As thousands of freshers get unpacked and enjoy the last whiff of washing powder until Christmas, Esther Harris advises everyone involved to remember student life isn’t all snakebite and partying. It certainly wasn’t for her.
It’s right about now you start seeing the cars on the motorways, driven by people with slightly unkempt hair; their back window piled high with a duvet, a kettle, a hidden cuddly toy and a copy of Grub on a Grant.
Yep, it’s that going-away-to-university time again. And although for many it signals the start of one long party, for others, the first months at uni can be a hugely traumatic experience. I hated my first two years. They took me to a really dark place.
If you’re lucky, you’ll choose to go to uni because you fancy it, but many people actually go because everyone else is, or teachers/families/traditions demand it.
And yes, independence and the loss of nagging parents seem like ‘gimme a whoop whoop’, but honestly? Most 18-year-olds are woefully ill-equipped to cope with the uni ‘machine’ – strange town, weird people – let alone up to dealing with the social, emotional and practical experiences (cooking three meals a day, getting a GP, organising your own time) which it demands.
So does uni make you or break you? I’d argue a bit of both.
Friendships and social OK-ness
Uni is often the first time you are thrown into a situation of self-awareness or self-examination in a conscious way.
Who am I? Why do I just not like that person? Why do people not get me? These are tough questions for anyone to get their head around, let alone a bunch of random ‘kidults’ who talk different, don’t get your jokes, know nothing about you and even less about themselves.
I left Portsmouth, a tiny island city where I’d lived for 18 years – and where everyone knew everyone else – for south east London. It was like landing in Beirut. Not just the sirens lulling you to sleep or the bullet holes in the window of Pizza Hut, but the unwelcoming and shocking strangeness of an unfriendly corner of a big city.
And I had no friends either. I had known my besties at home since I was seven. And I was miserable without them. But I came across as aloof, and people just thought I was a stuck-up bitch.
“Left to their own unstructured devices most 18-year-olds will sink into squalor. I did… I ceased all study and began intense self-loathing instead, which involved me lying around in bed, crying, listening to Mariah Carey.”
Occasionally a friend from home would come and stay and my housemates would look at me oddly: “So, that’s what you are really like.”
I remember one girl saying when my best friend arrived and I lit up like a Christmas tree: “Why aren’t you like it with us?” I didn’t know. I just knew I felt terrible.
Structure and squalor
During my course, English, there was a maximum of five hours taught lectures a week. That’s a lot of time left over to do, well, what exactly? Left to their own unstructured devices most 18-year-olds will sink into squalor. I did.
Back at home I had despised the discipline and nagging of sixth form college and parents, but now it was taken away I realised I relied on it to deliver anything. Without it, I had lost my foundation, and I felt like no one gave a shit. So I stopped giving one too.
I ceased all study and began intense self-loathing instead, which involved me lying around in bed, crying, listening to Mariah Carey. The course sucked; I should have switched, but that required an effort and maturity that I didn’t have. So I sobbed to Mariah, watched This Life and cooked pasta. Endless fucking pasta.
So I was bloated with carbs, felt like shit, hated my course and had no friends. How I hung on till my final year I’ll never know. (I slept a lot.)
“I left Portsmouth, a tiny island city where I’d lived for 18 years – and where everyone knew everyone else – for south east London. It was like landing in Beirut.”
It all changed when I moved into a flat on a spanking new campus that was party central. In my new surroundings I cheered up, stopped giving people the death stare and – who knew? – began to have fun.
My flatmates studied chemistry and economics and were the opposite of me, but I felt safe. We laughed all day long. I made a new circle of friends. We threw a party. I worked on my dissertation and found I cared about books again. And suddenly it was June in my final year and I didn’t want to leave.
The most ex-frighting time of your life
So uni tripped me up, but it taught me that burying my head in the sand is never the answer, to trust my instincts, and to be truer to myself. So, yes *whispers* I’m glad I went. Because 19 is not a bad time to learn some life lessons. Just don’t ever invite me round for a tuna pasta bake.
Help – what to do and where to go. By Judith Apps, The Eden Practice
• For a lot of new students, adjusting to ‘running’ your own life is tough. If lectures are scant, make a programme of things you like to do, things you have to do and create a schedule that provides a structure – day by day.
• Join clubs and societies, as many as you can. Not all of them will suit you but the meeting of new people and toe-dipping for new activities will provide both the entrance into friendships and possibly hobbies that become an integral part of your life.
• Try and take regular exercise: even if you are not a sports person, swim, cycle or at least walk regularly. Creating natural serotonin via exercise is one way of giving yourself a boost.
• Drinking can be a pivotal part of uni life for many, but if you don’t feel like drinking don’t feel pressured to. That’s when belonging to clubs will give you something else to do if the Union bar every night is not your thing.
• Happy Space help young people at university who may be finding it hard to cope. Find them on social media (Facebook, Twitter or visit their website for dates when they are at a Freshers’ Fair near you.
• Counsellors often offer online or Facetime counselling: www.counselling-directory.org.uk.
• Try the Samaritans.
Esther Harris is (still) writing her first novel and tweets @writer29