Last month I started college at the age of twenty-four. This may not seem like such a big deal for some people, but, for me, it’s a huge achievement. I never, ever thought the day would come where I would step foot back into an educational environment. It hasn’t been the easiest but it sure has been a ride.
Eight years ago, when I was fifteen, I left school. I didn’t do too badly in my exams – I came out with ten GCSEs, all between the grades A*-C. I was over the moon with my results and managed to secure a place in college to study three A-levels. I had chosen to study drama, media, and sociology. I stayed for a month, perhaps even three weeks, before I dropped out. This is pretty tough to talk about but I have to own my story and experiences.
As Dumbledore said:
Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.’
School had been tough for me. I had been bullied throughout both primary and secondary school. As some of you may know from previous posts, I suffer from severe social anxiety, which, as you can imagine, was made worse due to the bullying I experienced. I could not wait to leave. I had naively believed that all my school-related problems, including my social anxiety, would be solved by finally leaving. It was naive because that’s not how anxiety works. I didn’t realise it then but my anxiety ran deeper than school – I had social anxiety before I even went to primary school at the age of four. School had been a contributing factor to the severity of it, but it was not the cause. As you can imagine, leaving school didn’t make it disappear. Instead, my anxiety manifested itself in a different way which then caused me to struggle in college.
I suffered from daily panic attacks during my time in college. These panic attacks were debilitating and terrifying. Everything to do with college was a major trigger for me. I struggled to make friends because I was too anxious to start a conversation with them. It meant that I never became comfortable being in class… so I avoided class. I avoided the canteen and the library. I was terrified to be around them, and, in those moments, I missed the comfort school had provided. I had learned to become comfortable in my discomfort. Then, one day when my bus was late and I missed the beginning of my first lesson of the day, I had the worst panic attack I had ever suffered at the time right outside of the classroom door. I froze. I couldn’t knock on the door and walk into the class. I was anxious – no, petrified – of the stares, the judgement, the whispers. I was convinced I would be laughed at or yelled at by the tutor. That was the day I decided to leave.
Except I wasn’t yet ready to give up on my education. So, after a long conversation with both my parents, they encouraged me to apply to the other college in our area. I applied, crossed my fingers, auditioned, crossed my fingers again, and was then finally accepted onto a performing arts course. Drama had been one of my best and favourite subjects in school, which still makes me laugh considering how ironic it is that I could, with my social anxiety, get up in front of people to perform. My sister had successfully completed the same course when she attended college and she absolutely loved it. I craved that. Except it just wasn’t mean to be. I lasted less than a week. The tutors had been accepting, helpful, and kind towards me in the run-up to my first day. Then, on my first day, attitudes changed. The tutors treated me as though I was merely an inconvenience for coming in five weeks late (the college allowed for late enrolments as long as the student caught up in their own time). When the tutors talked to me they were cold and dismissive. At sixteen, it was tough to deal with, let alone being sixteen with severe anxiety. The panic attacks continued. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be there. So I left. Within the space of just over a month, I had quit two colleges. I felt like a complete and utter failure.
I had convinced myself that further education wasn’t for me. In all honesty, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had no passions, no hobbies, and I had never been one of those kids who had dreams or aspirations. Looking back on it, I think this stemmed from the belief that I was not and would never be good enough. What was the point in having dreams if it was never going to happen for me?
A lot happened between those failed college attempts and now. Without getting into too much detail as it probably deserves its own blog post, I became agoraphobic after an extremely traumatising experience during my first job. With the exception of appointments I was comfortable attending and being with my parents, I didn’t leave my house for two years. If there was any chance of me needing to speak with another person then I couldn’t leave home. Home was my safe space. Stepping foot outside the front door was hard. There were many tears and numerous anxiety & panic attacks. Eventually, I recovered from that. It was an extremely long, arduous process, but is something I’m immensely proud of myself for, something I will talk about in another blog post.
This post has been quite negative up until now. My life hasn’t always been bad. In the years since I quit college at sixteen to starting college again at twenty-four, I’ve found love with a man who, for some insane reason, adores me. We’ve been together almost five years and have lived together for two. I’ve had several jobs, some worse than others, but I’m now in a job that I don’t hate. I’ve made friends. I’ve gained confidence and happiness. I smile now because I want to and because I have reasons to, instead of plastering a smile on my face to placate other people, to fool them into thinking I’m okay. My smile these days is genuine.
And I’m taking control of my life. I have hobbies and passions, things that ignite a fire within me. I’ve finally realised what I want to do with my life, which has led me down the path to going back to college, something that I did vow I would never do again. I’ve been in college for six weeks now and it’s a vastly different experience. I’ve made friends with everyone on my course, I love the subjects we’re learning (except math, nothing can ever make me love math), and all of my tutors are warm and friendly and helpful. The tutors really want to see us make our dreams a reality.
I was extremely worried about being the oldest in my class, even at twenty-four, but, to my surprise, I’m not. We’re a complete mix of ages, ranging from nineteen to forty. What connects us all is that we’re there for a reason. We’re all there because we have a dream and a desire to improve our lives. All the people I’ve met on my course are absolutely amazing and seriously some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. I have no doubt that their futures are bright.
I got quite emotional the other day because I realised that this is now the longest I’ve ever been in college for. And you know what? I have no intentions of quitting. I’m determined to succeed. I wasn’t ready for college at sixteen but I’m ready for it now.