Sometimes, in our narcissistic human brains, it’s difficult to consider catastrophes to be anything but a personal attack on our happiness. Thousands, perhaps even millions, of people around the globe are affected, are suffering worse than I am, but it always comes back to ‘I’, and how the affects on this ‘I’ are unparalleled. No one experiences the world in quite the same way as I do.
It’s the same response many people have to mental health, and those with depression or dark thoughts would often claim that their thoughts are unique. No one has felt this way before. It’s why it can take so long for people to come forward, or go for medical help, with mental health issues – because you feel silly, weak, childish. You look around and see everyone else coping with similar (or even worse) circumstances, and you question why you can’t also just get on with it.
As someone who grapples with mild anxiety, catastrophising is not uncharted ground. Sometimes, it feels like the COVID-19 pandemic has been plucked straight out of my imagination, my disaster fantasies, my inevitable future. It feels like the universe is winking at me, but sadistically: of course your happiness could only be temporary…of course I sent a pandemic to stem it.
I’m currently in my second year at the University of Cambridge. More than anything, I’m grateful that I’m a home student (not international) and not in my final year. Many people expect Easter (third) term, which is supposed to begin on 23rd April, to be cancelled, and exams to be rearranged, reconfigured, or forfeited. We are drowning in uncertainty.
Lent (second) term 2020 – the term that just ended – was undoubtedly the best term of my university experience so far. I have grown into myself, forged stronger bonds with my friends, improved my work ethic, and also approached my mental health in new and more productive ways. I have been happier, and the people around me have noticed and commented on my positivity. My mental health has improved immeasurably in the space of a year (Lent term 2019 was, perhaps, the worst term of my university experience so far).
Uncertainty, however, is difficult for me to deal with. I like being able to plan ahead, and to know what I’ll be doing over the next few weeks. Currently, I don’t know what I’ll be doing tomorrow. Any day now, I could receive an email giving me a date that I have to vacate my room by.
The suspense is making me itchy, and I keep finding myself a little teary-eyed when I think about all of this uncertainty. I’m having worse acne breakouts than I have had in years. I have dark circles under my eyes. I’m very figdety. I’m used to stress expressing itself physically like this, but not all at once, and not this extreme.
My exams, my dissertation, my plans for the vacation – these things probably won’t happen, anymore. I also get a little teary-eyed thinking about the time that I’m losing, the term that I’ll probably lose, and the relationships that might suffer because of this. I keep having to say ‘goodbye’ without knowing how long I’m saying it for. FaceTime and Skype, of course, exist – but digital contact can never quite live up to physical presence.
The plans I had for the vacation will also almost certainly be cancelled: concerts, train travel to visit friends, revising in Cambridge. The plans I have for summer are uncertain, with the UK’s plan of action likely meaning a restriction on travel into and out of the country for many more months to come.
Everything is uncertainty, and I can’t know for sure what COVID-19 means for anyone. I only know with some degree of certainty that I’ll be back at university in October. Everything else in between is a big question mark.
In Cambridge, we talk a lot about ‘pressing pause’: about how term time can be so busy and stressful that sometimes you need to take a step back, leave the city, take a day off, just generally do something other than work. But now, the ‘pause’ feels enforced, as if the button on the remote has got stuck, and none of us have the power to press play again.
I am aware that these issues are slight – that a lot of people actually have COVID-19, or are close to someone suffering from it, or were close to someone who unfortunately died because of it. Some university students, especially international students, have been plummeted into dire economic situations upon being asked to vacate university residences at short notice. Some students are scared to return home lest they infect family members.
Sometimes, though, it’s nice to indulge our narcissistic human brains – to give ourselves the time to sit back, rant, and accept that our existence, right now, is not ideal. I think it’s healthier than always deferring to other people, always being selfless. Humans aren’t fundamentally selfless; my selfish brain needs feeding.
People deal with upheaval and uncertainty in different ways. I’ve been in denial for a while, which transitioned into a bit of an obsession with the news. (There is a difference between being informed and being obsessive.) I’m starting to accept the situation I’m finding myself in, if I’m still somewhat angry about it. It’s difficult, though, to accept something you still don’t know much about.
While I still can, I’m leaving the house everyday – never to crowded areas, but for walks or to sit in an open space in the library. Where my work is concerned, I’m trying to carry on as normal, but sometimes it’s difficult to motivate yourself when you don’t even know if what you’re working towards (exams) will be going ahead.
If you’re reading this, and you’re also at university and you’re unsure what’s going to happen next term, I empathise with you. Please stay in touch with your friends. They’re in a very similar position to you, if not exactly the same. Most of all, though, check in on people who are quiet or have gotten quieter; check in on friends you consider to be emotionally ‘strong’; check in on people with unideal home situations who are unexpectedly having to return to them.
I haven’t, really, in my life, had to deal with catastrophe – and I still don’t think I’m dealing with catastrophe right now. It feels like purgatory, a niggling inbetween where decisions can’t really be made with any certainty; life just can’t move forwards. I’ve felt this way before, mentally – as if life isn’t moving forwards. It’s uncanny to experience the reality of this.
But I’m hopeful. Things will stabilise and get better, because they have to. I’m trying not to think too much about the details of how we’ll get there.