A student falling backwards through the air with a pile of textbooks coming towards them
Credit: Dora Dziki

Picking a bone: Independence at University

By Lucy Dunn

Editor-in-Chief Lucy Dunn shares her experience of struggling with the uncontrolled and sudden freedom that comes with starting university

September 2016. Two days before my eighteenth birthday. £850 of SAAS freshly deposited into my famished bank account. I was leaving home and starting afresh, the sweetness of my long-awaited and inevitable freedom was delectable. What could go wrong?

“This is it,” I’d thought to myself when my parents dropped me off at Queen Margaret Halls, alongside three suitcases filled with a wardrobe I planned to replace as soon as financially possible, two IKEA bags packed to the brim with fake plants and overpriced bedding, and a bottle of Smirnoff Gold I’d hidden at the bottom of a handbag. I had been waiting for this moment for so long – it followed approximately two years of growing tension at home, especially under the loving, but undeniably overprotective, eyes of my parents – and I still remember the adrenaline-filled bubbles of excitement, coupled with a relative level of anxiety, I felt when moving in.

Halls were great, and I was lucky: I had an exceptional group of flatmates, and the flat above us made 11B their second home. But I had never had to look after myself before, and as much as I had craved independence, I was trying to tame a beast over which I had no control.

The issue of money was the most pressing, and recurrent, setback I faced. I knew I had to budget, but I was idealistic and irresponsible. I had been working full time all summer but I was young, superficial and aesthetically-driven, so I spent my first couple thousand on braces with almost nothing left over to let me live my life. SAAS had come in but I wanted to milk that £850 for all it was worth, and so without the bemusement of mum to veer me back towards straight-thinking, I decided that surely a food budget of £7 per week would be entirely satisfactory. This lowly funding was, frankly, disgraceful. I lived off cuppa soup and low-cal crustless bread for the first two months, occasionally splashing out to Tesco’s own cereal bars, and sometimes even NutriGain when I was feeling boujée, though this would set me back a significant number of pounds I didn’t have. 

So that was the cutting back on non-essentials sorted out; now the stuff I had no control over: nights out. Whilst scrimping on nutrition, I refused to turn down a club night. Freshers Week was particularly expensive, and I have no clue why because my alcohol tolerance peaked at a consistent half bottle of Echo Falls. Laziness likely played a part: I took taxis everywhere – including to lectures I was running late for. My Uber bill was obscene – I was going to check it for the purposes of this article but I’m too embarrassed to fork through those emails. 

Binge drinking during Freshers’ Week is acceptable though – what’s more problematic is going out four nights a week in the lead up to your exams. There was a point, and I don’t know when, where any wholesome creativity left me and boredom equaled justification to go out. I wasn’t dragged along under peer pressure most of the time either; I remember, with great clarity, pitching to my flatmates why going to Hive for the third time that week would be worth it: “When you’re 60 and in a care home, you’ll look on these days and wish you’d taken these chances…”.

A lot of the freedom of university is stereotypically associated with drinking, and this was no exception to my life either. At school, I’d always had to try and sneak back in undetected, training myself how to walk in a straight line down the driveway and spraying perfume in my mouth to get rid of the boozy breath (I have now ruined Prada Candy for myself forever: no perfume tastes as good as it smells). With there being no need to contain myself like this at University, I stopped watching how much I drank and, for a time, became invincible… Until I ended up on the floor outside Beer Bar, with security staff sternly telling me I had to get up or they’d call me an ambulance. “Please call me an ambulance!” I’d sobbed. I wish I could say my melodrama had faded with maturity.

With the increase in drinking, there was a decrease in thinking. I was already starting medicine off on a shaky foot – I’m not very good at science – but at the time I convinced myself that the whole year was crammable and it would all fall together of its own accord. To be clear: this is not the case. The only thing that got me through that exam was a month of no sleep and near-lethal doses of caffeine.

I think it was after my car crash – the result of tight corners and inexperience in handling these on the way to a hospital placement one morning – that I needed the most support and yet overly-independent Lucy was so busy trying to convince everyone else she was fine that she didn’t see the red flags herself. It’s a lot harder than you’d think to recognise when you’re not okay; your flatmates and friends have hardly known you for long enough to make the call either. I didn’t offload to anyone for so long that more damage was done – though thankfully now I’m back behind the wheel again, even if my competence on the road is slagged by cynical friends and family at any given point. 

There are other issues with too much freedom at University too: it’s an emotionally charged time and, psychologically, coming of age presents huge challenges. I’m sure many of us have ended up in situations we would look back on now with a lot of cringe and/or regret, only wishing we’d had some voice of rationality to pull us away. What’s the solution? I don’t really know. The problem was partly mine: I never made myself aware of available resources from the University, the SRC, the GP, or even just friends and family, because I never thought I’d need them.

We’re never as strong as we think, and there’s no shame in admitting this. Coming to university has been the most life-changing series of events I’ve lived to date, and the freedom was enlightening. I still can’t budget, and I still can’t handle my drink, but I do know – a bit better – when to ask for help, and when to reach out to those around me for support. Independence is freeing until it’s not: don’t be shackled by your own stubbornness.


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