Fresher's Week Is A Minefield If You Suffer From Anxiety
The Debrief: 'On my first day in halls of residence I closed my bedroom door - and cried...'
In 2015, half a million new students will experience freshers’ week for the first time, and statistically, around 125,000 of them will have mental health problems. I was 18 years old when I arrived at Leeds university campus with a cracking noughties mullet and a prospectus full of neuroses: OCD, bulimia, generalised anxiety disorder, depression.
There were certain boxes that I thought needed ticking in order to be a successful fresher – making new friends, joining societies, going on dates – and they all made me incredibly anxious. In the midst of what had been hyped as the most momentous period of my short existence, the unsayable thing was that I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to have casual chit chats with strangers. I didn’t want my photo to be taken. I didn’t want to step out of my comfort zone. Seeing how excited my friends were, I believed that I was the only fresher in the whole country, in the whole world, who felt like this. That was 2004: eleven years ago. I now work as a writer in London.
This week I spoke with 19-year-old Charlotte Callaghan, who’s about to start her first year studying Forensic Science with Criminology at the University of South Wales. Last year her anxiety was so bad she had to defer her place, and now that freshers’ week is finally here, her anxiety levels are skyrocketing. 'Everyone is told that university is the best time of their life, and I believe that’s somewhat true, if you don't suffer from anxiety,' she said. 'Not being in control of a situation is my main difficultly. The idea of socialising with people I don't know, who will probably be drunk, terrifies me, and I’m extremely nervous to move into a flat with six strangers.'
I empathise with Charlotte. On that first day in my halls of residence I closed my bedroom door and cried along to such classic dance anthems as Will Young’s Evergreen, emerging into the public sphere only when I heard the unmistakable clink of bottled booze in the kitchen. Booze booze booze: the lube of freshers week. I used alcohol to self-medicate because I found that it made my anxiety less intense, and during those first few days away from home, it had me vomiting, falling over and losing my memory. It took me until I was 27 to learn the art of getting blissfully pissed without making myself sick. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that 27 was also the first year I ever felt mentally healthy.
Alcohol also enabled me to hide in plain sight, because when I was drunk I fitted in – I was a part of the student ritual. At the end of freshers’ week I went to the fabled ‘school disco’ at the student union, the backcombed mullet streaked with hair mascara and a potful of Barry M glitter on my sweaty gesicht. Everyone else was off their faces on ‘Buca and balloons, so no one noticed when I slunk to the side of the dance floor and held my head in my hands, or when I disappeared full stop – running home alone at 2am.
Alcohol also enabled me to hide in plain sight, because when I was drunk I fitted in – I was a part of the student ritual
But why is hiding like this so important for anxious students? Why can’t we just come right out and admit we’re struggling? I asked Charlotte. 'You don't hear of many stories where people ask "Are you looking forward to freshers?" and someone replies with "no, I have anxiety" – it can be quite a sensitive topic. I think freshers believe that everyone around them is having a super good time, so they don't want to ruin anyone else's fun. Everyone is expected to be happy because you're about to embark on a life changing experience.’
‘Expected to be happy’. Bingo. My unhappiness during that first week of uni had felt like an offence to everything I thought a fresher was supposed to be: hedonistic, outgoing, up-for-anything, and so I kept it quiet. Freshers’ week is meant to be Fun with a capital ‘F’, after all. The local bars and comedy clubs and gigs venues gear up for your arrival with Jagerbombs and foam parties and ‘dirty burgers’. Events guides roll out the same stock images of face-painted ‘ravers’ wearing Native American headdresses and plastic neon whistles. Do a Google image-search for freshers’ week and the homogeny is startling: groups of grinning, fancy dress-wearing, hands-in-the-air funsters. All this amounts to one message, anxiety isn’t allowed.
I wish I knew then what I know now: that women with anxiety disorders are not only coping, they are out there in the world and they are flying
‘I find it hard to talk about anxiety because I believe people think it's not a real illness,’ Charlotte said, ‘but just because you can't see any physical symptoms, doesn't mean someone isn't immensely suffering.’ This is something I hadn’t fully understood when I was uni: anxiety is an illness, and, like any illness, it has symptoms which can be treated. And more than any cautionary tales about eating a healthy diet, drinking in moderation or getting an early bed, blah blah blah, I think that’s the most important thing to remember: seeking treatment is not shameful, and good quality therapy can be truly transformative. It was doing CBT, four years after I graduated, that eventually taught me how to manage my anxiety.
I was a shambles during freshers week but I have no regrets. I did not choose to be mentally disordered: it was an illness which happened to me and it was not my fault. But if I could tell the 18-year-old ‘me’ one thing, it’d be this: don’t self-stigmatise. Back then I thought that mental illness was a life sentence, that it meant isolation and misery, that it marked me out for failure. Mark, stain, stigmata, stigma.
I wish I knew then what I know now: that women with anxiety disorders are not only coping, they are out there in the world and they are flying. Far from sitting alone in musty rooms with the curtains drawn, they are excelling in dynamic, challenging careers. I personally know women with mental health problems who are smashing it as photographers, authors, directors, producers, magazine editors, illustrators – they all got through freshers’ week despite their anxiety, they all worked damn hard at university, and they are all rather lovely reminders that back during my freshers’ week in 2004, no matter how much I felt it, I was far from alone.
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