Don’t be alone: It’s time to start the conversation

A Clare student in the 1990’s, best-selling author LIZ FRASER reveals her battle with an eating disorder at Cambridge and why she’s launching ‘Headcase’ – a pioneering mental health campaign.

Author Cambridge cambridge alumni Cambridge University Clare Liz Fraser mental health Mental Health Awareness Week Students

I was a Natsci at Clare, twenty years ago; a time 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 here 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. I was too embarrassed to ever go back. And I don’t think it had anything to do with the algebra.

The illness had started well before I came up, but it got much worse within days of arriving.

All the excitement of the ‘CAMBRIDGE! WOW, it’s going to be SO AMAZING!’ seemed to morph even before I’d unpacked my Argos kettle and 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 get a decent coffee??’

Cantab Liz Fraser relives her battle against nervosa

Headcase: Cantab Liz Fraser is reliving her battle to help millions fight mental health issues (Copyright: Mike Sim)

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 was anything but.

One of the things I found very difficult, and totally unexpected, about being an undergrad at Cambridge, was the ease at which one could just…disappear.

I thought the collegiate system meant I would always be surrounded by friends; there would be a 24/7 network of people and support – and fun – on tap.

And, of course, there was. I had a fantastic group of friends, most 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 from solitude; it comes from a sad feeling of being separated from the people around us.

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 College 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 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.

Calling home involved finding a bag of 10p coins, walking in the rain to the phone box on Queen’s Road, 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 when 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 to the top of S staircase to 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.

Locked away: Liz's friends left notes, worried about her health

‘Are you alive?’: Liz’s friends left notes, worried for their friend

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.

These addictive behaviours, whether food, drink or drugs or just other routines and habits, are born out of a lack of control, and of fear. From wanting to hold on to something that has a known pattern and system, and feels ‘safe’. Even though you know it’s not.

University life can feel so uncertain at times, that it’s very easy to hold on to something that’s actually worse for you than not having it. But the Devil you know can be a very persuasive little bastard indeed.

The downside of having no internet, phones or social media is obvious.

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.

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 Facebook ‘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.

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.

Jounalist and broadcaster Liz is behind the Headcase campaign

Jounalist and broadcaster Liz is behind the Headcase campaign (Copyright:Mike Sim)

And I can’t tell you now that there is lots of wonderful life beyond Cambridge, that nobody has ever asked me what degree I got, or that you should just enjoy each day 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 College, and the University, supported me when I needed help. I received weekly counselling, 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.

Headcase: Lifting the lid on conditions affecting ONE in FOUR adults.

Headcase: Lifting the lid on conditions affecting ONE in FOUR adults. Copyright: (Mike Sim)

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.

You can join the conversation by exploring the website or by Tweeting. If you’d like to contribute something to Headcase, please email [email protected] They would be most extremely happy to hear from you.