Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Dear Friend

Dear Friend,

I want to talk about growing up. I want to explain to you how I wish it was explained to me when I was younger. To avoid misunderstanding or a sudden surprise when it doesn’t quite happen as you thought it would. Most importantly, I want to get the message across that there isn’t just one path in life. We are not toys on a conveyor belt simply passing through the same building stages as the one in front, yet sometimes it can feel that way.

Starting school is that first step in the beginning of really growing up. Once we put that baby foot in front of the other, it can feel like there’s no getting off. This isn’t perhaps a feeling felt so much when you’re five or six or even ten or twelve because at that point it’s a part of life that just happens. It’s expected and understood: you follow these systems, learn these subjects set out just so for us all to learn, to memorize, to be tested on. At 14 these become the basis for GCSE’s and at 16 they become A-levels. We keep passing through these rooms of education on our treadmill, learning and testing. 

Then suddenly it all becomes about the next step: university. I cannot recall a time when anyone explained that there was any other direction off this path and when I was younger I didn’t think about it. When I was at school and none of these exam years had begun, I looked up at the ‘grown ups’ ahead of me and thought: “I can’t wait until I can be like them”. These grown ups were anyone over the age of 16 in my eyes. They were the 6th formers at school and then even they got older and suddenly they were the university students and the full blown adults with a job or…something. I say that because I don’t really know what I thought. I think I just believed that everyone ahead knew exactly what they were doing and that at some point I would get to this age when a magic light would appear and so would I. One day, I would just transform from the schoolgirl into an independent adult and everything would just happen. No one ever tells you any different – not when you’re young at least.

So now I’m here and I’ve just turned 20. I struggled through 4 years of GCSE’s and A-levels filled with anxiety and frustration that I was stuck doing these subjects I didn’t really want to do or being made to do ones I did enjoy just to pass a specific exam or two. I had lots of help to get through it and I did it and I’m proud. It’s not that I’m not clever or that I didn’t have the ability but somewhere inside me, I was just filled with these butterflies, this anxiety that wouldn’t let me go. I felt stuck because I knew I had to do what I was doing and that no amount of unhappiness or stress was going to get me out of it. The light at the end of the tunnel? Once I left school, there was no more compulsory education. I could go into the real world and actually start the whole ‘life’ thing (whatever I thought that might be). What happened though? I got stuck on the treadmill. That path that I was put on when I was 3 years old and starting nursery was still stretched out ahead and I couldn’t see any junctions. Signs flashed ahead and they all said the same things: UCAS, University, Where will you go? What will you study? Will you have a gap year? What career….? Hang on…back up. Did someone say Gap year? What’s that? That sounds like my kind of year. A year where I jump off the treadmill! A year where I can look at the other signposts and hopefully take another path and leave the studying one behind? Yes please! Apply for university first and defer? You know, just in case your year makes you realize how much you really do want to go? This year is just a blip really, so many years of school and anxiety and your body just needs a break, so have that break and then you’ll see the light…..wait? what? You’re saying I still have to hop back on the treadmill in a year? You’re saying there’s no other option? People must sometimes do something else, right? I mean surely not everyone does this. Silence.

The assumption is that i will have my year, and that I will become so bored or lonely with everyone else off studying that I will become really excited about September. In my head, the assumption is different. I think that during that entire 365+ days that I have ahead to explore this world that has sat outside the classroom for the last 14 years, I will pass through that ‘growing up’ door and suddenly find exactly what I want to do and I will do it. It won’t require university and it will be right up my street. This did not happen. I had a year, I lost my balance, plans were made and cancelled, a car was crashed, a brain was injured, concentration was lost, work experience was done, holidays were had and a stint in hospital was a must with the delight of an operation at the end. Ta da!! My Gap Year: my year of life off piste. Now what? Well…I guess…I guess…university it is then. The planning was fun, the shopping was great, I even made some friends before I started but as soon as it began I knew it was wrong. Everything felt uncomfortable, like a piece of a jigsaw but it doesn’t fit in my life puzzle. Every day was tears and panic attacks, anxiety and fear. Now I think back, I know some of the reasons:

  1.     .    I chose the wrong subject for the wrong reason: I chose English Literature because I thought I needed to choose something. At school it was the subject I found easiest and I loved to do it because of that. I mistook this love for love of the subject, for love of analyzing books and writing essays. Really, it was a love of being able to do something well without feeling stressed. If I’d thought about it and I’d wanted to, I probably should have chosen psychology: a subject I found really fun and interesting but I sometimes struggled with. The idea of struggling over a subject for three more years of school was not something I liked the sound of so I took the ‘easy’ route…I was wrong.
  2.            I was doing it because I hadn’t found anything else. I’d spent a year hoping to discover something new and better and it didn’t happen. If I was struggling so much doing it and I wanted to stop, I felt I couldn’t because I’d had my year! I’d taken my break from the treadmill and now I have to just keep going. There isn’t a second pit stop.

That first one is true. Studying something because it’s easy is not a good reason. Largely because the other thing I learnt from school was that everything you learn there is nothing like what it’s like anywhere else. English Literature at University felt like an entirely new subject and it wasn’t the one I thought I had chosen. It certainly wasn’t easy. Not for me anyway.

The second one isn’t true and this is where I get to the crux of the matter. Yes, I spent a year trying to explore other options and hoping to find a different path and yes, I failed. Does that mean I have to hop back on the treadmill and push myself through something straight away? No. The fact that I have learnt over the last few months in particular is that really there is no one path. When I looked up at those older ‘grown ups’ and saw people like I am now seeming so confident and understanding of how to ‘do life’, I didn’t really know. Now I am those people and I’m hearing everywhere about people I know or even people I don’t who are older than me and only a few years ago were in exactly my position. Some are still in it now. My parents go through it, my parents friends go through it. It’s life. Life has its ups and downs, it’s bumps in the road. Decision making is everywhere. The point is, however hard all this feels when it happens (and trust me, I know, I’m there and I’m living it), I now know that there are other people out there. Some may be better at dealing with the anxiety of it than others but some, like me, may find it that bit harder.

I’ve left university now, I gave it a go but it wasn’t for me and now I’m having to work out what to do next. That’s scary and I’m very anxious but I know there are people around me who care. I have friends and family and I’m lucky. I know others may not feel this way. For those people, I hope that this letter helps you understand that even if it may feel like you’re stuck on a conveyor belt and you can’t get off, you can. You can stop, look around and breathe and remember that somewhere, probably very near by and where you least expect it, there are people who can help you to keep going with a smile.

Chase those butterflies away and

Lots of love,

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