The Thoughts of my Last Night in Glasgow

Due to unforeseen circumstances, time did not stand still the way I expected it to, and it instead passed by at a rapid rate, until it ran out entirely.

Somehow, it is my last night in Glasgow. I sit by the window on the 10th floor of the library, with a view out across the city and to the hills beyond, and it’s almost unfathomable to me that from tomorrow afternoon I won’t walk these streets or see these sights until some point in August. The city which has been my world for nine months will be a memory that blurs and fades as I spend two months travelling across the continent.

It is a cliché, and it seems almost too obvious to point out, that I am not the person I was when I first moved here. I’m not the naïve, hopeful eighteen-year-old who moved up from Cumbria on a rainy day last September. At nineteen I am hardly worldly – I dare say I still possess a great quantity of the naivety I arrived with – but I have learnt a lot about myself, and about my place in the world.

Today I was packing the remainder of my belongings, and I came across some poems I’d written back in February after the bitter ending of difficult friendship, and (great procrastinator that I am) I took time away from my packing to read through them. I remembered that when I wrote them I hadn’t held back in my brutal honesty, but I was still surprised at the sheer level of vitriol within them. Because I am an utterly different person to the girl who wrote those poems three months ago. There is a calmness within myself that hadn’t existed for a long time. There are no wars being waged in my mind, there is no heartbreak, no pain. There is barely even any drama, and drama is practically my lifeblood. Perhaps it is merely that the metaphorical TV show of my life is on hiatus until September, and I get a well-deserved break until then… Or perhaps it is something more. Perhaps I have actually grown up a bit, learnt from the heartache of the past few months and matured as a result of it.

I realised, the other week, that I had hardly cried in two months. Let me remind you that I am one of the most dramatic, emotional people to ever grace this earth…so it is rare that I can go a week without crying, let alone two whole months. And when I finally did manage to cry, it was the bare minimum of tears. My initial reaction was “wtf is wrong with me?” because I am so used to being in a state of constant crisis. And the truth of it is, I have been happy since April; there has been no reason to cry. February and March were my great big apocalypse of broken friendships and continuous misery, and April was when I finally got my shit together. I was at a poetry open mic on the 3nd of April, and there were approximately three different undercurrents of cringe during that evening which made me look at my life and go “What are you doing Eliza? Why are you like this? Your life is an actual joke.” I saw myself, properly, for the first time in forever, and realised that I was constantly flirting with self-destruction, and that I needed to change my ways before my embarrassment became external rather than mostly internal.

So I changed. I forced myself to create a structure in my life. I exercised every day. I downloaded the c25k running app, and ran three times a week, and went to the gym on the days in between. I spent hours a day at the library studying for my exams. I ate healthily. I finally cut all ties with the person who had caused me so much misery back in February. I committed to looking after myself, and I saw it through. I invested in friendships with good people who proved themselves to me time and time again. And things got better. The misery faded, the self-doubt faded. I became a lot more of the person I want to be.

I’m still very far from perfect, and I’m still held back by my anxiety a lot, so I can’t always act how I want to act or say what I want to say. But I’ve come a long way. During the past couple of weeks, I’ve even managed to lessen my anxiety somewhat. From early May it has been a constant stream of goodbyes, with so many friends leaving – some of whom I may never see again. And I knew I would hate myself if I hid away during these final days because of my stupid anxiety. So I forced myself to socialise, to connect, to bond with these people that I love so much. There was a week where I was socialising practically every day! And it was way out of my comfort zone, but it got easier with time. People aren’t always as scary as I expect. It’s easy, as a person with anxiety, to forget just how many friends I have, and to forget that they’re not scary people. I also forget that half the people I know have social anxiety too, so they’re probably as scared of me as I am of them.

What I learnt from having a constantly active social life for the first time ever, was that I need people just as much as I need my alone time. To use the term which has been floating around a lot lately, I am an “ambivert”, a hybrid of the introvert/extrovert binary. For most of my life I have leaned much more towards the introvert end of the spectrum, and introversion is still my dominant nature. However, over the past few weeks, I had this shocking realisation that I actually like being around people. I like having a social life, I like being busy and active. I like having a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

In spite of that, I need my alone time too. I need the space to hide away from the world. Since Saturday, when I said goodbye to my best friend after helping her carry her bags to the bus station (the final goodbye after so many weeks of goodbyes), I have spent every day alone, and I can feel myself crawling back into my introvert cocoon, preparing to hibernate. Because I know what’s coming. I will spend nine days at home, but after that it’s two months of hostels and strangers and foreign languages. Last year when I went to my beloved Estonia for the first time, it was the perfect pilgrimage of an introvert. I was alone, save for the echoes of characters in my head as I wandered the streets of the city where my novels were set. I stayed in AirBnB accommodation, so there was no one I was forced to socialise with during my time in Tallinn. I was the most alone I have ever been. Whereas this time, I will be staying in hostels throughout my journey, and that will be a challenge both for my introvert and extrovert natures. On the one hand, I won’t have a place to hide, I won’t have a room to myself where I can be separate from the world. And on top of that, there will be people. Lots and lots of people. All in one room, and I will have to push myself far out of my comfort zone and befriend them. Because two months is a long time to be alone. And I believe in myself, I believe that I can manage. Because I have grown and I have changed.

When I think of how much I’ve changed even in the past three months, it makes me wonder how much I’ll change in the next three. When I return to Glasgow, I will have travelled across six countries. If that can’t change a girl, I don’t know what can! I gained such a strong sense of self when I went to Estonia last year, and I can’t wait to see what happens when I multiply that by six. There is magnificent world out there, and right now there is a wide-eyed semi-naïve girl sitting on the 10th floor of Glasgow university library, writing a blog and listening to Taylor Swift music, and this girl is ready to run to that world, ready to meet it as it is and see its beauty and its struggles and everything in between.

Last year, when I told people I was travelling alone to Estonia, the reaction I got from them was mostly negative. From classmates and co-workers alike, the general theme of response was “Why would you do that?” followed by a few fun anecdotes about all the women who’ve been murdered whilst travelling abroad. Or people telling me “you’re so brave” as though brave was a dirty word. But here, in my dear Glasgow, the response is different. When I tell my friends I’m going to be travelling alone across Europe, they’re excited for me, they’re supportive. When I went to Estonia last year, I wasn’t particularly scared beforehand. And I think it’s because I wouldn’t let myself be scared. Everyone was effectively telling me I was going to die there, so I had to be positive to counteract all their negativity. Whereas now, when everyone around me is so positive, I myself am more anxious.

I think it’s more the time period than the countries themselves which makes me anxious. Two months is a bloody long time. What if my bank card doesn’t work? What if there’s a problem with my accommodation? What if Theresa May wins the election and ruins Britain so much that I don’t even have a country to come back to? So much anxiety…
Also a friend of mine joked that I would need 5 cans of pepper spray and a gun license if I was travelling alone in his country, and after a few too many google searches about safety levels I’m starting to wonder if it was actually a joke at all.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’ve lived in the stabbing capital of Europe for nine months and been perfectly safe. Given the amount of times I’ve walked through Glasgow city centre alone at night, if anything bad was going to happen to me, it would have long ago.

But if there is something to worry about, I will worry about it, no matter how unlikely and ridiculous, because that is my nature. However, what I realised when I was in Estonia was that once I actually begin travelling, the worries cease. Worry is essentially a fear of the unknown, and when you travel everything is the unknown, and you must choose between worrying about everything until your head explodes, or worrying about nothing, and finding peace and finding yourself, and finding whatever else is out there in the world. So I’m praying that when I’m actually in Riga, I will conveniently forget all those articles I read about the Latvian mafia and tourist scams and everything will be wonderful.

When I came back from Estonia my anxiety had pretty much disappeared. I was relaxed, I was freer, I laughed a lot more. I was a better person than the one who had left England two weeks before. I greatly hope that travelling will have the same effect this time around. I want to be my best self; I want to be as free as I can from anxiety. And I want the bravery to make the most of my time at university, and next year to take the opportunities I missed this year. And perhaps it is naïve or ridiculous to put so much faith in travel, to believe that I can spend a few weeks wandering across Eastern Europe and come back a better person… But travel is like life that has been condensed and cut down to its core until it exists only as the purest essence of itself. Travel is how you learn to truly live. Travel is where you learn who you are when everything you rely on is stripped away. So I believe that I will change, I believe that I will come back a different (and hopefully better) version of the person I am now.

I don’t know if this is the last blog I will write before travelling (given my levels of procrastination, it may well be), but from the 10th of June onwards, this blog will suddenly be a lot more active. I plan to write a travel diary like I did when I was in Estonia last year, so I should hopefully be updating my blog every 2-3 days throughout my journey.

The Experiences of the Anxious

Tomorrow it will be two weeks since my first year of university ended, and in twenty-one days from now I will return home for a brief few days, before spending two months travelling across Europe. It’s the point of the academic year where everything ends, and all that’s left to do is tie up loose ends, fit together the final pieces of the jigsaw to make everything neat and tidy. It’s the time for closure; the final chapter of a book I don’t want to put down. I’m not ready for it to end, not when there’s so much left to begin.

First year, for me, was split in two, into Before, and After. The Before is the territory of the first six months, when the majority of my time was spent investing in a friendship which collapsed into ruin in February. And the After was when I put myself back together again, picked up the pieces of my broken heart and shattered self-esteem, and moulded them into something I could live with. In the aftermath I learnt so much about who I am, who I want to be, what I need to do to create the life I want. And I feel like I have no time. I have been born anew, but there is no world to exist in, not until September. I’m ready to start afresh, to make up for the time I lost in my first six months here, and I feel stuck in place. My life feels like a TV show that’s on hiatus, and I can’t move forward in my character arc until the new season begins.

It’s easy for me to forget that my life does not begin and end with the academic year. Come June, I will spend two months travelling through six countries; I have such grand adventures ahead of me. Yet my mind is occupied constantly by the opportunities that passed me by, and the opportunities I will chase after once the new academic year begins.

I’ve come to know myself very well; I’ve learnt how I operate, I’ve learnt what I need to function well in my life, I’ve learnt what crutches I tend to fall back on. And I’ve learnt what constantly holds me back.

I had a realisation, the other day, that I have never in my life initiated a friendship. Every friend I’ve ever made approached me first, reached out to me in a way I would never be brave enough to attempt. I’ve always known that I kind of suck at social interaction, and that my anxiety holds me back a lot. But I’d never realised the extent of it. Then last week I was at a poetry night (why do I feel like this is how all my stories start these days?) and I ran into an acquaintance who I don’t know all that well, but want to get to know better. At one point he asked if I wanted to come and join him and his friends (most of which were mutual friends, so not a scary social situation by any measure), and for perhaps the first ten minutes of standing with them my mind was at war with itself. Half of my brain was telling me “You think this person is cool, you want to get to know him, start a goddamn conversation”, and the other half of my brain was like “But anxiety. People are scary. Initiating conversations is scary.” And that is the story of how it took me nearly 15 minutes to ask someone “How have you been?”

Anxiety defeats me too often. I am aware of my anxiety, I am aware that it’s irrational, I am aware that nothing bad will happen if I try to talk to someone. And yet my heart races and I’m gripped with fear, and I feel frozen still; I can’t force myself to act.
I am someone who needs to be constantly moving forward, in order to function properly. I have to stay busy, I have to force myself into early mornings and strict exercise routines. I have to have a plan, a goal, an intention. And I can’t do that, with my anxiety. I can’t break it down into manageable baby steps or make it go away. I can deal with the bigger picture of most things: I can deal with essay deadlines and exam revision and exercise programs, because I know my own limitations, and I know how to make myself commit. But when it comes to people, I’m lost.

I have friends who I love dearly, and the logical part of my brain knows that they love me too (in spite of my extreme cuddliness, inappropriate sense of humour, and overly-loud voice!). Yet there is always this insistent voice in the back of my mind going “You don’t belong, you’re the odd one out, they just tolerate you, they don’t REALLY want you here”. And that’s when I’m interacting with people I’ve known for months and months, people who’ve proven themselves to me over and over and over.

When it comes to new people, it’s a whole other level of anxiety. As I previously mentioned, I’m not good at starting conversations with people. On rare occasions I surprise myself and attempt small talk, but often I just stick to awkward silences, because it’s easier than trying to think of what to say. It shouldn’t be this way. I shouldn’t be terrified of starting conversations, of trying to form friendships (not to mention any other kind of relationships! When I was sixteen I asked someone out and they rejected me, and my anxiety likes to remind me of that every time I consider the possibility of asking anyone out ever again. That’s another thing about anxiety: it doesn’t forget easily!) I don’t want to live like this; something has to change.

I’ve made a resolution that when I come back for second year I’m going to make a greater effort to combat my anxiety. I’ve come so far this year, thanks to all the friends I’ve made, and the confidence boost I’ve gotten from improv society, and the poetry open mics I participate in. And I do believe I can grow more, that I can get to a point where I feel comfortable. I will join more societies, I will create more opportunities for meeting people, I will reach out, I will be brave.

It’s easy to say that now, when September seems so far away.

I tell myself I will be a different person then, that I will shake off the baggage I have carried within me for so long. But is it truly easy to put such a plan into action? Can I force myself to speak when my throat constricts and all I want is to sink into the ground? I almost believe I can. The only thing stronger than my anxiety is my impulsive nature. I may be scared of basically every human ever, but that doesn’t stop me from taking risks. To be fair, most risks I take have an element of public humiliation of myself (usually involving performing poetry, or being drunk. One day I’m sure it will be performing poetry whilst drunk, just to create a whole new level of impulsive humiliation), because it is easier to open myself up to the world at large than to one person at a time. But I will stretch myself, I will challenge myself, I will grow.

In twenty-five days from now, I will begin my two months of travel, and throw myself into the great unknown. If there’s one thing I took away from my journey to Estonia last summer, it’s that travel is the greatest way to reduce my anxiety. When a person travels, they’re forced to think on their feet, to interact with new environments and unfamiliar obstacles, and there’s no time to second-guess themselves. I cling fervently to the hope that this journey will be the medicine I need to (at least temporarily) cure this cloud which has hung over me for too long. Furthermore, last time I went to Estonia, I stayed in AirBnB accommodation, and was therefore alone. Whereas this time I’m staying in hostels for my entire journey, which means I’ll meet more strangers than I dare to imagine. And if that won’t throw me into the deep end of social interaction, then I don’t know what will!

Last week I was talking to a friend after improv, and we somehow got onto the topic of how much I’ve seemed to change since he’d gotten to know me, and that at first I come across as being really confident. Of course, I laughed and said “Me? Confident? I’m literally terrified of everyone.” But the more I think on it, the more I realise that there are several layers which people must get past to see the “real” me. I always think of myself as an open book, but perhaps that’s not the case at all. The first impression I give people is apparently one of confidence. I fool people with my loud voice and bubbly personality and innuendo-based humour. After that comes my shy, reserved stage. By this stage people will perhaps wonder if I dislike them, because I will go from being seemingly extroverted, to full-on introvert. I can’t start conversations, I’m rubbish at small talk, I’m not very good at thinking of questions to ask people. Social interaction becomes exhausting.

But if you’re one of the persistent few who reaches the third layer, the real Eliza will begin to emerge. Once you get past defence mechanisms #1 and #2, then you will encounter the open book I always believed I was. I am bubbly, I am (questionably) funny, I’m kind, I’m passionate, I care deeply about so many things. I am affectionate to the point of being annoying, I will shower you with so much love you won’t know what to do with it. And I will listen to you, I’ll give you advice, I’ll be caring and unjudging and you’ll know you can tell me anything.

That is who I am.

But I am hidden beneath two layers of defence mechanisms which conspire against me. And I didn’t even realise those defence mechanisms were there. I wear my heart on my sleeve, but it’s painted there in invisible ink which only I can see. I tell myself I show people my true self, but how am I showing them that when I can barely even speak to them? And there are so many times when I want to say “take a chance on me, get to know me, invest your time in me”, when really that’s a copout. It’s me wanting to beg someone “make the effort with me that I can’t make with you”. And I tell myself if people cared enough they would fight for me, they would be there by my side and make that effort. But how is that fair? Why should I expect people to do for me what I can’t do for them?

So from now on I won’t wish for goodhearted people with x-ray vision who can see beyond my protective layers. I won’t wish for others to come and save me. Instead, I ask for people to meet me as an equal, to match my effort with theirs. I’m not a damsel in distress searching for her knight in shining armour. I don’t need a saviour. I am a human being who needs other human beings. And this human being has finally realised that she’s just as worthy as anyone else. I don’t need to feel inferior; I don’t need to feel terrified. Because, if everyone else has believed I’m confident for all this time, maybe I can believe it too.

I can’t cure my anxiety just by deciding to. It’s probably not something I can ever eradicate entirely. But it’s something I can work on, and something I can take responsibility for. I don’t want to spend my whole life praying for braver people to save me from myself; that’s not who I am or who I want to be. I am someone who takes action, someone who fights for herself, and I’m someone who’s finally learnt to believe in her own worth.