From Darkness Comes Light… The University Years

Where to start this blog. I have tried to think my way around not doing it and I have proactively procrastinated my way around avoiding it but it is inevitable that at some point I’d have to sit down and tell you about ‘the darkness’ from which much of my creativity and music emanates from. So I’ve put the heating on, snuggled in a blanket on the sofa and have made a start. 

If you’ve already watched my debut album Kicktarter campaign video and read the campaign story, then you’ll already know a little bit. But I feel it’s time to go into greater detail and share with you my mental health journey as I understand it today, 14 years on.

It begins…

Content warning: mention of suicidal thoughts

My mental health journey began when I started my degree in Molecular Biology at Cardiff University in 2006. At school, I had dithered over whether to take an art route or science route – the classic battle of head and heart – and my head won out in favour of ‘safe and sensible’ science.

Leaving home and friends behind was more tough than I gave it credit for at the time. I remember freshers being a complete nightmare of innermost thoughts, anxiety and questioning oneself about pretty much everything from ‘how much make-up do I wear on a night out’ to ‘should I tell the ERASMUS student who lives at the end of the corridor, but never see, that his rice is boiling over’. 

University was great for many reasons, but also very tricky for so many more.

Before leaving home, a friend’s older brother had urged me to do two things as soon as I got to University. 

  1. get a Facebook account 
  2. sign up to Ultimate Frisbee. 

Seeking friends and self-assurance, I diligently obliged. 

The love-hate relationship I have with Facebook is a discussion for another time and place, BUT I fell head-over-heels in love with Ultimate. 

If you’ve never heard of Ultimate Frisbee before… YES it’s a real sport and YES it’s frickin’ awesome! It’s a team sport which relies heavily on keeping ‘the spirit of the game’ alive through a ‘call’ (silly, short game) which is important for building inter team bonds and dissolving any post-match heat. 

“A bit like Morris then” – yeah, but more physically demanding! There’s beer though… (did you know you fit 3 pints of beer in an upturned Frisbee?!)

I became an active member of the team, helping to organise training and tournaments and passing my university minibus test to drive to events. In my second year I became club treasurer and in third year was voted in as president of the club. Frisbee, and the people I met through it both in Cardiff and at other universities, are the happiest memories I have of university.

I also joined a local Morris side – The Widders in Chepstow (my university choices were in fact influenced by the local Morris sides!). This is where I picked up the spare Hohner Erica melodeon and started my squeezebox journey!

Playing my melodeon, and losing myself in ‘The Melodeon Zone’ became an important and significant therapeutic escape from the dark thoughts and feelings I didn’t know how to share or process.

Science vs. Art

You’ll notice I’ve gotten to this point in talking about my degree, without actually mentioning my degree… hmmm, funny that. I avoided it at the time, too…

I vividly remember 1st year, sitting at my desk in my room at Talybont North, trying desperately to focus on exam revision but daydreaming about art courses I could defer onto… 

I never managed to summon up the courage to do it – feeling the fear and disappointment and just the worry about delaying my time to get a degree. I had a very stubborn sense of duty to complete the degree I had signed up to. I resigned myself to continue down a road I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on.

The degree itself was fascinating. I mean – I am passionate about the scientific method and have a good mind for it. It’s just being passionate about something and having a degree in it require totally different levels of effort!  

When the time came to move out of halls, I left it a little late to buddy up and had missed the boat on finding somewhere to live with Frisbee friends. I had been friendly with the girls in the flat opposite at Talybont North, two of whom were bioscience, and it so happens they needed an extra person to fill the house they’d found. I signed the contract and moved in September 2007.

This was the first group of ‘girl friends’ I’d had as a young adult. Whilst at First and then Middle school, I hung about with a group of girls but was bullied by some of them in my last year. I moved to a high school outside of our catchment area, so very few people I knew came with me to year 9. 

In a way this was a blessing – a chance to start over – but the change was really unsettling. I immediately found friendship with a group of lads and we became the best of friends throughout GCSE and 6th form A levels. 

I’d never been a ‘girly girl’. I didn’t know how or what that meant. And the girls I moved in with were a perfect mix of tom boy, beauty guru, and crass comedian. I learned how to fit in with my own gender for the first time in my life. Writing about this now I realise I am so grateful for the cosy chats, for the gossip, for the late night, drunken, sweary conversations about everything and nothing. 

However, it wasn’t all roses…

We decided to keep the same house going into 3rd year, but we had a change in housemates. The guy that moved in was a friend of the other girls. Graham (not his real name) had issues of his own which he tried to solve with Class A drugs, alcohol and loud music. 

I had the downstairs back bedroom. One morning before lectures, working at my desk by the window, I was startled by the sound of a bottle smashing. We lived nextdoor to the pub so this wasn’t a rare occurrence, but I realised it had smashed on our side of the fence. I looked up in time to see another one flying out of the open window. 

Another 4 followed shortly after. Graham liked a drink before lectures.

One of my other housemates took up with one of the lads from Graham’s ex-household. She ran hot, if you know what I mean, and needed daily affirmation and attention. She was riddled with anxiety, which when coupled with his insecurities and their taste for drugs, alcohol and several midweek nights out clubbing – it wasn’t pretty. 

One such night I was yet again woken up by a drunken B, this time by her crashing through the front door, boyfriend in tow, mid-argument, at full volume, at 3 A.M..My other housemates seemed to tolerate her selfish behaviour and that of Graham. 

Because of her unreasonable behaviour, which gradually spiralled out of control, sleepless nights became a pretty regular occurrence during my 3rd and most crucial year. Other housemates started acting out and gradually I felt more and more like the black sheep of the household, silently struggling on.

By year three of Molecular Biology, the course had become pretty… well… molecular. I was expected to be able to retain knowledge of hundreds of different proteins and genes, bodily processes and functions. The specifics of the modules I had chosen had become overwhelming and uninteresting to me. I had also lost a lot of interest in most of the coursework I was expected to submit. So I just didn’t do it. And somehow, I got away with it. 

It was all too much. I didn’t want to be there anymore.

During January 2009 – my dissertation and finals term – I took shelter in my Frisbee gang. I took any and every opportunity to train with the team, and subsequently became obsessed with fitness – on reflection, a way of getting some sort of control over my life. 

I’d organise extra socials in the evenings and travel with friends at weekends to play Frisbee on the beach or go camping and walk in the mountains. I looked for as many opportunities as possible to not be at home and not be thinking about all the uni work I wasn’t doing.  

To any of my Frisbee pals who may be reading this – thank you. I cherish our memories.

I looked for as many distractions as possible, and found them. Playing melodeon helped – and I became pretty good pretty quick which tells you the ratio of hours put into degree work vs. melodeon!

However, the biggest distraction was my own mind. I fantasised about the future pretty much constantly. Particularly over the future of a relationship with my best Frisbee friend, Gavin (not his real name), who I spent many many hours with. If we weren’t together in person, we were together online via MSN messenger (#MillenialMemories) and long text threads – which I’d re-read over and over again. (oh, to be young again – NOT!)

I think we were both a bit lost and in need of some comfort and company – him struggling to get his PhD to work – and me – a depressed undergrad. We’d meet up for walks, cheeky daytime cinema trips, pub, pool and a pint after lectures, organise Frisbee minibus trips and tournaments, all just the two of us secretly and separately from the rest of the team. 

It became an unhealthy, secretive obsession, and it got to the point where I didn’t feel happy unless he was with me, or I was in his company. We got closer and closer. I enjoyed the attention – it made me feel worth something. Finally, one night, our intense 3 year friendship ended rather brutally. He wasn’t interested in anything more than ‘just friends’. What a classic. 

I was devastated. I felt used. 

I told no one.

I became very low. This period of my life taught me what it’s like to have suicidal thoughts.

Gavin’s company had, rightly or wrongly, become what I was staying at university for. The abrupt end of our friendship was around Easter in my finals year, an important time for dissertation submission and the beginning of revision (which I was dreading)

Despite the heartache, I pulled it together enough to submit my dissertation and pooled the mental strength I had left to start revision a whole month before my first exam. I was focussed on seeing the degree through to the bitter end, and do the best job I could to pass. 

Because I had to pass. This suffering couldn’t be for nothing.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

But then I broke my little finger on my right (dominant) hand whilst swinging a swede around on a rope (ask me about it over a pint some time!). I had to have the finger splinted at a 90° angle which made writing and typing almost impossible for 4 weeks whilst it healed. It was the straw that broke me. I collapsed into a state of hedonism: eating what I wanted, sleeping with who I wanted, travelling where I wanted, playing melodeon for hours at a time, drinking what I wanted – basically doing anything to avoid thinking or doing anything about the looming finals.

Finals came. (ignoring them did nothing).  

I managed up until the penultimate…something about protein biology… a module I’d barely attended all year and submitted zero coursework for (how was I still on the course?! Why hadn’t anyone reached out to me?!).

I distinctly remember having the great idea to set my alarm for 4am so I could get up and cram before the exam at 9am. I woke up on time – my room already bright with May morning sunshine – and I just lay there staring at the clock.

5am…

6am…

7am….

8am… I should be leaving for the exam hall…

9am… I should be sitting down at my seat now…

10am…

11am…

12pm… I should be finishing and handing my paper in now…

Whilst still staring at the clock, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t well and needed to seek help.

I got up, got dressed, and looked up the location of the Cardiff University mental health service (which at the time wasn’t very easy to find, I can only hope that’s changed now).

I managed to get a walk in appointment with a university counsellor. I remember feeling like I wasn’t being heard. 

I remember her saying “it’s OK, employers only really look at where you got your degree from, not how well you did”. 

I remember her saying she’d contact my supervisor on my behalf. I left feeling pretty vacant.

I went home via the corner shop where I purchased my body weight in sweets. I went to bed for the rest of the day, having induced a sugar coma.

My supervisor was very understanding and was able to organise for the missed exam to be taken during the re-sit period in September. I was gutted. I just wanted this thing over with. I hated that all I’d done was prolong it over the summer.

She was able to put a note on my file to say that I was experiencing personal health issues and that my exams would be marked to take this into account. 

I went home to my parents for 2 weeks where I was scooped up and taken care of. I remember Mum having to get me out of bed, get me dressed, feeding me, washing my hair. I remember the cat visiting my bedroom – a rarity for him to do bedside service.

With the help of Mum, she got me to focus enough to revise a little each day towards my final exam.

It’s hard to remember how broken I was.

I returned to Cardiff to complete the exam. I sat at the end of the exam with the paper in front of me having an outer-body experience. This should’ve been the last exam of my degree. I so wanted to feel that relief of it being over and done with. 

Instead, I felt an overwhelming sense of shame and dread, because Ihad consigned myself to a Summer overshadowed by waiting and revising towards an exam I didn’t want to do in the first place.

That summer, with Mum and Dad still taking care of me, I started teaching melodeon. But more on that later…

I want you to know that, 14 years on, I am recovered from this period of my life. I wanted to share the grim details in order to communicate my experiences more fully, in the hope it brings about better understanding and empathy for what other humans go through. 

If you’re reading this and it has made you realise some darkness within yourself, reach out to talk to someone. Look out for next week’s blog where I’ll talk more about the strategies I have employed in my life to better understand myself, my desires and aspirations and that which has aided in my recovery along the way. 

Love and light

[:]||| Mel |||[:]