"My mental health had always been an issue at Cambridge, particularly in light of my working class roots and a familial predisposition to mental ill health which was only exacerbated by the legendary Cambridge workload..."Varsity

The lockdown experience has certain universalities: working out how to use Zoom to boost your Sims-style ‘social bar’ after a week stuck in the house, navigating Sainsbury’s while staying two metres apart from other human beings, and, particularly for me, getting used to being alone with yourself, straight after the rush of a Cambridge term. The latter is especially interesting when you’re newly on antidepressants, alone in Cambridge, and held in the limbo of a pending intermission application.

My mental health had always been an issue at Cambridge, particularly in light of my working class roots and a familial predisposition to mental ill health which was only exacerbated by the legendary Cambridge workload. Together, these created depressive episodes that hindered both my work and social life, depriving me of the million and one things I wanted to do before donning a fur-trimmed hood on the steps of Senate House. Approaching finals these episodes got longer and deeper, culminating in a diagnosis of depression from my GP near the end of Lent. This, along with other factors, led me to try and get college to approve a last minute intermission application. Fortunately, I had applied to intermit right on the cusp of being too late to be eligible - finalists have special restrictions. In this sense, I was lucky that I had not missed the deadline.

“Starting antidepressants at such a juncture was “an experience”, as my doctor said on our first phone consultation, a week into lockdown.”

But it was a mixed blessing. Starting antidepressants at such a juncture was “an experience”, as my doctor said on our first phone consultation, a week into lockdown. After the initial intensification of negative feelings warned about in tiny letters on the box, I began to feel better - interested in things again, consistently awake before 10am, able to sleep properly for the first time in months. Having time to breathe and look after myself was a huge shift from the usual term time rush, with little to worry about except the result of my intermission application, which wasn’t due for several weeks yet. But it was hard to know whether the drugs or the effects of lockdown were more potent. Was I solving a biochemical issue in my brain, or had I simply been removed from a toxic situation?

There were definitely still issues. Being alone in Cambridge was idyllic at first - I spent most warm days sitting in the Jesus orchard or running by the river, appreciating the city again, as many Cambridge students do in spring. But I was looking at it differently, not knowing whether or not I was saying goodbye, whether this walk to Grantchester was my last as a student. My application for intermission was expected to be resolved in early May, so I could forget about it and enjoy the solitude for a few weeks. But then it was extended for two weeks, and another two weeks, and another. The ongoing pandemic was slowing the medical committee down in their proceedings. Rationally, that was fine - but it niggled at me, stressing me out.

“All the plans for my return to Cambridge in Michaelmas began to seem fuzzy after being so clear when college had approved my application.”

All the plans for my return to Cambridge in Michaelmas began to seem fuzzy after being so clear when college had approved my application. Finally ‘doing Cambridge right’ seemed to be on the other side of a chasm, getting further away all the time. But I could cope with the uncertainty, just about. I kept reading and cooking new things rather than sinking into a week-long Netflix binge, insomnia distorting the boundary between day and night, as I would before I started on sertraline. I still don’t know if the antidepressants or the change of context was the most important, but the reclamation of agency that came from finally taking action meant I felt more resilient than ever.

Eventually, I did get permission to intermit, and I returned home knowing that I wasn’t saying goodbye to Cambridge just yet. I’m over the moon, but the relief is bittersweet. The pride of watching your friends finish their finals mingles with the absurdity of watching cava-spraying in cleanly separated squares on Instagram, rather than charging, bottle in hand, as they emerge from the Corn Exchange. It was jarring to suddenly become a spectator of all this after sharing all of the other Cambridge rites, knowing I will get to do it ‘properly’ next year, but with a different cohort - the usual faces no longer around to procrastinate with at 1am in the library.


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Next year probably won’t be perfect. No doubt I’ll still have essay crises and find the insanity of the Cambridge bubble impossible to pop even with the world altered in so many other ways. But getting through three months of uncertainty, beginning on antidepressants, all while seeing no one except the man outside Sainsbury’s, has left me confident that I can handle whatever third year take two will throw at me.

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