Mental health and recovery in Cambridge
[Note: I actually wrote this after seeing lots of stuff about #NationalStressAwarenessDay but was too scared to share it on that day. Having tweaked it a bit, I’ve realised it’s very cathartic and important to share it.]
J.D. Salinger once ended an interview with the New York Times with the quote “I’ve survived a lot of things, and I’ll probably survive this”. This is a mantra that I keep chanting to myself, writing it on post-its and inking it on my hand in the hope that I’ll understand that I can survive the lows that I still face on occasion. I’m not going to write in massive detail, but now that I’m largely healthier and happier, I can see where things went wrong with much more clarity. As I didn’t excel in my exams after having a total breakdown — the first time in my entire life that I’d sat some form of exam and hadn’t done well — I had to write an explanation to my senior tutor explaining a) what went wrong, and b) what I was going to do from my second year onwards to change this. a) I had depression and anxiety, and b) I was going to try to “recover” (although my first snarky draft of this said “I will try to not be mentally ill?!?”)
Cambridge is a tough environment as it is, but my experience was made tougher by having a collapse and trying to recover within this bizarre bubble I found myself in. As a third year rapidly having to make decisions about my future, I’ve naturally found myself reflecting on the past two years — where much of my Cambridge experience was taken up by recovering from that Esther Greenwood-esque episode that occurred at the end of my first year. With further reflection, I can see that this was perhaps inevitable, considering my strange behaviour in the lead-up to when I completely snapped, but much of it was brushed over as being a ‘typical Fresher’, or my extreme levels of anxiety about every aspect of my existence were just ‘classic Cambridge’. I used to spend the entire days in bed, skipping lectures because despite sleeping for 12 hours at a time, I would still feel so physically exhausted that I just had to cry. I was getting into the horrible pattern of excess sleep but then staying awake for days at a time because I had five essays due in a week and being too scared to ask for extensions. I didn’t realise how sick and stressed I actually was. I couldn’t see that the months and months of physically shaking from anxiety and dissociating were building up into a complete detachment from reality.
I’m not sure where an appropriate location for a life-changing realisation actually is, but it’s fairly ridiculous that mine occurred in Wednesday Cindies at the beginning of Easter term. Earlier on in the evening, there had been pre-drinks in the late celebration of my birthday, and the early celebration of two of my closest friends. Lots of people were there, there’d been a dash to Aldi for various spirits, and we were playing games before heading out. It should have all been fine, except it wasn’t. I looked at all these people laughing and chatting, and I think that I was laughing and chatting too. Looking at the photos from this night, there’s no indication that anything was even remotely wrong with me. On the inside though, something had suddenly snapped. The anxiety that been building up all year made reality blurry, and my lack of recognition of my surroundings made everything feel so un-real that I couldn’t help but become deeply nervous of everyone around me.
I could tell you everyone’s names of course, and on some level, knew that most of the people there were friends who cared for me, even if they didn’t know me all that well at this point. But I was so detached that I didn’t recognise anyone, I didn’t recognise my environment, and most terrifying of all, I didn’t even recognise myself. Sometimes I’m in a lecture where I’ve begun to zone out as the lecturer is talking. I can hear the talking, and I can register that there are things happening around me, even if I’m not focused. And then usually I shake my head, and things come back into focus. Except on this occasion, I kept shaking my head, and things were still dream-like. I ended up making it to Cindies, but ended up spending about five minutes on the dancefloor before locking myself in a toilet cubicle, trying to pinch myself awake out of this dream. Like literally pinching myself, leaving little fingernail marks until I realised that I wasn’t snapping out of it. The alcohol had made my head spin even more, and the crowd of people that I recognised but didn’t know made me feel even more fearful of who I was, what I had become, and how alone I truly felt in Cambridge.
After realising that being around a crowd of boys in red chinos dancing to Clean Bandit probably wasn’t going to make me feel any better, I ended up sitting on the bus stop by Castle Hill, crying my heart out next to my best friend. You don’t need to know the gory details, but this was the catalyst for The Absolute Worst Week of My Life. Having a breakdown never occurs at a convenient time, but I can hardly think of a worst time than the beginning of exam term in Cambridge to be so deeply depressed that you’ve lost the ability to read and write, only having the energy to stare at my walls for hours and hours from the comfort of my bed, and hoping that one of my friends would take a revision break soon. Also, as the typical work mania and stress of exam term began to truly kick in, it became a bit difficult to explain my situation to people:
“I’m going to fail my exams and I might drop out.”
“Oh me too, I have no idea what I’m doing! We’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
“No I literally might not pass this year.”
When I think about the reasons that I am still around, it’s largely thanks to the small things that people did for me in that term. It’s because our senior tutor met up with me every day after that week to make sure I was okay and that I’d spoken to someone that day. It’s because my tutor sent off emails to get me seen at the USC and told me I could sit exams in college. It’s because my DOS emphasised that my health is the most important thing, and that if I wanted to come back for my second year, she would make sure I would. (And continuing to emphasise this point throughout my time in Cambridge, getting me extensions and helping me to plan work for the term.) It’s because of my friends who brought me toast when I couldn’t feed myself, or helped me to write emails when I could barely see the screen in front of me, or let me sit in their rooms watching Netflix with headphones on while they revised so I could have human company. It’s because of the people who vaguely heard what was going on, and despite not knowing me that well, didn’t pry and asked me round to their rooms for tea.
I’ve had a lot of “fake recovery epiphanies” where I think that because I’ve appreciated a nice sunset or something, I can never feel so low again. To tell the truth, I didn’t reach a solid, tangible point of being Recovered after that term. Cambridge is a pretty intense place to attempt recovery, and I still feel like there’s very little room to look after myself sometimes. But I am more determined than ever to focus on healing. I am here because of all the care and affection that people here offered when I was at my lowest point ever, and I am so full of love for the people that I meet here that have taught me to chill the fuck out, to appreciate what’s around me, and emphasise health over work every single time. If I have any parting words, it’s that work is not the be all and end all. Remember to look after those around you and reach out if you’re struggling.
I’m always around for a cup of tea if you need it.