When I started university, I felt a nauseating mix of dread and excitement - I also had no clue why I was there. I was moving into this oblong room where I would stack library books, collect empty alcohol bottles, where I would write thousands and thousands of words and where I would attempt to find out who I was, and where I would get a lot of things very, very wrong. I knew this on the first day, when my father said goodbye and good luck and I stood staring at my boxes piled in the corners and my bedding rolled up on the prison-thin mattress.
Sometimes, things don't go the way you think they will. For some, university is the escape from a crappy family life into a world of self-discovery and freedom, for others, it's leaving behind a loving family and immersing yourself unwillingly into a world without the ones you love surrounding you. And so you begin these years hoping to cope, to survive, to make friends that last you a lifetime. If the consensus is to be believed, the vast majority have a great time and it's everything and more of what they wanted it to be. But things are more complex than that. You may have the best nights of your life at university, at the same time finding education near impossible, doubting whether you should be there at all. You may realise how much you love learning and feel indescribable euphoria in reading a book you picked at random from the shelf, at the same time as reaching the conclusion that you may never find friends, that nights out aren't your thing and that maybe you just don't fit in. Things aren't simple. There are infinite combinations of the experiences you will be having. And if I went back to do it all again, I'd do almost all of it the same, but I'd tell myself these things first:
1. Don't be so angry about the world, there's a lot more of it to come.
I was overwhelmed by the negative events in my life leading up to university. I was fresh with irritation, with despair, and I was carrying it around wherever I went. Past arguments and the drama of friendship, disagreements and bad mistakes, they overshadowed my view of the world around me, they limited me. I was seeing things in black and white - I couldn't forget about my past, so I had to live in it - and that was wrong. I should have read more widely, I should have forgiven people, I should have accepted that whatever I thought I knew was all going to change.
2. You have been sad and nervous for a very long time, it might be a good idea to talk to someone.
University was where I expected to become strong and fun and happy and intellectual. Instead I pretty much crumbled, doubting everything and hating myself more and more as the weeks went by. If I had known that it was okay to not be okay, maybe I would have done something other than drink more and smoke more. I'd been living like a martyr, telling everyone to forget about me while I tried to fix their problems. As it turns out, I had some problems, some problems that needed attention and it was a while until I accepted that.
Counselling doesn't necessarily 'fix' all your problems or difficulties, but it does bring them into focus and it can help to stop you from doing dumb shit based on false assumptions. It has nothing to do with whether you have a mental illness or not, it has to do with being human and having a mind. Your university should have counselling services available; search online, there's usually a phone number, an email address, a physical address - the first steps are scary, I know, but they are completely worth it.
3. Making a bunch of friends isn't as important as you think it is.
I was near obsessed with the idea of transcending into a higher realm of friendship, one where we'd sit around getting comfortably sozzled, talking about important things, about philosophy, politics, literature, religion, not a whisper of gossip to be heard. And I was judging my success at university based on whether I had found these people yet. Other students have similar, if less pretentious, goals for friendship. The idea of a whole club of friends who will look out for one another, with whom we'll share great times, great conversations and unforgettable nights, it's all so alluring that its hypnotic, it drives us to do things we'd never usually do, to be around people who are no good for us. Some find the club, find their university family and on the whole it really is the comfort blanket that you need, but for others, like myself, we find a few of these people (and we'd never let them meet each other). But those singular friendships I made over the three years remain more important to me than whatever that crowd of self-involved pricks I was fantasising about could have possibly been made up of. Do not undervalue the friendship of loners, of weirdos and of those who are better at showing how confused and fucked up they are than you.
4. If you really want to find out who you are, you're going to need to go outside and have some shitty experiences.
I hid in my room as much as possible and I only went to the campus shop after dark, when there were less chances to be recognised, where I would buy my food and eat it in my room, alone. I wanted to be invisible and to never face the same complications and bad events that my past had given me. But to have the opportunity to have good times, to find joy, I needed to do the things that posed the biggest risks to my routines and my fears. That meant doing things that required real effort, like getting up in the early hours and having breakfast in the city alone, like going drinking with a poet I'd met at a Creative Writing meeting, like going to the shops and making eye contact with the people serving me. They seem like such odd and unimportant things now when I write them down here, but then they were unthinkable, totally strange, and yet they had a hand in removing me from my comfort zone and, by re-contextualising my world, I began to understand myself a little more. Yes, I had some horrible nights out, I made bad friends and I got myself in more than a few spots of bother, but if I had the option to do it all again? I'd just start doing it sooner.
University is a weird and compacted universe where anyone of any real interest is having a totally unique experience. It's a place where your politics, your beliefs, your opinions should be challenged, if not by others, at least by yourself. Exist in that microcosm of oddity and passion in every way you can and work harder than ever before, not just for your grades, but to understand the world a little more, to understand the people in it. We come from different backgrounds, some of us dirt poor, some of us stinking rich, from different countries, from different religions and philosophies, and yet we're all pretty much the same, we're all scared of things, we're all chasing happiness. So, don't wallow in regret when it turns out you messed up, don't compare yourself to other people and their successes or their failures, don't hide away and know when to be alone. And, please, be a little pretentious if you want to be, be a little weird, be strange in all the ways that come naturally to you, after all, there's no better place for it.