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.

3 comments

  1. Dear Rose,
    I have to say that your post was not easy to read, as I found many elements similar to my story.
    I'm in my second year at King's and I managed to suppress my depression until the end of the second term in my first year. Then I landed in a hospital for three weeks trying to figure things out.
    All the things about the isolation, pressure and excuses are very true. I guess for me, it was the fact that I had so much time to think. It was a mix of eating issues, anxiety and depression that kept me in bed for months, without going to class.

    From your description of yourself, you sound strikingly similar to me: politics student, feminist, socialist etc,

    It was moving to read about your struggle. I tried blogging for a while until my blog being public meant that I was subject to the stigma of my illness so I was forced to delete it.

    I hope you can try and actually talk to professionals or even school counselling. The public health system didn't help me much but thankfully I have private insurance. It helped me a lot and a year down the line, my recovery is well under way.

    Your blog is wonderful, and lets others know they are not alone in these terrible alienating illnesses. Sending all my positivity and strength to you.

    Ramona

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