27 Sept 2017

Uni, mental health, and a break-in to *not* be saved

Bournemouth, 2014

I remember sitting at my desk with a bunch of bananas and two boxes of cereals bars, one open. I’d eaten half a bar then put it back, telling myself I’d have it for dinner later. I hadn’t stepped out of my tiny bedroom in days.

I’ve never spoken in detail about how bad my mental health was at university - especially during the first year - because I’m still learning myself just how bad it actually was. I didn’t enjoy university. That I knew and everyone knows. But fully understanding how unhealthy my thoughts and behaviours were is a long process, and quite hard to stomach. I’m open and honest about my mental health. I’m open and honest about a lot of things (I mean, I literally wrote about my GP putting her finger up my arse, so), but these thoughts and behaviours were often ridiculous and embarrassing and horrible, so I’ve never wanted others to know I was like that. 

But it’s the end of September and a lot of young people will be experiencing their first few weeks at university right now, and I feel such a sense of dread knowing there may be a lot of young people out there who might be about to experience their first year just as I did. The first few weeks at uni are such an integral time to not get ‘right’, as such, but to just fucking survive in a healthy way. Thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours in the first few weeks could set you up for the rest of your time at university. ‘Could’ being the imperative word here, because I’m learning now that nothing is ever set in stone. You can change. You’re always learning. I didn’t know that, and boy I wish I did.

I had zero anxieties moving to university. I absolutely flourished at school, had a very decent set of friends, and couldn’t wait to get out of my TOWIE-saturated hometown to live by the sea in Bournemouth. About 10 people from my school were also moving to Bournemouth which comforted me greatly. I’d have instant friends, we’d all hang out, and nothing would be different! It was a dangerous mindset and unreasonable expectation. These friends, of course, made new friends. They weren’t reliant on familiarity, as I now realise I was. 

Your life in university halls can be largely dependent on luck, as well as your mindset. You could be put into a flat full of like-minded people, interesting people, kind people. You click. Or, you could be put into a flat full of people who are the total opposite to you and the click mechanism has fucked right off. That was me. There were seven of us and the six of them were best friends from the off. I wasn’t their kind of person, and they weren’t my kind of people. It happens. That’s fine. But the way I dealt with it was horrendously unhealthy. 

I quickly decided that I needed to take up a lot less space because I wasn’t wanted in that flat. I became totally paralysed at the thought of social interaction, both in my flat and outside it. Inside, I wouldn’t dare leave my room if anyone was in. I wouldn’t use the kitchen. I had brand new sets of crockery and cutlery that I was adorably excited about using, but I barely used them. To start with, I’d only go into the kitchen at about 11pm when everyone had gone out for the night. I’d do all their washing up so they knew I was a good person, and quickly do myself some beans on toast or cook some plain pasta for dinner, then wash up that lot too so it was like I was never there. But that then became too risky - what if they returned while I was still in the kitchen? - so I gave up cooking at all. We had an Asda opposite our halls, so I’d buy bananas and cereal bars after uni and ration them to last me the week for breakfast and dinner. If I had lectures, I could buy lunch in the shop at uni. If I had a day off, I’d hide and sacrifice eating. Getting outside, having people see me, and speaking to people was much worse than starving myself. Wasn't it? 

During the week that I never left my flat at all, one of the ‘building supervisors’ ended up breaking into my room. I was sat in the pitch black in the hope people thought I wasn’t in, but my flatmates soon twigged that I was. They hadn’t seen me at all and worried. They weren’t bad people, past Louise. They weren’t bad people. They called someone up who knocked multiple times and shouted my name. I sat at my desk shaking, putting my earphones in so I couldn’t hear her. Finally, she forced her way in. She shouted at me for not answering, for not leaving my room and showing my face, and told me to be more responsible and ‘not stupid’. Then she left. I carried on sitting in my room crying, with the light left on. 

I didn't know that I was struggling, and maybe I would have done if that woman had come in and sat with me. Maybe all I needed was for someone to realise that something was wrong, that a new student shouldn’t be sitting in her room for week in the dark, not eating. 

Maybe things would have been better if I’d made more friends outside of my flat. Things could have, and should have, gone the other way. Instead of becoming agoraphobic and riddled with anxiety and, arguably, self-harming with an eating disorder, I could have decided that I’d spend most of my time outside of my flat. I could make other friends, take up hobbies, go out, join clubs and societies, and throw myself into other elements of uni life. But I didn’t. I decided that because the foundations of my university life were terrifying and unstable to me, everything else would be too. I didn’t think any of my course friends liked me, I’d never dream of joining a club or society, and student nights were an obvious no-go. I never gave university life, or myself, a chance.

Thankfully, I did make some new friends at uni (we befriended online first, obviously) - a few of who are still my best friends now - and I’m always filled with serious gratitude that I found them. Some of them were from the area and lived at home, so would invite me round for dinner. I could have cried, and sometimes I did, at the kindness of offering family comfort. I felt like a stray cat. 

I had little knowledge of mental health when I started university. I had no idea that your mental health is ever-present and needs nurturing whether you’re struggling or not. You don’t need a diagnosis to be supported or look after yourself. You don’t need to be vulnerable, introverted, or shy. Of course, being introverted and shy doesn’t mean you’ll struggle. It’s ok to not get on with your flatmates, to not be the kind of person who goes on nights out, to not want a huge set of friends. That’s ok. What’s not ok is to be terrified every waking moment of your life and trap yourself in your room not eating, washing, or talking. If your fears are disrupting your daily life and your health, then you’re not ok, my love. You are not ok. 

It’s also not ok for a member of staff to treat those stuck in their room for a week with contempt. I’ll never forgive that woman for shaming and dismissing me like she did. I wish I understood that I wasn’t ok. I wish somebody else understood that too. I wish I knew of our student support services, I wish I went to my GP, I wish I got out and utilised that beautiful long sandy Bournemouth beach and sea air. I wish I spoke up in my seminars and smiled a bit more. I wish I explored my options and took opportunities. I wish a lot of things. But the thing I wish most is for new students to be ok, and for others to support them if they’re not. 

I’m still struggling with the aftereffects of this first, serious mental health dip. I’m still struggling to just accept and process it all, as evidenced by me bawling my eyes out halfway through writing this. And I don’t cry. 

I may not be able to change what happened in my first year of university, but I might be able to change someone else’s. I wrote an article for The Mix with Student Minds to do just that. Please look after your heads and please look after each other’s. Sign up to your local GP as soon as you can just in case you need them, and explore all your options and opportunities at university. Please don’t feel trapped, and please don’t be trapped. Awareness and attitudes are different now, and you will be ok.

If you need more support, there are organisations out there who will help:
Student Minds educates and empowers students and the university community with mental health.
Nightline is a listening service open at night for students who need to talk.
Mind has a bunch of info and support on all things mental health.
Samaritans is there for you always if you’re having suicidal thoughts. Call 116 123 for free.

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