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21 Potentially Interesting Things About Me

It’s now 2020 and this May, I’ll be turning 21. To better acquaint you with myself before I begin my ramblings, here are 21 things about me that may be of some interest!

1.) I was born and bred in South London but I’m the child of an Iraqi Kurdish father and Finnish-Turkish mother.

2.) I have a 14 year-old sister called Maia, whom I believe to be a witch because she simultaneously claims to remember her time in the womb and being JFK in a past life.

3.) I appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records when I was 13- a post about this will come!

4.) I’m the UK #2 and fastest female at Super Mario Kart (PAL) in the Time Trial Mode…for now!

5.) When I was 11, I fell into the Bosphorus in Istanbul and sank so deep underwater that fishes swam in front of my face as I gazed upward at a boat’s anchor.

6.) I’ve appeared in British, French, Dutch and American TV and/or media for Super Mario Kart.

7.) I love to do impressions and different accents, notably Irish, Southern US, Russian and Welsh.

8.) My favourite film franchise is Star Wars and I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of the stars, including Carrie Fisher, just a year before she passed away ❀

9.) Once I craved a kebab at around 2am so my uncle secretly took a bus to the only kebab shop open at that time and we had a secret feast in my room, all while my family slept one door down and were none the wiser.

10.) Often I like to sleep flat on my back with my arms crossed on top of my face and this has bewildered anyone I’ve ever told.

11.) My uncle and I have organised Super Mario Kart intermediate-level tournaments at gaming expos in Glasgow, Wolverhampton, Manchester, Margate and London. Our own competitions have taken us to Louisiana (USA), France and the Netherlands.

12.) I don’t have a single piercing on my body- not even in my earlobes!

13.) Whenever I play a game on my Nintendo Switch, I have to complete it 100%. I spent HOURS doing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and I’m currently undertaking Assassin’s Creed 3: Remastered…but I’m only at 50% and it has already taken nearly 40 HOURS!

14.) If time travel was possible, I would be the FIRST person to leave 2020. Back to the Future will always be one of my favourite franchises and it should NEVER be rebooted.

15.) From the ages of around 10-12 I took weekly Jazz and Tap dancing classes.

16.) I’m fascinated by Henry VIII and his relationships with his six wives; even my UCAS personal statement was about Anne Boleyn (wife #2).

17.) I love action-packed, psychological thrillers and I’m not really one for soppy romantic comedies.

18.) For my GCSE Textiles course, I made a Star Wars themed gown from a wedding dress pattern and the stress of this project has prevented me from using a sewing machine ever since.

19.) My guilty pleasure is the Real Housewives franchise because it’s the best mental tonic after a long, laborious day of studying.

20.) My favourite platform video game is Super Mario Bros 3 on the SNES.

21.) Finally, I love both the Spanish and Portuguese languages- I did a lot of work trying to learn them a couple of years ago but I since had to stop. One day I’ll get there though!

It’s actually quite hard to come up with so many things when you put yourself on the spot. But hey, if you stick around then you can always find out some more once I remember them πŸ˜‰

Featured

Hello and Welcome! :)

So, this is it- my first blog post! With the emergence of the 2020s, I thought that there was no better time than to carry out what I had always intended to do. Thus, Look On The Write Side was born.

This past decade has been a true roller-coaster, as I developed from an awkward and anxious 10 year-old into an extremely awkward and anxious 20 year-old. There have been good times and bad but one thing I’ve learnt is this: talking is an excellent therapy, and sharing experiences can make you realise how much beauty actually exists in your life. So, this is the purpose my blog will serve.

Can you tell that I love pengins?

My main subjects of focus will revolve around what I call the ‘Holy Trinity’ of my life; my love for and study of English Literature, my status as a professional Super Mario Kart competitor and my struggles with agonising anxiety and depression. These are the things that make me what I am.

If you want to stick around, then that’s great. If not, then that’s cool too. But whatever you do, just remember that Vanilla Lake 2 is the greatest Mario Kart track ever created and anyone who tells you otherwise is WRONG!

How I’ve Kept Myself Busy During Lockdown

A tale of Animal Crossing, diet, exercise and conscious procrastination!

DISCLAIMER: This post contains discussion of COVID-19, mental health struggles, dieting, exercising and body image struggles

Oh, lockdown. Social distancing. 2 metres apart. Something tells me that these phrases will never quite ring the same after the past few months we’ve had.

-“Grandma Leyla, where were you during the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2019-2020?”
-My heart stops. My eyes widen. In the distance, sirens.

Throughout this entire catastrophe (yes, it is precisely that), we’ve been lectured, advised, encouraged and downright scared into doing what our lovely (cough!) government willed in order to control the spread of disease. Needless to say, going into a national quarantine when Boris Johnson announced the lockdown was a pretty strange experience. Call me dramatic but his news briefing brought me back to those days in Year 3 when our class teachers made us listen to Neville Chamberlain’s famous radio declaration that “we were at war with Germany”. We may not have been going into a World War ourselves, but the sentiment of looming danger, the preventable loss of life and the necessity for a collective national effort felt eerily similar, and I thought about what was to come. However, this will not be a didactic post summarising the science behind COVID-19- I don’t have the mental capacity nor educational knowledge to bestow upon you all. Rather, I’m going to put my own lockdown experience into writing, for it has been a period of self-reflection for many.

But before I talk about myself, I want to take a moment to praise and give my utmost gratitude to EVERY essential worker, whether nurse, doctor, supermarket worker, delivery driver, teacher…the list goes on. Many of us, myself included, are privileged enough to have been able to live out the lockdown with our families, not having to risk our lives every day at work or worry about whether we have a place to sleep at night. It is so vitally important to remember how lucky those of us are who have basically been on a glorified school holiday in our own homes since March. This is not to say that our own feelings are invalid or we haven’t endured our struggles, whether personal or regarding health, but we must remember to bestow kindness on those we come across because we don’t know the journeys that they have taken these past months. We’re all human, after all.

So- What Have I Been Up To?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The first thing which I just knew that I HAD to write about in this post was Animal Crossing: New Horizons. A global sensation, this Nintendo Switch feature was released in March 2020 as the franchise’s fifth main game when everything was kicking off with COVID. Excellent timing, I might add. Prior to the game’s release, I had no real interest in AC. A few friends of mine were die-hard fans since the very beginning and had eagerly awaited every E3 expo hoping for even just a crumb of news, while I sat shrugging my shoulders and continued to Super Mario Kart my way through the week. My sister keeps telling me now that she doesn’t understand why I love this game so much when I apparently “hated it” my whole life (I is confused -__-) and cussed people who played it. I have zero memory of carrying this sentiment BUT I do remember loving the Animal Crossing-themed track on Mario Kart 8 so the joke’s on you, Maia! πŸ˜‰

So, what I’m trying to say is that I was in no way anticipating the release of ACNH, but now that I’m now on my fourth month of gameplay, I cannot imagine my summer without it. I’ll be honest and admit that because I’m super original, my decision to purchase and download the instalment stemmed from a mixture of good old-fashioned conformity and FOMO. When I first began playing I was sitting in my family’s living room and I’ll never forget the look on my mum’s face when she glanced up at my yellow tent in the wilderness of my island and said disapprovingly: “is that it?”. Being a complete AC noob I wasn’t really sure where to go from there as I’d had enough of a melodrama trying to pick the name and layout of my island, let alone build an entire civilisation over the span of six months. To be honest, even though I defended the game to her because my friends loved it so much, at that point I shared my mum’s disappointment. For some stupid reason I didn’t realise that my island would literally be a barren wasteland when I first began the game, and it would only develop as I put effort into it. My virtual work ethic is probably a 1/10, would you agree?

Yet, it only took a mere week or two for the ACNH bug to fully inject its poison into my body and suddenly, I was HOOKED. Expanding my house, searching for new villagers, crafting DIY recipes and collecting cool items became a genuine pleasure. As the world stood still outside my house and I lamented the loss of my final term at uni, as well as my separation from my friends, the gradual growth of Tropicana (yes, I was thinking of Wham!’s Club Tropicana, please don’t judge me) provided me the escapism I needed to keep my mental demons at bay. The game itself is beautifully designed and the most wholesome feature I have ever come across. Moreover, during the coursework-writing period it served as the perfect relaxation tonic after a laborious day of research. The ability to expand and customise our homes and island terrain provided me with the perfect creative outlet in which I could project my architectural fantasies onto this land that I had strangely become quite attached to.

But, that’s not all. Provided you have a decent Internet connection and a Nintendo Online subscription (cheeky buggers -__-), you can visit your friends’ islands or in turn welcome them to your own, sharing DIY recipes, clothes and furniture. So not only have I had the pleasure of developing my own island, I have also gotten to witness the growth of my friends’ islands too, and there is something so heart-warming about this. Every Tuesday since I began playing, myself and my dear friend have shared ‘Animal Crossing dates’ where we give each other presents and take turns to carry out updated island tours to show off our progress, all whilst cackling on the phone about EVERYTHING from people at uni that would grind our gears to how I nearly choked on an almond a couple of months ago…true story! These weekly meetings have provided me with so much fun, laughter and genuine happiness in a time where these things are scarce for a lot of people. I’ve found that the more I play ACNH and share it with my friends, the less time I think my triggering thoughts and therefore am less likely to fall deeper into my depression. It may sound silly to some but because of this, I owe a hell of a lot to Animal Crossing and Nintendo ❀

Diet and Exercise

Now, take a second to think about the sorts of advertising you have been seeing, or sorts of videos that are recommended to you on YouTube. I’d bet a decent amount of money that at SOME POINT in the past four months, you have seen an array of lockdown ‘diet and exercise’ videos. Amidst the global chaos and suffering, there has been a very toxic message flowing through the atmosphere that whilst in quarantine we HAVE to ‘get skinny’ and/or ‘lose weight’ because otherwise we have been unproductive and made no use of our time- a highly problematic belief that completely disregards personal circumstances and mental health struggles, among other things. When we went into lockdown in March, I made the decision to add exercise to my day because I wanted to healthily shed some of my body fat and also become stronger, the latter of which had increasingly become important to me as I realised I couldn’t do a single push-up. Not even one 😦 Considering my past struggles with both anorexia and over-eating, not to mention my mental diagnoses (as detailed in this post), this was a risky and potentially dangerous decision for obvious reasons. I had to remind myself that I was doing this not as an act of self-hatred and conformity, but as a way to finally give my body the respect that it has deserved for so long.

This is where having a former personal trainer for a boyfriend really did come in handy! He helped guide me to what sorts of exercises I should begin with, taking heed of lockdown measures in the process. I knew it would be a tough journey, so I started with no real changes to my diet just yet and a 25-minute walk six days a week. Additionally, I began following a simple arm exercise routine on YouTube to get my muscles warmed up. Dear God, it hurt so bad at first but within a couple of weeks I finally started to get used to it, and after two months I had added extra videos to my repertoire. Another personal victory was the fact that my mum and I could now walk 6km in 45 minutes, which is no easy feat for complete beginners. Needless to say, despite not changing much to my diet at this point (which wasn’t THAT bad but it did still have its problems, as I’ll soon mention), I could already see a slight difference in my calves and shoulders. I was slowly becoming defined and I knew that I just HAD to keep going with these walks every day for my mental and physical health, as well as the opportunity to gossip with my mum. Who doesn’t want that every day?

Well. My experience here serves as a lesson to you all: setbacks are REAL. Despite seeing progress from March to the end of May, almost every single day when I went for my walk, I would suffer. Within 10 minutes my ankles would hurt so badly that the pain spread to my calves and I’d have to stop and disrupt my exercise. Seeing my 52 year-old (sorry for the disclosure, mum!) mother race on ahead of me with such strength made me feel completely pathetic. To tell you the truth, I was angry. I was angry and disgusted with myself because I believed that I, as a then 20 year-old, shouldn’t have been in a position where my mother was coping with exercise better than I. On one occasion we had been walking for a mere 5 minutes only and the pain became so bad that I stopped in the middle of the street and burst into tears, as passers-by took a quick look. I was ashamed at myself, convinced that I could never be fit or truly healthy because my body was broken and I was destined to be weak. This particular issue had actually been with me my whole life and I’ve always had trouble keeping up with friends walking in the street who would tease me for falling behind. In reality, I was embarrassed that walking only from the Strand Building to the VWB (KCL students know πŸ˜‰ ) would be a challenge for me. But, it was at this moment on the street with my mum, where I finally broke down and felt like I wasn’t worth becoming fit and I deserved to be unhealthy for what I had done to myself when I was younger.

Thankfully, a dear family friend of ours is a wonderful chiropractor and after hearing of what happened, he insisted that he carry out an examination on me. One session later and he diagnosed the problem; it turned out that I actually have a couple of abnormalities in my body that I was born with and walking is what unfortunately exacerbates the symptoms. I’m still in treatment now but it will take a while to see if any difference is made or whether it’ll be something I just have to manage with for the rest of my life. Sadly for me, I was told not to walk for more than 5 to 10 minutes at a time whilst I’m being treated, so that meant no walking as exercise for at least a whole year. Again, I was so disappointed because I was finally making progress and I feared that without walking, I would take five steps backwards and revert to my old habits. I discussed my options with my boyfriend who encouraged me to take up skipping (anyone remember “when it’s your birthday, please jump in!” from primary school? πŸ˜‰ ) for the first time in 10 years. Additionally, I began to follow thigh and ab challenges on YouTube (God bless you, Chloe Ting <3) in tandem with my already-stable arm exercise portfolio. Inspired by my results and finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, I then began to carefully go on a healthy eating spree which basically consisted of me removing all my daily unhealthy snacks from my diet (ice-cream and crisps were the usual suspects) and replacing these with fruit, 0% fat yogurts and nuts. There is obviously much more I can do but even with these little changes in my lifestyle since June, I already feel healthier and stronger and have began to realise that I too am worth it and I CAN get there in the end.

NOTE: If anyone is interested in me writing a full post about this new journey and subject, then please let me know as I’m considering it!

General Procrastination

Apparently, even having several months at home to carry out all those lovely personal tasks isn’t enough of a motivation for some people to just get them done. Yes, I can confirm that I am indeed “some people”. It’s amazing how I have had all the time in the world but I still CAN’T BE BOTHERED to do some things. That’s the COVID effect, right? Right? I’d love to blame my lack of motivation solely on the fact that I’m too tired from exercising or that I was busy Skyping with friends or playing Animal Crossing, but let’s face it, there is only so much blame I can humorously cast away from myself. To prove to you, dear reader, that you are by no means at all alone in this situation and that the list of tasks which you haven’t quite gotten round to completing is pretty much a universal list of tasks, here is a list of things that I really should’ve done…like, five months ago:

1.) Read the entirety of Anna Karenina before I start my MA and have no time for it- as of the 18th August I’m on page 123 and Anna has only just met Vronsky…seems I got a long way to go!

2.) Read, learn and study the Highway Code before I start my MA and have no time- all I have covered is pedestrian rules which accounts for barely anything so well done me ❀

3.) Re-teach myself Turkish. Ironically, I learnt how to say “TΓΌrkΓ§e bilmiyorum” and I can remember that phrase easily.

4.) Update my CV and research part-time jobs for alongside my MA- anxiety strikes again, wahey!

5.) Complete my yearly task of de-cluttering my bedroom. LOL.

6.) Get back into Super Mario Kart and begin Time Trialling again- literally have no desire to do this and I’m gonna write a post about it 😦

7.) Update my blog frequently and attempt to grow an online presence- famous last words, right?

Now, by expressing my disappointment in myself and poking fun at my lack of desire to do all the above things, I am NOT saying that I am ashamed of myself or that I haven’t been as productive with my time as other people. Yes, I may not have carried out these arguably important tasks in my current life situation. But, what is so important is that even though I didn’t do these things and it would’ve been helpful if I had, my time during lockdown was by no means poorly spent. I’ve used these past five months to reconnect with my creative side. I’ve used these past five months to respect and worship my body. I’ve used these past five months to spend time with my family and think about what I truly want from my life.

To many people, I may have wasted my time and will live to regret it later; but I don’t think so. How could I regret reaching a crossroads and making decisions that have since made me feel good? For someone who always religiously wrote lists and forced herself to tick off every entry even at the behest of her mental health and own enjoyment, I believe that lockdown has taught me that I don’t have to live like this. I don’t have to always say yes to everyone, even when it hurts me. I don’t have to be shut away from the world and refuse to live for today, or just live at all. There is no denying that I do have a long way to go; that’s completely inevitable. However, the fact that I even have the smallest shred of optimism amidst the dark clouds in my mind proves to me that I have, I can, and I WILL make progress.

Reflecting Upon My English BA at King’s College London

View from the Virginia Woolf Building, Kingsway

A note to you, dear reader:

Whilst being published in July 2020, the following post was actually written in March, but a lengthy hiatus and certain circumstances prevented me from posting. I have a LOT of things to talk about on this blog and from now on I’m going to task myself with posting once weekly or fortnightly- it’s therefore up to YOU to keep me to my word! πŸ˜‰

-Leyla x

This post is dedicated to my coursework which has taken over my recent life. Much love to you, my ride or die ❀

If someone had said to me during the very first week of my study at King’s College London (KCL) that a wave of union strikes and a global pandemic would put an early end to my undergraduate experience, I would’ve told them where to go. Well. Maaaaaybe I should’ve kept an open mind.

Even before we were informed about the strikes and the words “self” and “isolation” had never been put together in the same sentence, I had entered a melancholy state. Like I mentioned in my previous post, you only ever start to realise what you have, and subsequently will miss, until you realise that you are about to lose it. My first weeks at KCL were hard and quite frankly miserable as I made the transition from A Levels to what I had been reassured (A.K.A. lied to) was easier: an English degree at a prestigious university. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense, does it?

But despite the early difficulties, I eventually found my place in my department and this institution, making some amazing friends and wonderful memories. This is why I was devastated to leave (assuming at the time that I wouldn’t receive an MA offer) and why I am still so disappointed, like so many others, in how my degree concluded. We were initially told that our late-July graduation ceremony was cancelled and that every single one of us would receive, as reward for our many, many years of hard work, a mere certificate in the post. No ceremony, no goodbyes, no cute group pictures, no parties. We deserved a hell of a lot better than this and thankfully, KCL have assured us that after reviewing the situation (and countless student complaints), the cancellation will rather be a postponement. This isn’t the worst result and I understand the exceptional circumstances, but it is certainly an unfortunate circumstance.

However, as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy goes, I’m trying to look at the bright side of this situation, or the silver linings in the dark clouds, as it were. It’s such a cliche and I’m wincing as I type this but true friendship really does last forever. I am incredibly lucky because I can count a great number of wonderful people whom I met at KCL and can call friends, whether I’ll be a bridesmaid at their wedding or just have a laugh with them on Instagram every so often. I am PRETTY sure that a number of my closest friends will still be by my side, whether in person or spirit, as I go through my life. And on that note, I reflect on how I came to this point…

Applying to KCL

During the summer of 2016, my mum and I branched out over vast distances to scout around all of the potential universities that I could attend. Albeit, this was vast distances to someone with extreme anxiety- meaning public transport into central London and on one occasion, a Β£200 train ride to Southampton (I was feeling extremely ambitious that day πŸ˜‰ ). We visited UCL (boo!), Queen Mary, King’s (obvs!) and Southampton, the latter of which fell towards the bottom of my preferences when the head of English Admissions literally said to me, “why would you come here and study with us when you have all you could ever want in London?”. Valid point.

As application season dawned on us, I applied to the four institutions above in addition to Oxford, as mentioned in my previous post. I was terrified about what would happen, knowing that my fate was literally in the hands of several admissions teams and wherever I went would effectively help mould my future. But even this early on, I had a feeling in my gut about KCL. The staff on the open day had been warm and welcoming, the journey there not too difficult for me, and the English course seemed intellectually stimulating. As I waited for a response, I began to dread the thought of opening my UCAS tracker and seeing a rejection. After a few weeks of awkward limbo, I was given an offer by KCL, Queen Mary and Southampton. UCL literally wrote on my rejection that my application “wasn’t strong enough” which I thought was pretty rude, all things considered. Despite feeling quite bitter about this at the time, I realise now upon reflection that UCL actually did me a great favour. Who knows what kind of awful experience I could’ve had there? My mum always tells me that everything in life happens for a reason and now I know what she means.

KCL became my firm first choice of university and I put in an obscene amount of work to try and achieve the AAA grades that I had been predicted for my A Levels. Funnily enough, a running joke between a dear friend and I, who was in my A Level English class (and studied English with me at KCL ❀ ), is that we used up all our academic capabilities and energy on our A Levels. This is indeed true as I may have achieved the AAA , but it also turned out to be at the cost of my eyesight. Apparently spending 10 hours a day glued to a computer and producing 200 pages worth of ICT coursework is enough to make you short-sighted- 10/10 don’t recommend.

On A Level results day, alike that of the GCSE equivalent, I was abroad competing in the Super Mario Kart Championships so my mum had to collect my results on my behalf. In the early morning I was sat on a bed in La Suze-sur-Sarthe, France, with my uncle Sami and friend Conor eagerly awaiting the news. The main thing was that my conditional offer at KCL turned into a confirmation of study and when I opened my UCAS track to see that I had made it, I was elated. A teary phone call from my mum was the cherry on the cake, as I became the first member of the Hasso/Γ‡etin family to achieve straight As in their A Levels. Upon returning home I was welcomed with a lovely cake and words of encouragement, although I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified for the coming weeks ahead. After all, it was the beginning of a new era…

First Year (2017-2018)

I will never forget my very first day at KCL. It was a Monday morning and I took the bus alone for the first time in my life, from my parents’ house to the Strand campus. I felt so sick that I remember shaking whilst trying to untangle my headphones and managing only a slight nod when commuters would acknowledge me as they walked past my seat. Luckily, I knew where to go for my first class as I had travelled in with my friend (the one I mentioned earlier) the week before to enrol and meet my tutor. Prof. Mark Turner, if you’re reading this, you’re a real one!

Walking down the corridor to the Safra Lecture Theatre instilled a new kind of fear within my soul. Everywhere stood students of all nationalities, dress senses and energies, huddled together in large groups and chattering away like a bunch of Turkish grannies. Having opted (for obvious reasons) to live at home and commute in, I was socially disadvantaged. The vast majority of my course had moved into student halls and so it seemed as if everyone here had already found their friends. I mean, it was so packed that you couldn’t even find the walls. When we went into the lecture, I made the conscious decision to sit towards the back and in the very middle to limit the chances of someone awkwardly asking me to move. To say the lecture content itself was challenging would be an UNDERSTATEMENT. I had never once read or studied any literary theorists, coming from an exclusively historical background, and the whole thing went over my head. I was completely and utterly BAFFLED and thought that I had made a mistake. University education was clearly not for me. How could it be? I didn’t know anything about Kant, Nietzsche or Foucault, and it seemed as if everyone else around me did.

After the lecture, I had a 4-hour gap until my seminar and having zero clue about where people hung out in the city between classes, I decided to venture to the Maughan Library with a girl that had spoken to me as we left Safra. As we tried to locate the library and then find somewhere to sit, we tried our best to communicate and get to know one another, but something didn’t feel right. She was a lovely girl, shy like I was, and friendly enough, but I knew deep down that we just wouldn’t click and I never saw her again after this day. I don’t even remember her name. With hindsight I know that this wasn’t a problem as some people just aren’t suited for others, but at the time, it felt like a disaster. This one awkward encounter made me believe that this would reflect my ENTIRE uni experience and I would never make any friends at all. After an equally overwhelming seminar and a long journey home, the first thing I did was run to my bedroom, fling myself on my bed, and cry. The thought of having to do this 4 days a week for the near future was sickening and that night I declared to my mum that the only way through this is if I don’t go through it at all. I was an inch away from dropping out and I had even prepared an email to my tutor. The only thing which stopped me was my mum’s offer of a compromise. She said that I had to give it a month and if after that time I still wanted to leave, then I could do so. Thank God I listened to her.

While we shared no seminars, my school friend and I made sure to sit together in lectures and in true ‘what-a-small-world’ spirit, had soon separately befriended the same girl, who as of today is still a sister to the both of us ❀ She also hailed from South London and had no clue what was going on, so the three us bonded over our mutual confusion and disdain for the North Londoners who’d laugh at where we were from. Anyone who isn’t from London or has never lived here is probably unaware of the Civil War that we have going on. The majority of English students at KCL are based in the so-called ‘fancy’ North of the river and they really LOVE to remind the Southern peasants like I of this fact. So, if you ever want to tick me off, then I’d recommend telling me that Croydon sucks. Or, ask me if I’ve ever been stabbed- it has been a while since I heard that one.

As the one-month trial period was almost complete and I had to make my decision about my future at KCL, a simple Monday afternoon in chilly October became the unexpected turning point. In my Literary Theory seminar, I was paired up with a quiet girl who much like myself, had never uttered a word in class before. We were given a passage to analyse or a question to answer and I remember, in my state of utter confusion, laughing awkwardly once we had to speak to each other because I was afraid that she would look down on me. I don’t think you truly understand how happy I was to hear that she was just as baffled as I was! In a room full of eager and quite pretentious students (not naming any names πŸ˜‰ ), I felt this sudden connection to this girl and it was as if I’d always known her. I never had this experience with anyone else at uni and as we left class together, laughing over the fact that we were both anxious home students who’d never travelled alone before, I knew that this was meant to be. We were meant to be put in this class together and we were meant to be paired together for this task. But what I reflect on so fondly of this moment, is how for the first time in a whole month at KCL, when I got on that bus to go home, instead of swallowing a lump in my throat, I broke out into a smile.

With a newfound sense of contentment and adaptation to my new academic surroundings, things started to fall into place as we approached Christmas. I’d made a couple more friends and felt extremely lucky that my new ‘uni-bestie’ would be in every single one of my seminars in the second semester. It’s just a shame that a wave of UCU strikes would terminate almost the entirety of that semester and leave us with the world’s longest summer holiday. But, I had enjoyed the classes that I did receive and performed decently in my coursework and exams, despite the fact that my dear grandfather passed away two days before our Early Modern Literary Culture exam. He had always been one of my greatest academic supporters and it broke my heart that he couldn’t be there to help me get through this new experience. However, I’d like to think that much of my academic success is still down to his legacy ❀

Second Year (2018-2019)

Knowing that we’d get much more freedom with our module choices, I was pretty excited for Second Year. I’d developed good friendships, gotten wholly used to my new surroundings and I liked the idea that I could finally begin to shape the academic side of my degree. The first semester is probably the semester I remember most fondly out of my entire degree, despite the absolutely manic Tuesdays where I literally had FIVE out of eight classes BACK-TO-BACK, and had to completely bomb it between buildings and turn up late to everything. That was a whole load of fun, and one of my good friends never ceased to laugh at my struggle as I spent the last ten minutes of every 19th Century American Literary Culture lecture sloooowly packing up and staring at the clock above. NOTE TO FUTURE KCL STUDENTS: the staircases in the Strand and King’s Buildings are NOT your friend during rush hour, so just accept defeat!

Even with this anxiety-provoking situation, I loved my modules and enjoyed getting to share classes with a whole new bunch of people, even if I rarely spoke to them. Throughout Second Year I made a few new special friends, many of them having survived a certain eccentric medieval lecturer’s wacky seminars with me- that’s enough to bond you for life! But my favourite story of how a new and close friendship developed funnily enough involved a rude and unfortunate remark made by a CERTAIN SOMEONE towards the short story written by my friend for class. When he realised his error, he got extremely embarrassed and after the three of us talked it out and my friend and I got to know him better, we realised that we all had a hell of a lot in common. Just yesterday, the three of us played Animal Crossing together and if you’d told me two years ago that this would eventually happen, I would’ve outwardly denied it. So, while he was a TAD rude to my dear friend, I’m still happy that he made that mistake as otherwise, we never would’ve become such good friends.

As Second Year progressed and I continuously added to my academic repertoire, I felt like I was finally experiencing the uni life that people had always reminisced of so fondly. I started going out for lunches, visiting markets and taking days out with my friends, slowly trying to knock down the fear that had prevented me from doing this for so long. It was sad saying goodbye to a very close friend when she left for America to study abroad, and I felt her absence many a time during further outings, but I knew that this was part of life. People come and go and then sometimes come back again, but it was something I had to quickly accept. I also had to remind myself that I was incredibly lucky to even have such close friends in the first place. I thought back to my very first day and subsequent weeks after where I felt so lost and lonely. At that moment I would never have thought that I would forge a bond so strong with someone new at this institution, that upon her departure, I would feel devastated. It was definitely a bittersweet and strange moment to experience.

While my friend was living her best life setting fires to kitchens in Northern California, I was proudly explaining the difference between the 68 and 468 bus routes to the North Londoners (see left-side image if this damned format works correctly!) and being promised “awesome field trips” only to be literally marched to Somerset House to look at rocks in the ground. Fun. Let’s just say that my second semester didn’t QUITE academically satisfy me as much as the previous one. But hey, I’ll never forget Piers Plowman or Bevis of Hampton anytime soon so that’s a bonus, right? …right? All jokes aside, it was actually really nice to experience a full “year” at uni without any UCU strikes or global pandemics, and I would be lying if I said I hated ALL my modules. Unlocking Early Modern Letters was definitely a highlight, whether I was letterlocking with wax seals or trying to stop my friend from throwing her empty water bottle around like a child. Such nostalgia ❀

Third Year (2019-2020)

There was something different in the air when we returned to KCL in September 2019. A whiff of urgency, a sense of instability, and an inner dread masked as dark humour appeared to be oozing from each one of us. How could it be that this cohort, who had only just transitioned into their undergrad degree, were now preparing for the home stretch? Modules carried greater weight, dissertations were being researched and the lovely thought of entering the UK’s mess of a workforce suddenly became wholly real. Whilst the majority of my friends took the leap, I had pulled out of writing a dissertation at the last minute, despite having a topic I was passionate about. Whenever people asked me why I had changed my mind, I was somewhat embarrassed to admit that I simply believed I wasn’t good enough. Regrettably, the pressure had gotten to me.

As mentioned in my previous post, the autumn of 2019 had me at breaking point, as personal circumstances drove my mental health to take a turn for the worst. I desperately wanted to savour my last first semester of my undergrad, both socially and academically, but as I barely slept and struggled to complete my readings, this desire appeared further and further away from my reach. I spent many days crying in staff members’ office hours, admitting that I had barely touched any of my work, and forced myself to put on a smile as soon as I walked out of their doors. The worst thing that could’ve happened was for the student body to see me as a failure, as someone who had let themselves go, and as someone mentally and physically fragile. I laughed and joked and socialised in my go-to ‘I’m-Extremely-Nervous-To-Be-Here-With-You-So-I’m-Going-To-Make-A-Bunch-Of-Self-Deprecating-Jokes-And-Pray-That-You-Like-Me’ personality that often shrouded my true self, when in reality…I was suffering.

However, in addition to my being placed on medication, I was also lucky enough to have a vast selection of amazing friends to help me get through this bump in the road and share my time with. We made the most of our freedom between classes with sharing meals at new eateries, playing on our Nintendo Switches and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. We did still work though, I can assure you, but there is only so much Absalom, Absalom! that a sane person can take in any given day πŸ˜‰ Furthermore, it was extremely bittersweet that I had made some good new friends in my final year, and I lamented over the lost times that we could’ve shared throughout our degrees, had we been lucky enough to cross paths prior to that moment. But, the sense of a growing community and shared panicked experience made me feel like I was finally living through that genuine university life I had always craved. It was just a shame that it would soon be over, and be over far quicker and much more dramatically than we had hoped or deserved.

Back when we were still naive to the upcoming…obstacles, shall we say, and getting in the swing of our final semester ever, myself and a group of my friends befriended a couple of first years in the common room, and I’ve never been quite able to get our exchange out of my head. Listening to these girls talking about modules such as Classical and Biblical Contexts made me squirm as I remembered those painfully awkward lectures, and answering their questions regarding module recommendations made me view myself in a wholly different light. I was no longer Leyla Hasso, walking disaster of a final year English student, but rather Leyla Hasso, beacon of knowledge, fountain of wisdom and most importantly, ‘the one from Croydon’. Reflecting upon my own experiences and calming the nerves of these girls allowed me to realise just how far I had come and how much I had to be proud of. Not too long before I had been a lonely, silent and terrified mouse, who would fling herself upon her bed in tears every night, begging her mum to let her drop out. But as I joked with these girls and connected with them on both an academic and human level, I questioned whether my younger self would have ever believed she would eventually grow into that person. The answer, of course, was: no way in hell.

Sadly, it was not too long after this interchange that I would take the final lecture and seminar of my English undergrad at KCL, without even knowing this to be the case. There had been murmurs of further UCU strikes for some time and I think I was in denial, praying that if I didn’t give voice to it or speak it into existence, then it wouldn’t rip away another semester of my degree, it being by far the most important semester of all. But alas, it happened, and one global pandemic later (yeah, THAT one), KCL had completely shut down and my final semester at this institution had turned to mulch. When I received the email about our graduation being cancelled, the straw had finally broken the camel’s back and I burst into tears, devastated that all our hard work would not be celebrated. In my entire school career, I had never had a prom, a party or a graduation ceremony and so I had always known that my university graduation would be the cherry on the cake, the last hurrah and the climax to 21 years of life. I know that in the grand scheme of things, the wellness of a population is obviously far more important to humanity and safety should always come first, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling melancholy whenever I think about how my day could’ve been. All I’m going to say is, I’d better get a bloody graduation for my MA next year, otherwise I’m going to seriously lose my marbles!

A Final Note

In conclusion, my time at KCL has undoubtedly been a whirlwind. Who would’ve thought that the terrified girl who took the bus alone for the first time on her first day at 18 years-old would be shaped into a 21 year-old woman who would be livid at her SOLO journey abroad’s cancellation due to a global pandemic. That, my friends, is character development!

My time at KCL, while interrupted throughout, gave me some of the greatest friends I have ever known, taught me what I love (Call It Sleep <3) and hate (Piers Plowman please go to hell), as well as making me see that I too have the right to call myself a scholar. I may not have entered this institution with knowledge of the Classics, literary theorists and the most complicated philosophies, but I know that I was shaped into becoming my own brand of critic, which in an era that is gradually encouraging self-acceptance, is so incredibly important.

As of right now, I am preparing for my MA in Modern Literature and Culture at KCL, and by prepare I mean, panic and not start any preparatory reading. I would be concerned but if the last three years are anything to go by, I know that I’ll somehow make it there in the end.

How Anxiety and Depression Has Affected My Life

When recently going over my old photos, I found this shot of me taken when I was either 16 or 17. The pensive nature of this photograph immediately struck me and I’ve found myself consistently returning to it. Here was a girl who was both afraid of and curious about her future, much like the girl I am now. Maybe one day, I’ll look at this photo again and know that this girl ultimately had nothing to worry about.

DISCLAIMER: this post includes at least one reference to each of the following: anxiety, depression, anorexia, body dysmorphia, self-harm, suicide and sexual assault.

One of the reasons why I started my blog was because I felt as if my newfound self-expression would become a method of therapy. All my life I had restricted myself out of fear of what others would think or say, so this would be the first step in me finally reclaiming my voice. I want to share my story because I think that it is time and quite simply, it just feels right. The only problem is, I’ve been staring at this blank page for half an hour and I have no clue how to start.

How do I start to talk about the thing that has let me down all these years? How do I begin to put into words the constant state of sickness that I live in, even when I’m at my happiest and with the people whom I love? How can I finally reveal to those in my life that every single day, I feel like their lives would be less burdensome if I was no longer in it?

In November 2019, after an entire decade of fearful suffering, unforeseeable events pushed me to breaking point and I had no choice but to finally go to the GP. It was a Wednesday morning and I remember plodding into the surgery with my wonderful mum by my side, my hair unwashed and unkempt and my eyes stinging from tears and exhaustion. I hated who I had slowly become and I was afraid of who I would eventually turn into. The appointment was terrifying at first but the wonderful staff put me at ease- a true testament to our NHS. Here I was immediately diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and clinical depression, and prescribed medication which I still take to this day. It was a strange feeling to finally get stamped with a medically-enforced label but once we left the surgery, I told my mum that for the first time in a long while, I finally had a shred of optimism. At this point, it couldn’t have gotten any worse.

When It All Started.

As far as I can remember, my anxiety started around the age of 10 when things started to become extremely difficult within my family. I had always been a fairly shy child and never liked to upset anyone in authority, whether this was a teacher, doctor or even a friend’s parent. But I know that this innocent and normal characteristic quickly festered into something greater than that: a pure fear. As I was tossed between warring family members and effectively weaponized, I grew terrified that I would hurt any of my loved ones and found myself consistently censoring and over-analysing any little thing that I did or said. This intense desire to be kept in people’s ‘good books’ led to the necessity of my being liked by everyone at secondary school, where I was now entering. I clung to girls that I knew beforehand and while they made other friends, I forced myself upon them all because I was terrified to feel even more alone than I already did. I truly believed that these could become healthy platonic relationships. Unfortunately, they were nothing of the sort.

I remember walking into my form room one morning and the entire class went silent. As I edged towards various tables, each and every girl turned their back on me, making it all too clear that I wasn’t wanted by any of them. On one occasion, a girl even said to me in the playground that nobody liked me and they just wanted me to go away. I was consistently teased about my appearance, laughed at, picked last in PE classes (oh yes, the high school stereotype sometimes does ring true!) and made to feel like I was worthless. The girls that I used to be friends with had isolated me completely, and their status as the so-called “cool girls” of our year group pretty much cut any potential ties I could have with anyone else, as nobody wanted to be associated with me. For these first 3 years, I had no real friends. I would feign sickness to get out of PE (which led to some girls continuously asking me if I was pregnant), have tantrums at home while forcing my mum to keep me off school, and if I did make it into school, I would sit on a bench by myself for break and lunch.

The world seemed to pass by me. I was trapped in a box with no holes to breathe from. I couldn’t move. Every day was a battle in a war that would never end. Whenever we would have to work in pairs or groups in class, I would privately beg my teacher to let me work alone so that I wouldn’t have to go through the shame of rejection. I wanted my peers to think that I liked being independent and that I didn’t care if they wanted me or not. But the truth of the matter was that I DID care, and it broke my heart. I questioned why I had alienated the girls I was supposed to grow with. I don’t recall being rude or selfish, but judging by my obsession with being included at the very start, I probably annoyed them more than anything. I just didn’t understand why that would warrant such treatment towards me. As I turned 13, things then changed for the worst.

Declining Health.

My family situation eventually became unbearable and I felt in danger both at home and at school. I was living in a constant state of fear, always petrified that I was upsetting people and because no one seemed to see or understand me, I was desperate for help. As my grades slipped and I was unsympathetically moved down from some top-ability groups, I genuinely began to hate myself and when this switch in my mind went off, I didn’t care what I did to my body anymore. I stopped eating breakfast and lunch completely, and would only eat a couple of spoonfuls of dinner. No snacks or sugary drinks. The only thing I consumed on a consistent and daily basis was water. I wholeheartedly believed that I didn’t deserve nutrition and I was severely obese (even though I wasn’t AT ALL) but as I ate less and less, terrible stomach cramps developed which further deteriorated as I consistently deprived myself of food. In mere months I had lost several kilograms in weight and at one point, I became so thin that I could trace the disks in my spine with my finger, like a fossil in the ground. My close family pleaded with me to eat, saying that I was gaunt and lifeless, but I didn’t listen. Nobody at school noticed or cared and it only pushed me deeper into the abyss.

I wished that I was dead. I thought about how much easier everything would be once I couldn’t feel anymore, so I frequently hurt myself as I built up to the eventual crescendo. Thankfully, such an event would never come to pass, but it still scares me to think of what could’ve happened in the aftermath, had it occurred. At the time, I saw no other way out.

Writing these memories thus far has been challenging. Much of what happened through the ages of 10 to 14 no longer exists in my memory and throughout therapy (which I have been undertaking since May 2019), I have learnt that this repression is a very common response and defence mechanism. Hence, I now jump forward to the time I remember next: when I was in Year 10, 15 years old and preparing for my GCSEs.

Sweet Sixteen.

The change into becoming a ‘black jumper’ (NMBEC girls will understand πŸ˜‰ ) gave me a somewhat new experience in secondary school. In the final weeks of Year 9, I had sought solace with and become close friends with a small and lovely group of girls, one of whom is still my best friend today ❀ While family matters were still quite tumultuous, they were nowhere near as challenging as before and little by little, things started to appear on the up. I began eating again and returned to a more healthy weight, my grades were on the rise and I had learnt to ignore the teeth-kissing and side-eye of the girls that had made my life hell. I thought that if I could show them that I wasn’t afraid anymore then I could become free, and in many ways, I did.

On my GCSE results day I was in France attending the annual Super Mario Kart championship, so my mum had to collect my results and wait a few painful days for me to return home. Upon coming through my front door, I opened the results and it was a miracle that I performed so well considering the journey I had taken to reach this crossroad. I achieved 3 A*s, 6 As and 2 Bs (Biology and Physics let me down, sad times) and had successfully gotten an offer to stay at my school’s Sixth Form for my A-Level study, wherein I would remain with several lovely girls that I had met during the GCSE period.

However, it unfortunately wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. My body went into shock because the intense stress caused by my GCSEs (ridiculously, I had around 25 exams in a 3-week period) exponentially increased my appetite and suddenly, I had put on more weight than was healthy for me. In a mere 2 years, I had gone from skeletal to overweight. That summer, my family and I went to Malta, and looking back on the pictures made me feel mentally and physically sick. I DESPISED myself and how I looked, and the only mentality I had was: “well, you may have been severely ill and depressed before but at least you were skinny”.

I quickly became jealous of my friends, new and old, whom I deemed to be much more beautiful than I was, simply because they were much slimmer. My dress sense shifted into the deliberate wearing of baggy and oversized clothes as I desperately tried to hide the monster I believed I had become. When I got my Sixth Form ID card, I remember telling my lovely English teacher (and new Form Tutor) that I looked like a “beached whale”. Thankfully, this period didn’t last, as within a few months of healthy dieting I lost some of that weight and have remained relatively consistent since then. But, I’ll admit that I still look in the mirror on most days with disgust, asking myself how anyone could ever love or want to share their life with me when I’m so ugly. This is something I’m currently trying to work on.

Such a self-hatred worked very well in tandem to my anxiety, which despite cooling off ever-so-slightly during the summer holiday, was back in full dominating force. My friendship group at Sixth Form (whom I love dearly and am still in contact with everyday, although I miss them!) were very outdoorsy and active girls, who understandably wanted to live their lives and experience the world. They tried on many occasions to get me to join in, bless them, but I just couldn’t bring myself to it. Walking down the hill from my house to the school every day was enough to cause me stress and I refused to navigate further out by myself. I attended very few gatherings and my appearance would only be possible if I was dropped there and back by a parent and be gone only a couple of hours. I felt sick leaving my house and the thought of knowing that I soon had to step out of my door created an indescribable level of nausea in the pit of my stomach and in my throat. The panic attacks which I had experienced from 10 to 14 had returned, along with the excruciating migraines that even 12 hours of sleep could not remedy.

I felt like such a burden to my friends. I felt like they deserved better than me and I hated that I was pulling them down. I felt selfish and I felt like sooner or later, I would push them away as I had done with so many other people. They are incredibly special girls because they have never left my side and when we reunite, it’s as if nothing had ever changed. For that, I love them dearly. They know who they are ❀

The Road to University and Beyond.

When I was 17 years old, I began my final year of compulsory academic study. I had now been at this institution for nearly 8 years and while the first half was rocky, the last two years there were (despite the academic stress!) the best two of the whole. It is always the case that if you dislike change, you finally grow used to the place that had terrified you only when it is time for you to finally leave. Applications to university were all that was on anyone’s lips and I couldn’t believe that it was my time to go. All my life, I had looked at people in university and thought that they were so old and experienced and a million years ahead of me. Well. Spoiler alert, kids: IT’S NOT TRUE!

Judging by my predicted grades of AAA, it was no wonder that our Head of Sixth Form pushed me to apply to Oxford University. I unwillingly obliged and applied here, as well as three London universities which I had much greater intent of attending. The thought of moving away from Upper Norwood, the bubble which I had been protected in my whole life, was daunting and extremely anxiety-provoking. The application process for Oxford involved an entrance exam which determined if you would be invited to your selected College for a 2-day interview process; this completely tore me up inside. It affected me so badly that I deliberately didn’t study for the exam and purposefully flunked it because I wanted nothing more than to be rejected, so that I wouldn’t have to make the journey to Oxford by myself. I obviously got my wish and eventually received an offer from King’s College London, which is where I study today as a home student. (NOTE: My next post will be all about my university experience!)

The extent of my anxiety at this point was undeniably sky-high. On my very first day of classes at KCL, I had to make my hour and half-long commute into the Strand and this was the first time I had ever taken a bus by myself in my entire life. I was 18 years old and legally an adult. Knowing that there were students my age travelling across continents to study when I was too afraid to get on a local bus made me feel worthless and pathetic. Every day when I had to leave my house I was literally quaking in my boots in complete and utter panic, and I had to chew gum just to stop myself from throwing up on the bus. The same could be said for my first time alone on a train, which occurred when I was nearly 20 years old.

You may be wondering, what was it about public transport that affected me so badly? Well, I’ll tell you. When you have severe anxiety, your brain is incredibly clever at identifying all of the things that could go wrong and subsequently making you believe that they WILL go wrong. I could get on the wrong bus/train, I could get off at the wrong stop, my bus/train might terminate early, the service may be cancelled and I would need to quickly identify another route, a creep could approach me, I could be involved in a collision, I could be mugged, I could be raped, I could be killed…the list is endless. Each and every journey I undertake is preceded with these thoughts, even today. Even as I have gotten very used to my uni commute and don’t feel anywhere near as sick anymore undertaking this particular journey, whenever a friend invites me somewhere I completely panic if it is an unfamiliar place. I have turned down so many invitations to parties, social gatherings and meals purely because I was too afraid to leave my house and make my way there and socialise.

As for when I am in said social environments, the anxiety does not stop there. Every time I speak to someone, inside or outside uni, if I am not a close friend of theirs then I am fixed in a state of fear. I often stumble on my words, say stupid or irrelevant things and watch the looks on their faces as their smiles slowly crumble into displays of awkwardness. If I am with my friend and their own friend comes along, my heart beats like a racehorse and I lose the capacity to converse like a normal human being. I have to stay silent because this is the only way I won’t make a fool of myself. However, at times, at uni especially, I have tried to branch out and talk to people that I’d seen around. This is partly to serve as a behavioural experiment (as part of my CBT treatment) and also because it’s always nice to make more friends. Sometimes these have gone well and I’ve become close to the person I reached out to, but other times they go catastrophically wrong and I am left looking like an awkward, desperate and weird person, which wholly depletes my confidence.

I could count on more than one hand, the amount of potential friendships, romantic relationships and engagements I have ruined and/or pushed away because I was afraid. For years I have cried myself to sleep because I know that I’ll forever be crying alone. I used to joke that I would die an old spinster with no one to love her, but the sad thing is that this is no longer a joke. It is something that I truly believe will happen to me and it is the norm for someone struggling with severe anxiety and depression.

Moreover, talking in seminars has also been an issue. I could count for days the amount of times a teacher has asked my class a question and while my peers all sit in bewildered silence, I am screaming the correct answer inside my mind but the words just can’t come out. I want to speak and I want to contribute but it is physically impossible for me on most occasions, even when I know that I’m right because my anxiety tells me that since this is ME, there is a chance that I could still be wrong. That chance is too large for me to ignore. But, if I ever do speak out, then rest assured that even if I’m smiling or I sound comfortable, my heart has never beaten so fast than in that moment and I am a single atom away from being physically sick.

Another “symptom” of my anxiety is frequent jaw ache, as a result of the near-constant grinding of my teeth. It’s such a silly thing to happen and I write it off sometimes because I don’t think it is important enough to be noticed by anyone, but a couple of years ago my dentist pointed out the effects this was having on my dental well-being. I was fitted for a mouth guard which I am supposed to wear every night (although I’ll admit that this doesn’t happen) and I guess that it’s kinda funny because it’s like wearing retainers all over again. Suddenly, I’m Rocky Balboa in my small little bed, ready for the fight of a lifetime.

The Effect on My Championship Presence.

Speaking of battles between nations, one question that I have understandably received quite often is: “how have you managed to attend Super Mario Kart championships abroad and away from your parents for so many years?”. Well, firstly, for every single edition I have travelled with my uncle Sami (whom I look upon as a brother) and he has taken great care of me whenever I’ve had an anxiety attack at the event. A few times he was unsure if he would be able to attend and I knew instantly that if he couldn’t make it, then there was no way I could go either- even after I’d turned 18.

Despite championship-week being by FAR the best of my year each and every time, it has brought its own challenges. One of the things I hate the most is the initial welcoming back of competitors after a year of global separation, wherein the hall is filled with the hustle and bustle of people greeting one another. Even though most of these people are my friends or we are on friendly terms, I feel physically sick whenever I have to do my round. In last year’s edition alone, I was in tears in the taxi on the way to the venue and had to carry out rigorous breathing exercises to stop myself from throwing up. But after I get used to the environment and community again, things do begin to stabilise in that regard.

Our SMK community is one-of-a-kind and pretty much all of my most hilarious anecdotes come from something insane that someone did there at an event. Yes, I’m talking about you, Drew! Throughout the week I am genuinely happy to be there and have the chance to compete, although at times I will admit that I do feel suffocated. I feel like it is too good to be true and that people there are only pretending to like me because I’m Sami’s niece. I over-analyse every little conversation if I sense the most minuscule of differences in someone’s tone when they speak to me. I know deep down that there is absolutely no need for this, but unfortunately it just can’t be helped for now. I am trying to change my mindset, though.

As mentioned previously, in May 2019, I made the step to refer myself to counselling at KCL where I began a CBT model to start altering my mindset. After completing the maximum sessions here, I was referred to the NHS IAPT service to enrol in a fully immersive and extended CBT practice. These were two very hard steps to take because I had been trying for many years to take such action, being held back by the fear that had caused me so much psychological torment. I’m very thankful for these sessions but I know now that the severity of my conditions meant that I needed something more in addition, which would turn out to be the medication. Despite being a traumatising period of unforeseen and incredibly difficult circumstances, I believe that November of last year was a necessity because that is what led me directly to the GP’s office. Without going there, for the first time in years, I would never have received my long-awaited diagnosis and thus never been placed on my medication, which has effectively helped to stabilise my mood and allow me to approach behavioural experiments with a hint of ease.

Further Reflection.

It has been an undoubtedly tiresome and exhausting journey. For 10 whole years I have believed that I wasn’t smart enough, pretty enough, slim enough, cool enough, funny enough, likeable enough and good enough. Even to this day, I find it hard to sleep and wonder how the hell I am going to cope once I leave university. I managed to somehow secure and work a part-time job at Next Home during the summer of 2019, but the fact that it left me in a constant state of fear and I had to eventually leave, makes me believe that it almost doesn’t count. I didn’t go three steps forward. If anything, I feel like I took three steps back. What on earth am I going to do? How am I going to cope? How am I going to build and live a life that isn’t one characterised by fear? I am so lucky in that I have wonderful groups of friends and some lovely family members, as well as a roof upon my head, but I worry that I’m going to let all those people down.

I’m scared. I am so terrified that I will become a failure that I’ve deprived myself of life, and this has only started to hit home in recent weeks. I don’t want to be scared anymore. I don’t want to wake up when I’m 50 years old and look back on my youth to see nothing but misery and ignored opportunities. It’s hard when people tell me “oh but Leyla, how can you be so anxious and depressed when you are always smiling and being so nice?”. The honest answer is: I am good at facades. I am good at spectacle. I have always been told that I am good at writing and writing can at times, be its own performance. If I am able to successfully do that, then what’s stopping me from embodying that spectacle in my own physicality? If there is one thing I want everyone reading this to take away, it is that every single person on this earth has a struggle and too many of us are hiding away and not speaking about it. When you don’t speak up, then it can eat you away inside. My anxiety and depression has rotted my brain and body for over a decade and I am tired of it. I don’t want this anymore. We, as people, deserve better than to hate ourselves and feel like we are alone, because the truth of the matter is that we aren’t alone. We’re all navigating this crazy world together and we can help one another, even through the smallest of means.

I don’t know what the next couple of years will bring me. I don’t know if my imposter syndrome will finally go away or if I will not feel like every good relationship in my life is a conspiracy against me. But one thing that’s for sure is I know that I will get there in the end. I’m going to continue with my behavioural experiments and see where they take me, although I do know that the first stop should be Paris in June (please don’t take this away from me, oh mighty Coronavirus!), as I’ve booked Eurostar tickets to stay with my dear friend Sophie (shout-out Γ  Notre Dame de LiΓ¨ge!). To say that I’m terrified of travelling to a different country alone is an UNDERSTATEMENT, but if I can do this a mere 3 years after my first solo bus journey in London, then I’d say that I’m onto something good.

If you’ve reached this far down my post, then thank you. I really appreciate the time you have taken out of your day to read this. Trust me, I can’t even put it into proper words! ❀

And if you too have had any struggles with your mental health, alike or unlike my own, please confide in a trusted person. I know that it is incredibly hard to do this, but I believe that it is the first step to becoming well again. Just remember that you are enough.

You matter.

My Super Mario Kart Journey

The Birth of an Era

On Christmas morning of December 1992, a little boy named Sami Γ‡etin received a cool new game called Super Mario Kart (SMK) on his Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). It had been a present from his older sister Ayla and with hindsight, I think it is safe to say that Ayla didn’t know what she had gotten herself into. I mean, considering the fact that Ayla is my mother, I’d reckon that judging from the title of this post that SMK would become woven into the very fabric of her life. It certainly did with mine.

My first encounter with SMK was apparently in November 1999, when I helped my uncle Sami update the Time Trial website. By update, I mean literally smack the keyboard with my chubby little hands. Who needed to play with toys as a baby? I was clearly destined to become a computer programmer.

Would you be surprised if I told you that I have an A-grade in A Level ICT?

Sami’s childhood obsession for SMK grew exponentially throughout the 1990s into an undeniable passion, as he submitted his fastest records to magazines and competed alongside his friends. In 1998, he went one step further and taking the reigns from what I believe to be an older online database, became the Director of the Super Mario Kart Time Trial Records site, a title which he still admirably holds today. Sami sought to expand the competition, create links with other nations and simply help construct a community who altogether could cherish the game that had become so central to their childhoods.

As the online community grew, Sami decided to offer the game to his immediate family, with the hopes that they would willingly participate. I’m pretty sure that most of my relatives were forced to do this (my mum, specifically), and it wasn’t until a few years later when he began to sow the seeds of his most important project…

Joining the SMK Website

In 2004, at a mere 5 years old, I decided of my own accord and with NO outside influence whatsoever (ahem) to join the Super Mario Kart Time Trial Records site. If memory serves me correctly, I placed in the bottom few of what would’ve been around a couple hundred competitors. My times were understandably not so great but I remember loving the fact that I was a part of this community, and whenever Sami would organise gaming meetings with his friends in SMK Tower (the name attributed to Sami’s three-storey house), I revelled in the experience. I was a fairly shy child and didn’t communicate all that much as I sat cross-legged on the floor in the corner of the room in my bright aqua leggings. Looking back on it now, I had stuck out like a really sore thumb amidst a bunch of twenty-something year-old males. But did I care at the time? Definitely not.

Sami and I in 2004, right around when I joined the site

As the next couple of years progressed, I dipped into the Time Trial scene here and there, playing with my dad who had been long retired from the game, and yet still to this day calls himself the Iraqi Champion when this technically should be me. At the start of 2007, I had passed the Champion of Luxembourg, who as of today is positioned at 505th on the PAL rankings out of a total 592. But at seven to eight years old, I’d obviously had no real ‘tournament’ experience as I was a pretty slow and young beginner. While Sami and the growing worldwide community were competing online and in person, I was still a mere shadow in the image of my uncle. To me, SMK was a little hobby, a simple game which is played only when I’d completed all of my spelling homework early enough. The scale then was far smaller than it is now, and I know that my younger self had no idea of what was in store for her.

Clearly this was the most excited and focused I had been in a while

The Fairfield Halls Fiasco

I have absolutely no memory of the weekend of the 4th-8th October 2007. It’s funny that the events of this time are always used to tease or joke with me, them being for many years the thing that had defined me, on top of just being “Sami’s niece”. As I grew up, I found myself wanting to defend the younger person I was, as if this weekend was evidence of something that I had to be sorry for, which obviously wasn’t the case at all.

That weekend was Sami’s 25th birthday and to celebrate, he had organised a gaming meet in Fairfield Halls, Croydon, for UK, Dutch, Norwegian and French members of the community. A centrepiece of the event was a beginner/intermediate-level SMK tournament, in which I was thrust into like a prize pony. Eight players entered and a mini tournament bracket was formed, each match being played on PAL 150cc Grand Prix of Mushroom Cup. After successfully winning each of my matches, one notably against the lovely Lindsay Molenaar of the Netherlands, I was faced in the final with her fellow countryman, the Mario Kart Double Dash expert Vincent van der Fluit. The hall was completely decked out with spectators as even my grandma (yes, you read that right), my FINNISH GRANDMA sat on the chair beside us to watch.

That fateful day in 2007
Note the awkward smirk I am giving my mum so she can rescue me

The match became one of the most talked-about events in SMK history. I beat Vincent 5-0 to win the tournament and the fact that I was only 8, while I believe he was around 19, was the pinnacle of the joke. How on earth did a little girl, born seven years after a game was released, win her first beginner-level tournament against a young adult male? Albeit, Vincent was not an SMK expert and if this was Double Dash, I would’ve been completely SLAUGHTERED. But the point of the matter was that with my first tournament experience, I had essentially become and contributed to what felt like a meme.

From that moment on, I was always known as “Sami’s niece who beat Vincent”. In all honesty, I hated that. Even today, I still shudder whenever someone mentions Fairfield Halls or that weekend because I don’t want it to define me for the rest of my career. However, I was reunited with Vincent at the 2019 Championship in Alphen aan den Rijn last August, and we both joked about how we wanted to shake that event off. It was a brief but cool moment and I’m definitely happy that it occurred.

My First Interview with Nintendo

After the Fairfield Halls event, I had undertaken a brief hiatus from SMK. But in my time on the site, I had reached the #1 Women’s ranking in London and #2 in the UK. Not too shabby for a little girl, right?

Sami’s position as the overall UK Champion and sometime World Champion caught the attention of Nintendo UK, who in December 2008 interviewed Sami and I at the SMK Tower. I don’t remember much about this interview, except for the interviewer being a “nice lady” and the fact that I had made some childishly innocent yet seemingly controversial statements as I spoke to her. Suffice to say, those remarks never made the final cut. And no, I won’t tell you what I said.

The interview featured on the Nintendo Wii Channel in early 2008 and it is unfortunately still available to watch on YouTube so knock yourself out! Just don’t tell me that you watched it, otherwise I might never speak to you again.

Anyone normal hates the sight and sound of them speaking on camera, so imagine how painful it must be to know that your 9-year old self will be immortalised in the digital canon. I wish for this video to be burned but alas, life is never so kind 😦

The Return and Quest for the World Women’s Title

In late 2011 as I made the transition into secondary school, Sami suggested that I return to SMK and try to gain a couple of personal records (PRs). He assured me that this was just for fun and didn’t have to turn into a large-scale commitment. Well. Do you want to guess how that turned out?

A ton of PRs later and in early 2012, I achieved my first Women’s World Record at 13 years old. I had been completely hit with the Ambition Bug and fuelled by Sami’s guidance and pride, I managed to take the UK Women’s Title from Sue Cladingboel. But, my biggest achievement yet came on the 18th March 2012 when I passed Germany’s Tanja Bronnecke to become the fastest woman in the world on the PAL version of SMK.

This was an extremely cool moment for me as I suddenly felt like all my hard work and dedication had paid off. Not many years had passed since I first slammed Sami’s old keyboard at 5 months old but to me, it felt like a lifetime. I felt like I could finally consider myself a decent player and that I had the potential to grow and even one day, become just like my uncle whom I had looked up to so much. There was no way I was stopping yet. I had only just gotten started.

Entry Into the World Championships

The SMK World Championships (for legal reasons we can no longer call it this so when I refer to them as the “Championships”, just know that it is on a worldwide scale) returned to Reims, France, for its 2012 edition. Professionals from across the globe were planned to be in attendance and this felt like the perfect place to make my debut.

It was so surreal to attend such a championship when I had spent most of my life listening to the stories told by my uncle, while we sat cross-legged on the floor. So many of the strange, weird and wacky characters were but mere names to me and knowing that I would get to meet them and collect stories of my own was the icing on the cake. All my short life, I had desired inclusion and acceptance. My debut felt just like that. It was akin to a commencement.

Tournament-wise, the championship couldn’t have gone any better. Sami took the overall #1 title and won the tournament for the first and only time in his career, managing to sneak past France’s Florent Lecoanet, one of the greatest karters and people that ever walked the earth. I myself placed 32nd overall, which wasn’t too shabby given my lack of multiplayer mode experience. This created a drive within me to play better, perform better and achieve better. I knew that if I wanted to make an impact and one day be like Sami and Florent, then I would have to keep practising throughout the years. This is precisely what I then did.

Team UK at the 2012 Championships with the #1 trophy

Guinness World Records, Expos and Further Nintendo Interviews

Following on from my first Championship, Sami and I partnered with Replay Events and travelled across the UK to their seasonal gaming expos. Here we organised beginner-level tournaments for locals, performed exhibition matches and promoted our website and community. These expos took us to Manchester, Wolverhampton, Margate, Glasgow and various locations in London, allowing for the growth of a strong UK-based SMK network.

In 2013, following Sami’s appearance in the Guinness Book of World Records a year previously, I had the opportunity for my own entry in the 2013 Gamer’s Edition. This was awarded to me for having more World Records for a female SMK player than any other and my entry was reprinted in the 2014 and 2015 editions. I remember going to their HQ on what I believe was a sunny August day, where I met the team and another teenager who was being awarded for his records on the most recent FIFA game. The photo-shoot was pretty crazy because I’d had next to no experience in this sort of field and let’s face it, I was hardly Kate Moss! But, they gave me a cool Luigi hat which I still have in my possession so I must’ve done something right πŸ˜‰

Hello braces, my old friend…

A memorable expo for me was the EGX event in late 2013, where Sami and I were invited by Nintendo UK to test out the upcoming Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U, before it had been released to the public. After crashing (a lot!), we were interviewed once again about our experience and I am happy to inform you that the sound of my voice in this one doesn’t cause me dread. Thank goodness!

Achieving the UK #2 Title

Just prior to the 2015 SMK Championship (and my third worldwide competition), at 16 years old I finally achieved the UK #2 Time Trial title on the PAL version, after passing Ben Allen. The only thing that stood in front of British glory and the #1 title was my uncle and while he still to this day remains victorious, I’ll never forget the awesome feeling of knowing that he was only one position ahead of me.

Eight Championships Later (2012-2019)

After competing in eight consecutive championships which spanned across France and the Netherlands, you do have a lot of stories to tell. Competitively speaking, there have been good years and bad which can be said for ALL karters involved. My best overall position at the championships was achieved in the 2018 edition in Alphen aan den Rijn, where I placed in 9th and subsequently secured my fist overall Top 10 to my belt. If I’d told my 13-year old self in 2012 that I would improve so much on my 32nd place position, I would’ve probably rolled my eyes. But here I was, 19 years old and in 9th place amidst a growing cohort of legends and karting specialists.

In my eight editions of competition, I had once taken the UK #1 Time Trial One-Try title, made consistent Top 16 knockout rounds in all of the modes and last year, I finally broke into my first Match Race Quarter Final, all while having the best time of my life with the best people. So much can be said about the amazing friends I have made in this community and while I won’t embarrass them by naming them here, they do know who they are ❀

Furthermore, I was fortunate enough to attend the first American Super Mario Kart Championship (ASMKC) in Monroe, Louisiana in March 2019, where I won my first career medal- a bronze in Grand Prix. A full post about this will come soon but I just had to mention it here because it was such a monumental and unforgettable experience in my SMK career thus far. It also taught me that I’m not so bad at a Deep South accent, which is always cool for parties!

Where Does This Leave Me In 2020?

Well, here we are. 2020. Where do I go from this, I hear you ask?

As of today, the 12th February 2020, I am the Time Trial site’s Women’s World #2 in the PAL version (after Alicia L’Hoest) and Women’s World #3 in the NTSC version (after Alicia and Sophie Jarmouni), as well as the UK #3 in PAL and NTSC. As far as the other sub-titles go within the championships, there are too many to list. But rest assured, I’m not doing so bad πŸ˜‰

The second ASMKC will take place next month again in Louisiana and unfortunately, I can’t attend this time due to university finals. Because of the hectic manner of my life (thanks KCL, love ya!), I’ve rarely been able to play SMK for the past three years, being mostly limited to August only.

However, once I complete my English degree in May, I plan to get back into the swing of things and return to the 2020 edition with a vengeance…or something less sinister than that!

Who knows, maybe I’ll be one to cause an upset this year? But whatever happens, I just know that one day I’ll look back on it as a chapter in a very important story within my life.

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