Freak Out

In my third year of university I suffered from panic attacks, which were the physical manifestation of my guilt at having been so lackadaisical in attitude towards academic study for the preceding two years. I vividly remember one afternoon when I was attempting to start work on my dissertation and my housemate and best friend bounded into my room and informed me we would be attending a house party that evening. Summoning some hitherto unknown strength of will I declined the offer and explained the likelihood of my failing my degree if I ventured outside the house between that very moment and the end of term, but my protestations fell on unsympathetic ears. “You’ve got 15 minutes,” my friend said, “by the time I get out of the shower you need to be ready to go.” As it happened, by the time she got out of the shower I was about as far from ready as could be-I had, in fact, become so distressed by my predicament that I had unintentionally hyperventilated myself into unconsciousness and collapsed backwards onto the bed. Needless to say, by the time I came around I was so disoriented that work was not an option-and alcohol, and indeed the house party, won out (as so oft they did in those halcyon days of my early twenties. Oh who am I kidding? They still do more than ten years later).

Why did I tell you that story? For two reasons actually. Firstly, because today I had a moment when I felt the same chest-crushing anxiety I felt that day at university, as it hit me in a tidal wave of realisation that this move to Belgium really IS happening two weeks on Saturday, and I suddenly and acutely felt a sense of loss for all the loved ones that I’m leaving here in the UK, as well as a sense of panic about leaping into the great unknown without the security of a job or social network where I’m going. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% committed to this move and can’t wait to start this new chapter in my life. I suppose trepidation is just a natural part of the process of acclimatisation to change.

The second reason I told that story is that tomorrow is my thirty third birthday, and as I sit here reminiscing about my uni days I find it difficult to accept they were more than a decade ago. I always thought by the time I reached my early thirties I’d feel grown up and would have life all figured out. But the reality is there is no ‘magic age’ at which we humans become ‘grown up.’ And whilst I waste a lot of breath moaning about my advancing years, I have to say that’s one realisation I’m glad to have had.

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Old Friends

There’s nothing so wonderful as a wedding that also doubles up as a mass reunion of old friends. Last night was one such occasion, bringing all the friends from my Birmingham Uni days together under one roof for a good old fashioned knees up. And what a night it was. It’s been years since we were last all in the same place at the same time and we made the most of every second, reliving the silly dances of our youth and reminiscing about the fun times we all shared.

Life moves so fast and is so busy that it’s not always possible to see old friends as much as we might like. But, in my case at least, on those increasingly rare occasions when we do all get together the old magic is still there, and that’s such a lovely thing to behold and to experience.

I realised last night what an integral part of my life all those people have been and how much I love and value them. It was also heartwarming to see how happy and comfortable in their own skin everyone is now; Lord knows we’ve all been through our fair share of ups and downs over the thirteen years we’ve known one another but now it really feels we’ve come out of the other side and are all relatively settled.

But the biggest accolade of all must go to the stunning bride, Rebecca (whose Temperley wedding gown was the very definition of elegance) and her handsome groom, Paul, without whose hospitality we would not all have had the opportunity to come together in the first place. Great night guys, a thousand thank yous and enjoy married life xxxx
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Give young people a chance

Yesterday afternoon I popped into the office to meet some of the members of our Youth Led Consultancy Board (YLCB for short). We’ve been grappling with what the charity’s strapline should be for a few weeks and all felt it was important to get input from the young people – who have themselves all completed the Teens and Toddlers programme – because without it we’d be hypocritical to call ourselves a truly youth-led charity.

Within minutes of starting the brainstorm they’d come up with a better suggestion for the strap line than any of the ones we devised in the staff brainstorm meeting last week. It was so inspiring to meet them and find out what they’re all doing now-mostly about to finish college exams and waiting for results to find out if they’ve got university places. They’re living proof our programme really does work at helping disadvantaged young people get into further education and employment, and it was a joy to see how bright, motivated and enthusiastic they all are.

Working with the young people is teaching me so much about the dangers of preconceptions and stereotypes. So many people write off vast swathes of today’s youth as being wasters who refuse to do the necessary work to succeed, but for most that’s categorically not true. They want to achieve, they just need extra help to believe that they can.

This one was taken in 2007 when I made a banoffee pie and brought it into the orphanage for the kids to try – they couldn’t get enough of it!

“The icing on the turd” / Support network special

My group of friends from university is rather unconventional. Ever since those fateful first few days, thirteen (has it been so long?!) years ago we’ve had an odd method of supporting one another through hard times. We call it the “Support Network,” though each of us is fully aware of the irony of that title. Essentially how it works is that when something goes wrong in one of our lives the rest of us take the piss relentlessly until we see the funny side (please note that we are selective in what we deem to be an event worthy of humour – general misfortune is fair game, break ups generally so and deaths absolutely never. We aren’t completely inhumane).

Yesterday a few of the old gang got together again in London. Having foolishly believed the weather forecast we’d made plans befitting of a glorious summer’s day; a stroll around Greenwich in the sunshine. Unfortunately this plan was not to be, since the heavens opened at 4pm and torrential rain poured down for several hours. Undeterred (well, mildly deterred), we ventured over to Greenwich despite the disappointing conditions but, after finding that it wasn’t all that fun to walk around knee deep in puddles, we duly ensconced ourselves in the nearest pub. From there we sank some pints, ate some pies and headed into London Bridge for beers, card games and karaoke.

When today dawned beautifully bright and clear, we hastily made plans to revisit Greenwich, this time certain that the sun would shine and all would go to plan. We’d start, we reasoned, with a trip on the cable car from North Greenwich, then head over to Greenwich Village afterwards. And so a plan was borne, and we assembled our merry gang at North Greenwich tube and headed over to the cable car base station. After queuing for twenty minutes to purchase tickets we went through the barriers and queued up for a car, excited about our imminent flight over London in clear skies. But it was not to be, for as we reached the very front of the queue and were but inches from our car, the staff told us regrettably high winds meant it would have to stop. Dejected and incredulous we trooped back down the stairs and through the ticket barrier and headed to the ticket window to ask for our money back. No such luck; we would, we were told, have to call the number on the back of our Oyster cards to file a claim.

In an attempt to salvage the afternoon we walked over to the pier and purchased tickets for the boat to Greenwich Village, realising too late that the next boat was not due to depart for 30 minutes. After what seemed like an eternity we boarded the boat and reached our destination, disembarking beneath the impressive Cutty Sark and all agreeing things were looking up. After a short stroll we saw a sign for the ‘best sausage rolls in the world’ – a claim we felt duty bound to verify. We sought out the shop in question and requested five of these world-class sausage rolls – and were informed they only had four left. Feeling slightly short changed we purchased and shared all four, then walked across the road into the park.

Spotting a sign for ice cream we ventured inside a shop and joined yet another queue, confident that when we reached the front there’d be a plethora of delicious flavours to choose from. Again it was not to be, for there were only two flavours left; strawberry (my least favourite ice cream flavour) and pear sorbet (who eats pear sorbet? Well, nobody by the look of it seeing as it was all that was left). We grudgingly settled for strawberry and walked back outside – by which time fat grey clouds were rolling in and obscuring the sun. As we walked up the hill to Greenwich Observatory holding our ice creams rain drops flecked our cheeks like little warnings to turn back – which is exactly what we should have done, given that we reached the top only to find we’d missed the last entry to the Observatory by 15 minutes and couldn’t go in. It was at this point that Frank remarked, “Well, that’s just the icing on the turd” – a fine phrase that perfectly encapsulated the mood of the moment.

We finished the day with a pint by the river, taking in the last of the sun and both reminiscing over and revelling in our own misfortune. By the end of it we were hysterical with laughter, as we always are when we’re together.

Another Support Network Special – and I wouldn’t have had it any other way 🙂

Productivity and pressure

Today’s mot du jour (said in a sophisticated French accent, naturellement) is “productive.” It’s 11.07am as I type this and already I’ve run five kilometres on the treadmill, sifted through the reams of crap accumulated in my desk drawers during my sixteen months here (binning most of it and saving a few nuggets that may be of use later on), applied for my New York visa, ordered both my travel money and insurance and made an exhaustively comprehensive to do list covering virtually every remaining minute of my working day (and indeed beyond, as this evening I’ll be helping my boyfriend move into his new place by lugging a massive suitcase from one end of London to the other in the name of love – or lunacy, I’m not sure which).

In short, I’m in the midst of a necessary manic phase, which has got me thinking about the nature of pressure. I don’t know about you but I have a love hate relationship with pressure. When I’m under huge amounts of it I panic; my hands sweat, my head pounds, my breathing is shallow. Sometimes (too often) I turn into a whimpering, gibbering mess in the corner, claiming between sobs that it’s all too much, I just can’t do it. But then a funny thing happens; I remind myself to breathe, drag myself out of the corner, put the kettle on and sit back down at my desk. And then I simply carry on. And you know what? If it wasn’t for the pressure bearing down on me I often wouldn’t complete the task I’d set out to achieve in the first place. In other words, much as it stresses me out, pressure is an essential part of my productivity. I work better with it than without it – and that’s a fact.

At school and university I could often be found at 2am the night before an important exam, cramming every bit of information I possibly could into my brain. It wasn’t that I hadn’t bothered to revise (well, it wasn’t always that), I just couldn’t focus properly until I was under sufficient pressure to be able to block everything else out. I’ll never forget the week before my dissertation was due when it dawned on me I really had left it too late, and I had to pull out every last stop to deliver on time. My body’s reaction to that particular period of pressure was somewhat extreme – I blacked out whilst hyperventilating over the choice of finishing my dissertation and attending a party. Needless to say I eventually (and sensibly, as wasn’t always customary in those days) opted to stay in and finish the dissertation, and thankfully went on to clinch an upper second degree as a result.

In today’s society pressure is, whether we like it or not, all around us. We feel pressure to succeed in every aspect of our lives, from our jobs to our relationships and even in our hobbies. Even those who seem, on the face of it, to be at the top of their game – the company CEO, for example – are under constant pressure to deliver better, smarter, cheaper. But the reason such people get to the top of their game is because they’ve managed to get a handle on the pressure and make it work to their advantage. They’ve understood that often pressure is a good thing which provides a necessary catalyst for change (if you don’t think change is a good thing, see yesterday’s post which, I hope, will change your mind – geddit?).

Now I’m afraid I really must be off, I’ve got a million and one things to do before the day is out and my hands are getting clammy….

This photo shows me at a time when I was under considerable pressure – to host and deliver a successful end of expedition ceremony in Borneo in 2011. You can tell from the sweat on my brow I was nervous (and also brown – so brown, sigh…), but fortunately my effort was passable and the event was a success. See? Pressure in action. I rest my case.