Finding a home inside your own head
Me, my brain and I
I recall last year asking a friend something along the lines of: “When you’re talking to a person, are you ever aware of yourself as being in conversation? Like, do you feel super conscious of yourself as talking, of being present – of having to keep giving?” Her negative answer was when I realised that the way I was viewing the world wasn’t necessary or healthy. That most people don’t exist in a state of hyper-consciousness of how they look, talk and act; that the anxiety underpinning the very fabric of how I was living my life was more than just irrational but completely unusual.
I did not enjoy my first year at Cambridge – it feels liberating to type that. The reality is I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed myself much anywhere, really. At the point I left to go to university my mental health was the worst I'd ever known it to be: the summer post-A-levels had sent me into a spiral of self-questioning, the uncertainty of the future combined with the inability to turn back leaving me unsure of who I was and where my value lay. Arriving in Cambridge only served to exacerbate the emotions that had heightened during the preceding months. Suddenly I was alone, drowning in a sea of people, all of whom seemed all the more impressive, interesting and intelligent than I could ever possibly believe myself to be. That hyper-sense of my own existence, combined with an automatic assumption of its accompanying inadequacy, was taken and accelerated to the point of leaving me feeling completely isolated in my own brain.
It is this feeling of entrapment that I think is the most terrifying thing in any mental health issue. Most people have probably had that unsettling and existential revelation that the only mind, the only reality and perception of the world, we are ever going to truly know is our own. It is enough to disturb even the calmest and most confident person, but when you are convinced that your mind has nothing to give it will leave you feeling completely, debilitatingly anxious.
This anxiety has manifested itself in many ways over the years, from obsessively picking at the skin on my fingers, to the later habit of regularly drinking to the point of losing large chunks of my memory. Variously, I found ways of controlling my existence in the uncontrollable world around me.
I notice suddenly that I have fairly determinedly adopted the past tense. There is something exciting about observing myself in an instinctive retrospect, but I don’t want to be disingenuous; I by no means now possess some kind of ideal, peaceful mind, and honestly am not entirely sure if I ever will. Recently, however, I have been trying to renegotiate my relationship with my own brain. I am trying to stop viewing it as a constraining and condemned place, closing me off from the world, but rather as a place to which I can retreat and find calm.
Whenever my mind has started to become a scary place, or when the outside world becomes a bit overwhelming, I have been thinking about my brain as a little house. My personal house is warm and homely, full of the things I love and am interested in; decorated all over with bright colours and tiny trinkets. The only person who gets to decide the order of my house is myself, and I have no responsibility to anyone on the outside to let them in or give them any of its contents. How I’m being perceived doesn’t matter: that interaction where I didn’t come across as my Absolute Best Self – didn’t give that person the version of myself I had so idealised and constructed – doesn’t matter. I can take time to experience the world at my own pace, and order these experiences however suits best the quiet cosiness of my mind.
It possibly sounds silly and childish, but it has so far been the best way I’ve found of controlling the rapid and spiralling pace at which my brain experiences the world. Anyway, if there’s one thing Cambridge has taught me it’s that we’re all really children putting on one elaborate performance for the world around us; a little bit of self-indulgent metaphor to make sense of it all is the least we can do to comfort them.