Loops of memory

I recently read the Derren Brown book Happy, which included some intriguing quotes from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, prompting me to loan it from the local library. I’m now about a quarter of the way through. Both books have pushed me to start thinking about philosophy in ways I hadn’t previously – I always saw it as something too lofty and divorced from real life to be in any way useful – but now I am starting to apply it to ideas I was already interested in, about the mind and how it reacts, about mental illness and maintaining good mental health. The following post is about my recovery from a recent car accident, but is heavily informed by ideas from these two books – namely the ideas of confirmation bias and our self-narratives from Happy, and the discussion of feedback loops and memory and the existence of “souls” in physical objects from I am a Strange Loop.

It is only three weeks since the crash, so I am probably expecting too much of myself, but I still feel impatient to be “over it.” I believed that if I could get back in a car, and drive (which I have done) then that would be most of the problem solved. My anxiety has generally been rather worse, I have been struggling to relax properly, and lately I have been haunted by a strong feeling of sadness, making my default mood more depressed and low than I’ve been for a long time. None of this sounds hugely surprising when I type it out, but still I find myself surprised.

Until Monday of this week I had a hire car, provided by my insurance company, which was happily a dream to drive and went a long way to restoring some of my depleted confidence. Sadly my search to buy another car has thus far not been fruitful, due to a combination of factors. The first car I went to see was at some cowboy garage, and it had decidedly alarming brakes, which screeched at the lightest tough and brought you to such a sudden stop you felt you were about to be thrown through the windscreen. I drove it for about two minutes before returning it and dumping it in the middle of the forecourt. Just those two minutes made me nervous of driving at all, and made me far less eager to drive very far to view any more cars. I saw a couple of vehicles at a local garage I know and trust, but the ones they had were either too small or too expensive for the wishlist I had drawn up for myself. I am now in the state of wanting a car, but not being able to look at cars because I don’t have a car to get to them in, and even if I did hire a car to go and look at a car, if I wanted to buy said car I wouldn’t be able to drive it and the hire car home. My partner doesn’t drive and I don’t know anyone where I live well enough to want to ask them to do me the favour of driving me twenty miles to see a car, which may in all likelihood have kangaroo-jumping brakes at a garage run by an adolescent with the sales acumen of a damp sock. I am also uncomfortable at the idea of having other people in the car with me at present, and feel better driving alone. This isn’t just due to the practicalities of being able to focus better when I am on my own, but also because the majority of my thinking after the accident was about how close I came to inflicting injury on other people. Particularly my partner, but also the innocent people driving around me. Thoughts of what could have happened to me personally did not feel so important.

Aside from the practicalities that come with having my own car, I feel it is a necessary step in my recovery from the accident. Others may be surprised when I say that apart from the nerves and negative memories of the accident, I also feel very sad at the loss of my car. It was the first car I had owned since passing my test, which I’m sure makes a big difference, although perhaps some people always feel attached to their cars. I felt “sorry for it” when I was staring at its smashed-up front on the motorway, and seeing other fully whole silver Renault Clios since has given me painful twinges, which are entirely divorced from the horror of what might have been, and are only connected to feeling bad for the car itself. In the same way as I might feel sad after the end of a relationship when I visit places I went to with that person, I have felt sad revisiting places I drove to in my old car. Of course, I am aware that these feelings are not bound up in attributing reciprocating emotions to a lump of metal and plastic and glass, but are connected to my own feelings at those times, the feelings of anxiety and triumph and happiness at driving somewhere I wanted to get to, and doing it successfully. The greatest of these was the longest drive I’ve ever done, to Somerset, in May, when I drove myself and my partner there to one of my favourite places on earth. Since the accident, looking at pictures of that holiday has also made me feel sad. The memories are tainted: whereas before, that beautiful place felt so much closer to me because I knew I could drive there whenever I wanted, it now feels so much further away, knowing that it will take time and effort to get my confidence back up to a place where I can drive there – but also gaining the confidence and trust of my partner so that he would be happy for me to drive him there again.

People get emotionally attached to physical objects from cars to jewellery to books to mugs to almost anything you can think of. In most cases it is the emotions we feel when we are around those physical things that we are attached to, or the pleasure that comes from looking at something we find beautiful, and knowing that it is ours and we can take it where we like. Or they have sentimental value and remind us of people or places we cherish. In my case, with my car, I am sad to have lost the feelings of freedom and overcoming my own mental anxiety when driving, but also the grown-up-ness of having my own car, and keeping my things in it; I hadn’t yet got past the novelty of it and still enjoyed seeing my CDs and bits and pieces strewn about the car, making it mine. I cleaned it regularly, much to the amusement of my neighbours when I cleaned it in very cold temperatures, and would glance at it in its parking space every morning out of the window and every evening as I came back to my front door. The empty space outside is a constant reminder to me at the moment, not only of the absence of my sweet reliable little car, but also of my own failure. Although everyone says the accident could have happened to anyone and it wasn’t my fault, I have an idea of myself as a not particularly skilled driver, so it is easy to match this narrative with me crashing a car due to my own incompetence.

We constantly create these stories of our own lives, and because they are reinforced by our own selective memories of ourselves and of things that have happened to us, they are very difficult to change. We use confirmation bias – seeing things that reinforce that story and explaining away those that don’t – on a daily basis. And we unknowingly create endless loops of memory, thought and story which keep certain ideas alive, even if we don’t want to keep thinking about them. For example, at the moment, looking at the pictures of Somerset in my living room creates this loop: Somerset -> driving to Somerset in May -> crashing on the motorway -> I am a failure. Depending on our own internal stories, these stories tend to be positive or negative. Mine are often negative. I have endless feedback loops which remind me of stupid things I’ve said and done, or little nuggets of information my partner has given me about his exes which I’m sure he’s long since forgotten. For example, people who talk a lot are often called ‘chatty Kathys’ in North America, something I hadn’t heard until I started going out with my Canadian partner. Now, whenever he says it, this is what my brain does: “Chatty Kathy” -> Ex called Cathleen was called Cathy by her parents -> she disliked it and my partner thought it was a stupid shortening of the name (I disagree, it seems perfectly reasonable to me). Every time. It is exhausting, but an almost impossible cycle to break. I’ve also noticed this as a somewhat irritating reaction of mine when watching films, as obviously the same thing happens every time I watch the same film, and my brain has the same thought automatically when I watch it. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Elrond says at the council: “One of you must do this” (take the ring to Mordor) my reflex response is to say: “Don’t all volunteer at once!!” It isn’t a particularly funny or interesting comment the first time I make it, so I feel sorry for the people I watch it with who hear me say it every time.

Of course, memories get replaced with new ones and some of these feedback loops will change over time. Once I get a new car (somehow) I will create new memories to replace the old ones, and one day I will drive myself back to Somerset, and lay that demon to rest. Perhaps I will still feel sad about the loss of my old car, but I’m sure it’s normal to continue to feel sad for the loss of a physical thing, especially if it’s something you had tied to a new and still-delicate version you had of yourself. You’ll also be glad to hear I’ve stopped saying “don’t all volunteer at once!!” when I watch Lord of the Rings. Other reflex thought reactions are more difficult to replace: it may take a long time for me to build a narrative of myself as a competent and even good driver. But one of the things that I find especially fascinating about the brain is its malleability: we can train and exercise it in certain ways the same way as we can other parts of the body. Over time, what feels now to be incessant and inescapable can slowly change.

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Highlights of 2016

THERE WERE NONE, I hear you cry. Well, the other day I found a piece I wrote this time last year on highlights of 2015. Apparently I thought 2015 pretty much sucked in terms of news items as well, although I don’t remember it being particularly bad – apart from the Conservatives winning the UK election. Reading back through the post I remembered lots of little things I enjoyed about that year, and although 2016 was rubbish in terms of democratic votes, gun shootings, and celebrity deaths, it’s important to also think about the good things. This isn’t going to be one of those list of good news for the environment etc which have been doing the rounds lately, but rather a list of my own personal highlights. Some are tiny, and some are life-changing. What were your highlights of 2016?

The Guilty Feminist Podcast

This year I finally started listening to podcasts, and this was the first one I tuned in to after it was recommended by a friend (thank you Gillian!). Female comedians discuss a range of topics, from shoes to periods to nudity, and examine their complicated and at times contradictory relationships with femininity, feminism, their own bodies, and the people around them. It is hilarious and thought-provoking, wonderfully forgiving and a real tonic if you think feminists are shouty and irritating. Some are like that, but some of us don’t have a clue! The show starts with a list of brilliant ‘I am a feminist but…’ quotes, such as: ‘I am a feminist… but I often find myself promoting this podcast by saying, it’s about feminism, but don’t worry, it’s funny.’

Dancing at weddings

I’ve been to a few weddings this year with my partner. I struggle with weddings. I find the logistics of getting there, finding somewhere to stay, talking to people you don’t know, and figuring out when it’s okay to leave very stressful. But I’ve discovered that dancing at weddings with my partner is the best. This summer we went to a stunning wedding of a friend of mine (the same Gillian who recommended the Guilty Feminist podcast – congrats on the awesome wedding too!) in rural Kent, in a big marquee and the groom’s family’s back garden. I was panicking about what to wear up until the last minute, and got changed 30 seconds before we had to leave into navy trousers and blazer and a red shirt (then got self-conscious when my partner said we looked like we were heading to a business meeting). Anxiety + free champagne meant we were both wonderfully silly by the time we sat down to eat, and still pretty tipsy when the music started. We both love dancing and we barely stopped for the next couple of hours. Several people complimented us on our dancing, which felt wonderful and all in all it was a fabulous evening. I like weddings now.

Lazy corgi fight video

I love the beginning of this video, with a corgi lying on its back with its feet in the air. What is it doing?! And then the “fight” – I’m going to snap at you… and then just go and lie over here… and bark at…nothing… These dogs are just ridiculous. Corgis themselves make no sense. How are their legs so short?! So comical.

14th May, Canterbury

I moved to Canterbury this year after ten years of living in London. This was one of the life-changing highlights to the year: I moved in with my partner and started a much longer commute to work. For the most part living together has been lovely, and although the commute isn’t my favourite thing in the world, I love living in Canterbury. When I got back after Christmas it felt like home. And although there are pros and cons to being out of London, I certainly don’t miss the tube or the weekend crowds. Or the exorbitant rent. Although the rail pass does its best to make up for that!

Started anti-anxiety medication

This might be a strange thing to put as a highlight of the year. Having to take medication is bad, right? I certainly thought so for a long time. Even though I’ve been blogging about mental health for a while now and I am very supportive of friends who are on medication, I really fought going on anxiety medication myself. I realised that I still saw it as a sign of weakness. I thought I should be able to get past it on my own. And I put a lot of work into that and when I was feeling generally okay, the self-care worked. But when you’re tired or something knocks you so you take that lift back down to the beginning again, sometimes it’s too tough to haul yourself back up all the stairs on your own. I’ve been on anti-anxiety medication for six weeks. I’m on a very low dosage and it still sometimes gives me nausea, but I also have some more space in my head to combat anxious thoughts. I’ve achieved things that I’m not sure I could have done if I hadn’t been on medication. I don’t know what will happen, whether they’ll keep working, whether I’ll need to switch, or whether I’ll need to up the dosage, but right now I think they’re working. It’s easier for me to take a step back from anxious thoughts. There’s no point saying to myself “you don’t need to worry about this” because that doesn’t work. But I am finding some relief from going a step further and thinking “you don’t need to think about this. There is nothing saying you need to spend time and energy going over this. Let it go.” Just gaining that step and finding a bit more stability is feeling great. Keep your fingers crossed for me that it stays good.

Dyeing my hair

While in most areas of life I’m quite frightened of change, as we all are (I heard someone on the radio recently say everybody is scared of change, and if someone says they’re not, they’re lying) when it comes to going to the hairdressers I LOVE change. The bigger the change, the better. If I have a haircut and come out looking more or less the same, I’m a bit disappointed and have generally forgotten I had the haircut by the time I get home, so someone saying they like it confuses me. You like what? It’s the same! This year I dyed my hair red for the first time. I’ve wanted to do it for about a decade so it was pretty exciting for me. It didn’t go quite as bright as I wanted so I’m planning to get it done again soon. I look so quiet and demure that most hairdressers are worried I’m going to get upset, so they tend to – consciously or not – tone down what I ask for. But my current hairdresser in Canterbury seems to trust I want what I say, so I’ll ask him to dye it next. Hopefully it won’t come out some dreadful shade of pink.

Driving home for Christmas

I passed my driving test four years ago, then only drove on the odd weekend at my parents’ house for the next four years. Now I’m living in Canterbury, I have my car with me here. Unfortunately the years off and the fact I was driving somewhere I barely knew meant I started getting extremely anxious about getting in the car. Panic attacks and heated arguments with my partner while driving ensued, and although I kept at it, I was still struggling with nerves. I would be so anxious about driving fifteen minutes to the nearest stables for a riding lesson that I could barely stand due to extreme nausea. Then I started anti-anxiety medication, and although I was still anxious before I left the house, once I was in the car I was fine. So I took a somewhat bold and impulsive decision – I do this sometimes – to drive myself from Canterbury to Suffolk to stay with my parents at Christmas. I hadn’t been on a dual carriageway for four years and had never driven on a motorway. But for some reason I decided that having a parent come down and sit in the car with me, or drive in front of me so I at least knew where I was going, was not as good as going solo with the Google Maps app and ‘winging it’. Well, I was right. I had a couple of fun moments at roundabouts and risked speeding tickets here and there (with added adrenaline rush because when you take my little car over 80 miles per hour, the steering wheel shudders) but the sense of achievement was second to none. Definitely a highlight of the year.

Other people’s achievements

I am very lucky to have an amazing circle of friends, family, and partner. They share in my achievements and my worries as I share in theirs. Although there have been difficulties and sadnesses this year, several of my immediate circle have also had wonderful news that I have loved sharing with them. My best friend is pregnant and expecting her baby very soon. I love that I was one of the first to know about the pregnancy, and I’ve loved keeping up our dinner routine while we can and checking in on how she’s doing. Apparently my general cynical nature has been a great tonic to her when all she wants to do is complain about feeling fat and having rib pain and most of the people around her are saying OMG YOU MUST FEEL SO BLESSED!!! My ‘yeesh, poor you, that sucks’ has been very useful, she says, which I’m very happy (and relieved) about. In other news, my partner had his first academic book published this year. It’s a huge moment and I felt so very proud going to the launch and hearing him talk about it. Getting to read a published book by someone you know and love is really wonderful, and I couldn’t be happier for him.

There are more great moments but I feel like this post is already quite long and gushing. I encourage you all to note down a few things that went well this year, even if it was just a great book you read or a brilliant movie you saw. Looking back on them in the future is really encouraging, and god knows we all need some good things to remember about 2016.

Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

Introvert, Depressive, Anxious, Female – Normal?

As is probably true of us all, I’ve been pretty down this week. I’ve been struggling with concentration, sleep, and general irritability. Although I would no longer classify myself as depressed, I am aware that my moods fluctuate quite a lot, and I do what I can to keep them in check and generally don’t feel like I do too badly. So I was a little surprised yesterday when one of my best friends said she thought I should see a psychiatrist.

I’ve been thinking it over ever since and it has made me aware of several things. Even people who have experienced mental illness, talk about it a lot, seek treatment for it, and understand what it’s about, do not always like being told that they need help. I don’t want to be one of those people who refuse treatment when people around them think it is needed. But it is a horrible feeling, perhaps even more so if you have had treatment before and improved, because it makes you feel you have failed by being ill again.

In my case, there is also apprehension and scepticism over what a psychiatrist can do for me, and how that would work in practical terms. In the past four years I have had two years of counselling, six months of antidepressants, six sessions of CBT and a prescription for anti-anxiety drugs (I only took one, which made me feel so ill I could hardly sleep, work or eat for 24 hours. Apparently this is common and can last up to six weeks, and as I have very little excess body fat, I thought it was better to be mildly anxious than starve). I do not really want any more talking therapy. I know the background of why I am anxious, and sometimes low, and I don’t really feel that talking about it any more will make it any better. I don’t really want to try pills again – my main issue is low self-esteem and sadly there isn’t a pill for that. The side effects when I have taken them before were also rather troubling and off-putting.

The conversation with my friend focussed my mind on what I’ve been wondering on and off for the last couple of years, or even longer than that. Am I ill, or am I just me? There are so many ways of interpreting our behaviour and thought patterns these days, with so much more knowledge of mental illness freely available, that it all too easy to label someone as one thing or another. Here’s a good example of what I mean: when I was at school, I used to hate being asked to answer a question unless I was 100% sure of the answer, and that was rare. I was terrified of getting it wrong. Various books I have read over the last few years have included examples of this and attributed it to a different ‘label’. Quiet by Susan Cain says this is introversion. Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In says this is common among females, because we are socialised not to consider our answers important and to be quiet and shy and let the boys speak. Or you could say this is the beginnings of anxiety, a deep-based fear of being found not good enough that requires therapy or pills to solve. Or is it just me? Just the way I am, that I don’t like talking about things I don’t know much about? I don’t know. It could be any of those things, or none, or all. So how do we know when we are mentally ill?

When I was at school or doing my BA, the label ‘anxiety’ was not that common amongst teachers so you just had to get on with it and do the best you could. I know that universities are far more aware now and some make special provisions for students who experience anxiety, particularly for presentations (I don’t know about schools; I’d be interested to learn). This is good in some ways, because people can get help and support, but it can also reinforce negative behaviours. Using the example of presentations, if my teachers at university had known that I was so nervous I thought I was going to be sick before each public speaking effort, and so anxious during those five minutes that I couldn’t breathe properly, maybe they would have let me off. I would have been so relieved, and I am a little envious of the students who are let off now. But: avoiding what makes you anxious in this way does not do you any favours. If you never try, you never learn that it doesn’t kill you, and you never improve. By the end of my BA degree I could do a presentation with far less nerves, and my audience would be more or less unaware that I was anxious at all. It is still a problem for me, but I learnt that I could do it. Not facing these anxieties is called negative reinforcement: the immediate relief of being let off is so marvellous that you keep doing it again and again, and you never get any better.

So is it useful to give yourself a label and use it as an excuse? For things that make everyone anxious (public speaking is one of the most common phobias) maybe it isn’t. And I can’t say I’m generally anxious because a lot of things that some people loathe I have no issues with. I adore flying, for example. I get anxious before some big social occasions where I’m not going to know many people, but who doesn’t? I now get anxious when I drive because I haven’t done it much lately, but again, isn’t that normal?

Another example I read about was a girl who lost both her parents very early in life. After the death of her mother when she was only about 20, leaving her an orphan, she went to see a counsellor. The counsellor told her she was ‘ordinarily unhappy’ and for a long time the girl was livid. But the counsellor meant: of COURSE you are unhappy. Who wouldn’t be? And in some cases this is a useful way of looking at things. You’re nervous of talking in front of 30 other people you hardly know? Fair enough. It’s not unusual. It doesn’t need a label.

My friend is worried that I may still be suffering from a form of depression, which may have been misdiagnosed by a GP without the time or expertise to look into the problem fully. By the standard definition of feeling down and hopeless and plagued by negative thoughts for two weeks or more, I am not depressed. I have been low this last week, and anxious, but again with all the news this past week or two, WHO HASN’T been feeling down and anxious?!

I do know that there are some things that are not perhaps ‘normal’ for me to worry about as much as I do. And I could call that anxiety, as they can get into self-reinforcing and self-inflicted spirals. But most of them are to do with self-esteem: am I good enough at this? Do people like me? Am I important? Am I pretty enough? Am I clever enough? It’s exhausting. But it’s not constant. So is it an illness, or is it just something people suffer from – particularly women?

I have been listening to the Guilty Feminist podcast a lot lately – highly recommended – and listened to one yesterday on Worth. They discussed how much they felt they were worth, both in monetary terms for their jobs but also in terms of standing up for what was important to them, and measuring their own worth by different standards. Sarah Millican was the guest, and she said it had taken her a long time to work out that she needed to judge her own worth herself, without taking on anyone else’s assessment. She read out a review she had had after appearing on a television show where the reviewer essentially pronounced her worthless because she was not young and sexy, but neither was she a wife and a mother. Too often women have their worth judged in these ways, rather than on anything else. It’s a huge problem, because when women judge their own worth in this way, even if they wouldn’t judge their friends like that, it’s easy to feel worthless. Oh, my boyfriend didn’t want to sleep with me this evening therefore I’m not sexy therefore I am worthless. I am single and in my thirties and don’t think I want children therefore I’m worthless. I’m in my fifties and have been at home raising my children for thirty years, but now my children have all left home and don’t need me every day anymore therefore I’m worthless.

I am well aware that I have issues assessing my own worth, and believing that I am not worth much leads to problems all over the place. If I don’t think I’m worth much, I don’t understand why my partner would think so, so I think he’s going to leave. I get irritable and needy, and then he gets upset, and then I feel even more worthless because I’m being a pain in the arse, and the cycle keeps going. This, I think, is what my friend thinks I need a psychiatrist for, and probably because she’s heard stories of these kind of issues with my partner too often for too long, and there’s nothing much she can say, or anyone can say – except perhaps a professional. Maybe she’s right. I know what the psychiatrist will say, but is that a reason not to go? Do I need a label? Or can I cope with this on my own? Is it an illness that requires treatment, or is it because I’ve grown up as a slightly introverted woman and these are common tropes in many women’s lives? I really don’t know.

I am considering going purely for the guidance of a professional opinion. At the same time I am aware that my best friend in all this is probably myself. If the worst problem I have is negative thought spirals, the best thing I can do is practise mindfulness. When I did it actively for a few weeks, I procrastinated less at work, I got into less idiotic thought patterns about my partner’s ex-girlfriends (of ALL the pointless things to think about, that’s got to be one of the worst) and I felt much better and more confident in myself. We have been told time and time again that exercise is effective as medication for some mental illnesses. So even if a professional would give me an anxiety or depression label, does that also mean I need psychiatric treatment? If I don’t think I need it, odds on it won’t work. So ultimately, my opinion is the one that’s worth the most.

“Wasting” time and “changing” thoughts

Apologies in advance for the overuse of inverted commas in this blog post!

It is 8.20am at King’s Cross Underground Station. Rush hour. People stream from train to platform, platform to escalator, escalator to barrier, barrier to stairs. I am always struck by the uniformity of colour. Everyone is wearing black or navy, with only infrequent splashes of anything brighter or lighter (for years I refused to buy a coat in either black or navy, insisting on red, pink, blue. Recently I gave in as, while being prettier, they also require far more frequent washing). Being on the tube at this time of day is often dead time. With neither enough free hands nor enough space to hold a book, and with too much noise to be able to comfortably listen to anything, I mostly choose to just stand. The only entertainment I can get is reading the headlines in the free newspapers people carry, or the adverts above people’s heads, both of which make me wish I had a pair of glasses which could remove my ability to read.

I have been awake for two hours and on the move for one, but this is the first time I feel like I’m participating in a rush hour commute. The early train can hardly be described as “rushed”; nearly everyone has a seat and it is usually completely quiet, without even gossiping colleagues to break the silence. Everyone is in their own worlds, passing this parcel of time in whichever way they prefer. People watch films or write notes, start work and read books (physical and electronic). Others take advantage of the well-cushioned seats and headrests to return to sleep.

I have choices in how I use this time. I cannot work as the trains do not have internet. There is enough intermittent connection on my phone to talk to friends, sometimes discussing in that early morning time urgent happenings from the night before, and I’m sure many would use this time on various forms of social media, catching up on tweets and news feeds and photographs. I am restricted in what I can do in this area. I chose some time ago to remove social media apps from my phone, so I cannot scroll the endless facebook news feed as I used to – I found I had got into the habit of doing it as soon as I woke up in the morning, which, even when there was nothing in particular going on, gave the morning a greyish tinge and a flatness which I decided to do without.

We are given so much advice these days on how to spend our time, but so much of it passes without our conscious thought. I have seen endless articles lately about the “busyness epidemic”, that we are all rushed off our feet and don’t have time to do – what, exactly? I know many people have jobs that take up most of their non 9-5 time, but I also know – from my own experience and these constant articles – that we are also “wasting” time on websites or doing “nothing.” But what are we doing when we do nothing? This is what I’ve been thinking about recently, since I moved and put an hour’s train ride between me and my job. I now have two hours every day, ten hours a week, which at the end of a year I will be able to look at as a distinct and separate area of time and think: what did I do with it?

The cultural feeling around long commutes is overwhelmingly negative, and I was nervous about how it would affect me. While getting up so early is not my favourite thing to do, I am finding some deep comfort in this neatly packaged and wrapped slice of time I have, every day, morning and evening, to use as I will. There is nobody to interrupt me or to tell me what they would rather I be doing. I am finding it interesting seeing how doing different things affect my mental state for the working day or resting evening ahead. There is some kind of expectation we should do something profound with this amount of time, seen in a block – learn a language, read heavy non-fiction, “improve” ourselves in some way. In some ways this is appealing, although there needs to be a balance between relaxation and personal improvement. And there are ways to pass the time and enjoy it without feeling at the end of the journey, week or month, that it was “wasted.”

One thing I am getting back into is listening to books. Audiobooks require a fantastic amount of mindful concentration. We are so used to paying attention to what is in front of our eyes, that attending fully and completely with our ears is a surprisingly difficult task. Your mind will wander and you’ll realise you’ve missed a few pages. You are conscious of every moment of daydreaming in a way you are not while you are reading, when I for one will frequently skip explanations, descriptions, and chapter headings without even noticing (it is only with books like The Time Traveller’s Wife that I realise how much I do this, when you need to read each chapter heading and fully process it to know whose past or present you are about to be in). Similarly, when we are speaking to other people, our mind is often not consciously engaged with what they are saying, but attaching extra meaning, processing an emotional reaction, thinking ahead to what we are going to say, or thinking about something completely different. Listening to an audiobook for an hour I am very aware of the time passing, but I arrive at King’s Cross into the swell and sway of commuters feeling very tranquil, very aware. I have been taken out of my own headspace for a full hour, unable to follow the often pointless and petty meanderings of my brain, and it is a deeply welcome break.

One thing I have been more conscious of lately, and which led to the deleting of facebook from my phone and the installation of an app on my laptop which allows me only five minutes on there a day, is how much social media can affect my mood. It is, for me, a deeply unmindful way of passing the time. Although I think in some areas restricting time on facebook is me using avoidance tactics on things which make me anxious, which I would do better to address head on, in other ways it removed a way for me to “waste” a lot of time. “Wasting” in the sense that I am not aware of what I am doing, I am glazing over and mindlessly absorbing what I see, which is only the falsely positive, overwhelmingly negative or lists of pointless platitudinous quotations. Into this gap I moved the reading of more articles (which led to more blog writing) and also participation in some online courses. I have signed up to far more of them than I have actually ritually participated in, but three have proven very useful in this ongoing quest I and everyone else seems to be on to “improve,” find some balance, feel happier, and (in my case) add tools to my arsenal to fight ongoing mental health issues.

The first (this and the others were on the free FutureLearn website) was on Literature and Mental Health, looking at the way poetry, novels and plays have addressed mental health problems or might be used by people to help them in times of stress or pain. As a result of it I have memorised several poems that are useful in calming me down and making me focus when I am having anxiety attacks (Yeats “The Lake Isle of Innsifree”, Oliver “Wild Geese”, Auden “Funeral Blues”). The second was on Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance. I won’t bore you by reiterating that mindfulness is very popular at the moment, but I will say that the course was extremely helpful day to day in helping me slow down my thoughts and feel more at one with myself. Sadly since the course ended I have struggled to keep this up, so I am now enrolled on it for a second time.

Mindfulness is all about the avoidance of wasting time, in this sense I am using of wasting time by being unaware of where you are and what you are doing. Mindfulness teaches you to concentrate on the present moment, accepting it for what it is if it is unpleasant, and enjoying it fully without past doubts or future worries if it is pleasant. It is all very well and good but, of course, extremely difficult. I also read an article once against it and in defence of daydreaming – the author quite rightly pointed out that it is only the daydreams about the fool you made of yourself in science class at school that are bad for our mental health; if we are cheerfully daydreaming about winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay or galloping along a beach on a chestnut horse, we are more likely to be happy at the end of the commute than if we were sat there concentrating hard on the exact shade of blue of the chair in front. However, mindfulness is very useful for combating negative thoughts, simply because it makes you focus on them and see them for what they are, whereas in “default mode” (or perhaps “toxic thought world” as Adriene, online yoga instructor, has termed a similar way of thinking) we allow the narratives of self-criticism and worry to run unchecked. I had a silly horoscope on an email newsletter the other day (Lenny, co-run by Lena Dunham) which told me that there wasn’t a real problem, the only issue was the ‘troubling narrative’ I had built up around whatever it was I was worrying about. Like all horoscopes it trod that beautiful line of being totally specific, and yet entirely vague, so that it could neatly apply to absolutely everybody. But for me it did give me pause for thought, and pushed me to try a more mindful way of thinking.

The third course, which for me builds on the mindful aspects of not “wasting” time and of “changing” your thought patterns (I am as yet deeply sceptical of things which tell me I can change how I think, which I hope isn’t the biggest obstacle to it actually working), is about Anxiety, Depression and CBT. As someone who has experienced anxiety, depression, and undergone a course of CBT, you might think this course would be rather in the way of teaching a grandmother to suck eggs (heaven alone knows where that saying comes from). But examining it all from the outside in has been remarkably helpful. The course spells out for those who have never suffered from either anxiety or depression how it affects the brain and the way sufferers interpret things. To cut a long story short, and oversimplifying wildly, people with these issues focus on the negative. They see neutral situations as negative, remember negative things far more easily and with greater depth than positive ones, and thereby encase themselves in a self-perpetuating cycle of shrinking worlds and increasing mental anguish. It is in many ways a form of unchosen self-torture. CBT teaches people to break the cycles of negativity which influence thoughts, emotions, physical reactions, and behaviours, by interpreting situations more realistically, and adjusting behaviour ahead of changes in mood to try and kickstart adjustments in thinking, then feeling, then living. It is, like mindfulness, far easier said than done. The four or five sessions of CBT I had were very good, but like the mindfulness course, without weekly guidance I have fallen back into old ways of thinking. This course, together with the mindfulness course, is helping to reiterate to me how much of what I think and feel is not real.

It is now 6pm, and I am on the train heading home. After a day at work I may not have the mental concentration for an audiobook, or an online course, or even a book, depending on what it is. Sometimes I will daydream but the time passes slowly. Fortunately my partner gave me a straight out of left field gift for my birthday: a Nintendo 3DS. As a teenager I spent a lot of time watching my two brothers, and later boyfriends, play various computer games. It seems to be a fairly typical experience for females, which is interesting. What is it that makes us observers rather than players? Is it cultural gender stereotyping, that girls are not allowed to play these games or will automatically be bad at them? In some cases I’m sure it’s a genuine lack of interest, but for me I think often it was informed by an idea that I wouldn’t be any good. This was reinforced as my brothers, having a ready-made two player game, would play each other very often and far more frequently than I would want to join in (you see, I had a stable of model ponies to look after). They were then far more proficient than I was, and I didn’t like to lose constantly or make them feel like they were being held back by me. But my partner thought this was a shame, and that a Nintendo 3DS might be a way for me to try my hand at games – single player, straightforward, and just about me. I was sceptical. But time never passes faster on the train than when I’m playing Pokemon. I’m sure some people will think this is time “wasted”, but I disagree. For a start, as I have said elsewhere, time enjoyed is never time wasted. Also, there is a strange sense of achievement that comes from playing these games. And, it is a mindful practice, as you are totally in the moment, unaware of the people around you or the worries of the day you’ve spent. It is a fun and easy way to switch my mind off. Why wouldn’t training a high-level Charmander be a positive way of evaluating how I’ve spent some of my hours on the train? Especially if, at the same time, it is stopping me from focussing on negatives or getting stuck in tedious, grey spirals of thought. And the less time I spend on that, the “better” I think I will be.

 

My argument against cryonics and wanting to live forever

My partner and I were talking about Captain America the other day. A discussion on how Captain America was frozen for however many years to wake up in a whole other age progressed to a conversation on cryogenics, or cryonics, which I read a long Wait but Why blog post on about a month ago. My partner said he and a friend had agreed the other day that having your body “frozen” (actually technically not, but I’m going to use the term anyway because it’s easiest) to wake up in the future when scientists have worked out how to bring you back would be an excellent plan. He could see a new age, see what happened, how the world had progressed, and put off dying for a while longer. With so many people and songs and films always saying how wonderful it would be to be immortal, I started feeling like a sad odd one out for thinking differently.

I am not good at thinking on my feet. It’s an introvert quality; that we need time to go away and process our thoughts before bringing out a solid argument. My partner does not have this quality. As an academic, he’s very good at presenting an excellent argument at the drop of a hat. This can leave me feeling confused and frustrated at my own inarticulateness, especially with phone conversations like this one. So here, a few days later, is why I have no desire to sign up for cryonics.

I have often found it strange when people say they would like to live forever. I feel like they need to add a few caveats onto that: if I have unlimited money and don’t have to work. If the person I love is also immortal. If if if. I love life (one thing I doubted in my existential crisis after this phone call the other day) but that doesn’t stop a lot of it being hard work and tiresome. It seems to me this is mainly due to money. What a pain in the arse. The older I get the more it seems to me that you never feel like you have a comfortable amount of it, which may have a lot to do with living in London and being part of Generation Y – studies have shown we are one of the worst-off generations in history. It’s all very well reading articles about how the greatest things in life are the scent of jasmine when you’re walking home in the dark, or watching a sunset, or other things money can’t buy.  I totally agree. But that doesn’t stop money being sadly necessary to do stuff like eat and have a roof over your head. I’m fairly sure nobody would want to live forever if that forever meant being starving and homeless. But then I’ve never been starving and homeless, so maybe I shouldn’t say that.

This train of thought brought me to the story of Tithonus, a figure in Greek mythology and the subject of a famous Tennyson poem I studied for A level. Tithonus is desperately in love with the goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and begs her to make him immortal so they can be together for eternity. She adores him so she acquiesces, but they both forgot something. He is immortal, but not forever young. While she is reborn anew each morning, ever beautiful and lovely, he ages every day and becomes more and more miserable. He looks down on earth and is deeply envious of all the mortals who get to live their lives, then die and rest. It is a very sad story but one that makes me think that that’s something else people want but don’t say when they claim to want to live forever, or wake up in another age: if I’m young enough and compos mentis enough to enjoy it and keep learning and loving.

My first question when my partner said he would want to be cryogenically frozen was: okay, so you wake up x years into the future – and then what? You won’t know anyone. And he said ‘I don’t know, go out and meet someone…?’ which made me think wtf on several levels. 1) ‘Go out and meet someone,’ whether it’s intended to or not, sounds like you’re wandering into bars in search of a boyfriend/girlfriend. I was not happy that his initial thought about this seemed to be that he would wake up, and think, ‘Oh! My partner is dead! Oh well, whatevs. I’ll go find someone else’ like I was an umbrella that had been left behind in a restaurant. 2) It highlighted to me the differences in our personalities. Just ‘going out and meeting someone’ completely cold is something I often can’t do now, in my own time and space, without feeling extremely anxious. 3) Imagine someone from a hundred years ago waking up today and popping out to try and meet someone. Many of the rules of society and how we interact and communicate have totally changed, and I wouldn’t expect a hundred years from now to be any different.

4) My question to him is my biggest question on cryogenics, and his nonchalant answer completely threw me for six. Think about it. You wake up tomorrow and everyone you ever knew or loved or cared about is gone. There is only you left. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in the wake of the Paris attacks, when we were talking about the possibility of a similar attack in London. She said she wasn’t afraid of being killed, she was afraid of being the one left behind. This is exactly my feelings. Waking up like that, and being completely and utterly alone in the world, is my greatest fear. I love all the free treasured moments in life and the stuff money can buy me and all that jazz, but ultimately I want to spend time with the people I love and care about. And if I woke up one day after being frozen for however many years, they would all be lost. Assuming that the human race still existed and I hadn’t been brought round by robots, there would be new people I could go out and meet and care about, of course. But would you ever get over the grief of all those people you would never see again? In my life I’ve only lost one person who I really, really loved. It was eight years ago and thinking about him still makes me feel such pain that I’ll never get to see or talk to him again. Imagine that magnified dozens of times over for all the people you left behind. Another friend pointed out that it was interesting that this conversation arose out of a discussion of Captain America, as apparently one of the messages of the second film is that being alive in a time not your own sucks. He misses all the people he used to know.

The Wait but Why blog ended with some fairly sweeping and, to my mind, stupid observations about life and death. Their argument was that one day cryogenics would be the norm as resuscitation is the norm now, and that it would be considered unethical not to freeze a dying child or similar to prolong their life. I don’t really understand this argument. Why would you want to freeze a dying child unless you had a way of bringing them back and making them well? And if you could make them well by freezing them, why freeze them for ages to have them brought back in the future when their parents and friends and siblings are long dead? Just freeze them for ten minutes and bring them back. And I’m not entirely clear on how we will be kept alive in the future if our bodies are broken in the present enough for us to die. This is also banking on science in the future finding cures for everything so they can wake you up, prod you with a laser and cure your cancer or stick your brain back together or similar. But I still have the question, then what? What do you do then? I feel like people confuse this with time travel sometimes: if you could fall asleep today and wake up in the future exactly as you are, would that be great? Maybe. If you didn’t really give a damn about the people you knew enough to want to stay for them, then sure. But that would be waking up in the future healthy. It would be totally different to wake up aged and struggling. I don’t see how death is going to be cured completely, and what a sad day for the planet if it was.

The Wait but Why blog said that death is currently our tyrannical overlord, that rules our lives and that everyone is terrified of and spending time and effort avoiding but ultimately doing nothing about escaping from, because it’s inevitable. I’m calling bullshit on this idea. I don’t want to die but I am not afraid of death. I was worried for a while after this conversation that I was actually suicidal without noticing, as all the talk of living for longer periods or waking up again in the future just made me feel totally exhausted. Oh God, more hassle with bills and admin and train delays? Ugh. I was frightened for a while that that meant I wasn’t enjoying my life at all. As someone who suffers from depressive moods, I do sometimes have times when, as Matt Haig put it in the melodramatically titled yet excellent ‘Reasons to Stay Alive,’ you don’t want to die, but you just don’t want to be. It’s as if you want a switch and for someone to say, if you flick this, you will cease to be or have been. Nobody will be hurt or sad, but you will be gone, and you won’t have to worry about anything anymore or feel lonely or lost or like everything is an inconceivable amount of effort. That’s the switch depressives want sometimes. But it’s not quite the same to my mind as being suicidal, because you don’t exactly want to die, and leave everyone around you to be sad, and give up on everything and everyone you love. Except on the darkest days, there is hope for happiness in the future. It is only when those darkest days become the everyday norm that depressives start seeing suicide like it’s an escape from a burning building. I decided that thinking immortality would be exhausting is not the same as not enjoying life as it is – I really do enjoy most of it and I don’t want to be dead.

As I said before, my greatest fear is of being left behind totally alone.  I am more frightened of this than of dying. I’ve never quite understood films like I am Legend (which, disclaimer, I don’t think I’ve actually seen). If it was me and I had ascertained beyond reasonable doubt that I was the only human left, I’d go to the top of a very tall building, and jump. What would be the point in carrying on alone? And what is so awful about death that living in a barren wilderness full of nothing is preferable? Of course, if you are being brought round in the future it’s unlikely it will be a totally empty planet, but I can guarantee it will be bizarre and confusing and frightening. And although death is certain and final, and while you are alive there is an outside chance things will improve, there is also a comfort in death being so final, inescapable, an inevitable release. Maybe I’m just being pessimistic but the ways the news is going at the moment I can’t see the future being a funfair. Imagine if you “died” around the end of the Second World War, and woke up today to find that a lot of those horrible attitudes and beliefs are coming back? We are not on a guaranteed march towards progress, we are taking steps back and, if you are taking the least optimistic view, potentially allowing the worst of history to repeat itself.

To go back to the idea of death being so frightening: I disagree. I can even quote Harry Potter to support my argument here, when Dumbledore explains to Harry that the Philosopher’s Stone will be destroyed, so that Voldemort (the ultimate character terrified of death above all things) cannot try to get hold of the Elixir of Life. Harry says, but then, won’t Nicolas Flamel die? Yes, Dumbledore says, he will die: “it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day.” I want to live and enjoy myself for as long as I have, but I am not afraid of having my ‘little life rounded with a sleep.’ Even if I was told tomorrow I only have six weeks to live, I would not want to be put in a box to be woken up some time in the future. I will accept what I have, and try to make the most of it. The things that make life worth it are here, and now. I find dying preferable to the idea of going to sleep but then finding that I’m not done after all, I have more time, but what I loved and who I loved and everything I know are gone, and I’ll never get them back.

Some people might argue, okay, well what if you’re loved ones were also frozen and could be there with you when you woke up? This seems to me to be highly unlikely. Aside from the fact that many scientists say cryonics is never going to work anyway, the circumstances of someone’s death that could lead to a successful “unfreezing” are very specific. You would need to die naturally, preferably in a cryogenics centre or a hospital that is happy to put you directly on ice so your brain doesn’t start to decompose. If you die and aren’t found for a while, even a few hours, or you are killed in an accident, particularly causing damage to the brain, the chances of you being brought round are slim. Frankly, I am still more frightened of the possibility of waking up alone than I am of just dying, and being at peace. This is just my opinion, and I know a lot of people won’t share it. It’s certainly an interesting debate, and I haven’t even touched on the potential moralistic side of it: should we be able to do this? If we can all come back to life, where is everyone going to live? The planet is pretty full already. If you are brought round and are still of working age, do you then have to go out and get a job? How would you even do that in an age where everything is unfamiliar? I know I have to some extent conflated the idea of immortality with cryogenics in this post, and obviously they aren’t the same thing. But I think people who are asking to be frozen are thinking of it in terms of immortality, as I’m sure they won’t be thinking about a potential second death in that far distant future. For me, I will rely on my imagination to see what the world will be like in a hundred years. I don’t want to be there.

“What do you do?” Careers and Labels

Careers are such strange things. When we’re children people ask us what we want to be and it’s always these clearly identifiable jobs, ones that carry an identity with them: teacher, fireman, policeman, actress, doctor, etc. When you get older you realise that there are so many jobs that don’t have a name, which you can’t aim for because you don’t know they exist, and where telling people what you do requires a paragraph of explanation. In some cases, this can make you feel like your job is worth less than the jobs that have a title, and less than the people who’ve been aiming for the same vocation their whole lives.

For example, my boyfriend is an academic, many of his friends are academics, some of his exes are academics. Before we met, after a period in publishing I decided to go back to university for a Master’s degree, with a thought that I might carry it on this time and become a lecturer. Talking it over with a teacher who knew me well he gently warned me that academia might not be right for me because there is so much time spent alone, doing research or marking or writing lectures, and the rest of the time you have to be in some way an extrovert, engaging the attention and motivating the minds of dozens of students. In the past I’ve heaped a whole load of contradictory labels onto myself – introvert (needs to spend time alone), history of depression (shouldn’t spend too much time alone), anxious (should steer clear of stressful situations). And then I wondered if I was limiting myself with these labels from a career that I could enjoy. So I kept aiming for the PhD, until I found out other, innate qualities about myself that don’t have labels but which do mean that being a lecturer wouldn’t be the best path for me. I don’t enjoy working on one thing for long periods of time, I find it tedious and frustrating. Although I enjoyed what I was researching in my MA I didn’t have that all-consuming desire to get to the bottom of a topic and do everything required – learn new languages, travel – to find out everything about it. Although I’m a competent public speaker it makes me extremely stressed. For these reasons amongst others (expense, lack of job opportunities on the other side) I decided not to carry on with my studies.

As someone who defined themselves for a long time by their grades (see other blog) I’m still coming to terms with this decision, and struggling not to feel inadequate and intellectually a lesser being next to these academics. And maybe I am, in some ways, if you judge by particular criteria. I don’t have the kind of memory that holds on to thousands of historical facts. I seem to have filled up my brain by age 16 with information about different horse breeds and the plots of hundreds of books – there’s not much space left. I’m not one of those people who can expostulate at length on various topics when I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about (introvert trait?) unless I’m drunk (or just shy?) so being a lecturer probably wouldn’t work out so well. If a student threw me a curveball question I’d either need to have a hip flask of gin to let me bullshit about it or tell them to ask again next week once I’d read up on it. Although it’s been a difficult process, I’m glad to have done the MA so I could find out these things about myself, about my differences. Essentially, I believe that’s what university is all about.

The company I work for has recently been approached by a group working to encourage students to take STEM subjects at GCSE and beyond. As a mapping company and technology company you’d assume we’d be a good fit for a slightly ‘think outside the box’ example of what you can do with STEM subjects. But the people in the office mostly didn’t do science and maths. Of the people who did further education, we have an assortment including English, History, Architecture, and Music. Some didn’t go to university at all, and their A Levels weren’t in the right ball park either – Latin, Greek, etc. We are, in fact, an advert for Arts and Humanities subjects as passports to whatever the hell you like. While I understand that we need to show children what they can do with maths and science and encourage them to carry it on if they enjoy it, I think we should also be teaching children that they can keep changing their minds, over and over again. What they do at university does not need to define them for the rest of their lives. Neither does their first job. Or their second job.

As you get older your ideas of yourself can change – they might not, you might carry out your childhood dream – but if, like me, your ‘childhood dream’ changed monthly and was remarkably similar to what your best friend’s ‘childhood dream’ was, or the occupation of the protagonist of the latest book you’d read, then don’t panic. You don’t have to have had a dream, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. You have the freedom to just see what comes up, see what sounds interesting, and see what opportunities come from people that you know. Do not underestimate the advantages of going for something that isn’t what you ever imagined, if the people are nice and the job keeps your mind busy. I love working at the job I’m in now because I get to do so many different things every day. I have an obscure job title which nobody has ever thought up as their dream job while they’re at school (we invented it) and which tells you virtually nothing about what I do every day, but it suits me with my preference for short jobs I can chop and change between.

The film Good Will Hunting made me laugh in this respect (spoilers!). There’s so much debate about what Will should do, what job he should go for with this fantastic brain that was going to change the world. But why did he need to decide right then? He was what, 20? He could do one thing for a bit, then something else. He could go be in love with the girl for a while, sort his head out after some pretty serious and life-changing therapy, then think about what he wanted to do. We shouldn’t keep pushing young people to think of a career by an expiry date, especially when people are putting down that expiry date as 17, when you’re picking your university subjects. Hardly anybody knows themselves at 17 – that’s why most of us have relationships at that age which are, in retrospect, such monumentally bad ideas. People change their minds about their passions and careers at 28, 35, 50, 65, whenever. Talking the issue over with a colleague recently, he said he thought the best advice would be: whatever you’re doing, do it well. Do the best at it that you can. Which is why I believe it’s so important not to assign career paths to students and imply that their subjects and university degrees will be labels that define them for life. They need to be doing the topics that interest them, because it’s so much harder to do well at a subject that you don’t enjoy. Also, although we can encourage children to think of the big dream jobs, we could also try to explain that there are many jobs that they won’t be able to think of yet, but which will suit their qualities and differences just right. And they’ll find out those qualities and differences through experience, and little else.