Sketches of nerves Philadelphia, London, W.B. Saunders company

Content note: the following article discusses anxiety, and contains a mention of suicidal urges.

Some readers will have had shivers just reading that title. Don’t worry. You can relax. I won’t be burdening you with my deepest secrets – not yet, at least. That will come later, if you decide to carry on reading.

It can be difficult to talk about ourselves honestly, especially when it comes to how we are feeling. We can find ourselves doing everything we can to avoid it. We clip our sentences short; we avoid eye contact; we use euphemisms. Opening up can be terrifying.

I remember coming home from school every day as a child and telling my mum that I was ‘fine’. But being ‘fine’ became a kind of trap. I thought that if I repeated it enough, it would be true.

Find the nearest person to you and start a real conversation. Tell them about the last time you cried

I still catch myself saying it when I would rather not tell someone how I actually am, or when I feel that the person listening wouldn’t want the answer. If one of my grandparents asks me “How am I finding Cambridge?”, something tells me not to say: “well, I started counselling within two weeks of arriving, at times it feels as if my head is being scraped against the beautiful stone walls of my college, and I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at the beginning of January.”

Philadelphia, London, W.B. Saunders company

So, I tell them about the good parts instead. I talk about my friends. I talk about the extra-curriculars I’m involved in. In several ways, I have been happier in my two terms here than I have for a very long time. But separating what they will want to hear from what they don’t feels like lying. More often than not, especially early on, they are inseparable. It’s very likely that I am at Cambridge because of my anxiety. I know that I am at this particular college because of it.

I always felt as if there was something wrong with me. I spent years trying to pinpoint what it was. I’ve had body image issues, worries about illness, worries about socialising, worries about dying, and even worries about worrying. Sometimes, I felt as if I didn’t know who I was – as if there was no ‘me’ left. Once, I spent an entire day crying because I thought I was a psychopath. As it turns out, if you’re worried you’re a psychopath, that usually means you aren’t one. My list of symptoms has been fairly comprehensive.

When I came to Cambridge, I found a lot of the problems I felt in the past returning. I would have suicidal urges. Sometimes, it seemed as if the world was spinning and I couldn’t keep up. I even filled out an academic self-assessment form honestly.

Then, speaking to a friend over Christmas, something clicked. I went to the GP at the beginning of Lent term and walked out with a medical label: anxiety. I started medication in the third week. Within a fortnight, I’d had meetings with my tutor, my Director of Studies, my college nurse and the University Counselling Service. More importantly, I sat down with my parents and told them everything. I had never opened up about myself to them before. And as I started to have these conversations, everything started to change.

Talking openly and truthfully is one of the most important things we can do for each other. In my experience, people prefer almost always avoid expressing how they’re feeling. It’s very easy to say “I’m a bit down” or “I’m alright” and the hope that the conversation doesn’t go any further. Opening up is scary – because who knows how people will react? Sometimes, we don’t even feel we know how to do it.

But it is vital, whoever we are. Talking doesn’t cure problems; but it is a start.

Opening up is scary – because who knows how people will react? Sometimes, we don’t even feel we know how to do it

So that is what this column is going to be. I’ll be telling you everything: what my experience with mental health problems has been, how it affects me, where it has come from, and how I’ve gone about getting help in Cambridge.

I want to provide a positive example. I hope that someone reading this might find the confidence to talk about their own issues, to get help from their friends, to go to the doctor or to the Disability Resource Centre or to their College. If you see a friend, enemy, library-crush or even - Shock! Horror! - your supervisor going through what I describe, please, start a conversation.

Like most other disorders, anxiety and depression do not just go away. They have been as much a part of me as my hands, or my questionable love for patterned shirts. But if your mental health is currently suffering, I have one thing to tell you:


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You can be okay. You can be better.

Please, whoever you are, talk. Find the nearest person to you and start a real conversation. Tell them about the last time you cried, your first relationship or your pet rabbit, I don’t care (I do, I promise). There’s no need to apologise for yourselves. There’s no need to act how you feel you should. Do what feels right for you. Forgive yourselves.

And please, talk to each other.

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