My life has always been set out in front of me. Nursery, primary school, secondary school, possible gap year, uni, have a job, get married, produce 2.5 children and buy some pets, then watch my children go through the same system I did while I excel in my job, bake cookies on weekends, and skip off into the sunset. A nice, neat, perfect little life.
I imagine that anyone else who has grown up in a middle class family will have had similar expectations. I know many people at my secondary school had a similar life plan – lots of students achieved 11 A*s at GCSE followed by 3 A*s at A-Level. BTechs weren’t even taught and the advice was generally to study the ‘better’ subjects; sciences and maths, avoiding the ‘doss’ subjects like Art or Product Design. Following a gap year, I trotted down the uni path like everyone else.
That was where things went a little ‘off-piste’. During my first year, my Mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even though Mum was ill and I visited her in hospital and things, I carried on with my studies. The amount of pressure I felt to carry on as ‘normal’ was immense. The pressure didn’t come from anyone else – everyone completely understood that things wouldn’t be ‘normal’. Instead, the pressure came from myself. I needed to fulfil the perfect blueprint that I’d always believed defined success.
With second year complete, I hobbled into third year. Mum was ill. She was dying. But little old me needed to fill this mould, so I continued to head to lectures when I could. My attendance was more sporadic than I’d have liked, and I visited Mum every night, but I kept smiling, kept attempting to read, kept trying to work out what the heck a p-value was and why it was relevant.
Then Mum died. Four days later I walked into a statistics lecture and sat ready to learn. I tried to do the maths whilst replying to texts about funeral arrangements. I was happy and ‘normal’. People commented on how ‘strong’ and ‘brave’ I was. Well done to me, big gold star for completely ignoring grief and pretending to be absolutely fine.
A week or so later, my attendance was occasional at best. People were talking about having a break and postponing graduation. I didn’t know what to do. I needed to ignore everything in my life and follow the rules and the path that have always been set out for me. I had uni telling me to consider time off, my Dad telling me that maybe after the funeral it would all be better – that my dissertation might be a ‘good distraction’. All I wanted was my Mum.
I ended up sat in front of my GP and asked her what to do. She told to take time out. So that’s what I did. I agreed to take a Leave of Absence from October to January, then complete the first term the following year and postpone graduation.
This train to ‘perfect middle class life’ was still heading to the same destination but via a different route. People understood that I needed some time; Dad thought I could work on my dissertation still while I was off, it was all good.
Then it came to coming back, and I still wasn’t ready. I was trying to work out how to live life without my Mum. I was trying to get my head around returning to studying, despite not having the concentration to read even a few pages of a book. I was trying to compute how I’d get to lectures when some days I was struggling to leave my room, or even shower. My support team felt I would do myself a disservice if I returned to uni in January, both in terms of my health and my grades. So that was that, more time out, no uni until October. No lectures, no workshops, no essays to write, none of it.
Fastforward a few months, and the train to ‘perfect middle class life’ is now so far gone I can’t see it. Making the decision not to return was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever had to make. The pressure to be ‘perfect’ and ‘invincible’ is strong.
I feel like I should show the world that cancer took Mum but won’t take me. I feel that I should just ‘get on’ with life and build myself up, bit by bit, to create this ‘perfect’ life that has always been set out for me.
My fear of failure is something I fight against every single day. To look perfect, study perfectly and have the perfect social life. But sometimes, carrying on isn’t brave – breaking that ‘perfect’ mould is. It would have been easy to stay at uni and keep attempting to go to lectures. It would have been easy to cobble together some words and hand in sub-par work. It would have been easy to break myself in order to finish my degree ‘on time’.
Taking leave means that I’ve had to find a new place to live and find something to fill my days with. It means that I’m going to return to new classes with people I don’t know. Perhaps the hardest thing about it, though, is that I have to admit to myself and the world that I’m not okay. That life has got in the way of this path I’ve always thought I had to follow. I have to face up to not just my grief, but also to the effects of seeing Mum’s health slowly decline.
I have to admit I’m not ‘perfect’ and work on myself, and admitting to that is probably one of the hardest and bravest things I have ever had to do.
Read more about Marie Claire’s #BREAKFREE from Fear campaign.