I expected to enjoy university, and when I didn’t I was knocked sideways. I should have done: I was academic, I loved knowing things and equally, I had always thought I was gregarious, and liked having fun. I didn’t think I was bad at making friends either. And indeed, I quickly found a small group of people I got on with. Yet despite all this, somehow I was plunged into a kind of despair I hadn’t experienced before – and haven’t been through since. I couldn’t work it out then, and I can only speculate on it now.
I suspect a lot of people thought it was all because of my blindness, but that’s because if you have a disability, people like to attribute anything that goes wrong for you to that. In truth, I don’t think it had much, if anything, to do with it. One possible explanation was the sheer size of the change in my circumstances. I had gone from an unusual, small and residential school, with just over 70 pupils, to a large, sprawling complex of colleges with about 10,000 students and staff. Everywhere you went was full of noise and bustle, and as everybody knows, you are nowhere more alone than in a crowd.
But perhaps the real problem was that it just wasn’t my crowd! I had left my little special school keen to join the real world, and found myself instead in a world of teenagers being set tasks that felt, to me, monumentally irrelevant to getting on with the business of life.
Whatever the reason, I found myself slipping into an ever deeper morass of confusion and self-absorption; unable to complete work, not wanting to go anywhere or do anything, and, worst of all, not finding anyone who could understand what was wrong. That, at the time, felt like true loneliness.
But it turned out there was an answer: an answer so complete that I believe it changed my life. One day, after staring at a paper for three hours and writing nothing, I left university and went to see an employment adviser at the Royal National Institute of Blind People. He said promptly: “You need to do something practical,” and introduced me to the charity Community Service Volunteers (now known as Volunteering Matters). Within weeks I had been dispatched to York, with the job of reviving an organisation linking people who needed help – anything from decorating to gardening jobs, babysitting or shopping – with young people who could lend a hand.
In reality that meant I was confronted with an empty office, no volunteers, no one who needed help, and Lynda, two years younger than me and equally confused about the future. Amazingly, it was just what I wanted. Over the next year, between us, we turned it round. I visited schools and colleges, drumming up volunteers; went to clubs for elderly people to find out what they needed; persuaded charities to give us money, companies to give us equipment. And I discovered I could talk to people and gain their trust. I found myself sitting in kitchens listening to old chaps telling me their war stories; elderly ladies recounting stories about their grandchildren; and some extraordinary 50-year-old gossip. Despite my blindness, I even found myself selecting wallpaper for a harassed and rather tipsy mother, who couldn’t decide for herself.
People tell me the change in me over that year was startling. I believe it gave me the confidence to go into broadcasting and to believe that however bleak things look, they can change. I guess if there was a trick in my leaving loneliness behind, it is to be prepared to look around that corner. If you can’t change yourself, change the circumstances.