Columnist Oscar Ridout brings us the first instalment of a new weekly diary series. This week they tell us about their early experiences with mental health in Cambridge.
CN: Depression, alcohol use,
rape, eating struggles
I’m mostly writing this for myself. Thank you for witnessing though; I value your silent support. If my thoughts, feelings, experiences are in any way helpful to others, then even better.
I’ll start with a summary of a few things of note to date.
When I arrived in Cambridge this past October I was quite newly eighteen, fresh from school, and newly a rape victim. I was immature, but felt as though I had conquered the world. I settled into college and university social circles much as I ever had: I’m a social butterfly needing constant stimulation, so I quickly became part of a fringe of social groups through college, faculty and extra-curriculars. I developed a taste for nightlife and casual sexual encounters – in retrospect a response to previous trauma, but at the time just a way of life, and an extension of my socialising style. I busied myself socially and extra-curricular-ly, to ignore the yawning hole ahead of me: three years of a course I already knew wasn’t the best for me of those I’d applied for. The strategy worked.
My life came to revolve about opportunities for drinking, going out, maybe getting off with somebody nice. In my faux-maturity, I accepted this as a modern, casual lifestyle, and not as a forewarning of disaster. Even though I had been there before. Cycles of hyperactivity, attention-seeking behaviour, desperate socialisation followed by devastating crisis had marked my life since the beginning of secondary school, and yet I followed the path to the inevitable cliff-edge.
People talk a lot about the shock of going home after the first term of university. It’s real. Having (subconsciously) created a new, stronger and wilder personality in Cambridge, I was stripped of my armour by the people who knew the inner me best of all. At the time, I genuinely felt it was a new me being rejected by family and friends from home, but in all honesty, people don’t change that much after eight weeks in a new town. I was faced with the idea that this new, strong, popular me was a fabrication, a confection of the intensity and excitement faced by a teen in a new town. Doubts trickled through the cracks in my façade.
“People don’t change that much after eight weeks in a new town.”
No longer the confident person I’d created in first term, I returned after Christmas unsure who I was, what I was doing in Cambridge, and whether I even knew what interested me anymore. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the tripos, my DoS, or Cambridge tradition. I became sick of everything around me: every reading list became a cliff-face the grappling-hooks of my once-fertile imagination couldn’t crack.
My once-idyllic medieval attic bedroom was now a fetid lair littered with discarded food packaging, sheets of work I refused to do, and mugs rimmed with tea, coffee, wine and gin stains. I hated myself, I hated Cambridge; I wanted nothing more than to spend my days wrapped in my duvet, curtains closed, atonal music blaring. I stopped going to lectures; I sent false apology after false apology to supervisors regarding yet more essays undone.
I was, and am, extremely lucky to have wonderful, supportive friends who know me very well. Those closest to me would bring me food, coffee, hugs and shared tears to punctuate the days of solitude and misery. They encouraged me to keep socialising to occupy myself, tried to motivate me to work (occasionally I had days of inspiration – in Lent term I managed a full one-and-a-half essays of what must have been around ten I was set) and eat. And crucially, they motivated me to unashamedly seek help.
“I signed on with the University Counselling Service, only to be deeply put off by the automation of the registration system, and the inevitable scheduling and rescheduling hassle.”
My first port of call was my college nurse, who I quickly started meeting regularly for coffees and lunches. This really kept me going morale-wise, but generally failed to reach conclusions. That was my fault though, for failing to open up, putting my brave face on. I talked plainly with my tutor over tripos doubt, but less about its impact on my health. I asked my DoS to make allowances regarding supervision work, and was met with reticent leniency rather than the concern I inwardly craved and frankly warranted.
I signed on with the University Counselling Service, only to be deeply put off by the automation of the registration system, and the inevitable scheduling and rescheduling hassle. I met once with the college counsellor, who was helpful, but scheduling further meetings with them proved nigh impossible (as they are also one of the most senior fellows of the college). Meanwhile, anything more arduous than the essentials of daily life was becoming terrifying.
Somehow I did eventually, towards the end of term, make my web of feelings and failings explicit to those necessary – pastorally, academically, socially, and in the family – and the rusted cogs of Cambridge’s mental health provision were set in motion. I was presented with the options of remaining in Cambridge, betting on the outcomes of my IA exams to get through to second year which I was promised I’d enjoy more; dropping out entirely and finding somewhere else to study (and struggle); or what seemed a theoretical third way – intermission.
The broad and hypothetical strokes with which it was painted by friends who had friends, and by pastoral and academic staff, promised a vision of freedom: a zero-gravity space to seek healing and find a way to be myself again. Who wouldn’t seize the chance of a belated gap year? I leapt at it and made it my aim, getting the medical letter I needed after having two appointments with the GP and parting with £20. It was mine, within reach, a glimpse of a future where I could be at ease. No dull essays, no social pressures, an escape from the expectations of the university environment.
It was the end of term.
Next week I’ll elucidate on the issues around confirming intermission, and the experience of a vacation that ceased to be so.