The weekend before last, I took a stroll down memory lane. I went back to Oxford University, where I was a student from 1989 to 1993, for a reunion dinner at my college (St Anne’s) and to spend a sunny weekend in what is an incredibly beautiful city.
I knew it would be a lovely few days in terms of sunshine, scenery and seeing old friends but I was also apprehensive. Firstly, I imagined all my fellow alumni would be “sorted”, in life, love and work. That they’d all be sure of what they were doing and where they were going and would be combining impressive careers with bringing up children in detached homes. I thought I’d be the only one who was pondering which way to turn in her work life, who wasn’t settled with a partner and family and who sometimes struggled to be happy.
I also expected the weekend would be emotionally challenging. I imagined I’d recall the negative aspects of those university days – my low self-esteem and painful self-consciousness, the binge eating and binge drinking, the several stone extra in weight I was carrying and my dislike for my body.
University is supposed to be the best years of your life, a time of exploration, freedom, friendship and broadening one’s horizons. And I was at Oxford, not only an incredible seat of learning but a place of privilege in terms of social and sporting facilities. But when I look back at photos of those years, I cringe. I see a woman who was lacking in self-belief and self-confidence and who overate to blot out painful feelings; a woman who felt less than her fellow students – physically, intellectually and financially.
I came to Oxford from a single-parent home in Liverpool. I was the first member of my family to go to university and I’d never eaten an avocado. I remember wishing I had the money to buy the nice clothes some of my new student friends were wearing or the confidence to pull them off. I recall wishing my parents lived in Hong Kong or Africa, that my Dad was a diplomat or that my family debated current affairs around a dinner table of homemade curries or avocado salads – in my house, we ate off trays on our knees while watching TV.
This isn’t meant to sound like a sob story. I didn’t arrive at Oxford dressed in rags and I’d had a great education at a private girls’ school (thanks to a scholarship) where I’d been head girl and captain of various sports teams. But arriving at university was quite a shock. Most of the students had also been head girls or boys and had excelled at sports and studies. Not only that, but they seemed to be oozing with self-confidence and many – of course, not all – seemed to have stability, security and money behind them.
Looking back, I now see that my outer achievements at school and in sports were just that, outer achievements. I’d pushed myself academically and physically, with great results. But my success was built on sand. I had no sense of security or self-esteem, no sense of who I was or why I was trying so hard and no grounding. And I was hypersensitive to rejection. So when, in my early days at St Anne’s, I wasn’t invited to a cocktail party with students I thought were becoming my friends or when I went to the university lacrosse trials and felt ignored by a coach who in my eyes favoured the confident, blonde, southern girls, I crumbled. I didn’t have the inner strength to tell myself I was good enough just as I was.
Against that backdrop, the compulsive behaviours I’d discovered in my school years to anaesthetise my feelings ran wild. I overate and then tried to compensate by going on long, punishing runs. I drank to excess (granted, a typical student activity). And I didn’t date – except for during holidays and my final year when I was thinner and felt more confident – preferring to obsess in my head about men who weren’t interested in me.
With all that in mind, I thought my return to Oxford would be a sad affair, albeit a cathartic one. But while I feel rather subdued writing down some of those memories, my weekend walk down memory lane was completely different to what I’d expected.
Rather than confronting my demons, I spent most of the weekend reminiscing about the good times. The city looked beautiful, with its spires, daffodil-filled parks, rivers and bicycles. I remembered the picnics, the parties, the punting and the fun I had rowing in eights with my college friends. And I realised – probably for the first time – what an incredible privilege it had been to study there.
I hadn’t wanted to go to Oxford. I applied because my school suggested I could get in and because I thought it was expected of me. I sobbed when the acceptance letter came through the post. I wanted to go to Edinburgh or Newcastle or somewhere more “normal”. I thought Oxford would be filled with posh, clever, rich people (and it was, in part, but some of those people became my best friends and others came from more simple backgrounds like me). I could have turned down my place – my family gave me the choice. But, perhaps because I thought I ought to or because I recognised a good opportunity, I accepted it.
How different would things have been if I’d heeded my tears and gone elsewhere? I’ll never know.
But what’s comforting is to realise I’m not that different to my fellow alumni after all. Not everyone I met at the reunion was “sorted” – yes, there were some tales of happy families and flourishing careers but others were single or getting divorced and many were at a career crossroads, wondering what to do with their lives or in a job they felt they had to stay in for the money and security.
And, I finally realised, nor was I that different to my fellows back in my university days. Yes, there were the confident ones who seemed so sure of themselves but like me, many were riddled with insecurities and drank or ate too much to take the edge off. So my trip back had been cathartic, but not in the way I’d expected.
But as I was leaving college on the Sunday, something caught my eye. It was a ‘wall of fame’ of those who’d studied at St Anne’s and gone on to achieve great things. A few names stood out. I’d never known, for example, that Helen Fielding, the hugely successful author of Bridget Jones’ diary had gone to my college. I re-read Bridget Jones recently, looking for some inspiration for my own ‘From Forty With Love’ book, and was reminded how brilliantly written and observed it is, in the humble opinion of this London singleton. Other alumni included Jackie Ashley, Zoë Heller, Martha Kearney and Tina Brown, all well-known, successful journalists, writers or broadcasters.
What struck me, however, as I read down the list of names, was that it was all about achievement at work. Only those who’d gained notoriety, who were in the public eye, who had written best-sellers or had done great things in science or the Arts got a mention.
But what about happiness? What about inner peace and contentment? What about fulfilment, love or family? I’d have been just as interested to know whether everyone on the list had found happiness alongside their success, whether they felt content, settled, secure and loved. Or had fame and fortune left them feeling empty? Were they constantly striving and not feeling good enough? Had they prioritised career over happiness and ended up disillusioned? Helen Fielding spoke at the Oxford Union in 2009 about the pressure on women to do it all and have it all and, although you can’t believe everything you read in the papers, it seems the private lives of great achievers haven’t always been a bed of roses.
And where were the names of those students who hadn’t achieved notoriety but were happily working, living and loving, who’d found peace or were in a solid marriage and providing stability for their children? Surely, they deserve a mention on the wall of fame.
This may all sound a little naive. After all, if none of us felt driven or inspired to write, broadcast, experiment in science, practice law at the highest level and so on, there’d be little development and the world would be a very dull place. And it’s unlikely Oxford University would ever broadcast the happiness of its alumni over their achievements.
But I ponder these things because of my own experience. Achieving things because we think we’re supposed to or it’s expected of us or because we’re driven by insecurity and a compulsive desire to be seen or heard, does not bring happiness or contentment. We get what we always thought we wanted and we wonder why we wanted it in the first place. And then we realise that we never really knew what we wanted because we never knew ourselves. We’d hidden ourselves or lost ourselves amid all the striving to be what others wanted us to be. Or we’d tried to mask our deep insecurities or feelings of not being good enough with external accolades, while worrying one day that we’d get found out. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone but it was, in part at least, the case for me.
And that’s why, for the time being, I’m resigning from the mission of trying to work out what to do with my life or what it is I’m supposed to achieve and I’m embracing a new challenge: Operation Happiness. More about that in my next post.