So, you’ve come back to university and things just don’t feel the same? A couple of weeks in, going through the motions, but you haven’t quite settled into a stride? You are not alone…
If you’re anything like me, you drifted through lockdown in a mildly dissatisfied daze. From my socially privileged position, news of the Coronavirus gathering ground across the UK (and the world) caused a sour bubbling of anxiety in my stomach and a fuzzy fatigue around my temples, not any real fear of the possibility of imminent death. I am a young and healthy woman with no underlying health conditions and no family history of such conditions. I am incredibly lucky. The anxiety and fatigue came as much from the sudden shift from a blaring, bustling life as a first-year student, to a sedentary existence in rural Oxfordshire, as it did from any fear of the pandemic.
There was initial social anxiety, neatly illustrated by the explosion of ‘House Party’ meetups and biweekly Zoom quizzes – For why else would a virtual quiz ever be such an eagerly anticipated and enviable social occasion? We eagerly gabbled our lack of news loudly over each other on Instagram. “Here’s me baking a cake”, “here’s my most local friend on a socially distanced walk”, “here’s another cake”… It went on.
And then after a while, silence. Upon running out of things to say to one another now we lacked any shared experience, and with that really most of what we had in common, there was an unspoken unilateral decree amongst students to sign off until September.
It would all be fine in September. Back to uni meant back to normal. Or so we believed.
This blind belief was grounded in a blinkered outlook on our situation. As September approached, we gurded our loins, preparing to dive enthusiastically back into our gorgeously grimy university existence. There was a feeling of end in sight. There was a denial that things had fundamentally changed. We were young, we were fit, the virus wouldn’t have a lasting impact on us.
Then we returned. And it feels as though we’ve been unwillingly birthed into a parallel reality where we’re trapped in a 45-year olds timetable. Our days are peppered with awkward interactions on the street where no one is entirely sure of the acceptable greeting etiquette. Our nights consist of hushed dinner parties – two things that should always, even amongst the 45-year olds, remain juxtaposed.
And the most frustrating part is that on some level we suspected all of this. We all got the invite from that one friend trying to rep a certain local club’s ‘Wilder Wednesdays’ which, if the name did not deceive you, quickly turns out to be a four hour affair where six members of one household sit at an appropriately distanced table in a dank and darkened room, and purchase overpriced drinks. “Alas, I live in a house of seven”. I make my excuses, quietly thinking how swiftly I’d declare myself the ‘one too many’, and nobly miss out were the occasion to present itself.
Our social engagements have become organised, strategized and limited. Meeting a friend for a drink at 18:35, we are seated at a table and drinks are ordered. No one can happen upon us and stay for a pint. No one can join us coming from a late lecture. While our drink is perfectly pleasant, stripped of spontaneity, even this eagerly anticipated catch up is feels forced. Authenticity is stifled by rigidity.
And yet, this is it. As much as I instinctively object to the notion of a ‘new normal’, I believe the collective denial of the permanence of our situation to be destructive. Our world of comfortable chaos has crumbled and left us with the sense of clumsy cluelessness rightfully reserved for freshers week. This doesn’t feel fair, and it isn’t fair. But attempting to plough on is pointless and counter-productive.
The thought that admitting you have a problem is the first step to overcoming it is a cliché. But, as is often the way with cliches, it contains an important grain of truth. By refusing to acknowledge the fact that our world has changed, our lives become characterised by anxiety. Denial breeds inertia, and so here we will remain until we embrace our reconstituted reality.
This does not require that we forget what’s been left behind: the collective euphoria when Bohemian Rhapsody comes in in Jimmy’s at 01:53, the intoxicated rampage across Market Square in search anything hot and greasy, and being packed like pickled sardines down damp, pint filled benches at The Swan.
This can and should be grieved.
But let us not needlessly romanticise the inevitable accompanying unexplainable holes in your bank balance, the ugly splattering of bruises from shin to shoulder, and the unshakeable low-level illness that weighs ever more heavily on both body and soul the deeper you sink into each term.
We can and should look back fondly on how things were, but let’s not become crippled by nostalgia. And while unwanted change inevitably fuels anxiety, resist feeding this further by worrying about how our condition compares to some unforgiving notion of ‘the student experience’. Because once you surrender this incessant reflective comparison and critique on your present self, contrasted with ‘where you would be if…’, you can start to truly find the fun in where you are. Sunday evening beach trips with squorking, squealing skips through grey and icy waves. Eccentric and extravagant dress-up dinner parties with clunkily compiled themes (ours this week – ‘lingerie and canape’!). Black-out sparked, booze-fuelled boogies across various Viaduct streets last Friday. This is our new reality, the only one that we have the power to narrate. So, let’s make it one that will be collectively and uniquely cherished for many years to come.