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Ashley Farnham*, 24, is a Criminology graduate of the University of the West of England, Bristol, and is currently living in her hometown of Swansea. Here, she opens up about her experience with anxiety during university, how she coped with it, and how she manages it today.
When Ashley Farnham was 19 she went to university in Bristol to study Criminology, two hours from her home in Swansea. “It was scary at first. All of a sudden you have to think about money. There’s so much you have to think about that you just don’t have to when you’re living at home.”
Swansea is a spectacularly scenic town along the coast, harbouring an inner city that swells with grey undertones of a working man’s graft. Ashley says living in Bristol opened her mind a lot. “It was a good experience to move away. It makes you grow up. When I eventually moved away from Bristol, I’d gotten used to a lot of those things and I was a lot happier. I think it can take a while sometimes… Real life.” She laughs as she admits that it probably took her the full three years of her degree to get the hang of running her own life and finances without the help of her parents.
She recounts the black comedy of that first drive with her parents up to Bristol to drop her off at university. “It was like I died, like they mourned me after I left. The day they drove me up my Mum wore all black and sunglasses, and the whole drive up she didn’t say anything,” she laughs.
And they obviously loved her immensely. “They were in tears when they left me, they were heartbroken. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your kid with you for 19 years and then one day they’re gone. My Mum made my bed for me and everything and she was doing all this stuff for me and then everything was done. My Dad just burst out crying.”
“When I first got to uni I was fine, I was a lot of fun. But then I just wasn’t as fun anymore. I felt I couldn’t be myself.”
It wasn’t just her parents Ashley said goodbye to. She left behind her girlfriend in Swansea too and this had a strain on the relationship. She felt uneasy being away from her. “I’d been with her for six months before uni and when I moved away it was hard. We were always arguing. I can’t even remember what about. She’d be really weird with me all of a sudden and I don’t think I had done anything but then she wouldn’t talk to me on the phone about it… Looking back I don’t think I felt like I could talk to her about what was going on, really.”
Ashley began to feel what she describes as increasingly ‘worried.’ “When I first got to uni I was fine, I was a lot of fun. But then I just wasn’t as fun anymore. I felt I couldn’t be myself and I think that was because I was so worried all the time.”
Her girlfriend broke up with her in April of her first year, but despite this her anxiety subsided. It came back worse in her second year. “I lost a couple of friends in second year and my anxiety was quite bad then. I used to drink most days to deal with it. If I got drunk I’d forget about it.” Ashley felt uncontrollably worried all the time and this feeling was constant. It was there when she woke up and when she went to bed. “I wasn’t sleeping very well but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t have a job, I just had uni. I did get a part time job towards the end of second year but I didn’t always go to it,” she laughs.
We’re all accustomed to a healthy level of anxiety – it’s a natural response to stress and it motivates us to study or act extra polite when meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time. But too much of it can tip you over the edge. You get an overload of a hormone called cortisol and all of a sudden you’ve started spouting completely inappropriate things over an already awkward lunch in a desperate bid to win over your girlfriend’s Dad, leaving you mortified with sweat dripping down your face, staring into your Caesar salad. It’s not good. Anxiety that affects your ability to function is outside the realm of what anyone should be expected to deal with. It’s considered a mental health condition.
“I used to drink most days to deal with it. If I got drunk I’d forget about it.”
Mental health problems sometimes run in families, meaning that if your parents had issues, it’s more likely that you will too. This is not always the case, but it was for Ashley. “My Great Gran was very anxious, she did have a breakdown at one point. And my Nana and my Mum both have mental health issues too, so it does run in my family.”
When asked about the friends she made during her first year she says, “The friends I made were nice, I just didn’t really know them that well. I didn’t feel like I could talk to them.” The friends we have at school we have generally had for years. We are comfortable with them. We can laugh, fart or cry in front of them – a kind of trust that can take years to grow. So when we begin to make connections at university, those friendships are still in their infancy and it can be hard. “It was really isolating,” says Ashley, “and if you live in halls you just live in that one little room. It’s kind of like being in prison sometimes.”
Like so many other first years, it was Ashley’s first time living in shared accommodation. She lived with seven other people. “They were disgusting. I couldn’t make food. I had to either go out for food or have ready meals. It used to get so bad that the plates and everything just got thrown away. It was horrible.”
Her voice rises. “People would go into your cupboard and use your stuff and touch all your things. For me that was like hell because I’m very weird about people touching my stuff.” It clearly causes her distress to recall someone invading her personal space.
“It was really isolating (…) You just live in that one little room. It’s kind of like being in prison sometimes.”
Her housemates also ruined things of sentimental value. Things her Grandfather had bought her. “He just bought me nice things to cook with. A nice pizza slicer and a really nice frying pan. I’ve still got it. And a baking tray. I had to throw that away ’cause they fucked it up.” She pauses for a moment.
“…I’m not crying about my baking tray, I’m crying about my Grampa… I miss him.”
After a moment’s silence, she looks up and takes the conversation in a new direction. She tells me about her drug use in university, and how, in hindsight, she thinks it may have affected her mental health. Sometimes, for people in their late teens and early twenties, it almost seems like a rite of passage to have a ‘stoner phase.’ Ashley was no different.
“I used to smoke weed on a weekly basis when I was in college, but when I went to uni I was pretty much smoking it every day (…) I don’t think I put two and two together for a while.”
“I used to smoke weed on a weekly basis when I was in college, but when I went to uni I was pretty much smoking it every day. You could get it in the same building we lived in so we could just go downstairs and buy some. I don’t think I put two and two together for awhile.” She also took the drug Meow or M-Cat; slang words for the drug mephedrone – a popular recreational drug in Wales closely related to amphetamines such as speed and ecstasy. She wonders if taking this had a part to play too.
Looking back, Ashley wishes she had sought help, but the very nature of anxiety prevented her from doing this: “I was too scared. I did think about it, but I was just too scared.”
Having graduated from her course, Ashley now works part time and volunteers at a local drug users’ service. She hopes to become a full time Drug Support Worker. “I think when I’m working and I’ve stuff to do it makes it better. When I’m not doing anything it makes it worse because I have more time to think about things.”
She doesn’t feel there is enough mental health awareness today. If other people had been more open about their problems, the increased visibility might have given her the courage to seek the help she needed. She advises current students struggling with mental health issues now to speak to someone about it.
If other people had been more open about their problems, the increased visibility might have given her the courage to seek the help she needed.
“I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about it and that made me more anxious, so it didn’t get any better for a long time. For me, talking about it and just knowing what it was helped a lot. I actually don’t know when I found out that’s what it was, but when I did I thought ‘that’s me.’ Now, because I know what it is I can rationalise it a bit better in my head. Before I knew I just thought I was going mental.”
And that’s the key to overcoming something like this. Understanding it. Taking it seriously and treating it as a condition – not a lack of will.
You can further educate yourself for the benefit of your own mental health and those you love at:
If you’re in crisis or feel like you need to talk to someone, you can call Samaritans on 116 123 for both ROI and UK 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.