I lived in Cardiff for four years whilst I studied at Cardiff University. I loved the city, its people and being back in Wales. I made some incredible friends and had some amazing experiences. So why, when visiting the city recently, did I feel anxious, insecure and a bit emotional?
When I headed to University in September 2008, it marked the end of a fraught couple of years where A Levels had, instead of being a priority, been a sideline to a number of other things that were going on in our life as a family.
I was excited about Cardiff, I got a place through clearing to study Genetics and I arrived in University Halls with twice as much stuff as I needed (you never know when extra fairy lights will come in handy).
My first year was horrendous. I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I had been looking after my three siblings, caring for Mum when she came home from a long long stint in hospital and trying not to argue too much with my Dad. Suddenly, I found myself sat in a prison cell-like room (oh! Those breeze blocks!) in student residences, just myself to care for and a Uni course to embark on. Should have been easy, right? All that freedom?
It felt alien. Bizarre. Looking back now, I was in shock in a way. The intensity of the three years prior to that moment all suddenly gone. I felt guilty, guilty for having left my siblings and guilty that I wasn’t there to help my parents.
I threw myself into student life to try and mask the strange emotions. I joined societies, got involved with the University Royal Navy Unit (something that the Armed Forces Careers Office had recommended to me when I decided to go to University) and drank too many 2for1 cocktails in Live Lounge. The same as any other Fresher really but for me, this was a change of pace. I hadn’t had the usual social life around Sixth Form and turning 18. That hadn’t been feasible for me before.
Everyone back home was pleased for me, I was at a great University and seemingly having the time of my life. I just wasn’t that happy. By the middle of first year, I was exhausted. I was desperate to do well at University and had been getting good grades in my assignments but I felt like I was in a bad dream where I was running and running but not getting anywhere. Perhaps I had just been burning the candle at both ends. It was highly likely!
But something didn’t add up, why was I so sad? Why did it make me want to turn tail and hide? Why did it feel that every morning I had to get up, put a mask on and crack on. After all, I had always just ‘got on with it’. For years I had been told that I was so resilient, so capable at dealing with the unexpected and so independent. Where had the girl gone that had juggled so much in the last few years? Why couldn’t I cope with the fun and opportunity that lay in front of me at Uni?
Now I can look back and see the worried 19 year old who thought the world was on her shoulders. I can see how that transition from Carer to student could have been managed better, how it wasn’t entirely surprising that I was overwhelmed.
That’s the thing though isn’t it? Resilience. As a society, we have a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude towards ‘getting on with it’. We are a resilient nation – proved countless times through history. We pride ourselves on getting back up, dusting ourselves down and being strong, supportive communities. Of course, that is true in so many ways, incredibly important and also so very necessary for so many people. However, we have to be careful when we here the words ‘I’ve got this’ or ‘I’m fine’ because situations change, sometimes even more so after the event when pressures have been released. It’s at that point when it can all come crumbling down, when you don’t ‘have’ to cope anymore. When it isn’t all about keeping balls in the air, caring for others and ensuring that routines are protected. That’s when, actually, we see people take a deep breath and start to realise what has just happened.
It’s not too different from when we see victims of traumatic incidents go into a state of shock after the immediate emergency or once the rescuers arrive. The initial adrenaline has stopped, they don’t have to keep holding it together any more and that’s when we need to turn our eyes to the one that says ‘no, I’m ok’. Are they really?
So perhaps it isn’t such a surprise that on my trip to Cardiff, I felt quite so uneasy. It’s been a while since I’ve been back and the first time I’ve been back on a trip unrelated to Uni friends or really happy memories (back for work meetings this time – never quite as fun!). As I drove down the road past my first year accommodation, the feeling of anxiety that rose up is almost out of sympathy for the 19 year old me who thought she had to still hold it all together and couldn’t quite find the words to ask for help.
I hope that if you are going through times of pressure now that call for resilience, that you don’t forget to take time to take a deep breath and ask for help if you need it. It’s much better to talk through the situations and fix the cracks properly, rather than use masking tape which only comes unpeeled once the biggest stresses have passed.
It’s ok to ask for help, it doesn’t make you a weaker person. It makes you one that wants to retain the ability to be strong for others in the future…just don’t forget to be strong for yourself too.
It is Mental Health Awareness Week from 16th-22nd May. Lots of organisations are offering support and help, so if you feel you need somewhere to turn – don’t be afraid to reach out. Help can be found in a number of places but if you’re feeling lost, then try the Samaritans or Mind.