7 Things I Wish I Had Known In My First Year At University
"You're about to become a lot more familiar with loneliness."
[Editor's note: Mental illness can affect different people in different ways. Although this article represents only one experience, we hope you find some solace in knowing others might be going through what you are.]
In September 2012, I moved to a new and unfamiliar city to begin studying for my undergraduate degree. I had had a tough few months: My best friend had stopped talking to me for no apparent reason, I found myself crying myself to sleep most nights, and my schoolwork suffered. I didn't get into my university of choice. Everything seemed to fall apart after that.
I was a somewhat friendless only child for the first 18 years of my life, and I thought that meant I was an expert on loneliness. Going to university in an unfamiliar city made me realise just how wrong I was. It became so easy, in those first few months, to isolate myself to an extent that I never had before. For the first time in 18 years, I was living alone and I had complete control over my own life, and that was dangerous.
My social anxiety dictated that I not leave my room for fear of interaction with the strangers in the rooms next door; my depression dictated that I not leave my bed not for fear of anything, but because I was physically unable to. I listened to both because, for the first time in my life, I had no one distracting me from doing so.
It is incredibly easy to fall into that hole. It is incredibly difficult to pull yourself out.
I don't remember ever being happy with the way I look. I remember flicking through photos, aged 10, of my family holiday, and thinking that I needed to lose a few pounds. The New Year's resolution to lose weight has been a constant in my diaries since I can remember. I recall standing on my parents' bathroom scales, aged 7, and wondering why I weighed so much more than I did when I was 6.
By the time I was 18, I was significantly heavier than I wanted to be, and I hated myself for it. I moved to university and, for the first time in my life, didn't have anyone around to make me eat. My depression didn't allow me to get out of bed and make meals, and I quickly began to lose the extra weight I loathed, and I fucking loved it. I suddenly had control over the one thing I had always wanted to change and never could. I lost a noticeable amount of weight in a short amount of time. Over Christmas, my friends and family back home hugged me and told me how great I looked. "How did you lose the weight?" they asked me. "I eat less," I said.
I never intended for my disordered eating to go as far as it did, but once that mindset takes hold of you, it's practically impossible to lose it. Three years later, I have improved as far as is possible: For the most part, I eat what I want to, and I haven't forced myself to throw up a meal in more than two years. I am far, though, from a healthy relationship with food; I may not ever have that again.
About halfway through my first year, I hit rock bottom. I went weeks without attending a lecture or a seminar or doing the required reading for my courses, I had lost about 50 pounds as a result of not eating, and I slept so much that I had basically become nocturnal. I stopped taking care of myself, because I didn't feel like I was worth it.
What no one told me – because I had got so good at avoiding people that no one knew what I was going through – is that it was the small things that would make me feel better. Showering and spending time applying makeup made leaving my room to go to lectures easier; cooking a way-too-elaborate dinner every once in a while is, as I have come to learn, one of the best forms of therapy.
It's cliché, but it really is the little things that keep the world turning. The same goes for you.
It's basically expected that you use your time at university to find lifelong friends. I heard countless – probably fabricated – statistics about how most people meet their best friends and their life partners at university and I thought that maybe this, finally, was my time to shine in the friendship-and-relationship department. Spoiler alert: It wasn't.
In the beginning, I tried my hardest to make friends with the girls from the flat next door. I had spent the last seven years of my life seeing the same friends every day, and that was my safety blanket. When I moved to university, I had to find new people. My social anxiety is not kind, and it was exhausting. It lasted for a couple of months. I went and got drunk in the students' union on Thursday nights and I felt thankful for the free Fridays I could use to recover not from my hangover, but from my anxiety-ridden hours of spending time with other people.
It wasn't a conscious decision, but as my depression got worse, I began to distance myself from those people. When I saw them in my second semester, after three weeks away from campus, I gave them a polite nod and walked past, feigning distraction. By my third year, they were just acquaintances I scrolled past on my Facebook feed.
Here's what I've learned about friendship (and what I probably should have learned years ago): It should never come about as a result of convenience. Having friends is not a requirement; there is no quota you must fill to be considered a functioning human being. Loneliness is bad, but forced friendship is worse. It should never be hard work. And you never, ever have to settle.
The thing about dealing with depression when you're a teenager is, unless you seek out a doctor, no one will tell you that's what it is. When you're 18, and in your first year of university, it's considered abnormal to get out of bed before noon. Wearing your pyjamas to a lecture is fairly commonplace, and no one really bats an eye if you miss your morning seminar completely.
As soon as I realised that I could hide my depression behind a facade of normality, I clung to it. I tweeted about watching an entire season of Lost in a weekend. I bragged to anyone who would listen about the time I went to sleep at 10am and woke up at 6pm the following evening. When I met friends from back home, I ordered only a coffee, telling them that I hadn't eaten anything yet that day, but I just wasn't hungry, for some reason!
The people around me accepted my excuses so readily that, eventually, I began to think that what I was feeling was normal. I didn't go to a doctor or a counsellor for help because I convinced myself that the manifestations of my depression were simply typical traits of any 18-year-old. I stayed silent.
I am British, and I come from a very British family, and that means that when we suffer an ailment that doesn't involve one of our limbs literally falling off, we brush it off and deal with it and don't complain.
Before I experienced it myself, I had never known anyone to suffer with mental illness. Before I moved to London six months ago, I had (to my knowledge) only met one person who had regularly seen a therapist, and talking openly about mental health was completely alien to me.
Even at my worst – when I was sleeping the days away and not showering and considering one biscuit to be enough food to get me through a day – I didn't think I was sick enough to reach out for help. Nobody was telling me that I was "too skinny", so my eating disorder wasn't life-threatening. I wasn't having suicidal thoughts, so my depression wasn't life-threatening either. I wish someone had told me that your life doesn't have to be in jeopardy before you should consider going to see a doctor.
"It could be worse" is a dangerous phrase. Privilege does not ensure immunity from suffering. No mental illness is trivial, and asking for help is always an option.
Growing up, I was passionately obsessed with all forms of popular culture, and that meant that I learned most of my life lessons from films and TV shows. One of the most prevalent was this: University is, without question, the best three years of your life. It turns out TV shows lie. Who would've guessed?
It's been more than three years since I first locked that bedroom door, and five months since I left my university's campus for good. My graduation ceremony was, for me, less of a celebration of my hard work than it was the moment for me to walk away from the difficulties I will always associate with that place.
I am far from free of my depression and anxiety. Bad days, of course, still sneak up unexpectedly, but the bad weeks are few and far between. If my time at university taught me anything, it's that I am strong enough to overcome whatever life throws my way. You don't want your best years to fall within the first quarter of your life anyway. And the most clichéd cliché of all is, after all, true: It really does get better.