School: Seven years of madness

This week, satirical website the Onion ran this headline about the coronavirus pandemic:

Man Not Sure Why He Thought Most Psychologically Taxing Situation Of His Life Would Be The Thing To Make Him Productive

And we all laugh, right? Because we’ve all, at some point, declared that we’re going to learn French or get fit or make bread while knowing that actually we’re going to binge-watch Netflix dramas and eat a lot of pizza.

We’re aware enough to know that we can’t expect too much of ourselves right now – and if we weren’t, an Instagram quote post has surely put us straight by now.

So why do the daily Duolingo reminders make me feel so guilty?

And why did I, and I do not exaggerate here, recently declare to a friend that I should have written a book by now?

What is it inside my head that thinks that despite having my dream job at 25, because I am single, haven’t moved to New York and remain stubbornly bookless, I have somehow not done enough?

I have thought about this a lot this week and the answer is pretty clear: School.

Ah.

Yes.

Hmm.

I have been seeing a counsellor for the past few months and when I told her this she suggested I try to write about school, as a story, as if I was watching a little girl called Lucy and describing the things that happened to me happening to her.

This seemed, on the surface, as if it was the last thing on earth I would want to do.

And yet. I write to sort out my thoughts and feelings. On the subject of school, I have many of both – and none of them are good.

Seven years later, much of it is still too raw. One day I hope to be able to write about how they failed me as a disabled kid, but today is not that day.

But what I can write about now is how they apparently convinced me that nothing is ever good enough.

This messaging was so common that I accepted it as background noise; only with a few years of hindsight did I really understand it had been there at all, and only now do I see the toxic residue that it left in my brain.

Most of the incidents were too small and too common to remember, much less document. So here I present to you, the true howlers:

The time I had to do extra lunchtime Latin – Latin! – because I was on course for an A at GCSE.

The time I couldn’t be in the choir because I couldn’t read music on first sight.

The time it was pointed out by my economics teacher that I wasn’t good at maths because I’d got an A at GCSE, not an A*.

The time he made me retake one AS module because I got a B, despite getting an A overall.

And the one that truly made my jaw drop, the big one: The time, when I had collected by A-levels and was ecstatic about having got in to Warwick, that same economics teacher looked me dead in the eye and said “shame you couldn’t make the leap to the A*”.

Come to think of it, most of the issue was clearly that one guy. Last I knew he’d been promoted to deputy head.

They also used to give these bizarre assemblies about successful women, with the tag line that they were the kind of people who could have gone to the school (if they’d have been richer and, let’s face it, whiter). I presume the whole exercise was meant to be motivational and feminist, but it always made me feel uncomfortable.

I didn’t know why, at the time, but now I think it was the implication that with all our privilege – and god knows we had so much it was coming out of our ears – we were on course to do something extraordinary. We were duty bound to be the next Marie Curie or Jane Austin. The possibility of happiness in ordinary things was simply never discussed.

The truly maddening thing is I knew it was all crazy at the time, and I sure as hell know it is now. All the true joy I’ve found in life has been in ordinary things; books, food, a good job and good friends. If anything extraordinary has happened, it has meant very little indeed.

So why does this need to do more affect me so much? It angers me that they wormed their way inside my head.

But I guess seven years of exposure would wear anyone down.

Seven years of pressure. Now wouldn’t it be ironic if I wrote a book about that?

Anxiety in the time of coronavirus

I don’t know when I am going to see my friends again.

For me, that is the worst part of this coronavirus induced isolation we all find ourselves in.

I can live quite happily without the pub, the shop, the theatre. As a disabled person, I am used to interminable days spent on the sofa, body in meltdown, but they are always broken up by my friends. They pop in bearing shove-in-the-oven pizza, chocolate and wine, and faces full of companionship. I will miss them.

And I will miss my colleagues, their quick wits and their kindness and the buzz of them all in the office. Thanks to WhatsApp and Zoom they are not so far away as they could be, but it is hard to share a meaningful look over Slack, however much you try.

I cannot decide if I am more scared of the virus or the effect this is all going to have on my mental health. I am lucky; I do not live alone, and the carers I currently share the flat with are some of the best I’ve ever had. They’ll notice when I’m anxious and they know how to help. And so many of my friends have called to check in that I am far from feeling alone or lonely. I am grateful.

Skype has made it possible to continue counselling, too, which is a relief. But I worry about such a dramatic change in routine, especially such a curtailing of socialising. Living without a partner or family, I rely on my friends for a hug and a pat on the back, and I know I will feel this lack acutely. If I were Ania or Laura, I would soon be fed up with my toddler-like demand for affection, but I trust them to bear with me, as ever.

It is a strange time to be a chronically anxious person. The news, which has for years given me a job and a sense of purpose, leaves my nerves feeling raw and ragged. On my days off, I limit my intake to one half-hour bulletin a day. On working days, I take lots of beta blockers and try not to drink too much coffee.

The vague existential dread that has hung over me for months, making me feel maddeningly irrational, seems now perfectly reasonable. Of course I’m anxious, I think, there’s a pandemic on. This makes it hard to determine which of the panic attacks and tears are a rational response to the circumstances and which are my brain playing its usual catastrophising tricks. I guess we’ll never know.

The past six months have at least taught me some coping mechanisms to be deployed in these interesting times. In a panic, TV is better than reading, at least for me; especially something familiar. Joy is in the little things: a nice meal, a bunch of flowers, a particularly fluffy pair of socks. Aromatherapy, the very idea of which I was sure to scoff at half a year ago, works wonders.

Oh, and I call my parents multiple times a day. Sorry, mum and dad.

In an uncharacteristic move, I am finding the silver linings. With all this free time I am tackling my vast and ever-expanding to-read pile. Books really are things of such immense pleasure. Having waffled on about it for years I am finally learning French. Duolingo is surprisingly good and an engaged mind is a less anxious one; I’ll be fluent by the time this is over.

And maybe with time to think and process, I’ll even get some writing done. Although as any writer will tell you, I’m not desperate enough for that just yet.