It’s a ‘meh’ Tuesday morning in March 2018 (* ‘Meh’ now being a thing, and having full emoji status, of course.) But it isn’t any old Tuesday morning for me. I’m on my way across the M62 to Hull – the University of Hull, to be more precise – and back to the place where my mental health began to unravel so spectacularly some twenty years ago.
When I took myself away from the University, aged just 19, I was so utterly broken, damaged and scarred (literally) that I swore I would never go back to that place. Not under any circumstances. But here I am.
I’m on my way back.
I’ve been invited to go and talk to a bunch of current students about some of my experiences which I’ve written about in my book, ”Running For My Life”. Naturally I say, ‘YES! I’d LOVE to come over and do that!’ But what they don’t know is that I am saying ‘yes’ in spite of myself. I’m saying ‘yes’ because I refuse to give in to the terror welling up inside me, trying to convince me to think of any excuse at all to say NO.
I can’t let that happen: I WON’T let that happen.
I’ve spent some time preparing for my talk. I’ve written a short introduction, and have repeatedly forced it upon my nearest and dearest (although my 7-year-old’s opinion is admittedly dubious) But the emotions I feel during the process of writing and rehearsing it have taken me by surprise. I sit in a coffee shop with silent tears streaming down my face as the memories are allowed to enter a space which has been strictly off limits for two decades; I burst into uncontrollable tears during one opportunistic lunchtime rendition at work. I find it hard to gather myself, and struggle to battle through the final few words. I look up, and I see that Steph, my good friend and work mate is crying, too.
Shit. I wasn’t expecting this.
As Gav and I drive along the M62, the sight of the Humber Bridge causes the frayed circuits in my brain to reconnect. Shortly followed by Princes Quay and the waterfront. I have flashes of that same journey from another time. “Crikey! You see over there? That’s the pub where I bumped into Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South,” I say to Gav, who has already been subjected to similar reminiscences for well over an hour. His love knows no bounds. The closer we get to the University, the flashes increase in both frequency and intensity. That’s the hairdressers who once bodged my highlights… Over there was a small supermarket on the corner, but it’s a Chinese take-away, now… There’s the park a burglar disappeared into who I disturbed as he’d just cleaned out my housemate’s bedroom… The memories crash into each other as my brain struggles to keep up with the tidal wave of visual stimuli.
The University entrance suddenly appears on the right. I remember it being grand, and feeling slightly cheated that ABSOLUTELY NONE of my lectures, seminars, or tutorials would be held in the impressive, listed building that greets newbies on arrival. Nope! We were based in the shit breeze-block 1960s car park around the back of the campus. Perhaps they could have mentioned this in the prospectus?? But I’m once again wowed by the Venn building. It looks spectacular and glamorous. It feels spectacular and glamorous. I feel spectacular and glamorous just standing on the steps outside.
I go inside to pick up our pre-arranged parking permit, and nearly burst with excitement as the lovely lady behind the desk talks to me in her genuine Humberside accent. It strikes me that some of the current Hull University students weren’t even born the last time I heard it.
I ask her to say ‘five [“farve”]’ and ‘nine’ [“narn”] again, explaining to her that I’m here for the first time since the turn of the millennium. Her eyes light up as I tell her the reason for my visit after such a long absence. I glance over my shoulder and realise that just around the corner is where I queued to fill out student loan application forms before anybody had to entertain the prospect of paying for their higher education. I only wanted a student loan so I could afford to buy a fancy raincoat from Ted Baker’s. Maybe that was the catalyst of my demise…
We visit the Waterstone’s bookshop on the University campus, and almost immediately I spot Running For My Life faking it amongst the Joe Wicks & Fearne Cottons. What on earth is my book doing hobnobbing with the stars? I wonder, before my mind is jolted back two decades on sight of the entire wall of ‘Law Study Guides’. I remember so vividly standing and facing that very same tower of ‘Short Cuts to Tort’ and ‘Pocket Book of Contract law’. I get a distinct feeling of déjà vu, of being in that exact same spot armed with a scribbled list of compulsory and expensive legal study materials I would be required to buy in order to eek my way through the ridiculous law degree (*it always felt ridiculous, to me.) It does however give me some small comfort to know that today’s law students are still required to hand over vast wads of cash in exchange for doorstop volumes of legal texts, so there is definitely evidence of karma in action.
I have a mooch around the bookshop, and eventually I pluck up the courage to go and introduce myself to John, the lovely sales assistant. I explain who I am, trying hard not to sound like an Author Wanker, and I tell him that I am reminiscing. I wonder if I’m rambling, but I’m enjoying talking to him. He is kind, and the bookshop feels like home to me, in a place that never did.
Eventually, we head over to the main hall where the ‘Hull University Alumni Careers, Health and Wellness’ event will shortly be taking place. ‘People are looking at you as though you’re famous!’ Gav says. I laugh, and assure him that it’s probably because my stripy jacket looks like a deck chair. We’re a little bit early to go into the large conference room, and so I find a comfy seat to settle down in just outside the ‘Rossetti’ canteen whilst Gav goes for an explore. It looks more like a posh service station following the mistimed arrival of several coach parties, or a British Airways domestic flights VIP lounge packed full of well-to-do travellers who can’t get to Edinburgh because of fog.
It didn’t look like this twenty years ago.
I observe people as they meander past. ID badges swing clumsily around necks, and I wonder if this is the only distinction between the students and A N Others on campus. Words like ‘dissertation’ jump out of the otherwise blended pool of chatter I can hear from surrounding conversations, and I wonder where I would be, if I were a student here, now. Would I be standing outside the Rossetti cafeteria, chatting and laughing with my friends about some dissertation I have no intention of starting until the eleventh hour, and complaining about the hundreds of pounds I’m obliged to spend at the Waterstone’s bookshop on dry, uninspiring legal texts? Or would I be stuck in my tiny bedroom facing a mostly unfrequented back street, staring at a disordered image of myself in a small, frameless mirror?
I think I know the answer.
It’s time to head up the stairs to the conference room and listen to the first group of speakers. Four confident, unblemished, successful, and proud Hull University Alumni stand up and talk to the room about their career paths, giving advice to the young audience who are lapping up their every word. Gav and I are seated in one of the front rows, and I simply marvel at the fact that these people appear to be entirely ‘baggage free.’ No issues here!!! Not a single whiff of any mental health disorder. It’s a place of SUCCESS and ACHIEVEMENT. This is about those guys and girls for whom things lined up and made sense; those who didn’t familiarise themselves with the intricacies of their own face at the expense of dream-chasing; who weren’t required to expend inordinate amounts of energy in preparation for leaving the house to go and buy a pint of milk. These were the movers & shakers of their respective academic years.
I momentarily wonder how that might have felt.
Following a short break, it’s time for the ‘wellbeing’ part of the day. We hear from some amazing young people who volunteer their time to look out for the likes of me – back in the day – as ‘Wellbeing Champions’ and ‘Hull University Angels’. I can only imagine what kind of difference this might have made to me, and how different my story might look, had the signs of distress been spotted by a kind, intuitive stranger.
Soon enough, it’s my turn. I walk to the front with my interviewee – John – and sit in my chair. And I read out the introduction that I have written. I am proud that the 2018 version of myself said ‘YES’ to coming back to a place which the 1998 Rachel struggled to be a part of; I am so proud to have been able to sit and talk to the young(er) people about my struggles, and to let them know that not all ‘success stories’ start out that way.
And if my purpose is to be the example of that, then it was worth driving over to Hull back in 1998, and again in 2018.
I first came to Hull University as a shy, naive, overweight, introverted, 18-year-old back in 1998.
It was twenty years ago when I moved in to my student house on Marlborough Avenue with a random and eclectic bunch of strangers, and into a shared bedroom with a horse- lover named Bethany Barnes who had an unfamiliar west county accent, and a (significantly older) death-metal loving, biker boyfriend.
My heart sank!
It was twenty years ago when I started out on a journey that I could never have predicted.
I came here to study for a 3-year Law Degree. Was it my dream to become a lawyer? Nope. Not at all! Did I have a dream to become anything, back then?? Sadly not. So, I followed the dreams that others had for me, instead.
I didn’t know what challenges would lie ahead for me as I carried my super woofer CD player together with a god-awful selection of (mostly scratched) compact discs from my dad’s car into the ground floor bedroom I would share with a complete stranger.
I thought I’d just come here to study Law, but how wrong I was.
- Mental health issues? What are those??
- Clinical depression? How? When? Why?
- Eating disorders? Who? Me?!
- Body dysmorphia? Really? What on earth is that?
I would soon find out about them all.
I was blissfully unaware that I would be about to undergo a major operation to “fix” my delinquent body, or that I would soon suffer the cruel effects of increasingly worrying mental health disorders, including clinical depression and Body Dysmorphia.
I would become imprisoned inside my own mind, inside my own body, and – quite literally – inside my own bedroom – with no idea how to get out.
And as I stand here now, twenty years later, a happy and healthy 39-year-old woman, mum of a 7-year-old mini version of myself, a marathon runner, author of a book “Running For My Life”; and – most importantly – a woman who has wrestled with those bastard inner chimps and won, I’m happy to be able to share part of that journey with you.
I hope you enjoy listening to more about my story…