it’s because they had my numbers or information wrong, maybe they thought I was a different weight than what I actually was – but it broke me. At this point I was already not eating, and all I could think was “amazing, I’m still not good enough”. I felt like I was dying, my anxiety was horrendous. It was a living nightmare because when I was fat I didn’t feel good enough, and now that I was skinny, I still didn’t feel good enough. Being skinny didn’t fix my problems… when you lose weight, your body changes so drastically. There are things that aren’t necessarily “beautiful” about it. With clothes on, I might have looked perfect to the outside world. Underneath, I had extra skin, stretch marks – my breasts were tiny. I had so much extra skin, I looked like a deflated balloon. I felt so ugly. But when I became UniSlim Ambassador, I did feel fantastic at first. Then, and I was warned about this, I felt like no one cared about me anymore because it was an anti-climax. And again, this is just my perception, but it’s how I felt. The individual people at UniSlim are amazing, but at the end of the day, it’s a corporation. When I was not “useable” to the company anymore, I was forgotten about and that’s not personal. For me, suffering with this deep need for belonging and being wanted and “rejection” – it hit me really badly. My UniSlim leader, Jean, knew that and she told me not to go through with the competition. A week before the awards, I wasn’t getting up out of bed again. I lost 2 pounds the week before the awards. Then, another 5 pounds the week of the awards. 7 pounds in a single week, just from stress. I felt at that time I was not someone to be looked up to or admired – but I think what was appealing about my story is that I am honest. I care enough about my Instagram following to tell them the truth. I made my UniSlim account to do just that. When it comes to eating habits, you have to be honest. It’s people’s lives that you’re messing with. Also, with being a teacher, I learned the importance of being a role model. To help the little Sorcha’s of the world. Like any human being, I make so many mistakes, but that’s so okay. It’s so okay.
MERIEM: Social media is one of the biggest enemies to those struggling with their body image. How has social media affected the way in which you view your own body? Do you think that boys struggle with this to the same extent as girls? Or is it a female targeted epidemic to feel and share a certain body image as “ideal”?
SORCHA: I think it’s clear the negative impact social media can have. I try to be as honest with my accounts as possible, to be a positive force online since young people are so vulnerable. Power like that can have a detrimental impact when it’s abused. Although, I do also believe that social media is important and can give a sense of belonging to young people – especially when you feel different and misunderstood. It can be used for good and I do think that social media is changing for the better. We just need to be more mindful, and more mature with what we post – especially celebrities, because they can influence young people so much. I am definitely on board for banning weight loss advertisements and endorsements on Instagram, such as Flat Tummy Tea, the skinny lollipops, it’s all fucking deplorable – especially when they don’t work. I say this as someone who has tried all of them and let me tell you – it doesn’t work! People who have created these products should go to prison, because it’s preying on the most innocent and vulnerable of our society. Influencers, like the Kardashians, whose bodies are perfect – it’s awful, because as a young person you don’t know that their bodies aren’t like that because of a lollipop. You believe what they say! As for the male experience, I can’t speak for a man and his experience, but I do think it affects them fairly equally. From my experience at UniSlim and even from my dad, I can tell you that the isolation of being overweight is not an exclusive feeling to women. It’s no easier for a man to be the butt of a joke than it is for a woman.
MERIEM: Can I ask you about your post on your Unislim account on November 1, 2018? What did it personally mean to you to address putting weight back on and how did you feel sharing that post? How were you able to push your mental health and attitude in a positive direction to become excited and motivated to start a-new and to lose the weight again?
SORCHA: I refer to it as my “comeback” post. I was away from UniSlim for so long. I also went to New York. Coming back to my UniSlim account in November was a turning point for me. I was in a completely different headspace. The anger I felt about things that had happened with UniSlim and the disappointments – it was all old news. I had gained about 2 and a half stone from the 5 I had lost, which is a lot to gain in a little over a year. However, the things I had achieved in that year, such as graduating UCD, having a year of my masters under my belt, travelling and doing so many things for me, doing things that didn’t involve how I looked – it made me want to hold myself accountable and the post was a good way of doing that. I’ve always been the type of person that, if I don’t set a goal or challenge for myself, I won’t do it. So, posting that post, was a way of doing just that. It felt good for people to support me, to be honest. I felt ashamed to have gained weight, but I didn’t need to. I know a lot of people won’t understand why posting my weight loss and experience online means so much to me, but it truly does. It makes me feel like I have structure, which is definitely something I lack. That post in particular, being responsible for my actions was also so different to my constant habit of repressing things. Even in New York, I was getting noticeably bigger, my clothes weren’t fitting me anymore, but I was just in denial. I think by standing on a scale, going back to UniSlim, I was starting a new leaf. Like I said in the post, I am so much older and somewhat wiser now since I first joined at 19. I decided there’s no point saying “I gained this much back”, but to start saying “okay, this is what I weigh now, today and that is what I want to weigh or the goal I want to reach.” I try to motivate myself everyday by motivating others. Self-care is paramount now. I express love and gratitude to my body as much as I can. I do small, seemingly insignificant things everyday to show myself love, like going to my UniSlim classes, taking my medication, skin care, making sure I set aside time to pamper myself, getting my love of cooking back and being mindful – these small things help me so much, especially when I tend to fall back into my bad habit of stretching myself thin.
MERIEM: You once said that you are your “biggest critic.” Where do you draw the line between constructively criticizing yourself and beating yourself down?
SORCHA: I am and will always be my biggest critic. You asked me where I draw the line, and I think, a lot of the time, I don’t. I push myself way too far and if I have one slip up, I completely berate myself. I can’t even begin to tell you why I am like this, because I honestly don’t know. Especially because I’m not at all critical of other people. I practice love everyday. I’m a compassionate person, but for such a long time I couldn’t extend myself that basic courtesy of respect. I ignore and ignore and ignore my issues and problems until I can’t anymore – until I’m hysterically crying in a shop and everyone’s looking at me. I won’t ask for help, because that would be failing, or so I thought. The only time I get a slap to the face about it, is when I dare air my critic to someone close to me, like a friend or a sister, and they are genuinely offended that I would ever speak about myself that way. Also, my leader Jean, who is perfect for shaking me and telling me to literally look at what I’m saying about myself, and how angry I would be if someone said that about someone I loved. It’s really hard to keep yourself in-check, and to keep your internal voice in-check, but I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t hate myself. Becoming more in-tune with my own spirituality and being mindful and reading and connecting myself with something bigger has been really helpful. Recognizing that I am one blade of grass in this big field and surrendering myself to the universe has eased me. Abolishing negative vocabulary in my life, in every form, and teaching my niece and my friends to do the same too. To know that I am learning and taking something away from what I am teaching my niece for example – it helps me to be more mindful and to understand how my words and actions affect others. It helps me to better manage my inner critic.
MERIEM: Without taking away from those who, like Miss Jamil, suffer from body dysmorphia – I have to ask about if it concerns you that someone like Jameela Jamil (who is considered of the “ideal” body type) is becoming one of the biggest advocates on positive body image, including issues regarding fat-shaming and weight loss and “plus size”?
SORCHA: I don’t claim to be an expert in mental health or eating disorders. The only thing I’m an expert in is my own experience. I personally think, that Jameela Jamil, is a phenomenal person. I think anybody who uses their platform to send out a message that’s bigger than themselves is so amazing. I think everything she has had to say, for the most part, has been extremely valuable. One thing she posted recently, is that she’s a “feminist in progress” and I thought that was fantastic. With internet culture, if someone does something wrong, they’re “cancelled” – I think it’s important for statements like that to be made, especially by people like Jameela, who are so well intentioned. At least, as far as I can see, she is. That her voice and what she has to say is more important than her accidentally posting something from a company who has, at one point, said something negative – it’s almost like a witch hunt at this point. I think she’s a fantastic role model and yes, she might be of the “ideal” body type, but that doesn’t take away from her experience as someone with body dysmorphia or eating disorders and more important her opinion as a woman of colour – she is as valid to represent a community as any. There are so many women who stand for plus size bodies, even in the Irish sphere. We have so many models and influencers advocating for plus size and there really is a change being made. It’s easy for anyone to open up Instagram or social media and see the amazing work and progress being made, not just by Jameela, but also, in online retailers like Boohoo or Pretty Little Thing, who seem to be trying to push out a plus size and curve line which can just change lives. Seeing thick girls rocking clothes online like that would have saved me a hell of a trip as a young teen. Obviously, there is still a lot to be done, but I think we are moving forward. I like to think we are all trying our best.
MERIEM: What advice can you give to someone who is struggling with their body image? What can you say to someone who might be suffering from poor mental health?
SORCHA: Again, I don’t claim to be an expert, but the one thing I would say is – if you feel like you’re suffering with anything, do not suffer in silence. Reach out to somebody. It doesn’t have to be a doctor, but even a friend or a family member, anyone you trust. To make sure that someone knows whats going on within you, and if it is available to you, to seek professional help. It’s really valuable and it can’t really be substituted. One thing you said yourself Meriem, is unfollowing people who make you feel negatively. I couldn’t agree more. One of the best things I ever did for myself was unfollowing people who I harbour negative feelings towards for whatever reason, or who make me feel negative about myself, or to be frank, I don’t like. I unfollowed celebrities who constantly post things about weight loss – I actually don’t follow any of the Kardashians anymore, or any celebrities really. Only ones who post funny things, really. Creating a safe place for yourself online is important. Not to sound overly-sensitive but blocking certain words on my Twitter feed has been super helpful. Honestly, just not over-saturating myself with the internet in general. I think that the internet is a fantastic tool but one of the best things for my mental health, is knowing when to take a step back from it. Knowing when things aren’t worth my energy. My advice to anybody suffering, is to not do it alone. We weren’t meant to walk this world alone. There is someone out there for everyone. There is no way it can’t get better. I’ve seen myself at rock bottom, I’ve seen other people at rock bottom – the only way is up. There is help out there for everybody. The day you stop trying, is the day you fail. So, if you don’t stop trying, then you’re still coming out on top.
Youssef Khowessah is a 19 year old Egyptian student. He studies International Business and Finance at the University of Tampa, Florida. Next to his studies, Youssef is an athlete; a swimmer. He has been swimming since the mere age of 4. I talked to Youssef about what swimming means to him today, how he keeps himself motivated, taking breaks from an extremely tight schedule and how he feels towards men’s mental health.
MERIEM: How do you balance swimming next to your academic studies? How do you maintain control over such a hectic schedule?
YOUSSEF: I train for 20 hours a week. For me, it’s all about time management. Setting a schedule for yourself is the key. I believe that the most important thing for me in a schedule, is finding some time every day to do something I love, so that I don’t get sick of that schedule and abandon it. I like watching crime shows, for example. I make time to watch at least an episode or two a day and I work for the rest of the day. It’s important for me, to not waste my time. Time spent watching an episode is not time wasted, but three episodes is wasting some time. I’m also the type of guy who doesn’t tend to really check social media often. I might catch a brief look while I’m in bed, before I sleep, but I can’t afford to be on my phone for hours during the day. So, if I take a long phone call on a certain day, then I won’t watch TV and vice versa. I work on my assignments throughout the weekdays and get most of it done then, in order to be able to go out on the weekend and have some time left to rest. I’m definitely not perfect though – this is simply examples of the type of things I aim for and work towards. I get lazy sometimes and can’t seem to even get off the couch. Sometimes the episodes end on cliffhangers, so I keep watching on or a maybe a phone call with a friend goes on for too long, but I’m enjoying it. Mainly, it’s the aim in your head that is important. It’s important to know what you must do and do it as soon as you can and not leave it until the very last minute.
MERIEM: How do you keep a healthy mindset and stay high-spirited/focused during championships?
YOUSSEF: I think there is good and bad in everything in our lives. The events or the things that happen around us, and to us, change our emotions and perspectives and lead us to see one (bad or good) more than the other. I believe that the secret to being happy, which is what I consider my “healthy mindset”, is acknowledging the bad in everything and knowing that it’ll always be there, but then choosing to be happy anyway. It’s not looking at the half-full part of the glass but rather the whole glass. Both the full and the empty part, and then being grateful that at least it’s half-full and making the most out of it. So, during championships there is an added stress of races and their results. For me, it’s a championship. For others, it might be something else. Never the less, they all uphold the same concept, whether it’s an exam, a match, or a target at your job. The thing that helps me the most is knowing that I’ve done what I can. I accept whatever the result is. I have great faith in God and I believe in fate. I believe that if I did what I had to do and worked hard, then God will always give me the best possible outcome for me and my future. Sometimes, that outcome may be losing the race, not winning it. That doesn’t mean that it won’t result in something better and bigger for me in the future than what winning the race might have done. I try to not be too worried or nervous because it helps me perform better in races. It can be really hard for me to do so sometimes. I actually worry tremendously and I can get very nervous, even if I do not tend to show it.
MERIEM: Do you think that young men your age struggle to discuss their mental health? Do you talk to your male friends about your personal struggles?
YOUSSEF: I must admit, I am not the kind of person who will easily open up to someone about how I feel. There are very few people in my life that I feel I can truly tell how I feel and share all my problems with. A few of these people are males. I used to keep everything bottled inside me and it was extremely toxic to my mental and emotional well-being. I learned that the hard way – the importance of talking with others about how you feel. When I started talking to my close friends, I would feel so much better. And yes, I do think a lot of men find it hard to talk about their feelings. Many think it’s a sign of weakness. I believe otherwise though. If you can talk about your feelings, then you are strong and you have overcome a barrier that many others cannot.
MERIEM: Who is someone who has inspired you during hard times?
YOUSSEF: There are a lot of people who inspire me in different ways. You (Meriem) inspire me greatly, with your hard work and determination, despite the fact that you face numerous hardships and barriers almost daily. I respect how you make everything work out so greatly in the end. I can never pull it off like you do. Reem Bagato has also inspired me, with her extremely strong character. She made me see how you don’t have to be what people want you to be. You can be who you want and stand up for what you believe in and people will respect you for it. My best-friend, who I consider my brother, Ahmed Ashraf, is as loyal as anyone can be. Seeing him with me, his friends and most importantly, his family, is truly inspiring. How he would do anything for his family and friends is amazing. Amir Aboud is another, and his ability to talk with and get through to anyone, no matter who they are. Forrest Lundy, who grew up on a dairy farm with no TV in his house. He knows how to woodwork, milk a cow, carve wood, ride a horse, shoot a gun. Marc Caron, who learned a language fluently in only four months and simply, does not shut up. I can go on and on. Every single person has something special and inspiring about them, if you look for it. I truly believe in that.
MERIEM: What do you hope from men in the future?
YOUSSEF: To be gentlemen. To break social norms that press men to be careless and harsh. Being a gentleman is no easy task. It’s not just dressing properly, but it’s also treating women with respect, not lying or deceiving, speaking good or not speaking at all, helping whenever you can and whoever you can, standing against what is wrong, having good manners, treating elders nicely and with respect, promoting what is right, setting an example for others, smiling, being chivalrous and so much more. As my swim coach, Jimi, constantly says “always do what is right, not just sometimes.”
MERIEM: What does swimming mean to you today?
YOUSSEF: Honestly, I don’t plan on becoming a professional swimmer. That means that my swimming career is coming to an end with college, which is soon. Therefore, I’m beginning to prioritize other aspects of my life over swimming – especially things that will help me with my career. Things like doing an internship and being more active on campus, like joining a professional frat or club. However, I would not have done any less towards swimming, and if I could go back, I would do it exactly the same, all over again. The things I learned from swimming are priceless and I would not learn them anywhere else. I learned extreme time management, being determined no matter the barriers, being target-oriented, failing many times and getting back up, knowing that failure comes before success, having the ability to endure a very tough schedule, being a hard worker, knowing that hard work pays off and that it’s a must for success, having a good work ethic and having a sportsmanship.
MERIEM: What is something that you have learned about your mental health? And what advice would you give to someone who is trying to maintain their own?
YOUSSEF: I learned that good mental health is essential for all aspects of my life. I also learned that I shouldn’t keep trying to protect myself from everything that may hurt me. Go out there, you never know until you try. If you don’t like whatever you try, then at least now you know that, and you know how to handle it. I know that our minds sometimes plays tricks on us and lead us to believe things that aren’t true or aren’t there. I advise people to talk to someone if they are feeling down and to avoid bottling things up. I also advise them to look at the glass as a whole, both the empty and the full. Be grateful and make the most out of it.
Julia Cornejo is an Irish 20 year old student. She studies Mental Health Nursing at Trinity College Dublin. Last week, I sat down with Julia to discuss her field of study, her own personal mental health and how she feels about the current issues regarding nurses and midwives in Ireland.
MERIEM: What do you find most challenging about being a mental health nursing student?
JULIA: What I find most challenging is when people expect you to have all the answers. They can forget that you are still a student and are therefore still learning. I feel as though I constantly learn new material, which could be said to be both the most “challenging” thing and the most interesting thing about being a mental health nursing student. The long hours are pretty difficult too.
MERIEM: Do you feel like, in order to care for patients who are struggling with their mental health, you therefore must be in accordance with positively and successfully maintaining your own?
JULIA: Yes! It is essential that you walk into each mental health service with a healthy mind-set. If you don’t have a healthy mind-set, it becomes obvious. What person is going to trust you or want you to be their mental health nurse if you fail to look after your own mental health? Why would they take your advice onboard if you can’t either?
MERIEM: What do you think is the most rewarding thing about being a mental health nurse?
JULIA: I’d just like to emphasise the fact that I’m still a student and I still have a lot to practice and to learn. However, I think the most rewarding thing is when you have seen someone feel very unwell and then you see them progressing towards recovery by making positive changes in their lives. It’s rewarding to know that the person has received the appropriate amount of help from mental health services and has been supported in making those changes. To be able to discharge someone who you have worked with must be the highlight of the job, although I am yet to experience this.
MERIEM: What do you do to disconnect from your intense studies and also from the harsh realities you come face to face with in the hospital? How do you take time out for yourself to stay positive and light-hearted?
JULIA: I think this is a really important issue to discuss because I have found it difficult in the past to “leave work at work”. When it comes to college, I like to go for a run or a walk just to clear my head because I’m the type of person that could go over their work a million times and still not be happy with it. So, I get out of the house to clear my head and forget about college work, even if only for an hour. Once I’m back, I can return to the work I was doing with a clear head. I do find it much harder to disconnect from the work I do in mental health services because it is so intense and it can be quite overwhelming. Generally, I don’t get too bogged down about placements unless I experience something particularly difficult that day for one reason or another. When that happens, I usually just like to come home and spend time with my family whether it just be having dinner or watching Netflix. It might not seem like the most pro-active way of coping, but sometimes you just need to put the experience out of your head, spend time with your loved ones and just gather your thoughts. Sometimes you are just too busy at placements to reflect on your experiences from that day and it only registers with you once you have finished and are at home. It has happened a few times, where I have experienced something on placement which upset me, but I did not realise how much it upset me until I arrived home and broke down into tears. Sometimes you just can’t help but think about what happened that day, and that’s okay too. You are only human. I either think about it enough, or don’t think about it at all so that I am ready and fresh the next day for anything that comes my way. Every day is different, so I deal with every day differently. Staying positive and light-hearted can be difficult at times, however while being a student mental health nurse can be tough – I always try to remind myself of what a privilege it is to be in close contact with the people who are using the services. To hear their stories and be able to offer help where I can. I always try to look at the brighter side of life in general and be grateful for everything I have been given. When I reflect on how fortunate I am, it makes it hard to feel down.
MERIEM: What do you have to say about #StandWithNursesAndMidwives? What does this movement personally mean to you?
JULIA: Personally, this will determine whether I stay in Ireland or leave. I have been advised by more than one staff nurse who has lived abroad previously and practiced nursing abroad to do the same. Nurses have told me that if they knew how bad nursing was before they returned to Ireland, that they would never have come back to Ireland in the first place. There are too many nurses working too many hours, getting too little pay, and whose standards of care are dropping because they are just exhausted. They have given everything they can and are exhausted with their lifestyle. Why would I stay in Ireland and be an unhappy nurse, when I can live abroad in a new exciting country and be a happy nurse? I think people often question whether nurses choose to be a nurse for the pay or to care for people. If you are in nursing for the money, you are in the wrong profession! And yes, other countries pay more abroad, but that is not the main reason why nurses are moving abroad. They move abroad to be happy with the kind of nurse that they are. Many move abroad after working in Ireland briefly, because they see themselves becoming exactly the kind of nurse that they don’t want to be; a nurse who is unsafe because of time pressure or a lack of resources or staff. A nurse who is passionless in their job. A nurse that doesn’t have time to spend with the people they are caring for because they have a million other things they need to do. A nurse who works through breaks or stays behind at work because of the overwhelming workload. A nurse, who ultimately then, regrets deciding to be a nurse in the first place. There are so many brilliant nurses in Ireland who have lost their spark because of the healthcare system and the working conditions. These nurses deserve to be the nurses that they want to be, just like their fellow nurses living abroad.
MERIEM: What advice would you give to someone who might be struggling with their mental health?
JULIA: The best advice and most immediate advice I could give to someone who is struggling with their mental health is to tell someone they trust. The weight will be lifted off your chest and 9 times out of 10, you will feel instantly better. A problem shared is a problem halved. It can be daunting telling someone such a personal and intimate factor about yourself, but sometimes just hearing it out loud can help you understand what is going on a bit better too. Maybe it’s not as bad as you thought or maybe it’s worse, whatever it is, it will not get better if you keep it to yourself. Worst case scenario, the person you tell isn’t helpful? Try someone else! You will only get a chance of receiving help if you let it be known to someone that something is wrong.
MERIEM: What advice can you give to someone who is thinking of taking up a career in helping others with their mental health?
JULIA:My first piece of advice would be to have a genuine interest in mental health and helping others. You shouldn’t get into this kind of career if you only have one and not the other. You need to have both theory and practice knowledge, not one without the other. You also need to know that no matter how much you study and no matter how much experience you have – the person experiencing mental distress is the expert of their mental health, not you. Regardless, you need to have an active interest in both mental health and helping others and you must always be prepared to learn something new, because you will never know it all. A nurse once told me: “if you ever meet a nurse who says that they know all there is to know about nursing, they’re an idiot!”. I don’t know about other careers in mental health, but do not do mental health nursing if you are looking for the big bucks – you won’t get it… just turn on RTE News if you don’t believe me.
That I am “overflowing”. Brimming and spilling out of jars, that you are trying so hard to squeeze me into. High up with the stars, shining just as bright – if not brighter. Blinding everyone and everything in my way. Sailing from one broken lover to the next. Desperately trying to fix the broke that’s in me. Cutting at myself and hoping that if I cut deep enough, I will bleed out.
That I might become a little lighter. A little easier for you to carry. No longer “too much” – but just enough. Enough for you to love me. Enough for you to come back. Before you, I had never felt the need to apologise for being too much. Never saw it as a curse to feel the world’s entirety, in a heart that fits a size 6 body. In skin so soft, it breaks on its own. A face so small, it barely houses my hushed brown eyes or my smile so wide on a day when I am truly happy.
I used to think it was a gift. To be given the ability to feel so much more than what I am. So much more than what I should be capable of believing in. Of being. But for you – only for you, would I willingly rip away at my heart and cleanse it of all that it feels. I will teach it boundaries and limitations. To know when to stop pursuing more than what the world willingly gives to me. To stop giving so much. To the world. To people. To myself .