Illustration by Lisha Zhong for Varsity

Content note: this article contains mentions of suicide and detailed discussion of recovery from depression.

So this is it. My last day on intermission before I return to Cambridge to start my third year (for the second time). After two long years battling depression (and several other catalysing factors not worthy of mention), this time last year my world had fallen apart. Just one week into Michaelmas Term, I was back at home with no friends, no plans, and no real intention of living much longer. 

As I write this, I’m smiling. My beautiful dog is resting his head on my lap and I’m wearing a big cosy autumn jumper. I’ve just returned from a peaceful walk in the woods and I’m preparing to finish off packing for university; life is good. 

This year has been incredibly important for me, and this is down to so many small decisions I made and amazing people I met. I want to share some of what I learned while intermitting in the hope of helping others in a similar position to mines. 

First, go get yourself a puppy. Perhaps this isn’t the best way to get over a bad break-up, but it definitely isn’t the worst. Three days after returning home, with my parents desperate to help me escape the dark hole I was in, we drove to Suffolk to pick up my gorgeous thirteen-week-old Labrador. I decided to call him Hugo. 

When I couldn’t see any reason to get out of bed, or reason to survive from one day to the next, I woke up each morning to a bouncing ball of fluff. Hugo was much more than an adorable companion: he provided me with responsibility. No matter how hard it felt, each morning I had to get up, feed Hugo, train him, walk him, and care for him. Don’t get me wrong — I spent plenty of time moping about and lying on the sofa binging series after series on Netflix, but this wasn’t all I did. I had to structure my day, and I had a newfound sense of purpose. 

First, go get yourself a puppy

Going out into my local town was the last thing I wanted to do. I felt very insecure about venturing out alone and, frankly, I could not see the point. However, I knew that dogs need to be exposed to a lot of different situations at a young age. So, I left my house and went into town. And then the next day, I did the same. Before I knew it, the baristas at my favourite coffee spot, Hatch, knew us both by name and would come out to greet us whenever we passed by. The market-stall holders would stop us and give Hugo free samples of whichever meat they were cooking that day. The girl working in Oliver Bonas would wave at us from behind the till. For the first time, I felt part of a community. 

Next, be patient when finding a therapist. Going to see a therapist, whether for the first time or fortieth time, is a daunting experience. You arrange to see a complete stranger and are expected to reveal all of your deepest and darkest secrets to them within the first ten minutes.

All therapists are different. Some just offer a listening ear, allowing you to offload whatever is on your mind; I think of these as expensive friends. Others practice specific therapeutic techniques, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). 

Having attempted to tackle the NHS waiting list once already, I decided to look at private therapists. 

The first therapist I met with invited me to meet her in a small room above a bereavement centre. When I sat down, she smiled but didn’t say anything. Thirty minutes later, we were both still sitting there, across the room from each other in comfy-yet-clinical armchairs, and not a single word had been said. I didn’t know if it was some sort of test, but it completely threw me off balance and I mirrored her silence. Ten minutes before the end of the session, her expression returned to a natural state and she said, ‘I wanted to see how you would react.’ 

The next therapist I met didn’t even have an office. Tapping in the postcode on my phone, I quickly realised that I was driving to a residential street; I was going straight to her house. It only took a couple of pronouns, revealing my sexuality, for her face to drop and an awkward silence to spill into the room. At the end of the session, she told me she thought she ‘wasn’t the therapist for me.’

I’m not leaving any part of that experience behind

Fast forward a couple more uneventful yet equally unhelpful meetings, and I’m sat in a room with a new therapist asking me to place Playmobil figures into a sandbox to depict my feelings. I’ll admit at this point I grew a little sarcastic, creating complex, analogical scenes where, really, the little man with the sad face would have sufficed.

It wasn’t until March when I finally met someone who I got along with and could provide me with support. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. 

Thirdly, it’s important to spend time alone. In the words of Sigrid, you ‘don’t need no fake friends’. I’m not suggesting that you adopt an exaggerated tone of perfectionism and cut off all of your friends for minor slip-ups (although if someone is bringing you down or not looking out for you, you don’t need them). 

I’d always done a few things alone. I wouldn’t think twice about heading out to local shops alone, or going for a short walk by myself. But when someone suggested I go to the cinema alone, I was thrown into a state of anxiety. I thought about this for a good few weeks before the opportunity arose: I had booked to go and see a film with a friend, who ended up cancelling the night before. Initially I was upset, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to attend the screening anymore. But why not? It’s perfectly acceptable for me to sit watching a film in my house alone, and it’s acceptable for me to leave my house alone, so why was it that when the two are merged the idea filled me with dread? Reluctantly, I set off for the cinema. An hour later, I was sitting alone in a huge red plush armchair in my local cabaret-style cinema, glass of Malbec in hand, and not an ounce of shame in sight. 

Next, be open to making new friends. Initially, when I chose to get back in touch with my GCSE French tutor, it was for the actual purpose of learning French. But with our sessions structured around translating my experiences into French and back again, it didn’t take long for her to work out that I was spending a lot of time alone, and wasn’t in a good way. Soon we were meeting up for coffee just to catch up and gossip — about my friends, her children, and whatever holidays we had been on most recently. 


Mountain View

It’s week 3 of term, and you can’t get out of bed

I also developed a habit of ending my walks with Hugo with a trip to a nearby café. It only took three visits before I was chatting away to some regulars: a yoga teacher, a woman with her newborn baby, and several dog owners.

Until I intermitted, my life had revolved around studying. Grades were all that mattered to me, and everyone I knew in Cambridge felt the same. I had been tricked into thinking that a grade on a piece of paper determined my entire worth. That all changed once I got a part-time job, out in the real world. The most refreshing thing about it was that I wasn’t asked once what my grades were. Nobody cared about that B I got in GCSE Music, or whether I had done whatever five hundred pages of reading I’d been given that week. 

It took me too long to realise that my colleagues were some of the most loyal friends I have ever had. I always looked forward to coming into work, and customers always commented that we always looked so happy to be there. I think working in customer service creates a sense of camaraderie between co-workers, as if we’re all heading out into battle together. 

Leaving a melodramatic message behind in black whiteboard marker on my last day, I genuinely felt like I was leaving a part of myself behind. A few good-luck messages later and I realise that I was wrong; I’m not leaving any part of that experience behind, but taking the memories and those friends with me, into the next chapter of my life.

  • If you have been affected by the content of this article, the following provides support and resources: Samaritans – call 116 123 (open 24 hours); Mind – call 0300 123 3393 or text 86463 (9am to 6pm weekdays); Cambridge Nightline

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