I’m sat in a lecture, which is detailing what’s supposed to be happening on the Languages Year Abroad. Looking around, everyone else is enraptured by details of insurance, activities, travel and new experiences. My chest starts to tighten. Tears start to encroach on my vision. Panic is beginning to set in, and there’s nothing I can do to control it.
I’m not even going on the Year Abroad. Why am I even here? Why am I panicking? I don’t need to be here, I don’t need to listen. Resolutely, I get my phone out and flick through social media. By the end of the lecture, I’m still panicky, but less so. I’m not entirely sure why I attended the lecture, given that this is the fourth or fifth panic attack I’ve had in one this year.
While the majority of Modern Languages students are gearing up for their Year Abroad, every year a small handful of students – anywhere from one to five – are exempt from what, for them, would be a deeply traumatic experience. This may sound like an exaggeration – it’s a Year Abroad! It’s a party! It’s an adventure! However, for some people, the idea of living abroad is acutely terrifying. When I applied to Southampton to study French, the Year Abroad was hugely exciting for me – a chance to live in a country I loved, and experience the culture on a daily basis. But while I took my A-Levels, I got ill, and as I started at university, that only got worse. Separation from the people I cared about caused me intolerable stress. My anxiety doubled as I found that I had gone from top of the class to bottom of the heap. I missed classes. I stayed in bed. I ate infrequently. In short, my first term at university was a total nightmare.
By the time the second semester rolled around, the prospect of the Year Abroad began to loom into people’s considerations. I decided I hated my course, and I wanted to change and study something else. I justified this to myself daily, but my main reason was clear; I did not want to do the Year Abroad. I thought that somehow they could force me to do it, put me on a plane and ship me off to France. Then someone mentioned the exemption, and I had found a lifeline. I decided to stay on my course, and life got better as second year began.
But with second year came a series of lectures which were intended to prepare students for their life abroad. Attendance was compulsory, so each week I sat in a lecture theatre and tried to close my ears to the ominous sounding talks of research, housing and medical care, an endless bombardment of anxiety-inducing words. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to go. I would leave the lecture each week feeling sick to my stomach with terror, while everyone around me chattered away about how excited they were to go abroad to teach, or work, or study. I felt abnormal, because everyone else seemed so enthusiastic. Maybe I was just being weird? Maybe I should just go?
When the time to fill in the paperwork came, applying for the exemption was remarkably simple. What was most nerve-wracking was waiting for it to be approved, knowing that I might have to go abroad after all. I discussed it with others on my course, some of whom knew how ill I’d been, and some who hadn’t. The support I found in my friends was invaluable, and when my exemption was granted I was so relieved. But still I felt bad. Some people would ask me why I was exempt, and then reply to my reluctant response with “well I have anxiety too! But I’m just going to suck it up and go.” For me, that was the hardest part. I felt like I was a phony, like I was seeking attention, like there was nothing wrong with me. The lectures got ten times worse, as I tried to pay attention in the face of rising panic, convinced I needed to listen in case I changed my mind.
I didn’t change my mind. Of course, it’ll be hard when everyone I know is going abroad. But I found people who felt the same way as me, and so a tiny group of us will be exempt next year, and we’ll stick together. Knowing I’m not alone in what I feel has reassured me, and I feel like I’ve made the right choice. I know that, for me, going abroad and being away from everything and everyone familiar, as well as the support networks I know, will only make me more ill. Applying for my exemption, I stated a self-issued risk assessment on going abroad and, despite how upsetting that process was, it was honest and heartfelt. I know that I would not cope, especially without the ability to communicate how I feel. I would sink, not swim, and so for me, this decision has been the right one.
There are still awkward and difficult moments – when lecturers ask you where you’re going next year, when you’re told to discuss it in classes, when people you don’t know very well ask you why you aren’t going. “I’m sick,” I tell them, because I’m too ashamed to say anything more, too embarrassed to admit that my demons are all in my own head. I can deal with the prospect of staying in Southampton now, even if I’m terrified, because I know I won’t be alone, and I know my Faculty will support me. But still, sometimes, in the lectures I continue to have to attend, I do ask myself…
What if I had made the leap of faith?