12 May

I just watched my dog throw up by my feet and then eat his own vomit and it was about 30 seconds into that that I thought, “I really need to update my blog.”


I’ve had a lot of texts and emails and tweets and whatever those face-to-face meatspace interactions are called asking me to blog again. It’s been over 4 months since I last wrote here. 4 months is a long time. A lot can happen in 4 months.

Very little has happened in 4 months.

Things should have happened in the past 4 months. But the vast majority of my time has been occupied by an overwhelming lack of thing. I left Oxford. I should have been leaving Oxford a few weeks from now anyway, but I left in January. For a while. For a year. I’m on a year out. I guess that’s a thing, actually. That’s a pretty big thing. But the direct result of that thing has been a gargantuan thing-dearth.

I am bad at making decisions. Taking a year out was a particularly bad decision. Taking a year out might have been my worst decision to date, apart from that thing in 2006 with the goat and the Vaseline and the plunger. Both left me overwhelmed with guilt and shame and covered in ruminant faeces.

I think maybe it’s misleading to call it a decision. I had to take a year out because I was irreparably behind with work. I was irreparably behind with work because, as I wrote before, I am a small, weak and emotionally fragile child that failed to cope with the basic concept of human mortality. People that I liked got sick and died and metaphorically sprawled their rancid corpses all over my lecture notes, and I didn’t tell anyone until it was too late to salvage them.

I’m pretty embarrassed. I haven’t even been back to Oxford to visit my friends yet because I’m pretty embarrassed. Most people manage to finish their degree without any significant difficulty. I sometimes used to tell people that I shouldn’t be at Oxford – that I only got in because I got lucky on a few exams and because the admissions office probably needed a not-quite-white kid from a single-parent, welfare-dependent family to make up their stats – and they’d say that I was being silly, or that it was false modesty. And now I’ve proved myself right and I don’t feel as happy about proving myself right as I usually feel about proving myself right. Being right is generally nice, but not when its cost is the vast disappointment of everyone who thought you were wrong.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal. But in the me-sized scheme of things, this is a fucking huge deal. I’ve left all of my friends. Leaving my friends was quite high up on my Massive List of Reasons to Not Take a Year Out – right next to near-certain unemployment and having to live more than 5 minutes away from a kebab van. In a few weeks most of the people that I spent more than 2 years living and studying alongside – the people with whom I made the dubious transition from adolescence to pretend-adulthood – will have sat their final exams and left Oxford for good. I knew that not being in the same city as them would be isolating, but once I’d left I perpetuated that by curling up into a tiny ball of shame and failure and hiding in Burton-on-Trent. I didn’t know what to tell my friends and I was worried about how they’d react, but I think that I was so scared of being ostracised that I ostracised myself.

It’s difficult. Or, I’m finding it difficult. But it’s only as difficult as a year out from the University of Oxford can be. And I think that when the most difficult thing that you have to deal with is taking some time out from your glorified boarding school, you’re probably okay. You probably shouldn’t complain too much. I’ll be all right, I reckon. I just need to get my shit together.


15 Responses to “WE’RE ON A BREAK.”

  1. Harriet R (@geekyisgood) May 18, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    You shouldn’t be embarrassed. Oxford is really tough anyway, without going through a bereavement. If you go back and see people I am sure they will be nice, and the university won’t think any less of you. I’ve heard of loads of people taking years out, you’re definitely not alone (I think it’s one of the university’s favourite tactics for mental health problems, although I question how effective it really is). Someone once said to me, when I was still at Oxford, that half the people there think they shouldn’t be, that they got in on luck or someone made a mistake and they don’t deserve to be there, and the other half are wankers. I think that sums things up pretty well.

    If you want to study there, you deserve to be there. They decided you were good enough (i.e. extremely good) and anyone who reads your blog can’t doubt it.

    My regret is that even though I sought help I still tried to put a brave face on and didn’t talk to my college enough about what was going on with me (it didn’t help that after 3 years at uni outside Oxbridge I was used to a completely different system and couldn’t work out how important colleges actually are). I imagine going back after a break won’t be easy, so please don’t forget to use the resources that are there – talk to people, be honest. Don’t talk yourself down or tell yourself you’re not important enough or that it’ll be ok and it’s not that big a deal to worth worrying about.

    I know this comment is a bit earnest but this is something I really care about. Please don’t miss out on what’s available because you don’t want to bother people, or for any other reason along those lines. It’s royally stuffed up some people I know, and it didn’t do me any favours either.


    • Harriet R (@geekyisgood) May 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

      By the way, when I said I question how effective having a year out is, I meant as a general strategy – for specific cases it’s clearly a good option and if someone decides to do that, then that’s great, but I think the university likes to push that option rather than think about how it can change its structures so that people don’t need to take years out. Obviously this is a separate discussion, I just wanted to make myself clear.

      Also, you’re awesome 😀


  2. Elisa May 18, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    “Most people manage to finish their degree without any significant difficulty”

    You really *are* being had on yourself here… I’m seven months into my third degree and finding it plagued with significant difficulty just as the first two were, only more so because by definition a PhD is made of 100% pure significant difficulty.

    From my own experience of undergraduate studies, and from what I’ve read of yours, I’d say you actually did the right thing. I didn’t have a gap yah before beginning mine, and I really could have done with one- by the third year I had wound up jaded from an entire life spent in education. I left university with a 2:2 and precisely zero enthusiasm for science, something I hadn’t thought possible.

    That enthusiasm has obviously come back to me now, but it took me *six years* of doing something else (mainly PR) to bring it back and to make me realise how much I missed science and that I’d actually like to spend the rest of my life doing it. The PR career wasn’t for me but when I meet researchers who have never had any time out of science quietly admit “this isn’t really the research area I’m interested in, I just fell into it- I needed a job so I took it” I’m glad I didn’t just keep ploughing on past the point where my enthusiasm had evaporated. Taking some time out to figure out what I really wanted to do was the best thing I could have done, and I’m sure your year out will also do you good.

    People are under a lot of pressure to figure out what they want to do with their lives- some never work it out, at least you have a few pointers! Take some time to reflect, get some experience outside of the bubble, and enjoy the rest of your year off- admitting you needed one was a brave move in itself and I’m sure you’ll bounce back stronger.

    I’d also recommend watching the film Starter For Ten and thinking “well at least I didn’t do *that*” before thinking of all the great things you *can* do. Use your year off wisely and good luck for the future.


  3. Lewis Schaffer May 19, 2012 at 12:46 am #

    Most people just seem to be having an easy time of university. I am envious that you have already gotten two comments already.



  4. Buff Davis (@BuffDavis) May 19, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    If i said you were clearly born to communicate the human condition would it sound pretentious?
    You are getting a lot of the human condition at the moment, it will pay off in the long run. Focus on the long run.
    Loads of people will be willing to give you very helpful advice- however you are going to need to make up your own mind- on everything, going back, staying off, staying in a curled up ball (apart from when you are with the dog). Whatever decisions you come to, whenever you come to them, just be clear there were so many other ways you could have made those decisions that the concept of ‘one right decision’ is as ridiculous as the concept of a supreme being making things happen.
    The only useful thing I’ve ever said to myself ( and I screwed up university in a bad way) or anyone else, was the observation that going towards something (anything) seemed more satisfying than standing still when you had got somewhere, and it isn’t important where you end up compared with how far you’ve come. I’m not trying to be obscure, I’m trying to be simple.
    Probably not helping but wanting to


  5. Philip Jeays May 19, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    Twat face.


  6. Paul Bailey (@PaulAtNorthGare) May 19, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    You don’t know me, except as someone who’s said before that you rock, and thinks you don’t rock any less. Mental health issues killed my PhD after about five years. Didn’t get help, didn’t tell anyone, certainly didn’t write anything about it. Just struggled on, faking it, until there was nothing left. So, I dunno, just echoing what some of the cool people above have said. You seem to be handling this like a proper grown-up, and doing the right thing: being open, getting help, having a rest. Hope you can rediscover the energy and love for what you do.


  7. Emma Lyskava (@em_lysk) May 19, 2012 at 11:05 pm #

    I echo all of the helpful feedback listed above. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, or feel like you’re wasting people’s time. Hiding from the world gets boring after a while, believe me.
    Also, I know it may look like most people manage to do their degrees without significant difficulties, but I’ve found that mostly to be untrue. I know so many people who have almost dropped out, or who have changed courses because they were unhappy. I originally went to a different university but went back home halfway through first term because it just wasn’t right. In the grand scheme of things it’s only a year, or two or three. It’s nothing compared to a lifetime spent in a job you hate and it’s not worth sacrificing your mental health for.

    Hope you feel better about your decision.


  8. Matthew Bird (@JazzCarrot) May 20, 2012 at 9:26 pm #

    It’s the right thing to do. One of my current flatmates (who I lived with in Halls) took a year out last year due to similar issues, and then moved back in with us this year – and she definitely doesn’t regret the decision! Now she’s “mentoring” other people who go through similar experiences. Hope everything’s going smoothly your end, and good luck with your return!


  9. Seb May 21, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    You say you’re bad at making decisions, yet you just made a good one in releasing this post – and hey, success is cumulative!
    On a more helpful note: I hope you feel better soon and that this year out is rejuvenating for you. Also, keep doing posts – surely all those fans can’t be wrong!



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