What I learnt from my first year at Cambridge

N.B: It was west.

A + E Cambridge Cambridge University death English essays first year Freshers friends hallucinations mental health poetry reflection senior tutor Students support support systems work

I began my first term at Cambridge as everybody else does; filled with the optimism of what the place would make of me, and what I’d make of the place.

My parents helped my unpack bags filled with assorted shit from IKEA, and they themselves, like me, were filled with an excitement unparalleled; they were filled with an optimism that can only stem from a child entering a place that they never dreamed they would.

When they left, I lay on my bed, the sun beams that had hit the Cam highlighting the dust particles left behind, reflecting onto my skin. Looking up at my bookcase, I read the messages that previous inhabitants had drunkenly scrawled after May balls, offering advice and solidarity to the ‘next owner’; ghosts they had never met. As I read, the prophecy was beginning to become fulfilled; the world I had read about in autobiographies, a modernised, less brutal Brideshead was becoming mine. I believed I knew all that was in store for me; a world of white tie, booze, books, and acceptance into a place that I had always predicted would be my own.

It quickly became clear to me that this world did not, and probably never did, exist. The hedonism that manifested itself through excessive drinking that was never romantic or endearing, but instead concerning. I found my fresher’s depressing, struggling to reach out to people due to a lack of confidence; a lack of what I had always maintained was my finest attribute. I was finally surrounded by people who I thought would be my platonic soulmates, but I felt so threatened by them and by what they possessed that I didn’t, that I isolated myself. I drank a lot, alone. I grant that all this is my own fault; that I shouldn’t care so greatly about what differentiates me from others, but I recognised people around me doing the same, and I felt I offered nothing.

I didn’t want to work. What had previously enthused me left me cold. Poems seemed vapid, shallow. I had lost any of the enthusiasm or passion for what had driven me for years. Medieval literature didn’t offer me much in terms of crisis relief either, contrary to popular belief. Rainy morning after rainy morning, I would get back to college drenched, feeling so bored of the whole thing. I began missing lectures, instead sleeping in till 3pm every day, waking up to darkness sometimes, flitting away my time, making everything worse. I believed myself to be burnt out at eighteen.

Within Cambridge, places and scenes that I had thought I would fit into began to become more and more tainted. Exclusivity radiated from the walls of institutions; the Union, the ADC. I grew sick of it. Of privileged people wearing poverty garms, of choosing when working class culture suited them, but being able to succeed as soon as they chose to shed their skin. Meanwhile, the two people who were those I cared for the most were the victims of sexual assaults, one of whom by a member of a drinking society which has since been condemned, but never to the extent it should have been after the events that occurred.

Following that, I was left with no trust in both the University’s systems, and in humans in general. The months following (and sometimes today), I would leave clubs after 10 minutes if I saw anybody preying on others, it would disturb me deeply. I became filled with anger, and the parts of me that had been light had died. I had transformed into somebody who I didn’t want to spend time with.

These things, together with already pre-existing mental health issues and the stress of constant deadlines, lead to a flood. My lowest point of the first term was the last day. I flew to Amsterdam for my girlfriend’s birthday, hoping it would offer me the well needed break that I needed. On the first night, I started acting oddly, till I collapsed on some steps outside somebody’s flat in this alive, strange city. When I came around, panicking, my girlfriend made sure I stayed awake and taught me to walk again as we moved around the Red Light District. I sobbed on the street, telling her we would die, that I had been here in a dream, and that this is the bit where we get shot. Seconds later, I’d be happy, jovial.

Then again, a death and fear would grip me by the throat like a demon and I would preach about these visions as if they were truth. I didn’t recognise my girlfriend. When I looked at her, I would see a face. Everything else had gone. I had thought life was a dream, where in order to wake up, you had to die. I was almost hallucinating, hearing things that weren’t there. I thought that the sound of water hitting the bath was the bassline from Billie Jean. Whenever I listen to it now, I smile to myself, but my memories of the night remain disjointed, and depressing. I sat outside the next night, smoking cigarettes, trying to explain how I felt, and no words made sense.

When I think about it now, I realise that this event had been building up. Whatever was inherent and pre-existing within me was brought alive by the term. It chipped away at me; at who I had grown to become, who I thought I was, and what I thought of the world around me; my entire values and belief system. I was a broken mannequin of my former self.

It all built up till it reached a sad and lonely orgasm. Lent. I sat on a hospital bed in a white room in Addenbrookes after an A+E visit. Things had become hazed, my functioning terrible, my medication was not working. I dreaded the phone call I’d have to make to my parents, and the worry that would stem from doing so. My two friends sat against the blank walls, as they wrote an essay on Marxist interpretations of something. They asked if I was OK, and I didn’t know. I really didn’t know. I wanted to escape; I wanted to leave Cambridge, and knew that I had to soon.

 The next week unfolded slowly. I spoke to my tutor, and I went home. I spent a week there, and was looked after, and I had some time off from the pressure cooker of a town. Eventually, I began to sleep before dawn. I started to get letters for referrals (which is a whole other article in itself). I started to hand in essays on time. It had got slightly easier as the sun grew hotter, and I slowly settled myself within the towns square miles.

My first year had truly shaken my foundations, and I was determined to be whole again, but it had taught me a great deal. I had set so much on this place; I had believed that Cambridge was an academic Arcadia where nothing could go wrong – it was beautiful and it had punts. However, it was flawed, as everything is. I believed it would bring me happiness, but places and things, can never make you happy. Instead, to find this paradise, I realised I had to truly recognise who I am, what I can be and how this place can help me achieve those things.


I end my first year happy. Basking in dawn, on the mound, a headache numbing each side of my temples from cider and no water, listening to Lemonade. My friends really are my platonic soulmates. I am lucky. I look at Kings and begin to understand why so many people have written about this place before, and why so many people will continue to.

I realise I am in love with Cambridge, and that, despite our disputes, I will never fail to defend us to any external force who criticises us. I wouldn’t change it for the fucking world.