That’s the result of my degree – I’m officially a Master of Mathematics and Philosophy, second class, division one. Objectively, that’s pretty good, but with depression I can’t take objectivity seriously. The only standard I fully trust is my own, warped and debilitating though it is. To gain my own approval I have to be better than everyone else, or at least on a level with the best performers. Scarily, though, these standards have always been based in the academic – even in Reception, I was ‘the clever one’; teachers had nothing but praise for me; I actually was top of the class, with relatively little effort, until about the age of 16, when I had to start putting in a bit of work, but only a bit. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I was told off by a teacher through the whole of my school career, and I remember each one because I took it as a personal affront – I was so used to getting away with things (being a ‘star pupil’ meant that eating sweets in the corridor or wearing jewellery wasn’t the cardinal sin it would have been in the average pupil) that I came to feel I just deserved approval.
Given this, it made perfect sense to ground my sense of personal worth firmly in my academic ability. It seemed foolproof. Not that I did it on purpose; but by the time it had become clear at university that I was just a small fish in a big pond (this realisation took maybe three days), the rot had set in and I spent the next couple of years building up the ammunition I would need to convince myself that actually, I wasn’t anything special at all. I wasn’t anything. Subconsciously I ignored anything else that might have boosted my self-esteem, focusing only on the things that had formed my identity (in my eyes) for so long. The mark of each assignment I received back could determine my mood for the rest of the day.
Now though, I’ve sat my last exam. I’ve written my last piece of coursework, had my last tutorial, received my last beta minus for question 3b part ii. I’m not going back into academia (as is evident, it’s done enough damage to my mental health to last a lifetime). So here we have a problem – I have no standard left by which to judge myself. Of course, I’m well practised in critiquing my myriad other faults too, but the self-hatred would stand or fall with my academic prowess. I’m not naive enough to think that with its original source gone the depression will just dry up, but I actually don’t know what is going to happen next.
Ideally I’ll find something truly unshakeable upon which to found some similarly unshakeable self-belief (as a Christian, my status as a child of God would probably be a good place to start). Like a Disney film, the storm will end and I will live happily ever after, preferably accompanied by a cheesy soundtrack. One thing mentoring has taught me is that I might never get better, not ever. All I can do is learn to deal with it, which I am doing, albeit in a frustrating three-steps-forward, two-steps-back kind of way. So the quest to find a new identity begins here, because another thing I’ve learnt from mentoring is that it isn’t too late to try and start loving myself. Today, second class; tomorrow, an exhilarating and terrifying void of uncertainty. At least it will give me something to write about.