With this post I would like to continue my account of my student exchange to the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in the USA. In the inaugural episode of this series, I wrote about my first impressions of American college life and my experiences during International Orientation Week. The whole post covered the events between the dates: 27th August 2012 to 31st August, Monday to Friday. For this episode, I would like to explore what happened next; how I navigated my first week of classes and how by the end of that first week I had somehow, against all odds, secured a solid social foundation- and a friendship that would come to define my life for the next 5 years.
Everything changed during those few months I spent studying in the USA. My life developed a new pattern thereafter. My writing changed. I was exposed to new places, thoughts and experiences. It’s quite incredible when you look at how it all started. A big part of my motivation for studying in the USA was that I was failing socially in the UK. Things weren’t turning out the way I wanted them, and after chasing the dream of going to university to study creative writing since I was 12, I was finally there, and I needed a new dream. In the UK school technically ends during the year one turns 16, and you are presented with several options. A bunch of people went to colleges to pursue more focused, singular studies or training, others opted for apprenticeships in their chosen trade, and some jumped straight into the world of work without a second thought. A good number stayed at school to complete a two year academic program that would prepare them for university. I did this- but I switched schools. I chose to study at a place called City of Bristol College for two years where I pursued qualifications in English, Film Studies, Philosophy and Politics. From an academic viewpoint, it was a resounding success. It was the first time in my life I actually felt smart and passionate. Socially however, it was a disaster. I didn’t know how to make new friends, and for those two years I spent every break I had hiding in the library. Talking to people gave me serious anxiety. I remember once, I was in English class and we were studying Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The prettiest girl in the class asked me what the word “malice” meant, and even though I knew, I blushed as red as a plum tomato and with a trembling voice apologized for not knowing. Yikes. I figured university was the answer to my problems. But if anything things got even worse. I was told to expect the time of my life, and was assured by many that I would flourish in such a setting. What actually happened was that I became aware for the first time that I was suffering from clinical depression. It offended my sense of masculine pride that I could be so weak. I struggled to make friends with the people in my classes and the folks on my floor. Even when others tried to include me, I didn’t know how to include myself. It’s hard to explain, but for whatever reason things weren’t clicking. I spent the entire first year hiding in my room. I didn’t go out drinking or partying once. I tried to during my first week, but given that I had no kind of photo ID, I was asked by the bouncer to kindly piss off. The more time I spent in my room, the more paranoid I became that people must resent me for it. The incident that stands out to me most was my first night back after Christmas break. I was watching a film on my laptop when I heard voices outside my door. I heard a girl say “Is HE back yet?”
I knew she meant me. A few seconds later, a daring hand pushed open my door. My door was unlocked. It flung open and I heard the group shrieking with laughter and running down the hall, as though they expected a ghoul to come out and gobble them up. At the time this gave me very serious anxiety- the kind of rising heat that one feels in their chest, taking hold of one’s breathing. You can feel every breath and every heartbeat. According to science, my body was entering fight or flight mode. Later I calmed down, and decided the time had come for me to give in and get my ass over to student counselling. In many ways it was a defeat. But I would lie awake at night, having internalized everything for 3 years, having never told a soul, and my heart would feel so strained and tight. I swear I was scared to look down for fear of seeing it beating through my chest. My counselor was called Katie and I saw her once or twice a week for the duration of my 3 years in Winchester. I told her that I had gone weeks without uttering a word, and fearing that I would suffer some kind of permanent damage to my speech, I said that I just needed to come in and practice physically speaking for an hour. So that’s what I did. I was terrified of eating alone in the cafeteria, so every day I requested a takeaway box and hurried home to my apartment, where I enjoyed my food with an episode of The Sopranos.
It’s at this point that I feel the necessary context has been laid down for the events of my second week in Eau Claire. We’re going to start on Saturday, September 1st 2012. I was fully prepared to spend another year hiding in my room, or the library, or somewhere I could get away with eating alone. I should also point out that these were the days when my eating problems were at their absolute worst. Back then I struggled to eat in public whether I was with friends or not. I often left meals unfinished unless I was completely alone, and my biggest fear of the cafeteria was that I would puke and all the friendship groups would turn around and stare at me. It sort of happened once- I got so anxious I coughed up my food back onto my plate, but no one really noticed. So when I reached Eau Claire, I started taking my food back to my room in Towers North where I would eat at my desk. One time during International Orientation the cafeteria was closed and I walked to Shopko and bought a rotisserie chicken. It was the weekend after International Orientation, either the Saturday or the Sunday that ushered in the month of September, that for some goddam crazy reason I decided I would try to eat alone at the Hilltop Café- the big cafeteria of upper campus. It was a lot different to the cafeteria back in Winchester. Back there you had 3 or 4 choices of British cuisine, and though the standard of the food was actually pretty good, the prices were near extortionate. We had a set budget of 50 quid a week for food that was deliberately too little for what we needed. In the US however- the land of plenty- not only was the selection of food much wider but we could eat all that we wanted for free. We could eat there 25 times a day if we pleased. They even had sections devoted to exotic cuisines, like that Wok place. Anyway, I braved the cafeteria alone and instantly regretted it. It was prime eating time in the evening and the place was absolutely packed. All the American freshmen and sophomores were here now, and their loud voices and broad shoulders left little room. I eventually got a plate of food, and stared at the sea of tables with their wild and hooting patrons and felt a kind of nausea. Somehow I discovered a free table in the corner of the room, and ate facing the wall, with my back to the noise.
But that behavior just ain’t gonna fly in the Midwest. Before I knew it, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a massive American was standing behind me. Despite being shaped like an NFL linebacker, the guy spoke gently. He asked if I wanted to sit with him and his friends. I obliged. I quickly discovered that I was quite fascinating to the natives. My accent alone commanded interest. I could have talked for an hour about oven mitts and they would have listened. They seemed like a typical group of lads, with interests in sports and chasing skirts and good ol’ fashioned bro’s bro’s banter. I didn’t speak too much. I was shy but they seemed to accept that. They just talked as they usually would, including me here and there. Afterwards they invited me to go bowling with them downstairs. I discovered then that it was an American custom to give a high five or to bump fists after every bowl, even if it was a gutter-ball (which in my case, it often was). On the lane next to us were three Swedish exchange students that I recognized from International Orientation. One of them was perhaps the most blonde and beautiful girl I have ever seen. The guys started to admire her from afar, and I informed them she was Swedish. She was, however, guarded by two guys the size of refrigerators. They honestly made the Americans I was with look small. The guys struck up a conversation with these Swedes, each of them doing their best to court the girl, even though she was spoken for by a guy who looked like he might well have been the actor behind Colossus from Deadpool. I remember with amusement how, after they left, one of guys confided to us “O man, I just wanna undo that zip…” referring to the girl’s blouse, which had a zip right at the cleavage. It seemed like there would be no end to the adventures an American campus would provide, and we were just guys being guys. I was very much taken in by their wild enthusiasm. I felt like I was part of one of the typical groups of bro’s you might see in the American movies. After bowling we went back to their floor in Towers South where we watched an episode of a show they called How I Met Your Mother with some of their female friends. When I decided to go, everyone said goodbye and smiled, and as I waited in the elevator, I heard one of them say “He was a really nice guy”.
It was a very positive experience for me, but I still didn’t have a social foundation. I didn’t possess the know-how to go about finding that group again, or indeed an idea of what I would say if I did. Despite their affability, my mind seemed programmed to interpret it as a one-time thing. I expected nothing more. I just didn’t have the confidence or the skills necessary to seek them out and reacquaint myself with them. But don’t worry; this story has a happy ending…