From the Tiber to the Clyde: Social Anxiety, Landscape, and Me

At least on the surface, conversations on mental health within the Glasgow University community have been normalised to the point of becoming a constitutive part of the West End’s urban landscape. Walking around campus, it would be very hard not to notice the network of posters and leaflets promoting mental health services of different kinds: just like the imposing working sites and the improbable mix of brutalist and neo-gothic buildings, they are fully integrated in the scenery. Their message is asserted through fleeting mediums, indeed, but it is still there, pretty much inescapable in its ubiquitousness, regularly catching my eye while in a toilet cubicle, rushing to a morning lecture, or grabbing lunch. The question of whether the presence of such a network narrows down to mere ornamentation or is a genuine sign of adequate support opportunities for students and staff members is open to debate. Still, what it does undoubtedly signal is a certain degree of openness on the subject, something which should never be taken for granted.

In suburban Rome, the situation is very different. There, mental health issues are not visible on the streets, nor openly talked about in educational institutions. Both in public and private contexts, they tend to only be discussed when some pressing contingency makes it unavoidable. In such cases, the words used and the atmosphere that receives them are always tinted with the kind of secretiveness which tends to accompany shame. The talk happens, and is rushed, and doesn’t quite address, and is over. The talk is in fact so thin and ghastly that, during long warm evenings in the outer neighbourhoods of south-eastern Rome, tv on and windows wide open, it would be very easy to completely forget mental health issues even exist. I am sure that, sat on my balcony during one of these stretched sorts of nights, I would have easily forgotten they are out there too, if only I could have ignored their corrosive violence taking over my mind, their existence in the distant out there asserted in the space of my own body.

During my last few years of high school, I began to suspect I might be suffering from social anxiety. I noticed that managing to hold conversations with more than two or three people without having to deal with an increasing heart-rate and a dangerously spinning head was getting less and less common; that if I ever made a mistake in public, the thought of it would come back to me in waves of nausea, not letting me go for days. Having always been the kind of person who quietly gravitates towards the edges of social interaction, more of an observer than an active participant, and being aware of my perfectionist tendencies, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that something was off. For a while, I just ignored all the signs, pretending I didn’t have a problem until I could no more.

Around the middle of my penultimate year, my anxiety got so overwhelming I had to ask my best friend to let two of our teachers know I was having a hard time with many of the socially interactive aspects of being in school. My mum, as confused and heartbroken as I was about the whole situation, decided to go talk to them as well. After having heard from my best friend and my mum, both teachers found their own personal ways to come back to me: one came up with practical solutions to get me out of uncomfortable situations without really addressing the issue at root, whereas the other decided to directly approach me.  One day, she stopped me as I was wandering around during a break. From the way she was looking at me, I could immediately tell that she was about to address the topic. And she addressed it indeed, in a way I will never quite forget. She told me that, if I wanted to do well in my final oral exam, I really needed to get over my shyness; that my parents were worrying about me so much and I shouldn’t make them worry. Although alluding to the possibility of redirecting me to a counsellor, she made sure not to use any mental illness-related word, transforming social anxiety into ‘shyness’ and ‘sensitiveness’. Her brief allusion to counselling was a decorative twirl acting as brief detour from the thematical core of her speech: that of academic performance. As she went on about the importance of doing well, she carefully took bits of fluff off my coat, in a gesture I interpreted as somewhat maternal. Her gesture was reassuring, her gaze warm, her words petrifying. I am pretty sure her intentions were good. It was not her fault, nor mine. Institutional silence made genuine exchanges on the topic impossible. I did not get in touch with the counsellor, and our corridor conversation was never mentioned again.

High school eventually came to its end. I moved to Scotland. Getting away from home had the wonderful side-effect of distracting me from myself and my social anxiety for some time. Although overflowing with inner sensations, my first months in Glasgow were not introspective: they were not about me but about me and the city, a gradual tuning of my senses to its shapes, sounds, and rhythms.  It evidently wasn’t meant to last: as I got more used to my surroundings, fascination inevitably dimmed out and I turned inwardly again, to find out all my struggles were still there, not solved but merely diverted from. By the beginning of semester two, I was deep down once more. I loved where I was and what my life was turning into, and yet, I could not get rid of that shame, that corrosive, deeply nasty sense of shame.

Being mentally ill in Glasgow all throughout last year meant routinely visiting the university’s counselling webpage, staring at it for a while and telling myself that the following day would be the day I finally booked a drop-in appointment, or maybe Monday, yes, maybe Monday; sending long-winded emails to tutors and getting polite replies, useful links, and low participation grades; not clicking on the useful links and hating myself for actively contributing to my own misery; letting long depressive episodes mix with my social anxiety while getting into the fun of mixed drinks, a glass drowning another glass drowning another glass drowning another bottle; not sleeping enough; oversleeping; reading into the late afternoon; being seized by high-energy days of restless walking; easing into the habit of late-night kitchen chats and never getting around washing all the dirty mugs on my bedside.

Although not much better at keeping up with the piles of mugs I was hoarding in my room, I am currently clearer-headed and have a better understanding of my wavering attitude towards asking for help, a serial postponing which has articulated itself around two different reluctances: that of suburban Rome and its systematic erasure of mental health issues, and that of Glasgow’s West End, where my struggles trying to close the gap between the ubiquitous support offers and support itself have often felt to me like Achilles’ paradoxical attempt to catch up on the tortoise. I am still far from having solved my problems, but I am improving, and maybe I will book an appointment on Monday.


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