Today is my graduation.
In 2016, I took time out of Cambridge, because I wasn’t coping. Getting diagnosed with coeliac disease in 2015 was a lot to cope with on top of my other health problems; completely rethinking my diet while trying to keep up with the intensity of a Cambridge workload was a struggle. The medication I was on for my anxiety made me sleep up to fourteen hours a day, and I spent the few hours I was awake too bleary and exhausted to have feelings. I knew I needed to come off it, but I also knew doing so would make me sick, so I couldn’t do it in term time.
So, I went home. I worked part time in a library. I wrote a novel. And I very nearly didn’t come back.
In the end, my return to Cambridge was largely because I didn’t feel I had a better option. I didn’t want to live at home any longer; I had no social life and it wasn’t right for me. I wasn’t well enough for a full time job. I could have started over at another university, but frankly I couldn’t face it, even leaving aside the cost. The only course that really appealed was at Glasgow, which would have meant starting a four year course, and it was too far from home to be a good idea with all my health issues.
So. I went back. I started second year again. I had a different Old Irish teacher — one who made me laugh in classes, not cry; one who made me work harder because I wanted to prove myself to him, not because I was scared of what he’d say if I didn’t. I had some work already under my belt from the previous attempt, which helped. I had a better dissertation topic.
I was also doing virtually no extracurricular activities, but I was just about coping.
Two years ago, I was under employed and vaguely hopeless, not knowing what to do or whether to even try and finish my degree. I was scared of the consequences of dropping out, but I didn’t want to go back either. By the autumn, I’d decided I would, but I still wasn’t sure about it.
This year, finally, I began to feel less like I was drowning. This year I ran the Irish Dance Society and reached levels of fitness I don’t think I’ve attained since I was fifteen, while not actively failing any of my papers (mostly). This year I didn’t get my dissertation deadline wrong, and I only very occasionally curled up in a ball and wished I was somewhere, anywhere, else.
Oh, there was a lot of existential dread. That happens. It’s bad. I suck at dealing with it. But the more immediate anxiety, the crushing despair of the Cambridge variety — that weight seemed to lift slightly this year. I’m not sure why. Maybe the existential fear scared it off.
The truth is, it would be wrong to sugar coat my experiences at Cambridge, because I had some bad times. I had some serious anxiety, pain, and frustration. I often felt my health problems were like trying to meet the university’s unreasonable demands with one hand tied behind my back. That patch in the middle of my uni career, the bit either side of taking time out… that was bad. It was partly the meds. They screwed me over and I know it, which is why I take the panic attacks over the tachycardia and/or extreme fatigue these days.
But it was partly just… this degree was really. fricking. hard.
And my health got me into a hole where I didn’t know how to be ambitious, I didn’t know how to succeed, I didn’t know how to stop playing things safe. I avoided things I loved because they might hurt, even though I have pain anyway so I might as well do things (within reason). I didn’t do the things that made uni great — dance, ceilidh band — because I couldn’t find the spoons to do both those and my work.
Until this year. Irish dance made me stronger, and it gave me a discipline and a work ethic I’ve been lacking. The same internal voice that makes me run my hornpipe through in full even when my legs are already shaking — that’s the one that forced me back to my desk to revise for finals. Even when I was exhausted. Even when I wanted to stop.
I graduate today with a first class degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. I scraped over the grade boundary by 0.4 and I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard for a grade. Every single hour that I did was worth it, because skipping even one might have lost me that 0.4 that gave me a first.
Was the pain of the flare-up I had during exams worth it? Possibly not; if a magical being said they’d swap me functional hands for my First, then I think I’d take the deal, because not being able to sleep unless you’re dosed up on three types of painkillers due to your wrists feeling like they’re on fire… that’s crap. But at least it wasn’t for nothing.
Go back in time. Tell the me of two years ago that we went back to Irish dance, started competing again, applied for jobs and went to half a dozen interviews, went to an academic conference alone, and got a first in our degree. Past!me won’t believe you. But it’s true. It happened.