While doing a bachelor's degree at a London-located university, I experienced disturbing psychiatric symptoms, and my mental health was at a low. I had enrolled for a four-year degree course, yet my delusions and paranoia were devastating. What seemed even more daunting was that I still had a wish to gain a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).
I was convinced that my fellow students and tutors were out to get me. I believed that the secret service was tapping my phone and that it was a matter of life or death for my cassette player to turn itself off automatically. The symptoms were worse at the end of each year when I took exams, and it was often even a struggle to reach the desk and chair in the university hall where the written examinations were held.
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I was in denial about my condition
What also set me apart from other students was the intense study I carried out. At the end of year four, I won a university prize for coming top of my class. The delight I felt encouraged me, perhaps surprisingly, to stay in academia, and I decided to apply for a scholarship to do a PhD.
I still had not been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I was essentially in denial about how bad my condition was. I forged ahead and soon learnt that I had been awarded a place and funding to study for a PhD at a prestigious UK university based in the north of England.
Still in London and exhausted from graduating with a BSc honours in politics and history, I decided that I'd get a manual job for the summer months before starting the PhD. A local employment agency found me a vacancy working as a street cleaner. The experience was worthwhile. While I was expected to be physically fit, I found that I could relax more, and the job offered me a degree of comfort. I continued to have though mild symptoms and some delusional thought.
Moving from London to the North did not pose that many difficulties. I was having a break from the studies, and my mood was fine, knowing that I was about to enrol for a PhD. I moved into accommodation on campus and soon met my supervisor, the professor assigned, to steer me through the doctoral programme.
It takes the PhD student three years full time to write a thesis or book of 90,000 words, at the end of which he or she faces an oral examination to defend the central arguments and justify the study's claim to originality. The PhD is notoriously difficult to pass, so success becomes even more challenging for those with mental health issues.
After settling in at the university, I travelled to archive offices throughout the country. Armed with an array of data, in the following twelve months, the order of the day was gruelling hard work accompanied by much mental anguish and suffering. I'd study for six hours each day, and as well as individual research, the day was also punctuated with tutorials and visits to the university library.
My tutor, a world-leading expert in his discipline, was in that first year also serving as acting head of the university, so he was not that available, and I had to give ample notice before meeting him. This became critical by the end of the year when I needed a good deal more support.
My situation became worse by the intense noise coming from other rooms: heavy metal bands considerably marred my days as stereos blasted out loud music, the effect of which was to seriously harm my mental state. I found private study at the university library, given my inner voices, was also not suitable.
The psychological pressures were too severe, so, without further ado, I decided to withdraw entirely from postgraduate study.
I desperately packed a few clothes and walked to the city railway station, and from there I made my way by train to London where my parents lived. The journey down was unbearable. I arrived eventually at my mother's home, and she knew that something was seriously wrong, so she called her local GP, who one hour later confirmed that I was in the throes of a nervous breakdown.
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From being totally defeated to achieving my ambitions
I was admitted to a psychiatric ward of a London hospital, where I received after six weeks there a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. In one fell swoop, I went from being a PhD prospect with a bright future to being an in-patient in the dregs of society.
It was a long path to recovery, but the anti-psychotic meds helped, and I had support from family and friends.
The delusional thoughts subsided, and I got back to studying for the PhD, writing only minimal amounts each day, and combining this with part-time employment stacking shelves in a supermarket.
Eventually, I completed the thesis, and I was invited to attend a viva. I felt highly nervous, and I went through a gruelling two-hour oral defence of my thesis, during which I almost broke down. The external examiner, a professor of education, asked me to make some minor changes to the submission, which I duly carried out.
While shopping in Foyles bookshop in London, I got a phone call to learn that the examiners had passed me. I could now refer to myself as ‘Dr Lewis’. It was wonderful news. And so, ended a long chapter in my life that had been harrowing and distasteful at times. My long-held wish to qualify at the highest level in a subject area close to my heart was finally realised.
The joy I experienced on hearing the examiners' final verdict was like something I'd never felt before. I was rewarded for all the hard work I had put in. From a position of feeling totally defeated, I achieved an ambition that was very far removed from what is expected in society from someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.