Scouse, Depressed and Out of My Depth


I got straight A’s in my A-Levels, and was accepted to study at the University of Edinburgh. In my completely overwhelming (and downright odd) measly seven months enrolled at University, the biggest lesson I learnt is that meritocracy - the philosophy that societal progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth - is utter bullshit. 

In my first week at University, I tried my best to navigate the complete unknown, in a strange city hours away from my beloved Scouse Republic. I am the first member of my family to ever attend University, which in itself felt both prestigious and a lot of pressure. My degree allowed for a third elective to be taken, meaning besides my Joint Honours programme of English Literature and History, I had complete freedom to choose a third subject to study for a few months. Sociology? Philosophy? I eventually settled on Classics; I’ve read Sappho and Oedipus Rex, how hard could it be? I soon found out; for the first time in her life, the plucky, greatness-destined special-case working class girl from Huyton was out of her depth. 
             I didn’t speak Greek, and unlike the majority of my peers (special mention to Barnaby who showed up to every lecture in loafers and a Barbour jacket, all the while clinging to a briefcase) I hadn’t visited the Acropolis annually with Mummy and Daddy. The lectures were unbearable, taught entirely in a foreign language most of the time. I spent hours reading through and rewriting notes - and even ordered a children’s guide to Ancient Greece - but nothing worked. I was well and truly out of my depth. With just one day left before the deadline, I eventually swallowed my pride and decided to change electives to the ‘easier option’ of another History module; ‘The Making of the United States’, what could go wrong this time?

I was greeted no longer by briefcase-rendering Barnaby’s, but this time by all-American exchange students, armed with Apple Macs covered in NRA and Young-Republican stickers. How difficult is it to discuss American History with bigoted young Americans? Very. But I persevered and achieved high 2:1’s in both of my module essays despite missing almost every seminar. As the months went on, I found myself becoming progressively disillusioned with everything. Despite winning awards in Literature and Humanities, University completely slaughtered my adoration for academia, because despite having proven my worth, I still felt alienated and worthless there. I achieved the same grades as most of my peers; but success at University has little do with grades, they are merely a formality. What I found most difficult was everybody else’s apparent ease at navigating University life. I had no idea how to address lecturers, seminar-leaders, tutors, older students, or even how to reference or begin to write a university essay. Yes, they can be learnt, but when you feel like it is only you that is missing out on something, it destroys all motivation and prior excitement that you had for the whole experience. 

Throughout our A-Levels, we are all convinced by ourselves and others that life will get better if we just push through, achieve those high grades and get to University where our work-load will be much lighter and our freedom infinite. This kind of mentality is toxic. I didn’t have the greatest home-life back in Liverpool, and my ‘great-escape’ mentality that pushed me all the way north of the border was wonderful, until I got there. I found myself not wanting to be at University, but not wanting to be at home either. Meanwhile, my family were busy bragging and finding their own joy in my achievements.
          How could I tell them I hadn’t been to any of my classes? I was crippled with fear, dreaded opening my mouth to discuss Shakespeare’s homoerotic intentions in Twelfth Night in front of a group of Lawyer-parented kids from Surrey, knowing they would hear my strong Scouse accent and recoil. How could I tell them that I point-blank refused to have these interactions, even though I believed I knew the play better than any of them? I spent weeks at a time, simply unable to get out of bed. I couldn’t face that I was letting myself and my family down, ruining the opportunities I'd worked so hard for. 

Being so ashamed of what I was once so proud of, my background, was soul-destroying. Holed up in my student bedroom, I wrote diaries. Here’s a piece I wrote when I was in the depths of my depression:

“When you can’t get out of bed for a week and you’re forced to stare at the beige, cracked, expensive walls of your student building, completely numb, you have to sleep for a week before you can wake up. In my completely delusional and romanticised brain I am reminiscing upon the aforementioned image, I now realise, with the image of Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed.’ I wish my depression was white sheets, blue rugs and empty orangina bottles. Unfortunately, mine looks more like stained, irritatingly flowery sheets with my stench sewn into them. However, it is here, in my bed (no pun intended), that the A* working class girl that the story built for hopeful daytime television (the irony), became the absent working class girl anomalous from her surroundings, merely existing in a world she didn’t belong, despite what every hopeful teacher had told her.”

Depression amongst students at University is rife. It is now accepted that around 1 in 4 students experience mental health issues, leading to the highest level of student suicides on record. It must be discussed that it is those from poorer backgrounds that suffer the most. A lot of my own anxiety stems from being a first-generation student at a Redbrick University. I went from gaining straight A’s to not even showing up. Whenever I considered dropping out completely, one of the reasons I didn’t was that I simply couldn’t afford to. Student finance was my only income. If I returned home, I’d be returning penniless. Thus, financial pressure is further stress burdening working class students. 
I found it difficult relating to my peers, meaning that barely any meaningful relationships were formed, unlike all of my other friends who were off at University having the time of their lives. Single-parent families are at an all-time high, so why did I feel like the only one out of the 70,000 students at Edinburgh? I felt ashamed of my home-life, bombarded with stories of wonderful nuclear families and family trips to the Netherlands. It was never quite the right time to mention mine and my mum’s trip to Mallorca… I resented myself for being ashamed. I am self-proclaimed loud and proud Marxist, I was always proud to be from Liverpool and always proud of my family background; so why was I hiding everything I held so dear? If I knew the answer to that, I probably wouldn’t be here writing this with a Sertraline prescription and a weekly appointment in a therapist’s office. 

Student support is touted as readily-available at Universities. It wasn’t so easy for me; when I already felt out of place there, where would I have found the confidence to admit my feelings to strangers? This logic may seem ridiculous to some, but at the time it made perfect sense to simply keep everything bottled up and carry on going the same way I was accustomed to. Eventually it caught up. I didn’t manage to hand in any of my final module essays and I didn’t sit any of my exams. Not having spoken to anybody about my struggles, there was no evidence of what I had been going through. It was no longer a choice to drop-out, it was the only option. I packed my bags and returned to Liverpool. 

For a very long time, I saw academia as the only path to success. Forced to find another direction, I have started to write more and more often, in an attempt to regain confidence in myself. I refuse to see myself as anything other than an intelligent and ambitious working class woman. My journey hasn’t finished, and nor will it for the masses of working class students struggling to navigate their way through a completely unfamiliar world. I still have nights where I can’t sleep, plagued by the past, wondering if I made the right decision by turning my back on Edinburgh. I think about the future, toss and turn as I wrestle with the unknown; what am I going to do with my life, will I ever return to University, and why did I let it beat me? 
             Admitting failure shows strength. Admitting a situation was just too unbearable, despite the glittering façade of its attractiveness to both you and your family, shows strength. And there is always going to be strength in saying “I’m from Huyton,” no matter who it is that's asking.