Selves Jamie Hancock

Content note: the following article contains detailed description of the symptoms of anxiety, and a mention of suicidal thoughts.

Last Christmas, in a cliched flash of insight, I realised something fundamental: I’d spent almost all of my life trying to avoid things.

I was talking to a friend about his anxiety. As I listened to his symptoms, I realised that they were strangely familiar. It was as if I was hearing myself described – a version of me which I had tried to deny existed. And, somehow, I wasn’t surprised. It seemed like I had always known.

Any counsellor will say that avoidance behaviours are one of the most common habits of those with anxiety disorders. To minimise pain, you develop ways of preventing exposure to sources of stress. In this article, I’m going to catalogue exactly what mine were and how they developed.

Growing up, I had built a network of self-images: I was self-reliant; I was successful; I was sociable. I didn’t need help, I had told myself, because there was nothing wrong. I was normal. But, in their different ways, these were all forms of avoidance. If I told myself that I was a calm person – if I shut down or ignored any feelings which threatened my self-image – then it would be true. I could make myself who I wanted to be. Listening to my friend, I realised that they were coping mechanisms. They hadn’t been working.

Like a character in a bad sci-fi film, it all began to make sense. I started to look back through my memories. I cried, for a while. It was strange how, with one word, so much of my life became explainable.

I imagined that, travelling in isolation, I could be myself at last

In retrospect, I began displaying symptoms from a very early age. Of course, these weren’t medical ‘symptoms’ to me: they were just parts of my personality.

I remember returning from a camping trip at five or six years old, convinced I had contracted Weil’s Disease. I didn’t know what that meant, but I did know – thanks to an offhand comment by my dad – that Weil’s disease could be caught from the kind of river water we had swum in. I began washing myself over and over and over again until my skin became raw. I thought that the more I washed, the cleaner I would be. I would get up in the middle of the night, terrified I wasn’t clean enough. I didn’t tell my parents.

The compulsion to be clean remained for years. I developed eczema. I had prescription-grade moisturizer. By the time I was in Junior School, my hands had become wrinkled and cracked from being too dry for too long.

At school, someone decided to latch onto this. People began to play a game named Jamie’s Germs. Apparently my hands were diseased and if I touched anything – a person, a pencil case – it had the disease as well. At first, I refused to recognise that this was bullying. I just wanted it to stop. I remember having a fantasy: somehow, I would be lying in my bed in the classroom. In my bed, no-one could get to me. I would be safe.

The more desperate I was to get people to like me, the harder it became

I would often try to escape into imaginary worlds, by reading or writing or simply day-dreaming. In my imagination, the Jamie that everyone seemed to hate no longer existed. I could be whoever I wanted. In a lot of ways, that love of reading, that need to escape into another person’s voice, is at the root of why I am still studying English now. It was an avoidance mechanism I developed to cope.

I didn’t want my parents to know about the bullying. I would say that I was ‘fine’, because I didn't want to face the consequences. But, eventually, I cracked. I told my mum. As soon as she knew, she tried everything she could to get the school to deal with it. But the damage was done.

"I shut down or ignored any feelings which threatened my self-image"Porsche Brosseau

I chose my secondary school specifically for a fresh start. By then, though, I had developed quite severe social anxiety. The more desperate I was to get people to like me, the harder it became. Sometimes, I felt I couldn’t speak at all. I would hide in the toilets at lunch, alone. So, again, people started to think that I was ‘weird’. I remember having what I now know to be panic attacks on the way to school most days.

My solution was to tell myself that I was the problem. If I changed myself, I would make friends. I stopped allowing myself to do what I felt I wanted to; I stopped allowing myself to say what I felt I wanted to say. I did it for years, pressuring myself to fit in and be successful. Arrogance became a kind of self-defence mechanism.  I moved to a very high-performing school for sixth-form, almost to punish myself with its workload. I developed deep body-image problems. Suicidal thoughts were familiar. 

Slowly, I forgot how to be happy. I called what I had depression, but I was too scared to talk about it.

I took a gap yah - not a ‘year out’, as I usually tell people. But despite the stereotyping, it was what I needed. Being outside the cycle of school was a kind of release. I started to relearn how to feel happy. Applying to Cambridge, I even managed to make it through the interviews – before experiencing five days of terror as I picked my memory of them apart. When I got in, I couldn’t believe it. I thought that, somehow, I would die before I came here. I couldn’t imagine the universe allowing me this dream.  


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Mountain View

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I went backpacking alone. I imagined that, travelling in isolation, I could be myself at last. And, as I played into that well-worn, privileged gap-yah stereotype, I learned how wrong I had been. I needed people. I missed them. With (literal) distance, I could look back on my past problems. But I still refused to take in their full scope.

I’ll save what happened since for another time. But, I want to say it again: there is nothing more important than your health. And to be healthy, you have to understand yourself. You can’t avoid things forever. I couldn’t, at least.

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