On (sort of) surviving university


For the first time in, well, quite a while (probably since fresher's week), it actually feels like I might be muddling through uni. Have I had the worst experience? Not by any means. Have I had the best? Also no. For me, taking the massive leap into the dark and moving away to study a new subject in a city I'd hardly visited and living alone for the first time, life has mostly been about staying afloat. Afloat in the personal sense, of course, but also academically and financially too.

Imagine a glass cylinder around the size of a small bottle. The cylinder has a hole at either end, and there's water in the middle of the cylinder. Tipping the cylinder off-balance too much to either side will make the water run out. You’re forced to take the cylinder everywhere you go, so you can't move too quickly at any point. Now, imagine that this isn't a really unimaginative metaphor and that I'm actually a literary genius so you don't have to read the next bit. Say you're carrying this humdrum cylinder around because, actually (wait for it), if you allow all of the water to drain, you're going to become convinced you need to drop out. Your self-confidence will plummet, everything will start to appear terrifyingly bleak, and you'll spend 90% of your time not doing anything because you're too worried about not doing anything. Tipping the cylinder is tantamount to allowing yourself to think about one specific thing too much or not enough. And that, my now-disappointed friends, is what university has largely been for me. (please find it in your hearts to forgive me for that metaphor, I haven't written anything remotely creative in years)

So things have been rocky pretty much the entire time. Now, sometimes it's really obvious to the people around me that I'm in a bad place, and I've had my share of those over the last year and a bit. That's not necessarily what I'm talking about, however. The tenuousness of being at university has been less of an emotional smack in the gob as it has been a place where anything I've allowed to fester beforehand to take up permanent residence in the house across the street.

And one day, suddenly, it all looks completely different. Not in the sense that anything explicitly changed, but somehow a few months ago I realised that I was ignoring everything that was bothering me. Everything. And anything. Down to the smallest feelings of irritation to major evaluations of how I see myself in relation to others. Of course, this was actually a process of talking things through with family and friends (old and new), allowing for the fact that old dynamics were changing and that I actually wanted things I hadn't before and stopped caring about things that I'd devoted so much time to obsessing and lamenting over. And then came everything else. Every aspect of the way I've framed my experiences seemed to just unravel around mid-January and I swiftly found myself waking up to a brand new sense of reality and self.

All of this sounds a bit contrived, I know, but it would take far too long for me to go into every aspect of my changing mind in the form of a blog post I started writing 5 months ago. But to give a sense of what I mean, I'll list a few examples. From feeling inferior at the subject I'm studying, feeling inferior talking about it and the anxiety of feeling this inferiority - I started to realise that these are the things I was feeling and began to question what reason I had to feel them in the first place. Sure, at the start of my degree I knew far less about my subject than I do now, but suddenly that feeling seemed trivial. Pointless to care about, even. I'd stopped needing the validation for "intelligence" and "being knowledgeable" that I'd chased obsessively (with unrealistic self-imposed standards to boot).

A major (perhaps even the major) part of this string of realisations, and perhaps what helped me regain a sense of normality, was accepting the fact that I definitely haven't just been depressed for the last few years and had (and still do) been suffering from varying degrees of anxiety. Also, as a doctor would later describe, I had been experiencing "obsessive patterns of thought" that, whilst not being related to compulsions in the conventional sense, eventually resulted in my discovery that some of the things I'd been experiencing since primary-age childhood matched up with symptoms of obsessional disorders (the most fear-inducing of which I'd rather not go into).

Accepting that this was/has always been a part of me was liberating in the sense that it meant some sort of light at the end of some sort of tunnel. I've finally managed to learn (and continue learning) not to hold myself to ridiculous, unhealthy standards, as well as to trust my own judgements and desires (and to not punish myself for them). Ideas about "fulfilling my potential" seemed a world away, and I finally started to listen to the rational voice in my head that's always known that life's too short and absurd for things like "potential". Suddenly being introverted felt okay, because I finally stopped trying to reprimand myself for it.

For the first time since I moved to university, I've been enjoying my degree. Nothing's perfect and I still feel grim if I have to think about deadlines, but I've finally reached the end of a second year I've long been unsure I'd ever complete. I'm still recklessly spending money for comfort like there's no tomorrow, but I'm in control to a certain extent because of loans and having jobs. Which, at this point, is all I feel I can ask for, not least because underneath it all I tend to find myself buying things (and carrying out other comfort behaviours like this) that I actually want/enjoy using. So that's always a plus. And I think in a way, life's about finding the little plusses and not beating yourself up for not being the perfect person you aspire to be, or the revolutionary politician, the most mysterious boy at the "edgy" pub, the all-screaming all-loving extrovert, or just 100% the whole of the time. Sometimes I think it's about "sort of" surviving until you find the place in the world you feel okay with occupying, and finding your way in the now, rather than overcompensating for what you "might" become or be seen as.