Bristol is liminal. When I tread last year’s ground, it only feels as familiar as a dream in recurrence, with memories coming in brief scenes and blurry vignettes. Recollections of the experiences that I had in first year are sparse, disjointed, as they float nebulously in my mind’s atmosphere and move dangerously towards a space of irretrievability.
This forgetfulness, not the result of bleary-eyed nights in Wills Library or alcohol-fuelled enjoyment, is due to depression. It is unsurprising. I had, even before moving to university, begun experiencing some of the symptoms associated with the condition. Yet I had also been fairly high-functioning and a keen compartmentaliser, ignoring the red flags until I hardly felt them wafting in front of me. It did not seem strange that any grade short of an ‘A’ made me want to die, and I consciously avoided interrogating the reasons behind the bleak hopelessness that I felt each day. My family, friends and school were supportive and available but I rarely sought help, choosing to contend with my feelings using my most potent weapon – neglect.
Life was a series of happy occasions which interspersed the nagging low that I could sense but not understand and so I existed at the margins of emotion in an almost-tolerable discomfort. Able to do this for a number of years and quite satisfied with my modus operandi, I joined university with a tenuous grip on emotional stability and the belief that my feelings could be separated from the life that I was expecting to lead, that my inner and outer selves could be divorced from one another.
Naturally, having their bases on weak foundations, these beliefs toppled. Depression is as physical as it is mental, it is hard and it can get worse: the low buzz of sadness can become constant lethargy, perennial grief. It can make you unreliable and irritable, a bad friend, sibling, child. It becomes the voice that tells you that you are worthless, the self-hatred that folds into self-harm, the heaviness in your heart that sucks the light out of mornings and, at night, sleep paralysis. It takes the demons from your mind and sits them on your chest, allows you to see them but leaves you incapacitated before you can even remember to fight.
Depression can also mean the loss of identity. A year has passed since I first moved to Bristol and it hardly bears mentioning that the ruthless compartmentalisation which once defined me has been eroded by the tumultuous waters of my own mind. Often I find the ‘new’ version of myself difficult to recognise, especially in a place that cannot remind me of the person I used to be. The notion of being a stranger in the world and in one’s own body rings as true as it does cliché.
But I have come to learn that strangerhood is not synonymous with isolation – there are people and services which exist precisely to help the broken rebuild themselves. The first time I entered the university counsellors’ reception, I was struck by the sheer volume of students also waiting for their counselling sessions. It occurred to me that, despite the specificity of their impact on an individual’s life, depression and anxiety at university are as prolific as the common cold in a kindergarten and, as with other medical conditions, they can be treated. The University of Bristol has provided me and many others with counselling, medication, academic support and the space to begin recovery. My counsellors have been incredible. They understand the particular struggle of being black, female and depressed – a trifecta of difficulty within a society that oppresses, objectifies and marginalises you – and they have taught me how to exist when my mind and my world are compelling me to do the opposite.
And, love. My family, my friends, they have saved me. Recently, I was in Scotland with one of my closest friends. We had removed our shoes on St Andrews’ West Sands beach so that our feet could sink into the puddles of water caught between ridges of sand. With largesse, the sun poured down on us while salty air and autumn were carried upon the wind’s back. Moving into the water, she and I talked about our faith, our lives, our plans, and we smiled as we did this, even when sadness laced the words that we spoke. The town was behind us, its spires and chimneys protruding gently into the vast sky, and far ahead sat forestland. Holding us in the middle was the beach. It was bathed in light and I felt that so too was my heart, filled with joy at being in a beautiful place with a beloved friend. With this light I saw, amidst the illness and the chaos, the immense love that I had received. I saw prayers with my parents back home and their unwavering support for me even when I tested them; I saw the sleep-slurred conversations I had with my friends in Bristol, and the night when my flatmate, concerned about my eating habits, saved some of her food for me to make sure I ate; I saw my first ever university friend discussing the intersections of race and gender with me, nursing me back to health when I had a cold, being candid and kind, even while she too was experiencing depression; I saw the third-year student who gave me her notes and books, offered academic advice and mentored me all year. With this light I saw the islands of great joy among the murky waters of sadness and I was at peace with both.
I have returned to Bristol. The days are getting colder but the sun continues to shine, if only to whiten a cloud-covered sky. Walking with friends and strangers, it is hard not to notice the leaves fall and turn to dust under our feet. Their crunch is the soundtrack of this season. Reunions and first meetings occur amidst the flurry of work and parties; routines and patterns begin to crystallise, cycles are resumed and created. When I next meet my counsellor, it will be to review the summer and to find out how I am faring. We will probably consider my plans and needs for the term ahead and see what more, if anything, can be done to get me to a place of greater stability. I wonder about this quite often, the idea of recovery. For some it occurs, yet for others it is a chemical impossibility, and I’m not entirely sure where I sit on this spectrum. I could speculate but, ultimately, that would be squinting into the darkness: this illness is one which operates in mystery, at times a looming presence, at times imperceptible. For now I focus on that which is within my power, I pray, I think. When it’s late, I look out of my window and, beyond the night-soaked gardens, I can see the city’s small points of light ensconced in the darkness, stars on the ground. Police sirens ring in the distance, but there is calm.