Do you know what made today hard? A fly.
It is unlikely to be Geoffrey The Fly a la May 2019, but perhaps it is one of his brethren. I was trying to do the washing up, like a grown-up. There is a lot of it to be done – all of it really. There is now not a single clean thing to drink from in the house. Unless you count bowls. There are three clean bowls, as of this morning when I had yoghurt and fruit. Did I mention that is all I have eaten today? I mean, I put cinammon on top, so that counts…as something. Do you have a spice quota? The commonly-spouted wisdom (whether its factual is irrelevant) is six to eight glasses of water a day, and four to five portions of fruit/vegetables. Why don’t we have commonly-held/spouted wisdom that says three teaspoons of spice a day keeps the doctor away? I mean, in my case, it doesn’t, but I’m different. I have many pieces of paper saying so.
It’s hard, putting it on paper. In the UK, a long-term mental illness such as mine is legally recognised as a disability under the Equality Act, in that it “has a substantial, adverse, and long-term effect” on my capacity to function on a day-to-day basis. So, I sucked up the fear of stigma, and the inner voices that constantly tell you that mental illness doesn’t really count as a disability, and the part of me that is so determined not to be defined by it etcetera etcetera (pronounced in an over-the-top posh voice by an orchestra conductor directing Swan Lake) and ticked the box on the 8762 forms that I filled out before coming here to study. I registered with the Disability Advisory Service at Oxford University, and was deeply reassured that they seemed proactive and engaged.
I was wooed by Odette, dancing on her tippy-toes in white candyfloss to beautiful, light music. I was spun into the dreamland above the Magic Faraway Tree where a university would actually support my mental health and not undermine it. So basically, I was fooled by the pieces of paper, with their fancy titles like ‘Disability Liaison.’
The systems, and people, I came into contact with had no fucking clue.
Some people were kind. There are always some kind people to be found wherever you are. But these were not the people with the titles, and supposedly qualifications, and pay cheques, for helping me. These were just people who move in the world with kindness, who saw a girl in the middle of a road, dripping with sweat and shaking, and came to walk her across – this is not a pretty metaphor, this happened, thank you Good Samaritan. The department secretary who knows you are struggling so sends you pictures of cats; the lecturer who meets you at the cafe near yours when your ever-burgeoning panic disorder has made going further than across the road comparable to climbing Everest; the classmate you barely know who gets down on his knees next to you where you have fallen on your first day because of what the Provost said to you and takes your pills out of your bag; the new friend who doesn’t make a big deal out of it when you need to be walked home to make sure you don’t collapse. These people are kind, and probably saved my life.
But that is the problem. My life should not have been in danger, in the first place.
When I got on the plane to come here, my psychiatrist considered my depression and anxiety to be “in remission.” His words. No doubt, all of the change would have been difficult for anyone, and for someone with my diagnosis and history, a potential risk. But I had signed over to the DAS authority to let the relevant people know, been transparent about what I needed, had scheduled weekly Skype sessions with my clinical psychologist back home, and generally done everything a nerd/person with history of this shit does to prepare for a major change.
When I got there, no-one had been informed; the Skype connection in my room didn’t work; and I was publicly traumatised by the head of my college at my very first event.Almost four months after the suspension of my Masters, I still can’t write about this without verbosity. The words vomit their way out because I was traumatised, and terrified and many other words that begin with t. All of those emotions felt real, were real. But I was also angry. And, as Natalie Portman recently highlighted in Harper’s Bazaar, as women “We’ve been socialised to believe that we’re not feeling angry – we’re feeling sad, we’re feeling upset.”
I am sad. I am upset. But I am also fucking irate. If you cannot provide support to students with certain conditions, do not claim that you can. It is not an easy thing to do. Ask anyone who has been the partner, friend, parent, employer of someone with a chronic mental illness. It’s hard as fuck. I know that.
But to claim that you can, and then fall down so spectacularly, is to literally, actually, endanger people’s lives. I almost died. More than once. That’s the truth of it. Instead of helping me to make a new life for myself, Oxford almost killed me. And I don’t know yet how to accept that.
P.S. If you finally find the strength to write a three-page letter outlining the various ways in which the existing systems are structurally inaccessible and destructive to someone living with mental illness and as such how your life has been placed at risk, you’ll get a one-line email back saying “If you feel your life is in danger, call an ambulance.”