My first year at university is now over. Originally, I planned this post as a ‘highlights reel’ – listing off some of my favourite moments from what promised to be an extraordinary year. That isn’t what you’ll find below. Instead, following on from my recent comment piece about student mental health, I want to be entirely honest about my difficult university experience. This piece was written on the 8th May 2016, a little over a month before the end of the academic year.
Anyone struggling with mental health or wellbeing difficulties at university can find links to help and support at the bottom of the post.
Happy voices call and laugh beneath my open window as I lie, desolate and foetal, on my bed or, on particularly bad days, my floor. This is not the experience I was promised in all those shiny prospectuses, on polished open days, or by students in upper years. The “best years of your life” trope is all too common on social and mainstream media, and it isn’t fair.
University should, by all intents and purposes, be the place I belong. This should have been the place I finally grounded myself in a way I’ve waited my whole life to do; a way I’ve had glimpses of in high school and sixth form but never fully been able to grasp with all my being. It should be, on all levels – academic, personal, emotional, social – home.
Outside my window the walls of Langwith’s accommodation blocks shine bronze-red and silver-grey. The patterned brickwork and light wood panelling catches golden-hour light and glows, magic, in the sunlight. This place is undeniably beautiful, but it makes me ache. My room is white and yellow with all the amenities of student accommodation, though it is friendlier and more comfortable than many study bedrooms. I have a double bed and a large desk and a spacious wardrobe and two mirrors. It is all things ‘me’, yet it has never felt that way.
I wonder how this feeling arose, so slowly I barely noticed it until, safe back home at Easter-time, the hard realities of this life struck me down so suddenly I fell and was rooted to the ground by a sharp dose of absolute fear which settled thereafter, a weight in the pit of my stomach, a pounding in my head. I am not me when I’m there I said, not fully understanding what I meant but knowing it to be true all the same.
I am not me when I’m there. It was performative: once it was spoken aloud it became all the more real. Not that I’ve made a conscious effort to not be ‘myself’, but that with every passing day within these four walls – three white, one yellow – I have become more and more aware of it as fact. Parts of me I have always held to be close and true and wholly ‘mine’ – my confidence, my tenacity – have disappeared somewhere so deep within the folds of my mind I can barely believe they ever existed.
And that’s all. Nothing new has grown out of those spaces where some of my most significant and proud characteristics once were; I have not developed in any way. Instead, there are just gaps; instead, I have regressed. Where once there was self-worth, there is self-indifference. Where once there was determination, there is a shrug.
Well, almost. There is something new, but it is dark and cold. It creeps from my head down my neck like a shard of ice; it trickles down my throat and into my lungs, clamping them shut. It seeps into my blood, freezing my limbs solid and tense until my body breaks out in shivering sweat. My mouth is dry and my head is loud, crackling like an old radio between stations. As I succumb to the twisting of that dial there is the occasional flicker of clarity, but the wordless clamour presides over any and all rational thought.
It’s ironic how the word ‘anxiety’ makes people suddenly nervous. Frustrating, too, because the only way I can comprehend what is happening is to talk about it, but it’s always an uncomfortable discussion which leaves even the closest of friends helpless. I have to find other ways to talk. Sometimes I choose staffed tills over self-service machines in Boots or the Sainsbury’s Local just to exchange a few words with a cashier, but mostly I talk alone. I talk to my reflection in the mirror or the window, or out into the close, thick air trapped like me between these walls – three white, one yellow – or into my pillow, whispering myself to sleep as a distraction from the sheer silence that surrounds me day after day. Some days these are the only conversations I have. Some days I talk just to remind myself I have a voice.
I used to use my voice. Whether for speech or song, my voice had an impact. Eventually I learned to use it for change; to make a positive difference to the lives of others. All too often these days my inner monologues tumble out thoughtlessly, whispered into the silence of my room, and I wonder if I might somehow be able to craft them into something worth writing. Yet in class, my voice is perhaps more articulated, eloquent, and academic than it ever has been, because I savour the opportunity to speak. In my seminars I know I shine, because they are the only time I feel a hint of my old self. This is the reason I am here, I remember, and I throw myself into discussion with every essence of my being, pushing and stretching my ideas and my mind. It is my stability, my anchor.
But my self-worth cannot be tied to academia forever, particularly when my classes make up just four hours of my week. Part of university, surely, is to sever that link; Oxbridge aside, this experience is somewhat ironic in its elaborate attempt to introduce us to ‘life’ whilst concurrently focusing so closely on literary and philosophical study, consideration, and debate. Almost out of nowhere we are suddenly required to in all ways fend for ourselves, with no stable adult support or helping hand. This is, of course, a crucial part of the university experience, but in this state I either do everything on automatic, almost without realising, or not at all.
This is on some level an exaggeration. I have, as I was promised, met wonderful people and made close friendships I am already sure will last beyond my time here; there are groups in which I am known and respected and liked. But it is not enough, because I am not me when I’m there.
How can I deconstruct this notion of depersonalisation? It is not a feeling of being something different or new, but of not being that which I know I am. I look around my bedroom, a space so characteristically ‘me’ a happening visitor could easily devise a lot about who I am, or was, or am when I am not here. But when I look at it, and I see all which characterises it as ‘mine’, I do not feel as if it is mine. There are photographs of me on my walls – me with family, me with friends, me with G – and all the pictures are of my own memories – of rivers, of lakes, of forests, of horses, of castles and coastlines and kayaks – and when I am at home and I see these photographs they feel inherently my own, but when I see them here they feel like memories which belong to somebody else. In this way this is not ‘my’ room, but just the room in which I wait to return to my real room, my room back home.
For this has been an experience characterised by waiting. My gap year was spent doing and making and changing, but when those plans were over all the focus was on the wait for my move to university. Once here it was the wait for classes to start, and then the wait for Grant to visit, and then the wait for my first essay, and then the wait for my mark, and then the wait for the end of term and Christmastime, a holiday spent resolutely not waiting to come back. So it was in second term, only this time I spent short days and long nights waiting for sunshine, waiting for warmth, waiting for Easter and for Spring and for four weeks away from university.
Rather than the upcoming weekend or assignment or newspaper edition, this term’s waiting has been for the next email from or appointment with the Student Support Service. Waiting for this particular anxious and/or depressive episode to pass, and then waiting for the next one to arrive; waiting for the kitchen to empty so I can brave the walk down the stairs to find something to eat; waiting until I get to the bedroom and let the door shut so my tears can spill over. An unending wait, an agonising ache, for home.
I can’t spend the next two years waiting to go home. It feels childish and pathetic and painful, and I hope that living in a new house with different people next year will help it to subside, but there are no guarantees and that is frightening. I am perhaps more emotionally vulnerable now than I have ever been in my life, and yet there has never been less immediate hands-on support available. I feel like I spend each day simply existing, and, another irony, I want to hurt myself to jolt me back into actually living.
The greater aim of university is to enrich our life experience; to enable us to go further in our careers and be better citizens than we would otherwise. For me, though, I feel like life is on pause. Each dead day I get up and get dressed; I sit at my desk and I check Facebook, and maybe I go out to campus or into town. These trips are safe escapes, hours where I am uninterrupted by anxiety-inducing knocks on the door, where my life isn’t charted by whether there’s anyone in the kitchen downstairs. But the time always passes, and I must return back to these four walls – three white, one yellow – and the unforgiving mattress and the memories which aren’t mine. I average about twenty hours a day in this room and it drains me, lying on the bed when I should really be working, instead listening to those happy voices shouting and giggling across the court outside.
It is true that there has been more to this experience than bleak misery, and I do have some autonomy over my own perception and memory of my time here. I have a choice. So this is how I will remember first year: I will remember my essays on Midsummer Night’s Dream and music, and Ovid and trees. I will remember finishing the latter at half past six in the morning after a bottle of wine and it getting my highest mark of the year. I will remember slipping on the snow on Wentworth bridge after our seminar and writing some of the best presentations of the class eight hours before we showed them at nine-am. I will remember Villette and Oliver and Silas Marner and not really getting on with Postcolonialism. I will remember that snails have fourteen-thousand teeth and the ploughman not hearing but feeling the nightingale’s song in my introduction to John Clare, and I will remember the magic and theatricality and strangeness and utter wonder of and at Our Mutual Friend.
I will remember becoming Features Editor at the newspaper, meeting Becca and Charlotte, learning how to use InDesign and, sitting in a raucous back-room of a restaurant, thinking these are the people I came to university to meet. I will remember instantly clicking with Becca, and my endless gratitude for our cocktail nights and rants and sessions working in the Glasshouse. I will remember finding Jess and feeling unbelievably lucky to have met her, her friendship like a lighthouse showing me the way back, reassuring me that everything will be okay again once I hit dry land. I will remember Alice messaging me out of the blue, and getting coffee with her for the first time and knowing this was something to treasure. I will remember finally meeting Micah after five months of chatting online and knowing she was important. I will remember talking until eight-am with Greg, and the note he and Becca slipped under my door one night when I was sad. I will remember Grant’s visits: our trip to York’s Chocolate Story; our incredible walk on the Moors; our visits to the Railway and Castle Museums; eating brownies bought from the market by the river beneath leaves of gold.
I will remember the astonishment and elation I felt every day in sunny Freshers’ Week, the most beautiful Indian summer and slow autumn I have ever witnessed instilling so much joy in my soul. I will remember the walk from Hes East to West past the Quiet Place and Derwent’s lake on a sunny day with Springsteen or Hozier or Bear’s Den in my ears. I will remember the first time I saw the Minster, the gardens, the walls and Holy Trinity Church off Goodramgate. I will remember discovering the Student Cinema and the Glasshouse and Crumbs Cupcakery, and introducing them to my friends and my family. I will remember walking over bridges to get to lectures and it all still being magical.
But I would like to forget first year. I would like to forget the lonely agony of late-night gorging on chocolate and sweets and biscuits and cake to satisfy my worthlessness. I would like to forget having to get on a bus to go to Nisa on the other campus to buy bread and cheese to eat for tea because I can’t handle a busy kitchen and I need food to work. I would like to forget the hours in town spent writing – something, anything – to avoid going back to the house that can never be ‘home.’ I would like to forget the instant acceleration of my heartbeat every time I walk through the door, the panic rising in my throat as I climb the stairs and the curious clash of immediate relief and exhaustion as the bedroom door slams behind me.
I would like to forget the breakdowns. I would like to forget biting my pillow in the small hours so my sobbing wouldn’t awake or alarm anyone. I would like to forget not seeing another human, let alone speaking to one, for two days straight when I was ill. I would like to forget the argument I failed both sides in mediating. I would like to forget the panic attacks about going to Sheffield, about the gym, about walking into the kitchen for a glass of water.
I would like to forget having to tell my family that I need help, as I spent night after night completing anxiety and depression tests online and obtaining their highest scores. I would like to forget wanting to hurt myself, and sitting on the bathroom floor wondering if I should make myself sick. I would like to forget G’s helplessness and sadness at my own depression. I would like to forget that first year ended this way, when it started with so much promise.
Club music and clamorous voices bounce and echo around the court beneath my window as I lie, thoughtful, my mind seeing shapes in the plain matte ceiling. I can’t forget first year and its pain and anxiety and dismal separation from my true self. And despite the above, I don’t entirely want to. We cannot forget these parts of our lives; they form who we become just as much, if not more, as the positive experiences of our youth.
I am not me when I’m here. Yet I hope that ‘here’ doesn’t mean ‘York’ – which I love – or ‘university’ – in which I still have faith. I hope desperately that next year, in a new environment and without the fear of the unknown, I will not only be more myself here but I will also be able to grow and develop in the ways I always supposed I would at university. If I can just escape these four walls – three white, one yellow – and find somewhere I can really settle, I am sure that this is where I can belong. Until then, I just need to manage this other Self, and work on finding the real me when I arrive back home for the summer.