Monday, 31 March 2008

O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!*

I said in my last post I would attempt to explain my recent absence. The question is, are we allowed to discuss depression on blogs? The truth is I was in an ugly trough betwixt and between. Hence the gap.

I don't suffer from what might be described as clinical depression, unlike a very close friend (and what hell that must be), but I used to go through regular lows in my teens and early twenties.

I thought it had all ended when, one day walking down St. Martins Lane in London, I sensed the dark cloud hovering on the horizon and knew that it would be over me for the coming twelve weeks when the happy thought occurred to me that, actually, it would all be over in twelve weeks. (My depression was pretty well organised and would last for a finite time before going off to upset some other poor soul.) Anyway, the effect was as if my fairy godmother had waved her wand and instantly dispelled the cloud. Because the first happy thought was followed by a second. If the cloud was to disappear in twelve weeks why should I bother walking under it now. With a neat sidestep, which Jonny Wilkinson, (or should that be Danny_Cipriani now?), would have approved of, I dummied the cloud and left it behind me. And it never reappeared.

When I say never, I mean not in the sense that it used to until now. Though even now it is not the same. However, in the months leading up to Christmas I was not so much under a dark cloud but certainly in the middle of a thick fog, which only in retrospect did I realise had severely obscured my vision. Looking back, I can see that I had withdrawn into a smaller and smaller shell. To a degree I can attribute it to circumstances; I was, comme d' habitude, struggling to pay the rent, struggling to earn money, and generally just struggling. My unfortunate response to such pressures is to cut myself off from everything and everyone. It is what I fondly call the whirlpool strategy of coping. The more I ignore the root cause of my problems, the more they pile up, so the more I retreat into the fog. Beautifully circular.

Clarity in the understanding of your predicament in no way helps alleviate it. Rationality and depression are as water and oil. In the middle of this smog you lose all sense of direction. Your SatNav reveals only that all roads leading to Rome are blocked. You are overwhelmed by a sense of complete helplessness and ineptitude. For anyone who has never suffered this condition, it sounds pathetic. Even to yourself it sounds pathetic. Even in the midst of the swirling tendrils enwrapping you, you understand it to be pathetic - in the pejorative sense of the word as it helps confirm your sense of worthlessness. But then you are pathetic. The word comes from the Greek, pathetikos, meaning sensitive, itself derived from pathos meaning suffering. In the context, pathetic is apposite.

There is a simple solution; action. Doing anything, and I mean literally anything, helps bring you to the surface, however, the effort required is often beyond you. The tendrils don't just enwrap and blind you but also hold and bind you. Friends may cajole and encourage but, as mentioned, you tend to cut yourself off from contact or, if forced to converse, do not admit your condition as you pretend there is no condition to admit or as yet are unaware of the depths to which you have sunk. Alternatively, if you do confess that you are not feeling totally pukka, the advice they offer seems only to reinforce the fact that they don't really understand your predicament. It is a very self-destructive cycle that skirts around being self-pitying.

I was lucky. In a way, I was saved by my desire to write. I wasn't writing and knew that the only way I would ever succeed would be to get myself into a virtuous routine. It was sufficient to encourage me to make the effort and seek out part-time work. So I got a part-time job, a very boring part-time job, nonetheless it gave my week a structure that was lacking before.

And behold! After a couple of weeks, I glanced over my shoulder and, with marked surprise, I saw clearly, for the first time, the fog from which I had but recently emerged.

* Orphelia, Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Trials & Tribulations of Life on the Scrap Heap

This may appear as a rant but it is actually a genuine problem faced by many mature students seeking suitable employment after their graduation.

For anyone going back to full time, or even part time, education in their later years, it is a whirligig of an experience. You challenge yourself more fundamentally, taking the word education as re-education, than at any other point in your life. You must abandon all the suppositions and assumptions, recognized or not, that you have accumulated over your life and that help bolster your sense of identity and worth if you are to genuinely confront, absorb and understand the new concepts that will be presented to you as part of your university course.

Initially you feel naked and vulnerable as you strip away your armour of preconceptions. However, that is the least of the experience, it is also intellectually stimulating, physically draining and emotionally exhausting. The three years simultaneously condense and expand time; the years both stretch back endlessly and flash by with the noise of siren. The difficulty is, for most people, this period will represent the most intensely lived episode in their lives so it is not surprising that what follows post-graduation may appear grey and featureless. Many succumb to what may be loosely described as post-grad blues. Nor is this experience confined to mature students; those who leave university having arrived straight from school must also find the first years outside of academia deflating.

As a mature student, it matters not how realistic you may be about the difference a degree will make to your life, you are after all just one of thousands who graduate each year, it is still a sharp surprise that the outside world doesn’t seem to acknowledge your achievement. Your hopes of moving into a more interesting area of employment receive the cold shoulder of indifference. While you have been wrestling with Foucault or Derrida the world hasn’t even recognised your struggles with so much as a shrug; it has merely continued on its self-absorbed way.

Employers notice your degree not as the attainment of three years of effort but by the absence of three years of employment. You cannot possibly fulfil this function, firstly, because you haven’t done something similar before and, secondly, because you haven’t worked for three years.

‘Haven’t worked for three years?’ you feel like screaming. ‘Haven’t worked? Let me show you the mountains of books I have had to read, the extraordinary concepts I have had to grasp, the endless essays I have had to write and you have the effrontery to say I haven’t worked and then lard your insult by implying I don’t have the intelligence to learn your poxy procedures that a five year old could master in minutes.’

Since the Personnel Department was replaced by the HR department, any interest in the individual as an individual has been replaced by the view that the individual is merely an economic cipher. For HR, read Human Refuse.

OK, it is a rant. And for those of you who wonder why this has suddenly appeared out of the blue after such a long break in transmission, more later.