Student pressures led to my body dysmorphia
When I was 15, I began the New Zealand curriculum, called NCEA. When I was 17, I left school and was diagnosed with bouts of depression.
It is difficult for me to admit that these two moments in my life are linked and yet I think, for the good of the mental health of other NCEA students, it is necessary that I explain why.
My years during NCEA were ridden with stress. That stress bled into anxiety, anxiety led to panic attacks and panic attacks eventually led to depression.
The assignments were constant. There was never any time to rest. During holidays, I had assignments to complete or exams and mock exams to study for. The worst part was, I couldn't complain.
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If students felt overworked, the teachers claimed it was our fault; that we simply didn't know how to manage our time, that we were lazy, that we procrastinated. And so, I kept quiet.
Most people around me were sleep-deprived. In my last year, nearly every assignment I did ended with an all-nighter, finishing at eight the next morning.
I was expected to get hundreds of credits every year when I only needed 80.
There was a subtle pressure that if I didn't complete those credits I wasn't one of the excellence kids, I wasn't a high achiever, I was lazy… I wasn't perfect.
From the age of 15, the idea of perfection was drilled into my head. The desire for good grades, of having that title, bled into every aspect of my life, especially food.
I had notebooks with titles like "Project Perfection", in which I would write down the calories I was consuming, along with enormous lists of school assignments to complete, and the many hours I had exercised that day.
There was a poster on one of the walls of my psychology class that said: "Whiners make excuses. Winners make the grade." This inspired a new obsession for me.
I remember writing it in my notebooks: "Whiners make excuses, winners make the grade. I will make the grade. Whiners make excuses, winners lose the weight. I will lose the weight."
I started controlling my food after a health assignment in year 11 in which we had to list our food intake and exercise for a period of time. Although it came with good intentions, I started realising I had this control over my food and it gave me a sense of certainty, of power. By the beginning of year 12, I was eating a carrot for lunch.
One day, I wrote a list of all the things I didn't like about my body. It ended up being a whole page long.
Whenever one of my assignments was returned with something less than excellence I would have a panic attack. I would cry for hours in my room. I would binge eat.
With my body dysmorphia already severe, the bingeing only worsened things. I got caught in a vicious cycle of starving myself for a time and shakily writing assignments in my room, until the stress got too much and I would binge.
When this would happen I would hate myself so much and punish myself by eating even less than before. This cycle soon turned to perpetual overeating and major depression.
Near the end of the third year, I couldn't take it anymore. I finished the bare minimum of credits needed, shamefully walked out of a school play I was a part of, and left the school with my excellence badge.
Today, I'm 18 years old (I skipped a year so I was a young year 13) and I've recently survived a suicide attempt.
I live with my parents because I'm incapable of getting a job or thinking about my future. Formerly being a high achiever, I now have no desire to go on to university. I still hate my body and struggle with bingeing.
I'm better now than I've been in a while and I'm currently in therapy.
For those of you who have gone through something similar to me through NCEA, I want to assure you that there is hope.
If I think about what those years would have been like without all that pressure, I would be enrolled at a university today. I would have been studying law or psychology or maybe pursuing acting. Those years would have been calm and free from perpetual anxiety.
I don't want to lie, I would have still been an insecure girl, but nothing as bad as I experienced. I would have had a real childhood, those years would have been lived differently.
There is no point in holding on to the past and to what could have been.
I have a story to share and I hope it helps other students, I hope it changes things. I am not brave enough to expose all of the darkness that really went on, but I hope the little that I've shared with you will help you, and help change things for the better.
Where to get help
Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757
Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116
Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).