Surviving my first term at Oxford

I've had a pretty tumultuous teenagedom. I nearly threw my education away altogether at 15 because of the eating disorder that had taken over every part of my life. Nobody thought I'd get my GCSEs, never mind go to college. A classmate told me that he saw me in a psych ward in three years. At 16, I moved to London and somehow, living in a small room two hours away from where I went to college, recovered. I very rarely made it into college five days a week, but some very dedicated people at college kept me alive by making sure I had a bursary, free school meals and money for transport. I somehow came out the other end with 3 A-levels and a significantly stronger grasp on reality. I'm still not sure how I managed to do this. But one goal that motivated me to keep trying was Oxford: millions of books, mist-covered centuries-old stone, the thought of talking Marxism in a tiny room with a world-renowned academic. I have a picture of me at 15, sick as hell and just out of A&E for the third time that month but revising for my GCSEs in an Oxford jumper (sadly, not the most ridiculous of my coping strategies).

the actual irl castle where i live
Now I'm there. I've just finished my first term at Wadham College, where I live in an actual castle and have tutorials in tiny rooms with intimidatingly clever academics who can quote whole paragraphs of Aristotle and the declaration of independence. Academics who read my shoddy essays or have to answer panicked emails asking for extensions (or, towards the end of the term, had to sit expectant in their rooms as I missed tutorials with no warning whatsoever).

I guess when you've been working for years toward one thing (which subconsciously you imagine will deliver you to a life of sanity and sophistication, a la An Education), there's bound to be some degree of collapse when you finally get there. Ending up in A&E with too many painkillers in my stomach and being held under the Mental Capacity Act, failing to do work for a month and having the college nurse visit me in bed when I couldn't get up, self-harming after two and a half years clean, though - I didn't expect it to be this dramatic.

It's surprisingly hard to talk about this stuff at Oxford, though. I can't count the number of times I've been asked "how are you enjoying your first term?" as a casual conversation opener, only to be met with disbelief when I answer not-entirely-positively. Oxford's great, isn't it? Intense but in the best way. All these buildings, all the bops and kebab vans and banter and Plush Fridays. How could you not love it? There's an air of failing some sort of initial test if you're not having a great time - as if you don't belong here, as if you're not cut out for this. Conversations go dead. I feel people sidling away from me, as if my failure to cope is contagious.

matriculating 2 months late but still lookin cute
mBut honestly, what else do you expect? Everyone recognises that Oxford is bloody insane; it's hardly likely to breed sanity. The workload is intense, living alone in a new city is difficult for anyone and the pressure to socialise in the first few weeks lest you become a social pariah is incredibly stressful. On top of that, you have to find people to live with, go house-hunting (some students slept outside an estate agent for two days before the student lists opened - the "are they nuts" headline on the Tab gets it), sign your lease, manage a budget for maybe the first time and deal with all the friend/sex/romance drama that is pretty much inescapable in a student population. Not to mention that Oxford's population is overwhelmingly middle/upper-middle class and white, which is strange and alienating for a fair number of students. With all this in mind, it's surprising that I only met one other Oxford student in A&E.

Near the end of term, I completely broke down. I didn't leave my room except to get black-out drunk or have very public panic attacks; I missed several tutorials and I'm a month behind on work that I'm too mental to do. The effort of trying to keep myself together while also disguising my problems from people living and working around me 24/7 was exhausting and I'm still reeling from it. It would be easier if I could talk about this with people on my staircase, instead of saying "oh yeah I had the flu" when actually I've been recovering from a suicide attempt. It would be easier if I could explain that I missed matriculating with everyone else because of anxiety, not some vague illness. Above all, I'd like to be able to talk about how various mental health assessments this term have landed me with the words "traits of borderline personality disorder", which was hard enough to process even before I realised that anyone I told this to would think I was incurably, violently crazy.

one selfie I didn't upload to my facebook album
The conversation about mental health at Oxford has already been started - this blog, though far less detailed because I'm not up for sharing the ins and outs of how my brain misfires yet, is inspired by the brave accounts of students blogging for the Mind Your Head campaign. But it's still a bit of a niche interest - you're unlikely to come across the campaign unless you seek it out because you or someone you know has a mental health issue. Conversations about mental health and emotional difficulties are still absent from the everyday college/university scene - which is where they're needed most. There must be so many students with anxiety struggling through freshers week, students with psychotic disorders who can't drink or go clubbing and can't tell people why, students who've moved to a totally new environment and are homesick as hell but can't tell their friends because this is "the best time of your life." 

So, Hilary 2015 goal (that's the pointless Oxford name for the second term of the year): stop saying you couldn't go to a thing because you had the flu (it's not possible to have the flu 365 days a year). Talk more about mental health. Write about mental health. Shove mental health down people's throats until they get a bloody grip.

feminine furies

Throughout worldwide mythology, there have been tales of women whose righteous anger cannot be contained. Though mythology in its printed form often takes on the misogyny of the hand that printed it, the women beneath are powerful. The Erinyes or Furies of Greek and Roman myth, were born of blood and earth and darkest night and seek righteous vengeance against mortals who have wronged. Aphrodite, born of sea foam, wields power over mortal men. Lilith of Jewish folklore, the first woman, refuses to lie beneath her husband and becomes a demon or succubus - creatures who feed on men's blood. And Ceridwen of the Mabinogion shapeshifts from greyhound to otter to hawk and swallows up her prey for wronging her. These women are queens, they are goddesses, they are shapeshifters, they are witches.

"Lilith" by John Collier (1892)
I chose the new name of my blog because of how important these women have become to me. The witch is a symbol of female power, of disobedience, of revolution. In the fight against patriarchy which acts by outlawing our power, forcing us to tone it down a bit, witches are the ultimate symbol. A recent issue of the New Inquiry summarises it thus:
"In a male-supremacist society, female power must logically appear illogical, mysterious, intimate, threatening. “Witch” stands for all those unnamable shadow acts of disappearance and withdrawal, self-cultivation, and self-medication that elude the social and sexual order." 
Sylvia Federici, in her book "Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation", describes the witch hunt as a necessary precursor to the modern formulation of capitalist patriarchy. Her work was what first drew my attention to witches and has since transformed my feminism and my socialism. In her introduction, she describes the witch as:
"the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeah woman who poisoned the master's food." 
A witch trial
The characters appear throughout literature - their power stemming sometimes from supernatural sources and sometimes from speaking their minds. Yesterday in my English literature class we studied an extract of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, where Hippolita - a woman now ruined by an extramarital affair - confronts her former lover. She is the play's first voice of rage, dressed all in black and speaking of blood and hell and angels. When the object of her attacks bids her to be calm, she interrupts him with "Call me not dear." (He also calls her "violent" and "passed all rules of sense" - my friend joked that we'd heard this conversation a few too many times in our own lives). Her name is taken from an Amazonian Queen of Greek myth; she speaks of "the devil in my blood"; she is a witch.

Hippolita in a production of 'Tis Pity
Photo source: {x}

Alison, the Wife of Bath, is another witch: clad all in scarlet and telling esteemed men of the clergy exactly how she will live. She is treated with respect throughout her tale, and is given more time to speak than any of the men. This is very much reflective of her time: Chaucer was writing as heretic movements - which often put women on much more equal terms - were posing a serious challenge to the Church. Some half a century later, Joan of Arc, an archetype of female power, was burned at the stake under accusations of heresy. By the time 'Tis Pity She's a Whore was written, the witch hunt was at its peak across Europe and the position of women was greatly changed. Read by Ford's audiences, the protagonist of The Wife of Bath would surely have been deemed a witch. The women of 'Tis Pity certainly were, all but one of whom meet grisly ends, including one burned alive (the other, a minor character, becomes a nun). Notably, Hippolita dies by poison meant for her lover - another sign of witchcraft, at a time when the use of contraceptive potions could result in women being burnt at the stake. The exercise of power - be it by speaking freely or by exercising control over their bodies - would see women branded whores and witches. The purpose of the witch-hunt was to eradicate female power and to restore women to the Church's prescribed position of subservience. It was undoubtedly one of the greatest campaigns of femicide in history.

In the 21st century, the idea is much the same. Violence against women is so endemic that I could justifiably call it a modern witch-hunt (a topic which I will explore with more words than I can here). But women are restrained more subtly by the expectations of femininity. Displays of female power are improper. Rather than "witch", we are labelled "bitch". Women who shout, whose cheeks go red and whose voices break are too much, too loud, too unfeminine. We must be quiet and small and we must shrink ourselves. Our power is destroyed not by burning, but by diets, by the word "dear", by boys who get little smirks on their faces when a woman speaks. Five centuries after 'Tis Pity was written, to be a woman and to show power is still a battle. Laurie Penny wrote four years ago, in an article that changed my life, the phrase "I refuse to shrink myself to fit into the narrow coffin that society lays out for young women". This refusal to shrink and to shut up is still one of the most revolutionary feminist acts.

The Malleus Maleficarum, the textbook of the witch-hunts, is the sort of misogynistic diatribe you'd find on Return of Kings these days. It contains the phrase "Women are by nature instruments of Satan -- they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.” Female power is carnal; it is raw and elemental and made of blood and earth and night like the Furies. The witch-hunts outlawed carnality, but it is ours to reclaim: we must allow anger to burst from our throats and tears to well in our eyes and our nails to make moon-shaped welts in our hands. We will not, must not, be silent.

no room for teenagers

On Saturday I visited one of my close friends in an adult psychiatric ward in South Wales. She's been there for seven weeks in the one bed owned by CAMHS, treading water until she turned eighteen. As psychiatric wards go, it's not too bad - the other people there are mostly elderly and harmless. Hardly nightmarish, but for a suicidal seventeen-year-old not the most friendly of places, either. She's had nobody to talk to besides staff and visiting relatives for seven weeks, a degree of isolation which even the happiest disposition couldn't stand.

Last week I marathoned My Mad Fat Diary (which is fantastic, by the way), in which a friendship is forged in hospital between Rae and Tix. Through the walls of a bathroom stall, they feed each other hope. When Tix is asked what makes her happy, she replies "Rae". The hospital would be a much darker place for her if denied interaction with anyone her own age - and denied visitors, as under-18s are usually barred from visiting adult wards. The real Rae Earl has written this week about the issue of young people being placed in adult wards, which she calls "an act of utter neglect and cruelty". She references the statistics recently uncovered by the BBC: that the 2013-14 period has seen 350 under-18s admitted to adult psychiatric wards. While shocking on its own, this figure disguises a much wider problem. The lack of facilities for adolescents doesn't just mean that young people are forced into terrifying, lonely situations; it means that countless others at risk are denied access to inpatient care.

At the height of my depression two years ago, I begged to be admitted to the hospital. I remember sitting in accident and emergency, looking around the cubicle for some way, any way, to end my life. It was the second day in a row I'd been in that hospital, having been sent home after an overdose the previous night only to hurt myself again. I was desperate, and it was all I could do to ask them to keep me there, to keep me safe. They told me because I was sixteen, too old for the child ward and too young for adult psychiatric, there was nothing they could do. They sent me home. I'm grateful for that now, having survived without hospitalisation, but it could just as easily have gone the other way. I mightn't be here today to be grateful.

The question of whether psychiatric wards are more harmful than helpful is a controversial one, and I'm not about to embroil myself in it. But the fact remains that if a young person is at risk of harming themselves, they need care - care which cannot usually be provided at home. Even in the most loving family, a parent with no experience or training in mental health cannot be expected to cope with a suicidal child; for young people whose suicidal thoughts stem from violence and abuse at home, sending them home is tantamount to a death sentence. Inpatient care for adolescents must be provided, and it must be safe.

The lack of adolescent inpatient care is a crisis in dire need of solution. Earl describes how a failure to solve it might mean "condemning a generation to torturous lifelong mental health problems." But for the others, the teenagers who are turned away from inpatient care because there's no room for them, "lifelong" might be a much shorter term.