We Need to Talk: Liz Fraser, Cantab, writer and broadcaster, wants to change the face of mental health.
This is a story about loneliness in a crowd; and crowds of lonely people.
I was a NatSci at Clare, twenty years ago: a period now known by anthropologists as the pre-Tinder Era. It was indeed a tough time. I decided to make it tougher, by spending two of my three years here being extremely ill with an eating disorder. And not just a bit of one. Nervosa. The Big Kahuna Burger of eating disorders. Not my best move, really.
I was so ill in my first year that I attended fewer than 10% of my lectures, and failed all of my exams; I could neither see nor retain information properly, so addled was my brain and messed-up was my blood. It had started well before I came up, but it got much worse within days of arriving.
All the excitement of the ‘CAMBRIDGE! WOW, it’s going to be SO AMAZING!’ morphed even before I’d finished unpacking my kettle and Nescafé and into ‘HolyshitwhatamIdoinghere?? Who are all these people? Why are they all so clever, and confident, and sorted? And why haven’t flat whites been invented yet, so I could get a decent coffee?’ The irony, of course, is that everyone else thought I was clever and confident and sorted, because I behaved that way in public, as we all did. But one doesn’t realise such things, when one is feeling stupid and shy and not really very sorted at all.
One of the things I found very difficult, and totally unexpected, about being an undergrad at Cambridge was the ease at which one could just disappear. I thought the collegiate system meant I would always be surrounded by friends; there would be a 24/7 network of people and support, and FUN on tap. And, of course, there was. I had a fantastic group of friends, most of whom I am still very close to today, living right next door to me. Every day. All the time. But I didn’t have to see them. I could close my door, and vanish.
And I did. A lot.
I achieved a level of loneliness I’d never experienced before; made only worse by the constant sounds and presence of everyone around me. Loneliness doesn’t come from solitude; it comes from feeling separated from the people around me.
In the evenings or at lunch time I would emerge, smiling, and become, as one friend who was there at the time described it to me recently, ‘the life and soul of the College bar, Liz!’ I felt happy. Genuinely happy.
Standing on a table in Clare Cellars after matric dinner, possibly not entirely sober.
With the smile that can hide so much.
And at those times, I was. But during the day if I wanted to be alone, I just shut the door and nobody knew I was there. There were no mobile phones in those days; there were no emails; no texts or social media. (How old do I feel now…?!) If you wanted to talk to someone, you had to go and see them. In person. My friends would climb all the way to my attic room at the top of S staircase and knock on my door; and I was often so down or unwell that I couldn’t open it. I would sit there silently, waiting for them to go away.
I feel terrible about this now. But an eating disorder, like other mental health problems, is something that controls you, until you stop behaving rationally.
As an undergrad, it's surprisingly easy to utterly disappear.
Having no Internet or smartphones has downsides so obvious I don’t need to spell them out for you here. But, in a way, I think it may also have had its advantages. We could switch off. FOMO didn’t exist, because we didn’t know what we were missing out on.
I had no idea what any of my friends were up to when I wasn’t with them. I couldn’t see their witty Facebook updates and perfectly Instagrammed head-shots, or wonder why they weren’t texting me: they weren’t because they couldn’t. There was a peace that’s almost impossible to come by now. Yes, we can communicate with the entire world all the time now, and it’s great. But it’s very hard not to.
I’m glad we didn’t have that added dimension to the ‘what is everyone up to? Am I having as much fun as everyone else? Am I as good as them? And: why aren’t they calling me?!’ questions that naturally nag us all.
It’s impossible to tell anyone at any stage of life how they will look back in 20 years and see it differently. And there is no point. When you are ten, you can’t see the world through the eyes and experience of a thirty-year-old. I can’t see my life now, as I will when I’m sixty. I don’t know what I’d be able to tell my current self.
And I can’t tell you now that there is life beyond Cambridge, that nobody has ever asked me what degree I got, or that you should just enjoy each days as it comes, love the taut skin of your youth, be grateful for hangovers that disappear in a day, not three weeks, and be happy. If I did I’d want to punch myself; if you hadn’t already done it for me.
But I would suggest one thing: that you keep an eye out for each other, and don’t assume that what you see on the outside is what’s going on inside; that you look at each other, and talk. And listen.
And that you listen to yourself sometimes, too.
I’ve set up Headcase to start a conversation. To allow us to talk about what goes on in our heads, openly and safely, to share and learn, and change the face of mental health.
Headcase aims to "completely re-brand mental health"
Head wobbles are not abnormal. Just as we sometimes feel unwell physically, it’s also very normal to not feel entirely okay in your head all the time. It happens to us all at many points in our lives.
And it’s much better to talk about it, than pretend everything’s fine.
Main photo credit: Mike Sim. Other photos: Liz Fraser.