Returning to university at the start of the year came with a sigh of relief. I was framing it as a new start, an opportunity to re-build my confidence and return to my academic success. But the months to follow brought some unexpected circumstances.
During the term before Christmas, I had endured some of the lowest points in my life: I began excessively drinking, I took up smoking (despite not particularly enjoying it), and repeatedly self-harmed. It was only thanks to me meeting my current boyfriend (who I am so incredibly grateful for) that I didn’t drop out of university completely – or do anything even worse.
The holidays over the festive period provided a well needed break, largely thanks to the days being organised around chocolate consumption, mostly following an excessive lie-in. But the return to university was a lot harder than expected. A week in and I was re-starting counselling having been diagnosed with anxiety and depression – and this time with a prescription for antidepressants. The following weeks continued to be tough. The drinking continued, the self-harm occasionally reared its head, and my mood failed to improve at the rate I was hoping it would. By the end of term, I was praying that a return to home and normality would finally, once and for all, sort everything out.
So when reports of Coronavirus started to flag up on my phone – initially triggering genuine fear, later a kind of helplessness – I was unsure of what to expect for the rest of the year.
Lockdown was announced shortly after the end of term. In a car journey from Newcastle (a journey which would turn out to be our last for the next half a year or so) my boyfriend and I decided that I would live with him and his family for the foreseeable future. It was a big decision at the time – we had only been together for three months – but I knew the time apart would have left me vulnerable.
I have to admit I was in a privileged position location-wise for lockdown. My boyfriend lives in a lovely house out in the countryside. We were able to go on daily walks around the adjacent forest with his dog and relax in the evening in the fairy light-adorned garden. This is something I recognise many wouldn’t have had, and something I know I am so lucky to have experienced. I know it did a lot for my mental wellbeing.
There were seven people in total living in the house. This made dinner times lively and the weekly shop a massive haul (it also happened to become the prime day of the week, two of us nominated to go into the outside world, the rest of the house treated to fine supply of biscuits). University was moved online. My exams were cancelled. My coursework and dissertation became the main factors in my end-of-second-year grade. I was feeling pretty relieved at the removal of these stresses and at not having to return to an incredibly tense studying environment. Achieving an overall first was a massive achievement for me after a difficult year, and encouraged me to persevere with my studies after contemplating having a break.
But this positivity was by no means the norm throughout lockdown. What I didn’t anticipate were random outbreaks of crying I had on an almost daily basis. I would usually be studying, feeling neither good nor bad, only neutral, before getting the overwhelming need to cry. This was difficult to explain to those around me – I could identify no discernible reason for the way I was feeling. I think this must have been related to my anxiety becoming more intense. I hadn’t had a full panic attack for two years until I suffered one about halfway through lockdown. Everyone was gathered in the kitchen and we were trying to work out what we didn’t actually need off the excessively long shopping list. I was cleaning the coffee machine with a bombardment of questions – a situation that would usually only slightly bother me – before I started to feel nauseous, see yellow spots, and struggle to breathe. The feeling was familiar, and I took myself to a different room to regulate my breathing.
Luckily I only experienced something this intense once. But another way in which the lockdown affected me was my increased urge to drink alcohol. It initially began as the very normal glass of wine at dinner. But a few weeks in I found myself drinking at least one and a half bottles of wine a night, something I only realised was abnormal when my boyfriend’s mother pulled him aside and asked him to see if I could try talking to me about how much I was having. I insisted it wasn’t a problem – it was the taste I liked, not the effects – but I realised it was becoming a bit of a problem when I ran out one night. This got me agitated and I ended up putting in an online order of a large box. I know I have always had a few drinks, especially when feeling a little low, but this was the most extreme. I have luckily since managed to decrease this, having a few glasses a week, but the significant increase in consumption over lockdown was undoubtedly due to the worsening mood I was feeling in quarantine.
An over-the-phone medication review with my GP saw my antidepressant dose increase by 50mg. I have felt slightly better since, but I find it comes in waves. I often get my hopes up and think it has begun to settle, before I feel an intense, intense sadness and hopelessness for no apparent reason. This only produces further worry in the fear that I will always be like this. A more long-term and perhaps indirect effect of the COVID pandemic is the weight I’ve gained – you don’t realise how much walking you do on an active day until you stay in the same place for six months. Setting up camp on the sofa to read, coupled with just a one metre walk to the fridge, produced inevitable weight gain. I have always had body image issues and was quite slim before the pandemic. An increase of two dress sizes might not seem dramatic, but it plagues my conscience and has caused my confidence to dwindle. As the world opens up again, I can only hope it begins to drop off – or that I learn to accept whatever size I am, as long as I am safe and as healthy as possible.
I write this with just a week until I return to university for my final year. I have mixed feelings about going back. A change of scenery really won’t go amiss, and it will be a relief to finally be able to study without my dog barking relentlessly in the background or the family TV playing to itself in the lounge. But the overwhelming feeling is concern. I won’t be living with my boyfriend any more – he will only be able to socialize with the members of his university household. I’m worried being alone will give a new life to those dark thoughts I had before I was with him. I’m worried my cramped room will prove difficult to live in in the case of a second lockdown. I’m worried the pressures of third year, all pushing ahead as a global pandemic continues to fester in the background, will chip away at any progress I have made. I can only try to let these worries pass and deal with whatever comes.