Leaving At 23: Memory and Self-Pity

Three weeks ago I turned twenty-three, this month I finish my three years at Bristol, and at the start of August I’ll be taking a one way flight to Myanmar. I’ll be gone for at least a year, until my contract at the school I’m working for runs out next July. As I write this, in mid-June, with two weeks to go until the lease on my student house expires, I feel like I’m sitting on a precipice watching the coming landscape roll towards me without a blind clue if I’ll like it when I fall off.

It’s not necessarily a bad feeling. It’s time to move on. Life up to now has been strange and effete, and student living in particular has left me washing away into the floorboards like a useless liquid. For at least the last two years I’ve felt like I’ve been stagnating, with no motivation, no direction, an absence of real connection to anything and a general sense that life is just passing over me. That anxiety common to just about the whole English middle class that compels them to be productive or face guilt has been attacking me for years, and it’s been deeply frustrating to find that I haven’t made intelligent use of it in recent times. To that end I’m happy to see university go. The cycle of structureless days, bad eating and over-drinking can now be pleasantly dropped behind me as I walk into the future.

But beyond that is also a wider, stranger past that I’m leaving behind, and I’m writing this to try and make myself reflect on it a bit. It’s an odd thing for me to do because I generally try not to think about the past – it’s an awful lot less useful than most people believe it to be – but somehow it’s been creeping up on me, and I need to take this moment to consider it.

I honestly can’t say precisely what it is that’s forcing me to think like this. I feel, however irrationally, like I’ve been wronged in some way – but I don’t quite know why. After all, I’m not a victim like some people have been, I wasn’t bullied growing up in the way some people were, and in comparison with some I’ve led an almost blessed life. Of course it hasn’t been a blessed life, and it would be an absurd thing to say as much. If anything I can see the problems with it more clearly than ever before. I now don’t shy away from understanding the bullying I and my friends were punished with at school, for example. I didn’t understand that it was bullying at the time, but as history brings me a balcony from which to view it I realise that it was. That has been a strange thing to see.

I’m sure my story is little different to everyone else’s, so repeating it will just be repeating the contents of my schoolmate’s heads. I was fourteen when I went to my secondary school, a year older than most because I had been held down a year aged six. The school was a large private boarding school, or ‘public school’, which is confusing because it was anything but public. To get a place there you had to pass an entrance exam and have a handy £30,000 a year ready to pay. As such the atmosphere in schools like this is one of painful entitlement; if the pupils felt wronged by something they would shout, ‘I’m paying for this, and this is how you treat me?’

It was lazy and rural, fiercely hierarchical and extremely competitive. As with teenagers across the country, if you didn’t develop a big ego fast then you would get character killed – but with the added intensity of there being no chance of escape if things went wrong. It was a 24/7 boarding school: you were in a house with sixty other boys, around ten of whom were in your year and for the first two years you shared a room with. Every day you would wake up with these people, eat every meal with them, go to lessons with them, probably play sport with them and in the evening fall asleep with them in the neighbouring bedsits. If you didn’t get on with them then there was nothing you could do other than drop out.

My first year, like most people’s, was utterly hellish. I was character killed. I was a whacky young teenager with lots of challenging ideas to voice and a strong sense of there being a ‘right’ way to do things, and so it was an inevitable awakening I had at the hands of a super-intense micro-culture of a school that did not agree with me. In the gaggle of boys I’d been sent to live with I was quickly identified as one of the ones who ‘did not belong’, and in the kill-or-be-killed atmosphere of the place the others in my year had no reservations on ganging up on us. I say ‘us’ because I know there were plenty of people in the same position, but in reality I don’t mean ‘us’. I mean me, because that’s how it felt as a fourteen-year-old. School became a very lonely, very unhappy place very quickly.

It would be easy to wax lyrical about the pains we had to endure, but I want to avoid that because in all honesty it would paint the school in an unfairly negative light. There was plenty to recommend it, and I did all sorts of things there that I could never have done anywhere else. But I do ask that I not be mistaken: I do not believe on balance that it is a good place, and frankly I don’t think it should exist. For that matter private education as a whole should not exist.

I was made to feel like a freak because I didn’t speak the same language as the others and didn’t understand the way they behaved, which I saw as cruel and immature even at that age. The way they would pick on people and make them feel small, how they boasted about being cool, being in sports teams and experimenting with girls was admittedly no different to how most teenagers behave, but I can’t help but feel it had a peculiarly nasty edge at that place. Physical bullying was not uncommon, verbal bullying was in virtually every conversation I had and the constant, unrelenting sense of needing to compete was mind-crushing. The place was built on bullying. I can barely remember someone being kind to me at least for my first two years. It even still had ‘fagging’, a Victorian practice that was supposedly illegal but somehow managed to carry on anyway, where if an older boy ‘fagged’ you to do something you would simply have to do it. They’d say something like, ‘Beer, I fag you to go and get my wallet from my room’, and if you said no then you were black-listed, called ‘cheeky’ and maybe even beaten up.

I suffered a total capitulation of self at that school. I’m absolutely certain that if I had seen a psychiatrist at the time they would have pronounced me clinically depressed. So hard was the weight of feeling I did not belong that I destroyed myself from the inside out and rebuilt every last aspect to try and fit in. It made me manically insecure. I couldn’t walk down a street without shooting eyes all over myself to see that I looked okay, that I looked as a boy ‘ought’ to look, that people – especially girls – didn’t think I was a freak. The feeling that I might be ‘found out’ at any second was sensationally horrible and the fear that I really might be a nasty, worthless person was everywhere I went. I had never felt so ill in my life. Even now I can remember groups of thirteen-year-olds chanting my name in a derogatory way, the sixth-former who punched my arm so hard it went dead and the teacher who, when I tried to explain what was happening, simply said ‘It’s hard being a teenager’, and left.

So intense was the culture at this school and so hard had I worked to fit in that when I left at the age of nineteen I could not believe that the real world was nothing like it. All of a sudden you aren’t automatically inferior to people older than you, and house ties, rugby teams and belonging to the ‘gang’ meant nothing. I thankfully spent a year to readjust before coming to Bristol, something I’m exceptionally grateful I did.

Then when Bristol came along I found it to be, as I’ve already indicated, a strange jumble of experiences. It has veered from long periods of purposelessness to the most ecstatic moments of my life and back again, interspersed with theatre and more heartbreak than anything resembling a successful relationship. Emerging from the tight-laced little world of boarding schools without a paddle to guide me was a strange and disorienting experience, so joining another institution provided a sense of security I had been lacking for a year. In some ways it felt familiar – being away from home in a communal living space like halls – and in some ways it was completely different. I had never drunk that much before, neither had I tried any drugs, neither had I been in quite such a socially intense space. But the exhilaration of it won out, and that is what I remember about my first year at university: being absolutely swept off my feet by this exciting but painfully ephemeral lifestyle

It became obvious to me very quickly that the public schoolboy I’d learnt to be had to be readjusted once more, a painful reminder that human beings are as fickle as whatever environment they land themselves in. I had to learn to be friendly to people without worrying about them being friendly back, for instance. That was something I’d never learnt at school. At school it was always a case of lying low and hoping you wouldn’t have any attention directed at you at all, because if it was it was likely to be negative. In this crazy new environment of Bristol, however, it felt like there was more free rein to cultivate the aspects of myself I thought to be objectively good. So over the course of the last few years I’ve tried to put down any assumptions of other people, not care in the slightest for what other people think of me and to plough on and say whatever I like without fearing the approbation it might bring. This took me a surprisingly long time to do, but I’m well ahead of it now. That is probably the biggest change I’ve undergone since I came here, and I’m delighted that it is the case.

Though it must be said that what really pushed me to ignore other people’s opinions was the ‘Nights at the Disco’ controversy I found myself in last year. It’s a long story to explain to anyone who doesn’t know what happened (read about it here <http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/bristol-university-student-s-short-story-on-drug-abuse-and-sexual-violence-causes-controversy-a7024641.html&gt;), but all you need to know is that I very suddenly found myself enduring the most disgusting, hate-filled and baseless criticism from people I had previously taken to be my friends. I knew I was in the right through and through, and in fact had acted out of compassion. That was a penny drop moment in which I realised I would have to not think twice about what people say, mostly because popular opinion is usually based on rubbish. Fortunately it occurred just before a two month, social media-free stint in Nepal, and by the time I returned in September I had grown up perhaps more than in any other period of my life.

So I have seen over the years a gentle coming together of maturity in myself, which, while it feels pleasant, is also a bit unsettling. I quite like the luxurious agonies of youth, and I’d rather that they stay luxurious rather than becoming just plain agony.

One aspect of immaturity that remains, however, is in romantic relationships. It’s probably because I haven’t had one. There are no easy ways to explain this, but frankly girls remain as perplexing to me now as they did when I was a teenager. The voyeuristic drifting that I’ve found so characteristic of my life has made it difficult for me to get close to anyone at all, as much as I might desire it to be otherwise. To be perfectly honest I find this conversation difficult; it’s exceptionally easy to be misunderstood when talking about romantic successes and failures, and I could so easily make it seem like I’m being either boastful or self-pitying, or even both. What I will say is that, while I haven’t been unsuccessful with women, I certainly haven’t found any solace from a relationship as yet. I haven’t met anyone who has really captivated me or shown me the kind of love I want to return; I have liked people, but it has always been fleeting. If anything I’ve been disappointed, but almost certainly by myself rather than anyone else. And no matter how much I intend to look after people and ensure that they don’t get hurt, somehow they all too often do, and there is a whole lake of guilt into which her and I can plunge. Relationships do not scare me, but I have yet to feel right about them.

There have been plenty of romantic entanglements over the years, but they have all either slipped by me in the wind or ended by accident. It’s strange, on reflection, how much I associate Bristol with girls, and how the self-understanding you’re taught to expect from women – an essentially misogynistic outlook on gender relations – simply did not occur here. But that’s fine.

Although, if you will excuse my silly little heart speaking for just a moment, there was one girl who even now, some time later, manages to claw my thoughts back to her. She’d be shocked to find out that she still makes up the furniture of my mind – she’d be shocked to know that she was ever in my mind in the first place. But I’m happy to leave her oblivious. I doubt I’ll see her again.

And now here I am, on the cusp of whatever being a grown up means, about to set my stare forwards into the future. I’ve looked at the past now, and found that I’m inclined to see myself as a victim. But this is nonsense. We can all see ourselves as victims, or we can all see ourselves as saviours.

Certainly it’s very easy for me to explain how I have always felt distant from life, how I have suffered the most excruciating depressive spells, treading the line of suicide in the summer after my first year, how I have never felt like someone understands me, how there are times when the universe terrifies me, how I fear for my success as much as my failure, how I have been consistently misunderstood by whole bodies of people, how I think about death more than I think about eating. I can explain all of that, and I can ask you to pity me. But what would that achieve?

Self-pity is an ugly thing. The truth is that we have a choice about how we view ourselves, and we always have and we always will do no matter what it might feel like at the time. Both emotions and thoughts lie to you. I can see that boy now, the one who hid crying in his study with the lights out in 2008, and feel that what he experienced was not necessary, but it had the potential to make him a better person. In the long term I hope this to be so.

And think about it: If all the world’s a victim, who committed the crime?

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