Brief Encounters and their Effect on Retrospect

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I should be packing right now. Instead I am procrastinating in every way possible (this mostly involves taking selfies with my cat). I’ve been at home for a week now, and tomorrow night I will board a bus bound for London, and leave it all behind for two months of venturing into the Great Unknown (also known as Europe).

I didn’t know what to expect when I left Glasgow. I hadn’t been home since the Christmas holidays, and the concept of home was one I couldn’t quite figure out. Because in many ways, Glasgow is my home now: it’s where my life is. But there is a house in a little village in the middle of Cumbria, where two parents and a beautiful, grumpy cat reside, and this place is also my home. But outside of the house-parents-cat equation, I don’t have a life here.

It’s no secret that I had a very difficult time in school, and that I didn’t really have any close or lasting friendships, and I think when I went to university I put all my memories of school into a sealed box in my head and mentally labelled it “do not open”. Even during my loneliest times at university, I found myself surrounded by friends. I had a support network all around me; there were people who had my back. And of course I knew this was the first time in my life I’ve had that, but I’d pushed my memories of school so far down into a suppressed vault that even when I made my generic statements of “I didn’t have friends in school” and suchlike, they were just words and I didn’t feel the feelings which should accompany them.

But being back home is another matter. I was hanging around town for about an hour yesterday, waiting for my mum to finish at an appointment, and I spent perhaps twenty minutes sitting on one of the benches outside Sainsbury’s. (There’s not much to do in Penrith, so I sufficed myself with people-watching for a while). I hoped I’d perhaps run into some of my old teachers, because they are some of the people in this town that I actually do miss and wish to see. But as I was sitting, I saw some of my old classmates. People I would have (back when I was in school) classified as “sort-of friends”, and who I would now classify as “vague acquaintances who I made too much effort with and were probably, at best, completely indifferent to me”. I hadn’t seen them since prom night, almost a year ago. And if I hadn’t have said hi to them, I don’t even think they would have acknowledged me at all.

Even though they were people I haven’t spoken to in a year, and no longer have any need to be validated by, I still felt that familiar sting of rejection, and it took me back to all the times I felt such rejection during my three years in school.

I have a tendency, when I tell people about my experience of school, to make blanket statements, such as “everyone hated me”. It occurred to me yesterday, that this was not actually the case. With the wisdom of retrospect, I can see that it would be far more accurate to say that most people were indifferent to me, some probably felt threatened by me, and many others didn’t know actual-me at all, and had a hatred for what they thought was me. During my time at school (especially in my first two years there) I was almost constantly the subject of rumours, of speculation, of scandal. And I was the victim of a large amount of bullying (much of which was from people who were strangers to me, not just my classmates).

When a person is subject to being the centre of attention in such a way as I was, it’s easy to forget that the world does not actually revolve around them. I can see now that my entire school did not hate me, and that most of them were just indifferent to me, which pretty much amounted to the same. School, for me, was a battleground, and it felt like there was no one on my side. So the people who were indifferent were, for all intents and purposes, on the enemy side of the battle lines, because they were not on my side. A lot of the time it felt as if there was no one on my side at all.

I could very easily turn this into yet another blog about how my experiences at school caused all my anxiety, but I’ve written enough blogs on anxiety lately, so I will try not to go down that track. Instead of focusing on how school broke me, I choose to focus on how university repaired me.

This time a year ago was when I began to see the first rays of hope on the far-distant horizon. In May last year, I joined a bunch of Facebook groups for Glasgow uni freshers, and met other people from my courses and accommodation. And this meant that when I arrived in Glasgow last September, I had ready-made friends, complete with in-jokes and all the other wonders of friendship I had never before experienced. Granted, most of the friendships I made online did not last for the duration of first year, but they provided me with the foundations I needed to build myself a life. And they gave me the confidence I needed to make other friends, and to take wild leaps of faith and do scary things like join societies.

The majority of my friends at uni are people I met at Improv society (the best society in the entire universe, in case you were wondering), and they are my world and I love them very much. And it took me a very, very long time to get over my anxiety around them. (*tries very hard not to write a blog about anxiety* *tries to prove to self that it is humanly possible for me to write blogs which aren’t about anxiety*) But from the beginning of April onwards, my life has been damn great. I’ve had an active social life, I’ve gotten closer with my friends, and made new friends, and I’ve become a lot more confident.

And that is why coming home, and running into people from the previous chapter of my life, feels somewhat alien to me. Because I am not the person I was in school. I now have a life where I have the freedom to be myself without being constantly ridiculed, and that is the most precious thing in the world to me.

As well as running into former classmates yesterday, I also ran into my former philosophy teacher, and that was an entirely different interaction. She ran up behind me, excitedly screaming my name (which is how I wish to be greeted by everyone from now on). Talking to her reminded me of the one thing I loved about school: my teachers. I was a total teacher’s pet, to the majority of my teachers. I was a classic nerdy know-it-all (think: Hermione). I idolised a lot of my teachers, and held them up on pedestals as my saviours, my lifeboats in the shipwreck that was school. And looking back now I think my teachers were the only people in that school that actually saw the real me. They saw my potential, they saw my bravery, they saw the person I would one day become, rather than the person I was forced to be. And most of all, they saw that there was hope for me, even when I couldn’t see it myself. And they put up with more of my emotional breakdowns than even my best friends have seen, so they are truly my superheroes.

I’m still growing. And University Eliza is no more permanent than School Eliza was, because there are so many experiences ahead of me which will change who I am and how I see the world. I can feel myself growing, and I can feel myself getting better at existing. I still don’t always know how to act around people, which social etiquette to follow. A lot of the time I just try to be myself as much as I can. And somewhere amongst that I feel myself crossing past the lines of awkwardness, and getting to the point where I feel comfortable around people. Generally the way to tell if I’m comfortable around you is how much I talk. If I don’t shut up, or if I message you all the time, or try hard to communicate with you a lot, it means I am comfortable around you. It means you’re probably never getting rid of me because I’ve gotten past the point of you making me anxious. And it means I hold you in very high regard, because I still find a lot of social interaction terrifying.

And it’s little moments like that, moments where I realise that there are people who I can fully be myself around, which remind me that I’m very close to the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve broken through the darkness that I was buried in during my time at school. I’ve managed to go from being someone who was barely coping, to someone who has cultivated the life she has always wanted. I know what I want, and I have fought to be where I am now, I have fought every step of the way. Now I’m at a point where it seems I don’t have to fight for much longer, because I’m almost where I want to be.

Late tomorrow night my two months of travelling will begin, and yet another part of my self will emerge: Travel Eliza, the part of my personality which has lain dormant for almost a year, and I wish that part of myself the best of luck, because she’s on her own. Whilst University Eliza has her friends to look out for her, and School Eliza had her teachers and parents, Travel Eliza must be entirely self-sufficient (I say, as though I’m not visiting friends in four out of the six countries I’m going to). I have two months of solo travel ahead of me, and that will lead me (as it did last time) to the truth that everything I need to survive is inside myself. And I am strong. So bring it on!

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