Passing on what little wisdom I have

In so many ways I’m glad I’m not a fresher anymore! I really hate awkward small talk and your first year is full of it. So, what subject are you doing? What halls are you staying in? Where are you from? It gets a little repetitive. You can be a maverick and open the conversation with a curveball question like “So what type of dragon would you have, if you could own one?” But, as much as I like pondering such scenarios, in my experience, people don’t like to be caught off-guard. You will meet a lot of people trying to act ‘normal’ (although, everyone’s weird on the inside) therefore you might play at being ‘normal’ yourself.

A friend that I work with is starting university this October and so I’ve been thinking of various tips and pearls of wisdom I might give her. I found the first 3 months really hard but I don’t want to tell her, or anyone, that for fear of putting her off. She’ll have a great time, I know that for certain, but not everyone will have an amazing experience. So here is what I have to say to you, my fellow misfits. Firstly, I’ve already written about finding your kin and this takes work. Nothing in life simply falls into your lap; you have to work at it and actively seek out situations and experiences. If you feel that you and that girl really into country music had the tender beginnings of friendship then you should take her number, add her on Facebook (or any other social networking platform), and arrange to go to a barn dance (or something like that.) Go to societies and events that correspond to your interests – you know for certain then that you must have something in common with everyone else in the room! I went on a historical walking tour of Exeter and had a good chat with a fellow history enthusiast who had happened to have heard of my home town. That was an exciting moment – someone actually knows where I’m from! After having to tell a hundred people that it’s in Kent and about an hour from London you would have been excited too.

Secondly, the people you meet in freshers’ week aren’t necessarily going to be your best friends for life. I don’t even remember half the people I met! The same goes for your flatmates. Unfortunately, I had very little connection with most of them because I am, what I have termed, a ‘day dweller’ and they were ‘night dwellers’. Meaning, I liked to sleep at night and party hard during the day while they were the opposite. In fact, one of the only people I’m still close with after freshers’ I am now living with, and I refer to her as my husband because we bicker like a couple. But, again, that friendship took effort (and a whole Easter holiday together). I met all of my best friends through my friends I knew from school and we couldn’t be a closer bunch. When I started university, I was determined to be independent and establish my own group all by myself but I think this is what caused me to struggle so much – I had cut myself off from everyone I know. If there is one lesson you can learn from me it is that you should maintain the relationships you already have; I probably wouldn’t still be at Exeter without my school friends.

Lastly, money-wise, I have a few tips to share. I learnt from the best; my Exeter parents, (what I call my friends), have shown me all their tricks to eating and living cheaply. The pound shops in Exeter (and they are abundant) should become your best friends – there is nowhere else on the planet you will find Maryland cookies for 29p! Also, I have lived off the basics ranges from all the supermarkets and have not, as yet, caught food poisoning. Some of it is actually pretty tasty. I recommend Tesco’s onion and garlic pasta sauce (with some bacon, if you have the cash to spare.) I have a weakness for Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference sausages, but if I can resist so can you! In our flat we like to batch cook our meals and freeze them, and if you do it right (unlike me who ended up eating chilli every night for two weeks) you can happily feed yourself for up to a month. This is really handy over exam season (or when you eventually catch freshers’ flu) and you just can’t be bothered to cook.

That’s it, I think. Hopefully I have helped you on your adventure through university. Remember to embrace every opportunity, and good luck!

Dealing with Uni-blues and Depression

I’m going to let you in on a little known secret; most of the people around you, who appear perfectly cheerful, are probably not happy. Depression and sadness at university is surprisingly common and I find that pretty scary. We’re young, we’re away from home and we are frighteningly vulnerable out here in the ‘big, bad world’. I’m very passionate to write about this (a) because I am going through my own phase of depression and (b) it genuinely worries me that other people out there are feeling the same way but don’t know how to get help. Part of the problem is that sometimes, when we recognise something is wrong, we actually don’t want help. I have been quite cruel to people recently who want to help me because it feels like I’m just being heartlessly and robotically fixed and what I want is someone to listen to me. When they listen to me I then get upset with the poor ears I have been torturing for not helping me. I get stuck in a vortex of self-pity, unable to escape, only falling further and further into reclusion and feeling increasingly more sorry for myself.

I’m admitting this because I know that there are others like me out there and if you are anything like me you will be in denial or think you can fix yourself; it’s just time. The amount of times I have been told to give it more time! This is logically absurd for many reasons; depression itself doesn’t just go away on its own, neither do the things that cause depression. You could give a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter an infinite amount of time and he could very possibly write Shakespeare but his sadness at being kept in captivity would not go away. This is because problems need to be resolved because humans are problem-solving beings by nature. The first and most important step is reaching out and to the right people – for me, this was my Dad. I tried talking to my boyfriend at the time and I had the same issue of loathing talking to him because he tried to fix me (which may well be a widespread, male problem and we can forgive them for that – they have our best interests at heart.)

I really needed a listening ear so I did one of two things; I emailed my personal tutor and I made an appointment with my GP. People sometimes forget that personal tutors can offer pastoral care too – my tutor seems to be encouraging me to pick up a language with his suggestions of going to a French-speaking part of Canada for my year abroad or his idea of reading German philosophy in its original language. His advice seemed to be to remain social. He asked if I’d joined many societies, I had only a few so I joined more. I spent more time at my friends’ flat and have since been adopted as ‘honorary flatmate’. These are great short-term pick-me-ups because they feel great for the time you aren’t alone but I found that as soon as I went home and was alone in my room my thoughts went to dark places. At my lowest point I didn’t see any point in being at university, I was lost and felt directionless in my future and even struggled to see what I had worth living for.

This is where the doctor can provide a longer-term solution. At home in Kent I went to my GP and got referred to counselling which was really beneficial and so I paid a visit to my doctor at the Student Health Centre here at Exeter. He was unexpectedly friendly! When I think ‘doctor’ (apologies to all the med-students) I think quite cold and rushed people who are always busy but the human-touch made all the difference to me that day. He couldn’t help me much but pointed me to Wellbeing Services across from the health centre which was all I needed – a nudge in the right direction. Unfortunately, the list for counselling seems never ending but this is not to dishearten you. It shows just how valuable the service is and just how many people are in the same boat, so I would stick with it.

I would not consider myself depressed now and that’s why I feel like I can give this advice with confidence. There are many other things which also help with dealing with depression: firstly, don’t forget your old friends – my best friend from school lives in Bath now and I didn’t think I could talk to her because I wasn’t sure if we were still best friends which, of course, is daft. She will always be my closest friend – I mean, for a short time, I owned her soul (I literally won it in a bet). Just because someone isn’t there in person doesn’t mean they can’t ‘be there’ for you over the phone or skype. Secondly, as clichéd as it sounds, keep a diary. This is actual advice from the before mentioned best friend. You’re not some sad, pre-teen girl for writing down your feelings but instead a deeply emotional and engaged writer to yourself. I have twice written letters to myself because I find, in-between highs and lows, I completely forget what triggered my last cycle of happiness or sadness. I call it emotional-amnesia. Also, writing to yourself can feel very silly and I complain, in my writing, that I sound like my mum. I thus offend myself and have a good giggle. I would also advise calling your parents. My Dad has become a best friend to me through sharing my problems and he gives me fantastic advice having so much more life experience. He also complains about work which puts essays and exam deadlines into prospective. He advised that I take a book and read in a public space which, although it made me feel self-conscious, was liberating (especially as it was a rather raunchy book about a monk who is tempted by a woman masquerading as a monk in training – called The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis.)

I realise that I can list all these tips and you are unlikely to want to use them because when you are down motivation is the hardest thing. I quite often feel like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer, switching the alarm off at 7am but staying in bed, going to the corner shop in just a bathrobe to buy junk food and yelling bitterly at happy couples walking down the road. It is the numb feeling which it is the hardest; you feel absolutely apathetic towards everything. The emotion can be summed up pretty much as ‘meh’. It’s a grey/beige feeling of impartiality towards the whole world and it prevents us doing things but I really have no solution to this. I find those moods tend to come and go but a woman (who happened to have the same bag as me, although this is irrelevant) once told me to remember my values. I value altruistic human beings and the want to be a good person motivates me to be a good friend, a spectacular role-model to my baby sister but also (hopefully) an inspiring writer. What is the point in doing something if you can’t do it for some good?

I hope you have found something that helps you here (if so, Achievement Unlocked!) but here are some websites that I might point you to if not:

Samaritans
University of Exeter’s Wellbeing Services
The Student Room – Depression
University of Exeter’s Mood Disorders Centre
Exepose article – Your own worst enemy? Dealing with mental illness at university

All’s Fair in Love and War

Today was the day of the Fresher’s Fair and I sensed (but also I was clued in by the fact that the ATM’s apparently ‘run out on days like today’) that – in my brain’s own words – “something crazy is about to go down.” And it didn’t disappoint. I deliberately put off going until mid-to-late afternoon hoping the swarms of people would have died down, but I made a fatal miscalculation. Since most students would have been out drinking the night before (while I was happily marathoning ‘Hannibal’ and avoiding fresher’s flu which has already infected 2 of my roommates) they wouldn’t be conscious until 1pm the following day, and not stumbling onto campus until 2pm. So when I arrived at 2:30pm, skipping along to find a society to join, I got swept into a lazy wave of freshers.

I come from a town called Tunbridge Wells where a lot of the population walk around like Londoners, constantly rushing for some train somewhere, and so I’m used to that stream of people not the occasional dawdlers at the fair who would stop in the most inconvenient places. As a philosophy student I feel like I should have more patience but when I have a goal or place to be I’m like a moving train with no brakes – I can’t be stopped.

Also, the Tunbridge Wells girl has a browsing technique when we shop; we don’t stop moving unless something catches our eye, even then it is to a suitable location so as to not be an inconvenience to others, but at all other times we ‘scan’ and pan round with our eyes. The technique doesn’t seemed to have infiltrated the south west so I’m having to adjust and acclimatise in this new environment. I came out successful, however, with some free packets of Haribo and my memberships to the creative writing and philosophy societies.

From what I’ve heard it’s standard procedure to oversubscribe, join more societies than you’re able to attend and end up dropping most of them so I took the opposite approach. ‘Less is more’ but that phrase has always been lost on me – surely more is more, and less is less? They’re binary opposites, right? I think undersubscribing is perhaps a better technique because that way you don’t spend out for clubs you won’t attend also I’m (pretty) sure you can still join later in the term.

I actually put a lot of thought into my choice. I wanted something social where I could meet like-minded people, so sport was out of the question for me being neither sporty nor a team player. I also thought ahead as to how the societies can help me in my future. Philosophy Soc will help me with my degree and I’m hoping Creative Writing Soc will carry me through after that when I become a struggling writer (my ideal career being like Ross and his music in ‘Friends’ to which Phoebe described him as ‘not appreciated in his own time.’) I’m also hoping that with the extra time I might get some of this book written which I’ve been planning for about 2 years. It is currently only 4 pages long but my procrastination skills have come along in leaps and bounds those 2 years!

Finding Your Kin and the Fear of Being Alone

I’m writing this at 8:23pm when most freshers right now are probably at the pub. I would much rather be at the campus cinema watching ‘X-Men’ but I’ve opted for a night in…on my second day…the reason being that I don’t want to go alone. The fear is judgement. That I might look sad going to watch a movie by myself. The catch is that I very well might find my kin when I am there, my fellow nerd girls and scifi lovers which, in the long run, could mean I might not go alone to the next film. Dare I say it, I might make friends! But I know I’m not the only one who’s feeling lonely. Fresher’s Week is a time for socializing which can be hard if you have what I call a ‘fantastic personality’ (i.e. you’re a bit weird.) My friends and I were extremely close when I left my secondary school and so I’m finding it harder than most to reach out to new people. Rejection is another factor that scares the pants off of all of us.

Nevertheless, I have learnt much and you too, padawan, can learn from my example. A friend told me before I got here to say “YES!” to everything and try as much as you can. My advice is both similar and different (yes, I realise that is a contradiction) and say yes to the things you will really enjoy but more than that you ought to follow through with that yes. If you’ve circled the heavy metal society in your booklet then actually go! Do not let the fact that your mates/flatmates/mates you made on the Facebook fresher’s group don’t want to go prevent you from checking it out. Me? I’m an amateur scifi fan so I popped down to the scifi society taster session. I procrastinated, telling myself that if I couldn’t find the place I would turn back but eventually I persisted and found the group. What I found there was more precious to me than the last packet of cookies in the cupboard – Fannibals or, for those of you that don’t know, Hannibal fans. I had finally found my kin. If only I had been wise enough to gather numbers so I could find a cinema buddy! Alas!

My second piece of advice is pacing. This lesson I have learned today when I went back and forth from campus to my halls in-between events, totalling an hour and a half walking time today. I have no idea what I was thinking when I decided to walk back a fourth time to see this film! Also, I realise that walking home alone in the dark for the third time this week might be pushing my luck. The tiredness is kicking in and now I have very little enthusiasm for anything. A pearl of wisdom from my boyfriend today: take a book. Sitting on the grass reading while you wait for the next event doesn’t look sad or lonely but sophisticated and someone very well might come up to so and ask what you’re reading. Ta-dah! Insta-friend!