[Charlotte Mullin | Contributing Writer]
Cramming the last of my possessions into my dad’s car on Tuesday, preparing to leave Hatfield for good, I had three thoughts:
It is so hot. It is so blisteringly, skin-meltingly hot that I might as well just combust to escape this torturous existence.
My entire life can fit into a Volkswagen Golf.
I am no longer a student.
As you can imagine, the final thought in particular weighed on my mind a lot, provoking a lot of internal screaming whilst I struggled to maintain a stoic expression at the prospect of being A Proper Adult. My days of assignments and exam revision were over. Now, I would be expected to actively seek out responsibilities instead of having them shoved onto me. Without any deadlines, it would be impossible to lounge around until the last minute and then frantically scramble to scrap something together and hit ‘submit’ on Studynet. No, now I would be stuck in limbo, and every day that passed by without me trying to get my life together would just get worse and worse, a ticking bomb counting down towards an unknown date.
In attempting to distract myself from the horrors of adulthood, I stumbled upon a photo my mum took of me on my very first day of university, when I moved into halls. (Long live Telford Court!) It’s a terrible photo for a number of reasons: I didn’t know it was being taken, it’s horrendous quality, and I generally look very sour-faced and unkempt. Also, my room never really progressed past that state of messiness. Looking at it, though, inspired a myriad of emotions within me, because I am now worlds apart from the person I was in that photo. For comparison and for memory’s sake, I asked my dad to take a picture of me before I waved goodbye to student life forever.
Then and now
You can pretty much instantly see the difference between the two. My hair and fashion sense have drastically improved, for one. Seriously, what was I thinking? I should’ve gotten a haircut sooner. More importantly, however, from my expression alone you can just tell that I’m a much happier person now. Sure, I was caught off-guard in the first photo, but I think it generally encompasses my mindset at age 18, which was that of somebody who had struggled with severe anxiety for all of their adolescence, and was now being thrust into the wilderness to fend for themselves for three years.
What is it like to experience anxiety?
I’ll try and describe anxiety for anyone who has never had it before. Imagine that you’re going to see a play in an extremely prestigious part of the West End. You settle down into the audience for a nice, relaxed viewing, when suddenly the director rushes out and drags you backstage. For some unfathomable reason, everyone is under the impression that you are supposed to be playing the part of the main character, even though you have absolutely no acting experience and you have never even read the story the play is based off of. But no one listens to your protestations. Instead, you’re forced to get into costume, and you manage a thirty second skim of the script before you’re pushed out onto the stage in front of hundreds of people, all fixated on you, all waiting impatiently for you to begin. Obviously, you’re speechless, that paralysingly nervous feeling of having a bucket of ice water thrown over you being amplified a hundred times worse, and everybody watches you flub and fail to even comprehend the explosion of emotion you’re undergoing. Yeah, anxiety is basically feeling like that all the time.
It’s essentially a prolonged case of stage fright. The most basic conversations might as well have been in an entirely different language; every time I spoke, I felt like I was under intense pressure, as if I was in an exam or on a game show. I would ruthlessly scrutinise everything I said and did, long after it actually happened, which led to countless nights of crying myself to sleep because I was so worried about what people thought of me. Even just walking around in public made me feel self-conscious, like every single stranger I passed was holding a magnifying glass up to examine all of my insecurities and flaws. As nightmarish as social situations were, it didn’t end there.
Every single minute action turned me into a bundle of nerves. Whether I was cooking dinner, reading for class, or showering, it didn’t matter. My mind would never stop racing, jumping around until it found something to latch onto and make me obsess over until I felt like a tightly coiled spring. Example: I’m in the shower, holding a bottle of shampoo. It’s almost empty. I’m going to run out of shampoo soon, then my hair will be greasy, and everyone will make fun of me behind my back. Or I could go to Asda and get another bottle, but then I’ll be surrounded by people who will stare at me, so I have to get up an hour early to make sure I look okay, but all my good clothes are in the wash so I have nothing to wear, et cetera et cetera. It’s kind of like when you get onto a train and you suddenly forget if you turned the hob off or not, and also there’s a stranger screaming ‘YOUR HOUSE IS GOING TO BURN DOWN’ into your ear non-stop.
A recipe for disaster
Doesn’t sound too fun, does it? That was my life, every second of every day, and then suddenly I was a fresher, all alone and with an abundance of new things to worry about, like rent or food shopping. I vividly remember my first night in halls as one of the worst nights of my life. My whole block went to the Forum, and almost immediately after stepping inside I turned around and left. In retrospect, I imagine it now to be like when Abe Simpson walks into the burlesque house, sees Bart, and then walks back out. Loud noise? Pulsing lights? Crowds of people? It was basically a recipe for disaster in my eyes, so while everyone else was out having fun I was under my duvet, lying in the pitch black silence, resigning myself to the fact that this was how I was going to feel for the next three years. Jesus, this is depressing just remembering it. I promise this article does actually get happier.
But first, a little more misery. As you have hopefully gathered by now, in my first year I was not exactly the most outgoing person. I would say I could’ve counted my friends on one hand, but that saying would only apply if I’d had some of my fingers chopped off. I’d get my fill of sunlight going to class, and then the rest of my time was divided up between going home where it was warm and safe, and holing myself up in my room in halls to watch anime and draw. Rinse and repeat. At one point, I decided to contact the university support centre (which you can do here) yet in a cursed catch-22 my anxiety over talking to people meant that I was too anxious to talk to people about it. What an insane plot twist. Who would’ve guessed.
Don’t be afraid to seek help and support
I wish I could go back in time and force myself to get professional help sooner, because I have no doubt I would’ve felt better a lot faster if I did. It may seem hypocritical of me to say this, but if you’re struggling with these types of feelings, please talk to someone about it. I failed to do that, and I suffered for almost eight years. You’re not alone. I wish I could say that dealing with it by myself culminated in me waking up one day feeling totally rejuvenated, hopping out of bed into a power stance and proudly resolving to get my life in order while eighties music blared in the background. But despite my passion for Huey Lewis and the News, it didn’t happen like that.
Instead, I slowly built confidence by setting myself miniscule challenges that would usually set me out of my comfort zone. For example, one day my task might be to smile at a stranger if I made eye contact with them, or make small talk with a cashier if I was going shopping. The amount of gratification I got from completing these challenges was ridiculous. They were like fun little mini-games in the vast RPG of real life. Eventually, my need for money outweighed the importance of a silly little thing called ‘my mental health’ and I got a job in the Student Union shop. This, I reasoned, would be totally fine, because being a cashier is essentially repeating the same conversation hundreds of time a day (hi, how are you, that’ll be this much, thank you, bye) which was perfect for somebody who could only follow the basic guidelines of human interaction. I just prayed nobody would ask me a question I didn’t immediately know the answer to.
Gradually, I got better. It wasn’t a magical girl-esque transformation (although I so, so wish it was) – it took days, weeks, months, of chipping at my boundaries with a tiny pickaxe until they collapsed. I was the Andy Dufresne of anxiety, except I couldn’t cover up my neuroses with a poster of Rita Hayworth. Even though it required constant work, though, day by day it got easier. As I became less reserved, I talked to my housemates more. I spoke up more in seminars. I went out more. I made more friends. At the beginning of my third year, I joined the print team, which involved doing something that used to send me into a panic: talking to – interviewing in an in-depth manner – complete strangers. Now, I’m sitting in my living room in my pajamas writing this article and exposing my deepest flaws for all of you to read.
It’s still an uphill battle. I’ve not been miraculously cured of anxiety; last week, one of my friends found me sitting on the edge of the bathtub with my head between my knees, trying to avoid a panic attack because I thought I lost my keys…even though I was the one who opened the front door. Truthfully, I think it’ll always be with me to some extent. But I’m okay with that. What matters is that, over three years, I’ve changed more than I did for the entirety of puberty, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t gone to university and had all the experiences I did.
Before I moved out, I went to my last ever night at the Forum with my friends, and had an absolutely amazing night, even if my hangover made me feel glad that I’d never really gone out that much before. Although going out and getting smashed is a weekly ritual for the average student, three years ago I was convinced I’d never be able to do it. Not that there’s anything wrong with disliking it, of course, it’s just that for me personally it symbolises a complete departure from the absolute nervous wreck I used to be. It may seem silly to be proud of being able to cope like a rational human being in a crowded environment, but whatever, I’m an optimist. I now get immensely happy whenever I can walk down a street without wanting to burrow into the earth and live with the mole people.
Having anxiety is okay
If you’re heading to university in September and you struggle with anxiety, or any other negative feelings, I just want you to know that it’s okay. It’s okay to have relapses and bad days. It’s okay to take time for yourself to recover. While I can’t really speak for you since we’ll all have different experiences at uni – you may discover that it’s not actually for you after all – feeling alone and unhappy doesn’t have to be the end of your story. These past three years have been brutal work at times, but I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t gone to university. No matter what happens, hopefully your experiences will shape you into a better, happier person, and you’ll look back on all the hard times and feel proud of yourself for making it through.
How did you change during your time at university? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @TridentMediaUK!
All images: Charlotte Mullin