Over 5 years on and with no end in sight – trying to avoid despondency

It’s been that long since I went through a mental health crisis that took out my ability to work full-time hours. About six months prior to that I left the civil service on the back of the first major round of austerity job cuts.

In that time, I’ve tried my hand at a whole host of things but never really found a niche until now – with all things in a project that I believe could last many years simply because of the stories hidden within and the amount of unpublished and hidden material there is out there. The only thing that will limit it as far as I am concerned is the ambition of the city and its institutions. The other limitation is me. I see myself as the weakest link in project for a whole host of reasons.

“Yer not a kid anymore!”

One of the bad things of having moved back to Cambridge from London (and also from Brighton prior to that) is being surrounded by childhood history that is hard to run away from. Over the past few months I’ve really begun to feel my age – in particular getting it into my mind that over 2 decades have passed since I did my GCSEs, even though for a long time it felt like almost yesterday. Ditto with A-levels & university until I came to terms with the idea of this world having social media and those worlds not. It’s something I remind myself regarding the time of history I’m studying with Cambridge’s civic history: I’m studying a time period when there was no internet, no TV and in most cases, no radio. Perhaps just as importantly, no vinyl records, tape cassettes nor CD players. The idea you could hide away in your room and listen to music is a very recent phenomenon.

The more important thing though is getting used to the idea that my body is physically not able to do the stuff I took for granted until 2012. And I’m not just talking about hangover recovery – which had already reached the stage of needing a whole weekend to recover from a Friday night session by my very late 20s. No, this is the basics of cycling into town. Despite having a cycle, I always take the bus, even though I’ve procrastinated about getting back onto two wheels. The inevitable problem of moving back in with family is that you cease to be in control of your living circumstances – it’s not your house. You can’t make the changes to it that you would do if it were your own place. But in a place like Cambridge, moving out to somewhere else isn’t easy for anyone. We have a ‘hidden homelessness’ problem here of people who would like to move out but cannot. The problem is we don’t really show up on the statistics so there’s little political incentive for politicians to deal with it.

The other paradox with all of this is that I don’t know if I could cope with living on my own in my current state – though it’s something I’m more-and-more ready to give another shot again. Staying where I am feels unsustainable emotionally more than anything else.

On letting dreams go

When I left the civil service I always had it in mind that I’d get back into dancing (ballroom etc) again. But by then the club that I was once part of in the last decade prior to moving to London, had shrunk from its peak in 2005. The buzz that was once there was no longer there. I too was getting older and felt it more and more. Today I can’t see myself going back into the main venue where they host lessons. Funnily enough, since doing historical research on the political history of the town, the hall turns out to be one of the most well-used venues for a number of locally significant political meetings – in particular on votes for women, and the growth of the Labour movement.

Instinctively though, my body still has this strange yearning to go dancing – and cycling…and to play football too. It’s like when you do a given activity over an extended period of time in your relative youth, it becomes second nature. Yet at the same time, because of the regular bouts of (mental) exhaustion I get, I have to consider getting to and from venues in a way which I never had to in times gone by. Turns out I’ve not been the only person thinking about this – a number of local public policy types have started linking public transport access to venues as part of the county’s future leisure strategies. For me it’s an obvious point – I’m dependent on buses.  But if you’re a rural councillor from an affluent background, driving is the normal thing to do.

A career as a lifestyle

I assumed that this is what London would be like – work hard, play hard and socialise with the people you worked with. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Ironically, the people in the civil service who I probably felt the most comfortable with during my time there were the group that would later form the Government Digital Service. It was around the time many of us were considering our futures and I thought to myself that this is the group of people who I wanted to work with on something exciting, dynamic and socially productive. Many of these people were Puffles’ earliest followers. But there were no sideways moves and I had already signed my career away. The civil service that ministers were mismanaging was not a place I wanted to be in – and was also a place I couldn’t see myself surviving in. I needed a break.

Needing a break, but not a breakdown

I’d heard the phrase about people ‘going into the city, working hard, playing hard and burning out when they got to 30’. I just didn’t think it’d happen to me. Well it did. It’s like when the media gives out the 1-in-4 stat about the number of people who’ll suffer from a mental health problem in their lifetime. I’m one of the ones-in-four.

How are you supposed to manage a mental health condition when the NHS structures imposed by Lansley and Hunt don’t even give you a named general practitioner anymore?

This is why I despise with a passion the current and former health secretaries – and the prime ministers that appointed them. It speaks volumes these days that the former Health Secretary now only seems to appear at private meetings when discussing public policy. It’s almost as if he knows how hated he is by the general public that he dare not show his face. (Check those interests). A reflection of just how toxic our politics has become.

The thing is the politicians have known about the lack of funding of mental health services for over a century. Again, the newspaper archive reports are strikingly blunt in how they report inquests and hearings from the coroner’s office. Essentially when someone has an ‘unnatural death’ the county coroner is involved. (See this guide). This includes people taking their own life. (Don’t worry – I’m not about to take mine, but let’s not pretend the thought hasn’t cross my mind ever since I was diagnosed back in 2000). Even then it was crystal clear that mental health should not be ignored in the drive to improve physical health and hygiene as people became more aware. That’s why I’m like “Shut the fuck up about what you’re going to do, come back when it’s done”.

Sick of ‘let’s talk about mental health’

No. I’m sick of it. I’m sick to fucking death of it. I want all of us to have access to decent comprehensive mental healthcare treatment that is ours of right but isn’t being delivered because of political choices being made by ministers. You’ve been in power for over seven years: own it.

…because if you talk too much about it, you lose friends…

I have a number of people in my mind where I look back and think what a difference it would have made if that comprehensive system of support had been in place. The various crises I’ve had were not for them to bear the burden of helping me through. That was for the NHS – it’s what our taxes paid for. In particular having known how to make best use of tranquilliser medication which, up until my breakdown was something I thought was only for very serious cases. It would have helped stabilise my moods at some really critical points. Part of me thinks “How the fuck did you make it so far in the face of all of that?”

That’s why these days I try to bottle most of it in and/or distract myself

Fortunately I’ve got something to keep me distracted for a very long time – and fingers crossed our funding applications that I and a few others have started working on will mean I become somewhat independent and have a group of people to work with. Augusts generally are grim for me because everyone goes away and everything stops. Also, when I’m at my most irritable I need to get out of the house and away from people – which is why archives are very useful in that regard. No one disturbs you in archives. Given the nature of what I’m researching, very few people will have found the sorts of things I’ve been pulling out – mainly things in long-forgotten newspaper columns from a century ago. It’s the stuff that unexpectedly makes you laugh or smile that’s the nicest. Such as ‘red tape gone mad’.

Liberal Socialist farming spoof - 13 Oct 1926

…through to one of the earliest photographs of people (in this case children at the old Milton Road Primary School) smiling for the camera

Milton Road School PLay

(Click on the image and expand – the top photo in particular).

Then you’ve got things that simply smash negative stereotypes – such as the myth that girls cannot throw.

Miss Olive Johnson County High School Sports 30 June 1920

That’s Miss Olive Johnson at the Cambridge County High School for Girls Sports Day – 30 June 1920. We now call that institution Long Road Sixth Form College. And that is a cricket ball Olive is about to hurl.

Managing other people’s expectations

Never an easy one to talk about in terms of family expectations because the whole thing is loaded with things from the past that were outside the control of many of us. So I won’t go there.

But the inertia of past expectations and the social culture of what ‘middle class Cambridge’ was until I left to go to university in the late 1990s is one I can only describe looking with hindsight as absolutely toxic. It surprises me even now that we allowed churches and religious institutions to have such a stranglehold on our lives. The one thing that really strikes me is the impact the internet has had. As a child up until the internet became mainstream, you took what you were given knowledge-wise and were told to pass exams. Do well and you get treats, do badly and all hell breaks loose. I took that to heart and as a result ended up stepping back from a whole host of things to put exams first, when actually doing those other things would have been of immense benefit. The mindset at the time was that you only studied languages if you wanted to be a translator and that you played a musical instrument so that if you could not find a job anywhere else, you could always become a music teacher. (I still remember being told this by more than one adult).

The problem was that when I got to university and moved from a world where I didn’t have the internet to one where I did, I found that the institutions who I had trustingly obeyed throughout my childhood at left me woefully underprepared for the real world. What I also didn’t realise was that university was about to do exactly the same thing in my economics degree, only this time I didn’t fall into line. Much of what I was taught in that degree was called into question by the banking crisis – hence organisations such as and got set up.

“So, when are you going to get married and have children then?”

One of the reasons why I tend to avoid family gatherings these days. That plus a few years ago I started getting panic attacks at them so now I simply don’t go.

In a strange way I always assumed that getting married and having kids is what was going to happen. I was told before I went to university that I’d meet a new stable group of friends and a future spouse – none of which happened. One of the biggest shortcomings of higher education policy for decades has been ignoring the housing/student accommodation element. The housing situation in Brighton plus my old uni’s policy towards it did so much damage not just to me, but to many other people I spoke to at the time in terms of their experience there.

Post-civil service I’ve made the judgement call that my health simply is not strong enough to be a parent – even if I did meet the perfect partner. It’s such an awesome responsibility to have for such an extended period of time that I would inevitably fall short. We all make rash decisions when we’re tired and under pressure. Given that a high state of mental exhaustion is my starting point – combined with not being able to work full time anyway to support anyone, let alone myself, I’ve written myself out of it. But I’m reconciled to that and am at ease with it.

You could say that narrows the field in terms of searching for a life partner, but then I’ve not really been looking ever since my breakdown on the grounds that I’m not in a fit state of health. That plus having had to move back into my childhood home and not being in full time employment – and not fully independent means I’m hardly going to be topping the criteria list, let’s put it that way!

But rather than going on ***Oh woe is me!*** on that front (I’ve spent most of the previous paragraphs doing that), I’ve unwittingly followed the example of one of my top historical heroes, Eglantyne Jebb, who (following heartbreak) found a cause that chimed with her and didn’t look back.

Eglantyne Jebb in Cambridge

Eglantyne Jebb: Author of Cambridge: A brief study in social questions. 1906. Photo in Feminism & Voluntary Action by L Mahood. Photo from around the time Eglantyne was active in Cambridge (1903-1913).

When I first read her book I had no idea who she was. All I knew was that in the first two chapters she had taught me more about the civic history of Cambridge up to the year 1900 than the rest of the city put together. It was only when I found out that she founded Save The Children that I wondered why the story of her work in Cambridge wasn’t known much more widely. Like me, Eglantyne suffered from mental health problems, was incredibly highly strung/intense as a persona, liked partner dancing – and also never married. Reading her biographies I can’t help but think she worked herself into an early grave dying in her early 50s but looking decades older in her final years.

The reason why I’m committing my next however many years of living to this project is that the life stories of the women who transformed Cambridge is one of the most inspiring that I’ve read about, yet so few know about it.

“Does that mean giving up politics?”

Hell…no. History and politics are joined at the hip. Brexit being an example of politics going badly wrong because collectively we’ve gotten our histories in a big mess. Interestingly I’m in a situation where I spend a lot of time researching the lives and actions of long-deceased heroic women while at the same time spending a similar amount of time scrutinising the actions of panels and committees that are unfortunately mainly if not entirely male. (Greater Cambridge City Deal Board, Cambridge & Peterborough Combined Authority Cabinets are all-male).







Original source – A dragon’s best friend

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