"The past three years have given painful and incredible experiences in equal measure."Madeleine Southey

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of mental health. Please scroll to the bottom of the article to find some useful resources.

It seems fitting that I felt as unprepared to leave Cambridge as I did to arrive. Despite being something I had set my heart on for most of my life, Trinity was never the paradise I expected it to be. 

Love Letters to Cambridge

These are tough and uncertain times for us all, and a lot of us are left with little closure. Varsity are launching this series to give a platform to students reflecting on the parts of Cambridge they'll miss the most, and to gain some closure through writing. Just email our Features team with a 150-word pitch with your idea!

Early on, I developed a resentment towards my work, as well as my supervisors for expecting a work ethic I never had. I spent the majority of my first term either drunk or hungover. When I was sober, I was frequently in the grip of paralysing anxiety and fear. I watched opportunities that I had waited for all my life slip by, and punished myself for wasting them by persuading myself that there would not be another opportunity, and turning my back on the things that I loved.

In my second year, I signed up to more and more extracurriculars. To distance myself from the unstructured chaos of my first year, I relished in the concept of being overcommitted. Those closest to me know that I still struggled with my mental health, but it became less of a permanent state and more something that escaped from me on occasion. 

In Lent, I experienced a close personal betrayal and heartbreak. For the rest of my second year, I was in a trance. I threw myself even more into my commitments. When exams were over, all my plans for the summer fell through. Stuck at home for months on end with little to distract me, I ultimately managed to process some of the feelings I’d been putting second to my work. I promised myself that the next summer would be different.

"We drove by Market Square, where I had bought strawberries during the heatwave in my first year, and flowers for my friends when they finished their exams."Madeleine Southey

Somehow, I made it to my final year. By week eight of Michaelmas, I was extremely worn down and ill, but I pushed on to perform my last show with the Cambridge University Show Choir after serving as their Musical Director for a year. Their love and infectious positivity had kept me going through some of my darkest times. When the term ended, I felt exhausted but triumphant. I had finally managed to demonstrate what I knew I was capable of. I felt I had recaptured my determination and resilience. 

Last term, unbeknownst to me at the time, was my final term in Cambridge. It is both perfect and tragic that the last eight weeks were the best. Realising this might be my last chance, I signed up to the Lent novices programme run by my college’s Boat Club. I also got the opportunity to play a (small) part in the Musical Theatre Society’s production of Guys and Dolls. By the end of my penultimate term, I had finally started to feel that I had found my place in Cambridge. 

Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, I was going home. Like most, I had no time to say goodbye. I still assumed that we’d be back by Easter term. As the next week panned out, it became increasingly apparent that this would not be the case.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been mulling over a Dickens quote: “One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.” 

I don’t know if I will ever fully forgive Cambridge. The past three years have given painful and incredible experiences in equal measure. I will never forget watching the fireworks at my first Trinity May Ball. I will never forget sitting on the backs in the sunshine, watching Pimms-drunk punters narrowly avoid falling into the Cam. I will never forget the dinner parties, garden parties, and the people I’ve met. I will also never forget standing on the top floor of the Squire Law Library and contemplating jumping. I won’t forget the times I paced round Heffers Bookshop for hours when my mind was racing and I was scared about what I would do if I was on my own. I won’t forget the countless tears, panic attacks, sleepless nights, days where I felt unable to work. Days when I lay on the carpet. Days when I refused to eat before 3 pm because it ‘helped me concentrate’. Lugging my enormously heavy textbooks home one day, crossing a bridge over the Cam, I wondered if they’d weigh me down enough to drown me if I jumped in.

"I've been mulling over a Dickens quote..."Madeleine Southey

But Dickens is right. I began to forgive Cambridge the moment I shut the door of the car with me inside it, outside Great Gate. We drove by Market Square, where I had bought strawberries during the heatwave in my first year, and flowers for my friends when they finished their exams. We passed the ADC Theatre, a place I would always associate with joy. In the distance I saw the boathouse, where, in my final term, I first experienced watching the sunrise over the misty river, turning the frosty riverbanks into fields of diamonds, a sight so postcard-beautiful that I almost forgot that I couldn’t feel my hands. 


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Mountain View

To the finalists of Cambridge

As the sun set that first evening back in my garden, I remembered a similar sunset, during a service I attended in my second year. The golden light broke through the stained-glass of the Chapel and lit up the entire congregation with its warmth, while the Trinity Choir sang Allegri’s Miserere. The incredible setting and the sorrowfulness of the music broke my heart, and I remember that I cried, but not why.

Even during my time there I was aware of the intensity of the suffering I experienced at Cambridge ebbing in my memories, leaving only the beauty behind. At the time this frightened me. I wanted to hold on to the sharp edges of my grief, not let them be worn down by distance and time. Now I understand that this process of forgiveness will never justify or trivialise my experiences. Losing the pain that I associate with them won’t cause me to forget them, but, by forgiving Cambridge, I can finally allow myself to appreciate the incredible experiences I had free from that pain, to reflect on this time of my life with objectivity, and with peace. 

If you have been affected by any of these issues, you can contact the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org, and the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visit mind.org.uk.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following information and support is available:

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