I can draw a thick black line down the almost-centre of twenty-sixteen. On one side of the line is a blurred and shadowy smudge of stress and sadness, and on the other a crisp flurry of memories all bright and gleaming like champagne under Christmas lights. I can pinpoint the exact moment everything started to get better. There’s something quite miraculous about the fact that I can look back now and think, that was a great year for me, because the first half was the complete opposite – but in truth it has been a year of transformation and uphill climb towards something which I’ve always hoped for. And now for the very first time, on the last day of this particularly remarkable year which, for better or for worse, most of us will never forget, I feel like the summit might finally be within reach. But that’s all to come, and it starts tomorrow. For now, here’s my illustrated look back on the past twelve months.
I’m unwell on New Year’s Eve. At the time, I joke that it sets the tone for the year, but I don’t believe it’s actually true because the year is ending on such a high.
Spring term at York starts relatively well; in the first week there are no classes and I spent my days reading and my evenings watching House of Cards, sometimes accompanied by Greg (he brings whisky). I reflect a lot on my first semester, and decide on lots of goals and plans for the term and year ahead. I read Oliver Twist and rediscover Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, one of my very favourites. G comes to visit just as the loneliness sets in and we explore York’s streets, trains, and chocolatey history. But in week four I become unwell. Although it is only a physical illness and I’m on my way to recovery after a week or so, the mental repercussions are strong, and I find myself tumbling towards a darkness I’ve never known before.
I am trying to learn how to be alone. Friends and housemates do what they can to alleviate my numbness with pub quizzes and notes under my door as I push through mid-term assessments, but my days drag. Mid-month, I say goodbye to a most precious piece of my childhood forever. Everything is foggy. Depression is a physical illness; anxiety clogs my lungs like smoke.
There are moments of joy, though. For my postcolonial module I read The Translator by Leila Aboulela and am so touched by it that I throw away all of my essay plans five days before the deadline so I can write on it instead. I travel home for Valentine’s Day and G and I go for afternoon tea in Bury St Edmund’s; later in the month he comes to visit again and we venture out to the North York Moors for the first time, taking in the Rievaulx Valley and discovering Helmsley. My sister is awarded her place at the University of California, Berkeley for grad school. I put together my very first piece for the newspaper, and we secure our second-year house; there is, perhaps, a little hope. But first I have to make it to the end of June.
My Victorian lit class watches the only snowfall of the year with glee as we’re supposed to be discussing Villette; afterwards we slip on the bridge across the lake, jostling for the photograph. This, an evening with Becca in Rev’s, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah provide some respite from my bewildered mind. I keep up appearances though, both in class and on the blog; I’m trying to fool myself, and sometimes it works.
Dad stops off to see me on his way to a conference in Hull and we go for a meal in the assembly rooms; I talk a lot about my books, and find the old pleasure and excitement for my course. It is so good to see him, even if only for a few hours. I write my essays; term ends, and I collapse inward. The Easter holidays find me back at home but just as I begin to pick up my blog I suffer a week without my laptop. We celebrate my sister’s birthday and take G to his first opera, the English Touring Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Mum and I are also lucky enough to go to their extraordinary Iphigénie en Tauride later in the week. I am acutely aware of my unhappiness but think it stems from somewhere other than university, so begin my #PrettyHealthyProject.
I turn twenty. G wakes me before five-am and drives us to Winterton-on-Sea to watch the sun rise on this new decade. During the Easter break I wander through the daffodils at Blickling with G, around the lakes of Pensthorpe with Mum, and down the backstreets of Cambridge with G, Billie and Heather as we take in the town before attending the County Youth Orchestra’s Easter concert. I blog a lot, and plan to keep a diary during summer term. Everything seems brilliant until someone asks how university is going; I stop short, stumbling over my words, because I don’t have an answer. I love the course, I say. And the newspaper.
I reflect a lot on my second term. Getting some distance from my bedroom in college has allowed me to finally admit to myself the truth: that I am really struggling. It comes to a head when G and I spend the day at Burnham Market Horse Trials; we sit on a disused cross-country fence and I try to talk my way out of my head, but don’t have the language for my fear or my sadness. There is no way out, and when I am dropped back at uni I sit on my bed staring at my yellow wall for a full hour. Perhaps, I hope desperately, if I don’t move, I am not really here. That night, with stinging eyes and shaking hands, I send my first email to the University’s student support services.
I walk past the music department. It is warm, and from each window echoes a different musician’s practice; in another life… I think. I turn into the cherry-blossomed quad and pass through a set of sliding doors. At the reception I am handed a questionnaire; filling it out, the stark reality of my state of mind is laid out before me, summarised in a collection of neat rate-from-one-to-five questions. It is my first visit to Open Door, York’s counselling service. I meet with S; he doesn’t solve my problems or give me a way out, but I can talk without guilt and he can offer a new, adult perspective. Summer term is just eight weeks long, but I allow myself to leave after only five.
To escape from my halls bedroom I live instead in Dickens’ London, finding myself more at home amongst the myriad of characters within his extraordinary Our Mutual Friend. In the real world, though, everything is very blank. I enjoy my classes, but they take up just four hours of my week. At some point I take three exams; Mum has to come up for a weekend to jolt me into revision, and when she leaves it takes all of my strength not to beg her to take me home with her. G comes to visit and we look around the Castle Museum where an idea for an article begins to form in my head. But I am very lost; the night before he leaves I cry endlessly in his arms. A couple of weeks later he returns to find my suitcases already packed; we run them to the car and drive back to his the same day. At three-am we drive to Wymondham, get in a van and are on the road to Dover. I’ve had no sleep, but there’s something safe in putting the Channel between myself and university. We spend five days working at the International Mini Meet with G’s company on a wind farm in Belgium; it is, oddly enough, exactly what I need. When we return I spend ten days at home, baking and kayaking. I glimpse the summer ahead.
My last two weeks of first year are the best I have lived at uni. This term’s modules are marked on group presentations which, thanks to my classmates, are surprisingly good fun (for our Dickens class my group presents on fairy tales in Our Mutual Friend; we hand out cupcakes from a wicker basket to the tune of ‘Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo’ from Cinderella and begin the script with the words ‘Once upon a time…’. It is awarded a First.). My final feature of the year is published and I am incredibly proud of it: sparked by my #PrettyHealthyProject, it explores our changing attitudes towards body image and identity through an exhibition at the Castle Museum. At the end of that week I take the train to London where, on a sweltering summer’s evening, my sister and I watch Bruce Springsteen in concert. Somebody requests ‘No Surrender’ and it seems just a little like fate. The next day I wander around the V&A alone, feeling a tiny bit healed. Rosa comes back to York with me for my last week as a fresher and we spend the five days cafe-hopping and working together in the library; halfway through her time here I find out I managed to get Firsts on all of my written exams.
I pack up my room. Apart from the blu-tak marks on the wall for which I will later be charged £75 by accommodation services, I might never have been here at all. The last thing I do before leaving is press publish on my most-read blogpost of the year and its accompanying Facebook status. It has gone through eight re-drafts and been critiqued by several friends, but I shake with nerves as I send it out to the world. I don’t check any social media until I get home three-and-a-half hours later, and when I do I find my inbox full of messages of hope and solidarity. This is how I felt too, they tell me. Thank you for writing this. I sleep for a week; just as I am beginning to recover, we go to the polls and vote to leave the European Union. I sing to Billy Bragg and hope that the year doesn’t get any worse.
Through the revival of my #PrettyHealthyProject I am finally able to confront things about myself I have been forced to ignore while I focused on simply getting through each day, and in the process I officially rebrand and rename my blog. Not a lot happens and I am grateful for some rest; days tick by quietly and happily. There is a lot of renewal. Somewhere in all of this I find myself again.
G’s parents have flown to visit his sister on the other side of the world. I spend long days at his house, focusing on my own projects while he is away at work and adventuring together when he has time off. We go to the Royal Norfolk Show and Wyken Vineyards, and spend hours on the kayaks. At home I spend time with my sister as the date for her flight to San Francisco creeps closer. One evening we walk up the lane, past the church and through the just-harvested barley field where we find ourselves screeching with laughter as we attempt to leap onto the bales for a photograph (some things never change). My parents and I visit my aunt in Leigh on a stunningly sunny day; I fall in love with her dog and Dad points out his childhood haunts. Once again I volunteer at Nine Acres on an activity week with Year 7s from Mum’s school; they are hands-down the best kids I have ever worked with, and one tells me it was the best week of her life. I am, as ever, reminded of the very special little world I have found for myself there.
The urgency of late-summer coupled with unusually beautiful weather means I spend a lot of time out of the house. One day I take the train to Cambridge and picnic with Jess, Becca and Alice, friends from York; these days I don’t think much about university, but when I do there is no longer any fear. I’m not exactly sure what has changed, but I think it might be me.
I find myself back at the gym at long, long last, and am offered a short-term loan of a horse called Sooty. G and I visit Houghton Hall, and spend a wonderful day in Southwold where I pick up both my dSLR for the first time in a long while and my first Zadie Smith novel, White Teeth. We drive to the New Forest and, the next day, on to Cornwall for a week. We explore rainforests, shipwrecked coves, seaside towns and clifftop ruins. I have never been to this side of the country; I stand my ground as waves crash in towards me from a new ocean.
I wake at dawn most days and Mum drops me at the yard. My mornings are filled with schooling sessions in the early-autumn mist, watching the seasons change between the speckled ears of a horse who is having a greater effect than I will realise until it’s time to say goodbye to him at the end of the month.
Late September looms; it brings with it the journey to York and the new term. A conversation with my friend Jess has helped me to realise how excited I am for the upcoming semester; though I am uncertain for what second year might hold, I begin to look forward to the prospect of a new house and new opportunities. I read Dickens’ Hard Times and G and I take our last few outings of the summer, to the North Norfolk Food & Drink Festival and our new-found favourite coffee cafe. My housemates and I move into our new house on the last weekend of the month and spend a week settling in and catching up; my bedroom has a wall-length window and a mantelpiece, and I fall in love with it instantly.
Two weeks into term and I am on the train back home, but things are very different from the previous year. I have just been elected Editor of our paper’s culture and lifestyle supplement, the position I’ve been vying for since I first joined the society a year ago, and am enjoying my classes, social life and new house more than I ever dared hope.
G and I watch alligators sleep and tigers being hand-fed at Thrigby Hall. Up in York I walk everywhere, covering the mile to campus multiple times a day. One giggly night Micah and I take our first trip to A&E for her broken finger. I am selected as a sub-editor for the Student Minds mental health blog and interview for a Student Ambassador position in the hope of gaining some kind of income whilst at university. G comes to visit later in the month; we talk about the future over cake at Beningborough Hall and visit Whitby Abbey the week before Halloween. I read the first book of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in three days, reclined in my desk chair and speaking out loud; it is a surprising joy. I edit my first newspaper edition; my deputy and I put in five twelve-hour days to get it completed, but it is one of the best weeks of term.
I’m back on the train home, this time for Dad’s birthday; G picks me up from Diss station and we go to watch some local fireworks before heading to mine. My camera has begun to accompany me everywhere I go, and I find some of the old summer onehundred magic from years ago on a walk up the nearby Kimberlow Hill at golden hour. It is so beautiful and so different from just a few months ago that I am moved to tears.
On the night of the US election I meet Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and interview him for the newspaper, but the hope our conversation brings me is is shattered the following morning when I check my phone. That day campus is grey and numb; people talk in hushed voices on the bus, afraid to speak the truth – if there is such a thing anymore. To escape from this new and unknown world, G and I happily discover Dalby Forest where I realise I have fallen utterly in love with Yorkshire. After he leaves I am thrust into a world of deadlines, but I force myself into the gym every other morning and, of course, it helps.
My housemates and I attend a carol service at the Minster on the first day of the month; afterwards, Micah and I get caught up in the library hunting for an elusive text she needs for her essay, and then I stay up until four-am finishing my own essay on The Faerie Queene. Term ends very differently to last year; I’ve chosen to stay in York for an extra week.
Mum comes to visit for a weekend. We find a beautiful cafe for lunch just down the road from my house, and wander through the Minster as the choir rehearses; the next day we visit Castle Howard to see their Christmas decorations and splash out on a full Christmas lunch complete with prosecco. She tells her students about it in assembly. Later that week G arrives in a new car; it is our three-year anniversary, and on the day itself we wake in the early hours to drive to the Lake District for the world’s best gingerbread. The next day he takes me home for Christmas. Dad and I meet my sister at the airport and are all together, the four of us, for the holidays. I replace all the broken strings on my harp; my fingers soon blister from playing but I can never bear to stop. On Christmas Day we watch The Lion King and finally introduce G to Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (mine and Rosa’s not-at-all-guilty pleasure). Over the next week there are family afternoon teas and catch-up meals with friends now scattered up and down the country, and everything is somehow joyous.