Content notes: depression, anxiety, suicide ideation

'I remember desperately searching for accounts of alumni who had recovered from a "Cambridge failure" and gone on to lead fulfilling lives...'Photo courtesy of the author

When I left Cambridge three years ago, I felt completely hopeless.

Over the course of my degree, my mental health - not great when I started - deteriorated significantly. By Easter term of my final year, the only two things I could think about were my exams and suicide, the former providing my main justification not to pursue the latter.

I felt that I had failed, both at being a Cambridge student and, what amounted to the same thing at the time, at living. I had thought that university would be a place of learning and joy and "discovering myself". Instead, I graduated with a deep sense of despair, having enjoyed none of it. My three years had been so far from any semblance of the Cambridge dream that I feared I simply lacked the capacity to make anything good out of life.

I remember desperately searching for accounts of alumni who had recovered from a "Cambridge failure" and gone on to lead fulfilling lives. I couldn’t find one then, but aim to provide one now for anyone who might still be looking.

"I was drinking to the point of vomiting and memory blackouts at least once a week."

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in my second year. After presenting me with this information, the college nurse asked if I was okay, as I looked “a bit numb”. By that point, I was rarely leaving my room, as the prospect of running into anyone in my building filled me with unmanageable anxiety. My level of functionality on any given week was almost entirely determined by how positive or negative my supervisor’s feedback had been. I was drinking to the point of vomiting and memory blackouts at least once a week. I think I told the nurse I felt fine.

Every attempt to help myself was met with failure, further compounding my distress. I knew exercise was meant to be good for me, so I took up rowing. This left me exhausted and further disrupted my already inconsistent sleeping patterns. Jogging made me nauseous. I tried to spend more time outside in the sun, but my anxiety made it difficult to leave my room. I would lie on my bed or floor, trying to get myself to leave, instead only managing to exhaust myself with muscle tension and cyclical mental exertion.

I asked for an intake appointment at the student counselling service. In the session, the therapist wasn’t able to understand what I was saying. I left feeling crushed and empty. If even professionals didn’t know what to do with me, I assumed that mine was a permanent state. I was terrified by the apparent inescapability of my loneliness and despair.

When I graduated, I couldn’t imagine a future for myself. An absence of evidence to the contrary reinforced the belief that people this fucked up (as I thought of myself) were unalterable. There was nothing I wanted to do, or thought I could do. I say all this to emphasize that - in spite of my disbelief - the future did happen. I clung to life and things changed. Even the impossible - I changed.

"I have worked hard to ground my self-worth in something other than academic excellence"

The first few months after graduation were pretty bleak. But over the last three years, my inner world has changed almost beyond recognition. I have worked hard to ground my self-worth in something other than academic excellence. I have taken slow steps towards learning to trust other people. And I have tried to become more emotionally literate. Looking back, I can see that I really had no idea how to name or process my emotions. I was scared of feeling, instead repressing or avoiding any emotional disturbance. To me, emotions – sadness and fear, in particular – were endless voids I had to avoid falling into, rather than the informative and temporary bodily experiences I now understand them to be.

I could not have predicted in advance what would be helpful for me. Trying out different therapists, meeting different people, and taking movement classes have all been invaluable. But even after Cambridge, there were things I thought would help which didn’t. I have had to learn not to catastrophize based on these experiences. There isn’t a recipe for overcoming depression and anxiety, and you don’t need to add to your pain by chastising yourself for not ‘getting better’ quickly enough, or in response to the right things.

"I can tell you this: there is nothing wrong with not enjoying your 'Cambridge experience'"

If any of this resonates with you, I can’t say what specifically will be healing for you, but I can tell you this: there is nothing wrong with not enjoying your "Cambridge experience". There’s nothing irreparably broken about you if you were miserable the whole time, if you don’t feel like you formed deep enough friendships, took advantage of all the opportunities you should have, or ended up with enough memories of punting in the sun. Contrary to popular opinion, your undergraduate degree is unlikely to involve the best years of your life.

If you’ve spent most of your time here struggling to function, please remember that the rest of your life won’t necessarily be like that. This shit can get better, even if you can’t possibly imagine how right now.


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