I have a HNC (Higher National Certificate) in Business studies from college (it was a Uni course, but was taught at a college), it should have been a HND (Higher National Diploma) but I missed the last term, so missed out on the necessary points to gain a HND. I worked my way up from basic certificates in Business studies and was hoping to eventually get a PHD, but life got in the way. To be fair, it’s impressive that I got as far as I did.
Four years (at least) of being in full time education, in the same building, with the same tutors and the same peers all studying the same subject. Looking back, I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did. Us PDAers prefer change, we don’t tend to do as well when things are constantly the same, so for me to have lasted over four years doing the same thing nearly everyday is evidence of my stubbornness (or the stubbornness of demand avoidance). On the very first day the tutors gave us a long lecture on what to do should we decide to quit the course at any time. Apparently it would involve having to discuss via phone exactly why we were quitting. It goes to show how deeply our brains latch on to a perceived fear and the lengths we will go to to avoid it. Despite the obvious pain and mental health issues continuing to go to Uni/college, I preferred to suffer than face that phone call.
The first year wasn’t too bad, towards the end of the year I started to flag and demand avoidance kicked in big time. I could see light at the end of the tunnel (summer holidays), a break from the constant demands. It helped that coursework deadlines were a constant throughout the year instead of all at once at the end of year like in school. However, the constant deadlines took their toll, I’d somehow get through one lot of coursework only to face a new set. The year would start off okay, I’d get the work done usually on time, but towards the end of the year it would get harder and harder to complete it on time. Luckily, even the work I did in a hurry the night before seemed to garner good grades. I passed the first few years with distinction in every class.
It was after the first two years that the issues really started. Along with the constant depression I’d carried from my teen years, I was also faced with social anxiety which waxed and waned according to how well/badly I was managing my depression. The holidays (however brief) was like much needed air after being underwater, I would go back to college full of energy and vigour, intending that this time it would last. It never did though and before long the demand avoidance would start and my depression would worsen.
It didn’t help that I had little respite at home too. Being a single parent to a young child and all the associated housework that comes with having a house. Not to mention my finances were dim at best. I’d have to wake early, get son ready for nursery/school, take him then make my own way to college. I’d spend the day at college then pick son up, make our way home where I’d make dinner, spend a little time with him before his bed when I’d then have to catch up on coursework before heading to bed myself. There was little time for anything else and weekends were usually spent keeping an energetic child occupied while doing shopping and housework and whatever else needed doing. During the holidays I’d spend a few days catching up on neglected chores before reaching an even keel. I’d end up thinking that maybe things weren’t so bad, that I could manage after all, only for college to start back again and the whole process would repeat.
I noticed this pattern occurring again and again, and although knowing the holidays would make things easy again it only helped a little to extinguish the difficulties of college. If I’d known then about PDA and why I struggled so I could have made so many changes, life would have been a lot easier. Sadly I had no knowledge and was under the assumption that I was perfectly normal. I just couldn’t seem to manage what others seemed to do easily.
By the forth year I was suffering from headaches and migraines on a daily basis. I would wake every weekday morning with a feeling of dread. It would take me ages to get out of bed and I spent ages contemplating what excuse I could use to get out of having to go to college. At the worst points my attendance was so low it was surprising I managed to get any coursework done. I basically blagged my way through most of it, somehow managing to get high scores with little effort. So many days I phoned or emailed the college with an excuse as to why I wasn’t in. The excuses must have been pretty convincing and I was careful not to use the same excuse more than was believable. While avoiding going to college might have been seen as a lie, the amount of times I had to leave early because of feeling unwell was true. It did baffle me how I would get a headache just from walking into the building, and I did last as long as I could, taking copious amounts of painkillers which did little to relieve the pain, only for the headache to disappear once I was off the college grounds. I started to believe I was doing it on purpose. Now though, I know it was the stress of being at college that was causing the headaches (and migraines). The stress of having to mask and conform, listen with Auditory Processing Disorder and make sense of the instructions given. No wonder my head ached.
It wasn’t just the work aspect of college that caused problems. Despite my decent masking skills, I still struggled with the social aspect. Many days I spent breaks alone, filled with anxiety about why no one wanted to sit with me but equally scared of being asked to sit with others. Some times the college would be almost empty and other times I couldn’t move for students. There were days I was convinced other students were talking about me behind my back and I thought everyone hated me or put up with me because they had no choice. Dark days! The friends that I did make were friends of convenience, the type that you only make because you happen to be in the same place as each other, like work or school. I could never worked out what others thought of me or whether they liked me or not, it was all very confusing.
Even with lots of choice and control of my own education it was still difficult and damaging health wise. I actually struggled more in many ways that I did at school simply because college/uni was a self-imposed demand as opposed to school where I didn’t care whether I did anything at all except to avoid trouble. Wanting to do well made the whole college/uni experience harder. If, as an adult with many coping strategies to use, I still struggled, then imagine how hard it is for those who aren’t as able to manage and who care about doing well in school. No wonder so many PDA kids find school difficult to navigate.