This is how far I get before I start crying.
Not sobbing, but feeling my throat choke up, feeling tears roll down my cheeks immediately, my face going red because this person I just met is being presented with the most vulnerable version of me.
I’m attempting – and do eventually manage – to explain to my seminar leader that I’ve got severe anxiety. That when I look like I’m not paying attention in her class, it’s that I’m trying desperately to pay attention but I’m suddenly aware that there are fifteen people in the room and I have to speak in front of them in order to truly engage.
She is lovely. Almost no one I have ever had this conversation with has ever been anything other than lovely. She commiserates with me, and says that I didn’t look anxious at all. I believe her. I managed to speak fluidly and articulately on three separate occasions, which I counted because I was going to be happy if I managed one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because I managed a lot of other things before I got to this seminar. It’s September, and this month for Your Normal Is My Scary, I started a MA in Creative Writing.
First, I want to tell you about the weekend before welcome week.
Because it might go up there as one of the most anxious weeks of my entire life. Name me all the physical symptoms of anxiety – I can guarantee you I had all of them, and then some other ones besides, just for good measure.
Doing as little as walking across the room made me out of breath, because I was already breathing so shallowly. Everything made me cry, and I mean everything. I did not stop shaking for the entire 72 hours leading up to my first day. And time, as it is wont to do when you are enduring the trauma of waiting for something terrifying, went inexorably slowly.
But something very odd happened at the same time. I did not have anxious thoughts. I had twenty thousand physical symptoms, but nothing was going through my head apart from wondering what to have for dinner.
When I get to welcome week, I learn something very quickly.
What I’m doing isn’t a single terrifying thing. It’s a giant pile of them that are being shot at me like tennis balls from a machine.
On day one I cope with commuting from home to uni – which involves finding out I need a photocard for my train ticket and running like a headless chicken through town to get cash and a passport photo. I’ll say this for chronic anxiety – it makes you early enough to cope with things going wrong.
I go to a place I don’t know, queue for registration whilst shooting messages to my best friend that mostly consist of but what if this is a mistake and I’m not meant to be here, and get only a couple of hours of rest before it’s time to go to a social event.
Then it’s meeting people. People I don’t know. I do it, I do everything, but I spend the entire time assaulted by physical symptoms and wondering if anyone has noticed that my entire body is shaking or if I’ve said something strange or if my face looks weird or if anyone is going to think it’s odd that I’m a decade older than most of the people around me.
It’s going to the university support services and saying hi, I’ve got this problem, and I don’t know what help I can get. It’s crying in the office of a woman so gentle and kind and understanding that she lets me ramble about singing opera in front of people for a solid minute. It’s rushing back and forth to get railcards sorted and books prepared and none of this goes perfectly smoothly, of course, because it’s life.
Oh, and of course this all also involves getting up early and on time, something that I’m historically atrocious at doing – or find intensely unpleasant when I do manage it.
On the second day, however, something magical happens.
I go to the library.
In the library, and in the postgraduate buildings, I find the quiet places, the places where people are so quiet that I can sit out in public without my headphones on. You heard that right. I can sit. In public. Without my headphones on. Alone. Not terrified.
And I’m walking to get the bus to the train station, and I’m thinking this might be it.
Fastforward a couple of days and I’m coming out of my humanities induction lecture thinking I want to stay here I want to do a PhD this is where I’m meant to be I don’t ever want to leave.
If you’ve been to the blog before, you’ll know that I’m deeply afraid of places I don’t know. I’m afraid of the people, of getting lost, of simply existing somewhere that is unfamiliar. I do not feel safe. I do not feel okay. I want nothing more than to get back to what I know. Before this first week, I have been to the university campus once.
But I feel so safe here that, after leaving that lecture, I forget that I don’t have my headphones on.
Here’s the thing – when it comes to knowing what I want to do with my life, I have always felt disconnected.
For a long time I thought that I was just too connected to the fantastical lives that I was steering. I very rarely dream about my own future; I dream on a daily basis about my characters’ futures, be they from novels or roleplaying games or fanfiction or really anything at all.
I think that, maybe, my mental illness might have been to blame after all.
Because now that I’ve gotten better enough to take this mad leap – a mad leap that I’ve tried to take before and failed to – I’ve discovered that it’s okay to want things for myself. That I do know the things I want for myself. That I can lean in to how weird and complex and intense and multifaceted I am. That I like the person I’m seeing when I look in the mirror.
And no, it’s not perfect. I had an anxiety attack last night when I got home because I was just so very, very tired. Because the thoughts had all become a bit too much. All the way through that seminar, the one where I cried at the end, I was thinking oh god, oh god, I can’t do this – but I was doing it at the same time.
But here’s the biggest thing about that leap leading to me knowing who I am: the core of that definition isn’t my anxiety. It isn’t my depression. Even though I spend so much of my time talking about my experience with both, even though they’re a constant and pervasive part of me, I look at myself now and see someone who’s whole and complete and not just the cracks that run through their mind.
Yes, I’ll probably cry a lot more and yes, I’m still shaking and yes, this is so overwhelming that I can’t cope at points.
But I’m here. Really here. And I want things for myself in a way I haven’t before.
More than anything, more than the simple act of attending, that is the normal thing that scares me. The idea that I could want something for myself. And you know what, I’m pretty proud of managing it.
Coming here seemed like a longshot at the start. Like something that was a nice idea but couldn’t happen. I had a moment where I had to decide whether it was something I really wanted or not – and it was almost a year ago now. Because the open day that I came to, the day that made me decide to apply, was the day of our friend’s funeral.
At the time, it felt wrong to go. I went anyway, because I’d started to get this tiny spark of feeling that it was something big. Like I knew then how much it was going to give me.
It’s a year later, and Jack, I’m really glad I came here the day we said goodbye to you. I’m not sure I would have done, except I could hear your voice saying “dude, that’s amazing”, because you always seemed to get how hard things for me even though you couldn’t possibly know for sure.
I can still hear you saying it.
And yeah. Yeah, it is amazing.