How to Survive the Worst Year of Your Life

MORWENNA JONES talks about her experience of degrading and how Cambridge does not always provide the right answer.

coping counsellor degrading depression DoS gap-year mental health pressure support

 In 2013, I made two decisions.  One was the worst in my life.  The other was the best. 

Last September, I had a fringe cut and now look like a cross between Zoey Deschanel’s brother and an English sheepdog that needs a haircut.  In January, I gave in to the eating disorder I’d had for four years, degraded, and left Cambridge for a year.  I recovered, I’m back, and surprisingly, the consequences aren’t as bad as those of my early-twenties-identity-crisis haircut.

Very few can pull this off. These people/dog don't.

Very few can pull this off. These people/dog don’t.

However, despite defeating a disorder that had dictated my life since I was 15, it was a pretty rubbish year.  I thought I’d leave and return to normal life.  What I actually did was weep into my cornflakes, realising that life was going on without me.  I realised that I’d massively screwed up, and that everyone else was at uni/ travelling/ getting a proper job.  I also realised that this meant that the only friend I had was my pet rabbit, whose life of sleeping, being fed, sleeping, and occasionally hopping, was disconcertingly similar to mine (without the hopping).

Degrading and leaving Cambridge is like a nasty break-up.  Thankfully, this means that my initial mourning period, during which I frankly went a little bit crazy, was followed by a pro-active recovery. I managed to find a way of making life away from ‘the bubble’ bearable.  So for those students taking a year out, here’s how I managed to make my year as a degraded student slightly less dull:

1. Get Up and Get Dressed

This may seem obvious but after 3 weeks of doing nothing spending the day in bed, hiding from the world, starts to look oh-so tempting.  This is a bit like small children putting their hands over their face and imagining themselves invisible.  The world will still find you, so face it.

2. See a Professional

Most Cambridge students degrade for mental health reasons and an overwhelming number degrade due to depression.  If your illness is bad enough for you to have to take a year out from university, it’s bad enough for you to need help.  Do this sooner rather than later and, at least once a week, you’ll have something to centre your day around.

3.    Do as the Professional Says

You may have previously been at the best university in the world.  You may have 4A*s at A-level.  Your DoS may have said in your last supervision before you left that your essay on Virginia Woolf was the best they’d ever read.  However, you are not a fully trained counsellor or nurse.  Do as you’re told for once.

4.    Find Things You Enjoy

‘I enjoy being the best,’ I said in my first session.  Wrong again.  I enjoyed being praised because my self-esteem was so low that I couldn’t generate a positive emotional experience for myself, something most mental-illness sufferers struggle with.  Go for a walk once a day, have a bubble bath, or put One Direction and dance around the house.  Do one thing a day that makes you smile and you’ll have a reason to get out of your pyjamas every morning.

If it works, let them in

If it works, let them in

5.    (After a while) Find a Purpose

Sitting around all day may seem like the easy option.  But, after the realisation that the novelty of checking up on you has worn off for most of your friends and that your parents sympathy towards the fallen golden-child is wearing thin, you need to get out of the house. Getting a job while on a year out is harder than it sounds, but persevere.  You’ll meet people, earn some money and get back into a routine that isn’t defined by what time the Top Gear re-runs start on Dave.

6.    Plan Something for Yourself

Recovery involves radically changing how you live your life and it’s exhausting.  ‘Degrading’ or ‘Intermitting’ also comes with a huge stigma, so find something for you that will make your year out worthwhile.  Take a mini ‘Gap Yah’ and find yourself, give yourself a project, or find a goal to achieve by the time you return.

7.    Leave Cambridge Behind

5 minutes after I arrived home I wanted to run back to Murray Edwards, cling to one of the funny-looking statues, and beg to be readmitted.  Life outside the bubble is hard.  But Cambridge isn’t the be-all and end-all, no matter what your DoS might say.  Take the time to decide if Cambridge is a place where you really want to be, and to define yourself without it.

Not always as idyllic as it looks

Not always as idyllic as it looks

My first decision of 2014 was that I’m totally awesome without Cambridge.  My second was that I’d give it another go anyway.  All I can do now is hope that the fringe has grown out by 2015…