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!

A Game of Dates

To prepare myself to write this post I am listening to the Beatles – nobody knows love like the Beatles – and I feel some preparation is necessary here because talking about affairs of the heart does not come naturally to me. More than this, I loathe writing about it because it only reminds me of cringe-worthy articles in women’s magazines. But love is an inescapable and enjoyable experience for all human beings and so I think a few words should be spent talking about it, especially in the run up to Valentine’s Day, but also with this massive change in the rules of the dating game since secondary school.

I grew up with ‘Friends’ as my educational source for adult life and what I’ve noticed is that relationships seem to have moved towards the adult ‘realm’ or ‘style’ called ‘dating’ that Rachel and others always seemed to be doing. For me, this is completely alien. I was used to a system where you were ‘asked out’ (one of the bizarrest phrases in human history) by a boy/girl and that was it – you were an item. You tended to label yourselves boyfriend/girlfriend from the off and monogamy was generally assumed. Here, at university, the old system has gone out the window. You can technically ‘date’ (also a strange and vague term) multiple people without causing offense and there are generally stages of seriousness (I have one friend with a hot chocolate stage; I’m not sure what this means but, for me, anything with chocolate is serious business). You might work up towards becoming someone’s boyfriend/girlfriend eventually, although I couldn’t tell you how.

To conclude the sociological-style analysis, I really don’t like this new style. Maybe I’m just being conservative of my secondary school principles surrounding love but what doesn’t sit with me well is the lack of clarity in the new system. Perhaps it reduces the chance of being rejected straight from the off, although this benefit doesn’t outweigh the awkwardness you might have to suffer later. Nobody wants to ask someone if they can call them their significant other (the fear, I guess, is that your feeling may appear too strong and creepy) and, to a far greater extent, nobody wants to ask someone if they are seeing other people or even to stop seeing other people. At least the old system avoided this – we had clarity – even if you suffer some embarrassment along the way. So, what I want to say to all the forlorn and heart-sick students is to reject the system, revolutionise and ask that 3 month long crush to be your girlfriend if you are like me and hate the ambiguity.

I’ve learnt a great deal more about affairs of the heart since being at the university just by studying my two best friends (whom I call my Exeter parents). They are an exemplar for me when it comes to relationships and I think what makes them so strong is the fact that they are each other’s best friends. This doesn’t mean ‘hit on your existing friends’ (that seems to be a quick way to lose them) but your significant other should become your best friend as you get to know them. In the meantime, while you wait for your best friend to walk into your life, enjoy your crushes. Having a crush on someone is the only enjoyable pain I have ever experienced! It’s nice just to like someone from afar without the pressure of waiting for them to fall in love with you. I have a crush, I can admit that to you freely because I’m not entirely sure he even remembers who I am, and I am enjoying the heartache while I listen to soppy songs. Maybe I’ll ‘ask out’ my crush if I get brave enough but I won’t let my feelings consume me because that is how to get hurt – we fill ourselves with affection for another person and when those sentiments aren’t returned, that’s when we experience rejection.

As a last note, celebrate your singledom. You may think that people might think there is something wrong with you if you are single but this is not the case. It just suits some people. Being in a relationship is never a necessity. What always brings a smile to my face is the thought of how much money I save not buying presents for someone else (which can now go on chocolate)!

The Keyboard is Mightier than the Sword

I have been contemplating recently (considering the effects of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and to a far lesser extent my last post) about the impact of non-verbal human communication meaning writing, drawing, music, art, theatre and even just body language. Words and pictures can produce a greater reaction sometimes than what we say to each other and for that reason they are powerful tools – tools for positive change if we use them correctly.

My aim in writing myself, however, is not to empower the average person protesting but to express my newfound appreciation and value in writing. What I have learnt over the Christmas holidays is that not only is writing making changes in the world around us but within ourselves also. I’m very fond of writing letters for this very reason; when I am worked up about something they help me clear my thoughts and organise them coherently so I can understand clearly what I’m feeling (and whether those feelings are justified.) They also give me time to choose my words carefully because, as I have learnt from studying English and painfully analysing author’s words in minute detail, they can have a huge influence on the overall effect of what you’re writing. When I’m writing to myself I need time to select the word that most accurately describes my emotion because pinning and encapsulating such an abstract thing in language is cathartic in some way. Even now I’m picking my words tentatively to explain to you this experience, but I fear I might not be doing a good job!

When I write to somebody else, on the other hand, the words are also cherry picked not necessarily to express how I feel but in the best way to make them understand, empathise, or react. Let me give you an example and I can hope that clears things up. Someone I used to know said some things to me that were quite hurtful and I didn’t think it was fair of them to make the excuses that they did. It made me so angry that I just couldn’t let it go! I felt like I wanted some kind of justice or justification for what they said – so I wrote them a letter. Without sending it and capturing all my thoughts on that page, the anger went away. But it seemed to me the letter must be sent otherwise this person may say the same thing to someone else and, to my surprise, they were completely apologetic. It was a small win but one that made such a difference to my mood. The key here was not sending them hate-mail (no matter how tempting it is at the time – and, believe me, it is hard to stop yourself going on a mad rant) but manipulating your words to make them understand.

So here is my real message to you students: write more! You don’t have to write letters but a diary would do. If you’re feeling brave enough for the public to peep into your private life then keep a blog. Some people find writing to strangers oddly liberating – I know I do. Also, be careful of those words of yours. How many times have we been in arguments where we have said something hurtful or something we didn’t mean? Writing allows us to blow off steam or say what we really want to express without hurting anyone. Being a student is stressful enough as it is!

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