You’re not the only one with mental health problems. Trust me.
Best-selling author Liz Fraser reveals her battle with an eating disorder at university and why she’s launching ‘Headcase’ – a pioneering mental health campaign.
I studied Experimental Psychology at Cambridge, twenty years ago, a time now known by anthropologists as the Pre-Tinder Period.
Yes, it was indeed a tough time.
I cunningly decided to make it tougher by spending two of my three years being extremely ill, with an eating disorder.
And not just a bit of one. Bulimia nervosa. The Big Kahuna burger of eating disorders.
I was so ill in my first year that I attended fewer than 10% of my lectures, and failed all of my exams because I could neither see nor retain any information properly, so addled was my brain and messed-up was my blood.
I left my first lecture after 15 minutes because I started to faint. And I don’t think it had anything to do with the lecturer’s taste in trouser-wear.
I was too embarrassed, and afraid of it happening again, ever to go back.
The illness had started well before I came up, but it got much worse within days of arriving.
All the excitement of the “UNIVERSITY! WOW, it’s going to be SO AMAZING” seemed to morph even before I’d unpacked my Argos kettle and jar of Nescafé – the HEIGHT of exotic entertaining in 1993 – into “HolyshitwhatamIdoinghere?? Who are all these people? Why are they all so…clever, and confident, and SORTED? And why haven’t flat whites been invented yet, so I could get a decent coffee?”
Of course, everyone else thought I was clever and confident and sorted. Because I behaved that way in public, as we all try to. In truth, I felt anything but.
One of the things I found very difficult, and totally unexpected, about being an undergrad, was the ease at which one could just…disappear.
I thought I would always be surrounded by friends – that there would be a 24/7 network of people, support, and fun on tap.
And, of course, there was. I had a fantastic group of friends, many of whom I am still very close to today, living right next door to me. Every day. All the time.
But I didn’t have to see them. I could close my door, and disappear. And I did. A lot.
I achieved a level of loneliness I’d never experienced before, made only greater by the constant sounds and presence of everyone else around me.
Loneliness doesn’t come simply from solitude, it comes from a sad feeling of separation from the people around us. Loneliness in crowds is the hardest kind.
In the evenings or at lunch time I would emerge, smiling, laughing and ready to defend my title as table football champion (until That Bastard Steve stole it off me), and become, as one friend described it to me recently, “the life and soul of the bar, Liz!”
I felt happy. Genuinely happy. And mostly very drunk on £1 pints of Blastaway. (Don’t ask. But…£1 pints??! Ahh, there were good things about the ‘90s.)
But during the day if I wanted to be alone, I could just shut the door. And nobody knew I was there.
Life as a student 20 years ago was almost identical to how it is now, and yet also almost unimaginably different.
There were no mobile phones. There were no emails. There was no Facebook or Twitter or Facechat or Snapcrack or whatever they’re called. And, as far as most people were concerned, there was no internet.
Calling home involved finding a bag of 10p coins, walking in the rain to a phone box, and queuing behind all the other sodden homesick Freshers. If nobody was in, you waited until the next weekend.
I Kid. You. Not. I still spit at that phone box every time I cycle past it.
And if you wanted to talk to someone, you had to go and see them. In actual real 3D life. In PERSON. We had to make an effort to see each other.
But it took almost no effort to hide away.
My friends would puff and pant all the way up three flights of stairs to my attic room, and knock on my door, and I was often so down or unwell that I couldn’t open it. I would sit there silently, waiting for them to go away.
I feel terrible about this now. But an eating disorder, like other mental health problems, is something that controls you, until you stop behaving rationally.
The downsides of having no internet, phones or social media are obvious. How any of us managed to do any work, know what cats look like when they’re on skateboards, or arrange a time to enjoy some carnal pleasures with someone other than themselves, is quite miraculous.
But I think it also has its advantages, and in some ways I think you have it much harder now.
FOMO didn’t exist….because we didn’t know what we were missing out ON.
I had no idea what any of my friends were up to when I wasn’t with them. I couldn’t see their witty Facebook updates and perfectly Instagrammed selfies (selfies were what you did on your own in the shower, in those days) or wonder why they weren’t texting me.
They weren’t, because they couldn’t.
There was a peace that’s almost impossible to come by now. We can communicate with the entire world all the time. But that makes it very difficult not to.
It’s hard to switch it off. Not to measure one’s self-worth in ‘likes’ and smileys. Not to have to document and share everything you’re doing, all the time.
The pressure to be seen to be coping magnificently, is now immense. And so is the pressure to keep on top of more information than we can possibly cope with.
The irony, of course, is that the more we are able to connect to the world, the more isolated we can feel in our real lives. The more we can portray a doctored image online, the more dissatisfied we can become with the reality.
It’s impossible to tell anyone at any stage of life, how they will look back in 20 years and see it differently. And there is no point. When you’re ten, you can’t see the world through the eyes and experience of a thirty-year-old. I can’t see my life now, as I will when I’m sixty. I don’t know what I’d be able to look back on and tell myself now.
And I can’t tell you now that there is lots of wonderful life beyond university, that nobody has ever asked me what degree I got, or that you should just enjoy each days as it comes, love the taught skin of your youth, be grateful for hangovers that disappear in a day not three weeks, have lots of hot young sex, and don’t worry, be happy. (Insert whistle here…)
I’d want to punch my patronising face if I did – assuming you hadn’t already.
But I’d suggest one thing; that you keep an eye out for each other, and don’t assume that what you see on the outside is what’s going on inside. That you LOOK at each other, and talk. And LISTEN.
And that you listen to yourself sometimes, too. And don’t be afraid to say, “Actually, I’m not feeling great today.”
My university supported me when I needed help. I received weekly counseling, and they let me re-sit my exams, and come back. I am FOREVER grateful for this help.
But I had to go and ask for it. And that’s the hardest part.
I’ve set up Headcase, to start a conversation. To allow you to talk about what goes on in your heads, openly and safely, to share and learn, and change the face of mental health.
Since I’ve started it, my inbox as been FULL of emails from people saying they’ve never talked about their mental health issues before because they thought they were the only ones who felt that way. But Headcase has made them feel that they can now, for the first time.
And they feel much better for it.
Head-wobbles are as common as the Clap after a Fresher’s cocktail party. And that’s not considered abnormal.
Just as we sometimes feel physically unwell, so it’s also very normal to feel not entirely OK in your head all the time. It happens to us ALL at many times in our lives.
And it’s the really smart ones who are able to talk about it.
So let’s start. Join Headcase, join me, and join the global conversation.
You can join the conversation by exploring the website or by Tweeting. If you’d like to contribute something to Headcase, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. They would be most extremely happy to hear from you.
I’ll be so happy to hear from you I will dance naked in the kitchen with a traffic cone on my head. (photographic evidence will be supplied when we reach 1million subscribers….so GET SUBSCRIBING, people. )