"I wish I could go back and tell my fresher self that, yes, her first few weeks at university would be messy, but that it wouldn’t stay that way forever."Grace Blackshaw

Content Note: This article contains discussion of mental health, particularly anxiety.

“I feel small and scared and I don’t know what to do. I feel like everyone is making friends and fitting in and having fun and I just feel lost. I honestly don’t know if I’ll make it through the week, let alone the year. I just want to give up and go home.”

I wrote this in my diary on 7th October 2019, three days into Freshers' Week. Reading it now, my first days, weeks, months at university come flooding back: the uncertainty, the self-doubt, the tears. More than anything, though, these words fill me with pride. They are a testament to just how far I’ve come this year.

What would you say to your fresher self?

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I’d been struggling with my mental health long before I arrived at Cambridge. By the Easter holidays of year 13, it had begun to unravel; by the end of my A-level exams, it was in tatters.

Even once I’d made my offer, no one seriously thought I was in any fit state to start university. My GP, my therapist, my teachers, my parents, all told me to defer, to give myself a year to get better. Whether out of stubbornness or determination, I ignored their advice.

Once I arrived at university, I spent my first few weeks being told (this time by my tutor, college nurse, and college counsellor) that “it wasn’t too late to go home,” that “intermitting was always an option.”

They meant well. I knew that at the time. But to me, already overwhelmed by self-doubt, their reminders felt like the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face.

I walked around the Freshers’ Fair. I signed up to more mailing lists than I could ever attend. I knew I should have been excited about all these amazing opportunities, but all I felt was overwhelmed.

“Comfort crept up on me slowly, almost without me noticing it”

Later that week, I walked to Christ’s College five minutes before the start of Zero Carbon’s first open meeting. I was so worried about not being knowledgeable or loud or brave enough that I didn’t even make it through the front gate. I turned around and walked back to Pembroke. I berated my own cowardice.

After a mix of fear and cheap alcohol in a room full of semi-strangers, I ended my first Cambridge bop hyperventilating in the rain. That night, I lay in bed sobbing, listening to my new neighbours laughing halfway down the corridor. I’d never felt so alone. I spent the next few weeks making excuses to avoid all non-essential social gatherings. I felt like I’d never make friends at university.

Grace (left) at Bridgemas formalGrace Blackshaw

At first, every examples paper I couldn’t do, every supervision question I couldn’t answer, felt like a personal attack. I interpreted each and every stumble as the latest evidence that I simply wasn’t good enough for Cambridge.

I walked out of lectures, overwhelmed by deadlines that felt impossible and concepts that just didn’t make sense. I hid in toilet cubicles and desperately tried to halt the panic that rose in my chest. I clung to my anxiety medication until it felt like the only thing getting me through the day.

During those first few painful weeks at Cambridge, I nearly gave up more times than I can count. I wanted nothing more than to run away. I simply couldn’t imagine things ever becoming more bearable.

And yet, they did. Comfort crept up on me slowly, almost without me noticing it — running through Coe Fen early in the morning before lectures; walking through the Market Square to do my weekly Mainsbury’s shop; going out with my friends and dancing to the kind of music sober me wouldn’t be caught dead knowing the words to.


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A Tale of Two Sisters

It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment I stopped wanting to run away, but by the time Easter term was cancelled, the intensity of my own sadness took me completely by surprise.

Six long months later, I’m getting ready for the start of second year. I’m helping to coordinate Zero Carbon’s latest divestment campaign. I’m editing articles for Varsity. I have the most incredible friends I’ve ever had in my life. I spent lockdown slowly coming off medication that I once couldn’t imagine ever living without. More than anything, I’m so looking forward to being back in Cambridge.

This time last year, I wouldn’t have believed any of this was possible.

I wish I could go back and tell my fresher self that, yes, her first few weeks at university would be messy, but that it wouldn’t stay that way forever. In a year’s time, she’d look back and be glad she came to Cambridge when she did. If I’ve learnt anything this year, it’s that things don’t always fall into place instantly. Just because you get off to a wobbly start, it doesn’t mean you have to write off the whole journey.

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