By Aisja Mahmood
CN: Exams, stress, revision
“So, how’s revision going?”
Don’t answer that, I just thought I’d keep in line with how everything else seems to start at Cambridge come week 8 of Lent term. Reality is, there’s eleven days to go until my first exam, and I haven’t revised. At all. If I think about it too much, I get an occasional pang of anxiety – I had a group revision session earlier today and it really hit home how little I seemed to ‘know’ in comparison to everyone else – but then I remind myself why I decided to take this stance in a place like Cambridge.
I’m a mature student and prior to coming back to education, I had some really messy years. I struggled through most of my life with poor mental health, which I retrospectively realised was essentially just the result of undiagnosed ADHD and Asperger’s. I had no idea my brain worked differently and burned myself out trying to do what was expected of me, socially, at work and in education. I had a massive ‘breakdown’ when I was 19 and ended up an agoraphobe with panic disorder and severe depression. I felt unbearably lost for years, and while I now see it as the start of a spiritual process, in the early days of recovery I really felt like I’d been robbed of years of a ‘normal’ life.
But, the gift of my ADHD Asperger’s brain, is that I love understanding things; despite my own struggles, my job roles were always explicitly supporting people through varying forms of crises, be it acute mental distress, addiction, homelessness, domestic violence – or most often a combination of all the aforementioned. My sole purpose for my entire adult life had been to help people understand the world around them and build up ways of making things work better for them.
So, I began my journey of getting to know myself and why I felt how I did. I learnt about different ways of life (needless to say I’m a social scientist), I threw myself into understanding alternative medicine, alternative models of health and life purpose, I learnt complementary therapies and started to heal myself. Combined with my work experiences, my parameters of what I’d been taught was an ‘acceptable’ lifestyle was smashed to bits, and this is where my philosophy on radical self-care evolved. I found a way of living that prioritised my health and wellbeing, and I advocated for the right to do this relentlessly. I finally deeped the compassion that I had always been so willing to share with the world.
“I will fight tooth and nail to challenge the idea that there is only one way to be a student.”
It sucks that it’s the case, but I know a lot of institutions in modern society aren’t compatible with my philosophy of rainbows and flowers and self-care. Our worth is based on our productivity and if we can’t achieve what we’re told we should, it not only has external repercussions, but can really distort our perceptions of ourselves. Unfortunately, exam culture fits right into this. Just last week, Cambridge University Students’ Union released an infographic that according to the annual Big Cambridge Survey Report, stated that ‘just 36% of undergrads think Cambridge is a healthy and positive place to study’. I’m not surprised. The normalisation of stress and competition is harder to step out of than it is to internalise here. My first two terms were a complete shit-show, my mental health hit rock bottom for the first time since my breakdown, and I think I cried in front of about 90% of people I’ve met here. But, it really doesn’t have to be this way, and anyone who tells you it does (or ‘that’s just how it is’), is lying.
If education is such an unhealthy and negative experience, “why are we here?”, some may ask. I came to university because I’ve always loved to learn. As someone with Asperger’s, my repertoire of both general nonsense and highly specialised knowledge can feel uncanny. Sometimes I remember specifics without knowing why I know it, sometimes I toy with concepts in a broad way and unpick ideas until there’s nothing left. Sometimes I can spend entire days stuck in thought about things that have nothing to do with anything. As someone with ADHD, I can’t remember things for shit and I can’t focus my attention – it goes without saying then, that my ‘intelligence’ is rarely reflected well in exams, or any standardised systems for that matter. Yet I also know that a lot of the work I want to be able to do is inaccessible to me without a degree, and for that fact alone, I will fight tooth and nail to challenge the idea that there is only one way to be a student.
But under no circumstances will I ever again place what other people value, above who I am, in the pursuit of anything. I don’t need a 2.2 to know that I read a really cool ethnography that changed an entire perspective I had, and the allure of a first will never be enough to make me want to grit my teeth through another colonialist take on savages. The organic nature of following my brain’s fleeting curiosity is what I love the most about learning, and no grade can validate that. Learning doesn’t have to be a complicated and stressful experience, and I don’t owe anybody my journey or my experience here. Not being able to bang out four essays a week or meet the standards of the exam process has nothing to do with failure, but merely reflects the rigidity of an outdated system that doesn’t allow any space for neurodivergence, and I’m committed to changing this.
I know that not everyone can take the stance I’ve chosen to, and that’s just as valid! Whether it’s our own goals, plans and expectations, or social or familial pressures, there’s plenty of reasons that working a particular way takes priority. The key for me is developing a society that doesn’t only facilitate one vision of success or achievement at the exclusion of another, and using my position to try to influence this. So please, just do what ~you~ can in a way that works for you, and celebrate that. Rest up, take care of yourself, and let this be affirmation that your brain is a magnificent thing, no matter how the rest of this term pans out.