Hi! I’m Jo, the new Every Day Role Model for The Need to Live. Since you’ll be hearing fairly regularly from me from now on, you should probably get to know me. So what better way than laying my cards on the table? I thought I’d share with you the mental health struggle that is my own University story, in the hope that it inspires you, whatever you might be going through.
It was the Autumn of ’03, and Kevin Lyttle ‘Turn Me On’ was playing in every club, tricking every single one of us into believing that we were the height of sex appeal after a few too many 50p shots. I’d just started at Southampton Uni, studying Film and English, and was living in Glen Eyre in the infamous L Block – a grey, concrete tower that wouldn’t look out of place in Chernobyl. It’s since been demolished which says it all. There were about 20 of us in one dank green-carpeted corridor, all sharing a tiny kitchen and one bathroom with 3 toilet cubicles and 3 curtain covered, pube-ridden shower areas. When you move out of the family home, you’re not expecting luxury but L Block did seem like it was taking the piss.
And at that time, I didn’t really want to go to uni anyway. The problem was, I was smart. I was to be the first in my family to go to uni and my parents and teachers didn’t accept that there was any other way forward for me. Take a year out? Ridiculous. Go travelling? You’re not a bloody hippy. Get on with it.
My mental health already wasn’t great. I’d suffered my first bout of depression and passively suicidal thoughts; I was drinking too much and smoking weed. I was scared, sensitive and really had no clue how to manage or look after myself. Throw that into the loneliness and overwhelm of a new start in a new city with new people – and actually having to study… I was just a bomb waiting to go off.
Disordered eating was the first thing to hit me. The National Centre for Eating Disorders explains “In someone with eating distress, this is usually emotional experience such as anger or anxiety which is not being recognised.” And that summed me up. Inner turmoil just bubbling away with no means of healthy escape.
I began to eat a single block of dried noodles (cooked of course) a day. And I would eat it straight from the pan. Other people in my halls thought it was because I couldn’t be bothered to wash up two dishes. Reflecting, the best way I can describe it is that I didn’t feel like it deserved the ceremony of a plate. Eating was more a dirty ritual I had to undertake in my room where no one could see me.
Drinking had already begun to become a negative influence and uni just effortlessly amplified it. Being surrounded by 25,000 other drunk students made for the perfect disguise – it’s fine! It’s not just me! We’re all having fun! Fine, fine, fine!
But I wasn’t fine. I was sad, anxious, depressed. I wanted to succeed, to make people proud. But I was a mess. And we all know the kinds of shit you can do when you’re drunk and you hate yourself.
I became dissatisfied with certain parts of my course – I wasn’t being allocated the modules I wanted, I disliked some of my tutors and my head-in-sand approach often led to all nighter’s with a few cans of Stella. I began skipping lectures. Then I became immensely anxious that my essays wouldn’t be good enough, so I stopped picking them up after marking. The not knowing and lack of confidence, of course, led to more anxiety – and ultimately to more self medicating.
I expected things to be different – I’m not quite sure how exactly. But I wanted things to be perfect and perfection was slipping further and further from my grasp. I was in a continual cycle of denial, self loathing, self punishment and depression.
I made some wonderful friends, but didn’t know how, or what, I was feeling myself, so I didn’t have the first clue of how to go about talking about it. And my stubborn independence meant that I’d hold back, even if I did start talking. I never wanted anybody to see me weak. Think less of me. My lifelong quest for perfection just wouldn’t allow it.
I thought I couldn’t cope. Every time I went home for the holidays I swore I wouldn’t go back. But I did. I did. And I did again.
In ’06 I graduated with a 2:1, a handful of lifelong friends, some hilarious and amazing memories and, trying my best not to be cheesy, some lessons I’ll never forget. I did it. I’m glad I did it, because it made me the woman I am now. But there’s no denying that sometimes it was more doggedly determined survival more than anything else.
Honestly, uni can be really hard. Sometimes the older generations, jaded from years in the workforce, forget just how hard it is. But let me tell you this: there’s no shame in saying you’re struggling, that your mental health is being tested. It’s OK to be tired, exhausted, overwhelmed, burnt out. You are not a snowflake. In fact, it would be crazy if you weren’t affected by all the pressure, all the change, that you’re going through day after day.
And let me also remind you: your entire future won’t be ruined if you don’t get a first, or if you choose to defer for a year, switch course or decide the whole thing just isn’t for you. It’s OK. It’s your life. There are many different paths you can take. The important thing is that you’re around to explore them.