Lockdown Diary: confessions of a stranded grad

A few months ago, a friend of mine was lamenting the uncertainties, disruption and outright pain being in a world ravaged by Covid (amongst other, equally unpleasant things that the media has ceased reporting on, since this pandemic has the nerve to kill a higher proportion of rich white people than the modern-day Holocausts happening in Yemen and Syria).

“People are convinced that there will be a second wave!” she said.

I smiled the smug smile of someone who knew more than she did.

“There won’t be,” I soothed, ever the Wise Woman of the West. “And even if there is, there won’t be another lockdown.”

Two lockdowns since that comment, I present the second of my lockdown diaries. I now realise that my plan of being on a beach in Mexico drinking from a hollowed-out pineapple and giving the waiter the eye by February was perhaps delusional.

Politics:

This year has been worse than inconvenient for many. It has ruined people. Rees-Mogg’s instruction that the masses “use their savings” just to keep economically afloat is indicative of how little our ruling party understands (ahem, cares about) its demographic: roughly as much as children take heed of the ants that they stampede whilst playing tag. Indeed, Tory Tag involves a competitive and jovial game of ‘Who Can Be the Cheekiest Hoarder of Cayman Island Savings. You’re It!’

The mental and financial stability of young people has been utterly neglected by the UK government. I have encountered numerous older individuals who condemn the ungratefulness of youths, and claim that we regard their lives as throwaway. And yet, much of what makes us feel safe has been wrenched from us, with little assurance of its return. University mental health services are saturated. People are developing eating and anxiety disorders. Some are killing themselves. The extent of our sacrifice is phenomenal.

Up North, we have been in variations of this lockdown for months. Britain – and perhaps the world at large, given the international spread of the recent UK mutation – is now paying the price of Boris championing the famed ‘British Freedom’ in his insipid approach to London and Christmas; I presume so that he could command his assistant to block the persistent unknown caller (whom he fears is an abandoned offspring trying to get in touch) over cream teas and chardonnays in some upmarket Westminster bar.

It is OK for us to be acknowledging that this is not fair. Yes, thousands are dying tragically and needlessly due to Covid, and yes, generally, it is not us. We are entitled to our resentment and outrage at the categorical neglect that we have been subjected to nonetheless.

This disrespect is even more audacious when considered in conjunction with the fact that our generation is on the cusp of having to shoulder the monstrous debt of Brexit (that we overwhelmingly did not, or could not, vote for) alongside the trillions of pounds of debt that has been furrowed into an utterly inadequate and outright dangerous response to Covid. All the while, the same party that expects our unjustified complicity, plans to erode funding for the services that might actually be able to keep US safe – Sure Start centres, education, job centres, children’s centres, healthcare facilities.

And why would the Tories bother to consider the exaggerated impacts of many of their policies, U-turns and throwaway decisions on us? Demographically, we did not really vote for them. They won anyhow. They do not need our support. We have nothing to offer them – except, perhaps, our youthful eyesight, which they are welcome to borrow at any time if it saves them the silly bother of having to drive for 5 hours to test their own.

Careers and Relationships

The more avid amongst my readers (hi mum) will know that during the summer lockdown, I was working in a garden nursery raising funds for my second gap year.

I moved back to Manchester in October, where I was lucky to immediately find work as a teaching assistant in a school for children who struggle with their social, emotional and mental health. Alongside this, I have taught English online, worked as a carer, written my grandmother’s memoir, and am now training to be a vaccinator (you’re welcome world).

Whilst none of these jobs (aside from the ghost-writing) bear any relation to my career aspirations, I have been relieved to find work at all. It has shocked me to discover a definitive lack of motivation amongst my fellow Stranded Grads. Many of them have preferred to spend months applying for their dream roles at the BBC, or for a publishing house, or a lawyer firm, at a time when it is difficult to find work at a paper round or as a carer in an old people’s home. They express euphoria when they are fortunate enough to get a rejection, as opposed to being outright ignored.

Whilst a chair sailed gracefully over my head and I was violently deemed a ‘fucking crackhead’ at my teaching assistant role, I had a revelation.

In what other context, I wondered, had I seen this pattern of employment-seeking behaviour before? Emotional energy spent on attaining a goal captioned the ultimate fulfilment; ceaseless attempts to propel oneself towards any opportunity that resembles our ultimate aim; the compromising of self worth and pragmatism in the process, as though our whole value is dictated by our ability to attain this Holy Purpose.

Yes, I see this behaviour often in modern dating.

Indeed, there is similar exultation to job refusals at the kindness of a romantic rejection. “He didn’t ghost me at least!”

Our world is constructed to project certain ambitions into our psyches from birth. Two notions sit atop this hierarchy: Career Queen and Married Queen. This makes perfect since, given the Capitalist refrain that rewards reproduction and market expansion. It appeases the establishment when we value ourselves in terms of our professional success, and the extent to which we are romantically cherished.

Presenting: My Personal, Illustrative Example

I am aware that the above point makes me sound arrogant and actually quite bitchy. Just to clarify, I am not morally exempt from entanglement with patriarchal dating patterns or status-driven job hunts. As a qualified and confident Sharer of Distressing Personal Anecdotes, I feel it is time to talk about a. my detachment from the world of journalism, b. a traumatic relationship that I endured in first year, and c. how these two events are connected.

Journalism:

Aged 12, I began writing a column in the local newspaper. From then, I was determined to be a successful journalist. It wouldn’t be so hard; I could write, and I knew how to lightly pester to get what I wanted.

I scrounged work experience at a few media outlets, and got a couple of commissions. When I started university, I wrote for its newspaper, ran the radio station and chaired the Women in Media Conference. All of this (unpaid) labour seemed the ideal experience to clinch paid work later on.

And yet, no luck.

I discovered that to be a journalist, it is recommended that you pay for a NCTJ, or a Master’s. Even then, finding substantial work is difficult because journalism is staggeringly competitive. It is beneficial if you are multi-lingual, or have the funds to get by whilst you pursue unpaid work experience. At one of my voluntary internships, I was asked by one of the staff members “who I knew” to be able to work there. (The sports editor was a family friend, as it happened).

This is nothing new. Any work that comprises freelancing and notoriety if you ‘excel’ will be tight for the top spot. I generalise; I have friends who are doing incredibly well freelancing without any qualifications – simply by pitching to different platforms. They are bossing the industry, integrity intact.

But I felt that I was sacrificing mine. I wanted a reliable income, doing something that I adored. I love people, their words and their stories. I love writing expressively. I love podcasting about issues that reflect my own interests, not the agendas of large media platforms that I have strategized my stance and focus to appeal to.

Notably – and perhaps most significantly – I realised that an internal force was driving me to convert my most ardent hobby into a status game. I had convinced myself that my writing was only valuable if it was Guardian material, or if it inched me closer to the BBC. Since the day that I could write words, I have written them. Since the day that I could rant, I have bloody well ranted. Why was my dearest passion only worth something if I executed it for money and fame?

In answer: because this drive is what keeps capitalism a-tick. Things are valuable primarily if they perpetuate power cycles and economic gain. The capitalist conscience had infiltrated my principles, so that I only saw worth in my journalism were it a viable career option.

Relationship:

At the end of first year, I started seeing a boy who was notoriously misogynistic. He and I had clashed over this before we dated, but I was swayed when I became the object of his infatuation.

He was incredibly forthright and loving. His adoration of me was famed, alongside his persistent romantic gestures.

Behind the scenes, his behaviour rapidly darkened.

I had not had sex before, which momentarily floored him. But he would push for it anyway, often entering me without warning when we were messing around, making me yelp and even bleed.

“Sorry,” he would say, looking disappointed. “I want to fuck you so badly.”

He would buy me gifts and observe my interests and mannerisms, moulding his personality to my preferences. According to him, I was wildly unattainable, a sublime creature of which he was not worthy.

I was different from the other girls that he had dated, he would proclaim. He had betrayed them because they were not me. Besides, he had chaired the feminist society at his all-boys private school, didn’t I know? All of his friends were in agreement: they had never seen him this besotted. He no longer wanted to do a year abroad, for fear that it would distance us.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a vast ego must be in want of at least a 7/10 to showcase on his Instagram.

It upset him that I might forget him over the holidays. I was going travelling for a month, whilst he volunteered abroad for the entire summer.

“Let’s go to Paris together when I get back,” he suggested. I had told him that it was my favourite city, and that I spoke a little French. Nonetheless, I was reluctant; whilst I was responsive to his wooing, I distrusted him. I had met his ex-girlfriend at a party in Bournemouth, months before he and I dated. When she had discovered where I went to university, she had asked if I knew him.

“He cheated on every girlfriend except me,” she proclaimed with a hint of pride. “Stay away from him.”

“Yeah, he seems slimy,” I replied.

As if to annul this perception of him, he would slug an arm around me when we were at the pub with his friends.

“I cannot believe my ex nearly stopped me from getting with Mia!” he would theatrically declare.

He must have quickly realised that I was not worth the graft. He suddenly began neglecting to see me on my own, only showing affection in public. Even so, he would suggest frequently that I come to Paris with him. I resisted accepting, agreeing instead to meet his family in London when he returned. I would have loved to have been gifted a weekend away with him (although there was always a risk of it becoming primarily a photoshoot abroad given his idea of what ‘travel’ consisted of). But I was wary of my darling Paris being tainted by a boy whose regard for me was limited to his social media and some questionable sexual encounters, despite what he labelled us.

One day, he decided that he was entitled to a conclusion to his lively quest to fuck me. I went to a club with him and his friends, where he bought me many drinks and kissed me and kissed me and requested that we go home together. “I want to leave early with you,” he persisted.

“I’m having fun here,” I slurred, but gave in a few minutes later.

Once in his room, we undressed. He pushed himself inside of me, but I pushed him off.

“No,” I said. “It can’t just be fine. You’ve been ignoring me for weeks.”

“Sorry,” he said, “I’ve just been feeling really… depressed.”

Ah, the magic word. And with that, all of his misdemeanors were forgiven and in he slid.

But, alas, our poor hero was confronted with an unanticipated foe even after the final hurdle. The years of fearing the abominations that lust could render surfaced no sooner had I lost my virginity: I erupted into a tempest of drunken tears and confided how scared I was that all boys wanted from me was sex.

What I meant to say to you was that I was petrified that the pedestal that you had put me on could only be eroded by my reality. I tired of boys fantasizing elements of me and making me feel like a failure when my vulnerabilities prevented their painted, fetished version of me from being realised. You were such a risk to me. I felt like having sex with you left me raw and inside out and soft and scared and I was so terrified that I had waited all this time to be with someone and that you would stamp on me and that the rigidity of my sense of self was bleeding in the wake of your rejection and making me repulsive to you. To you. How I perceived myself became a subordinate concern. I wanted to be the person that had enchanted you, but your repulsion of me had caused her to dissolve. You were right to think I was disgusting because I was a fraud. I clung harder to you because you not wanting me would confirm that my splendour was a façade.

“I am different from other boys! You aren’t with them anymore!” he soothed. “Remember the person you are – the version of you that you write about in your blog – I’ve been binge reading it – just breathe – it’s OK!”

When we awoke, it was awkward. He wanted us to shower together.

“Can we not?” I said. “I’m tired.”

But again, he persisted and I yielded.

He tried have sex with me again once we were under the showery shroud. I yelped.

“I’m still sore from from last night,” I said, flummoxed by the intrusion.

Once in his room, I sat on his bed wrapped in his towel. He looked irritable.

“Now you’ve gotten blood and water on my bed,” he said.

He asked me to leave soon after, citing a need for time on his own.

“Of course,” I said, apologetic and embarrassed to have failed to intuit the vast inconvenience that I had posed whilst drying off from a shower that I had not wanted to have, and during which he had assaulted me.

I bought him a gift before his departure abroad, and wrote him a letter detailing how much I had valued his patience with me since I had been so tentative about trusting him (…), but noting that he had treated me dismissively. I vowed not to message him over summer, since he had made it clear that his intentions for our romance to continue were tenuous at best.

But, lo and behold, as soon as he departed, he messaged me thanking me for making his year so special and expressing disappointment that he hadn’t asked me out sooner. Upon opening the gifts and letter weeks later, he thanked me profusely for my honesty; he had time to ponder his behaviour towards me over summer, he insisted.

“You speak deep truths from within,” he messaged as a response to my letter.

“Do you reckon he’s actually clever, or does he just pretend to be clever around you because it impresses you?” asked my mum. A good question, Becky.

“He insecure,” I insisted. Like an actual fucking lunatic.

To no one’s surprise, he ghosted me as soon as I had returned from travelling, and was no longer exposed to the temptation of new and exotic flirtations.

***

When we were both back in Manchester, his saintly side prevailed; he proclaimed that he ‘owed’ me a coffee, which I stubbornly paid for myself before sitting suspiciously opposite him in a student café.

“The thing is,” he said, “I never actually liked you. I was just pretending the whole time. You were just a lie I got obsessed with.”

“Oh, OK,” I said, stunned. “What about when I lost my virginity to you? And you promised that your feelings for me were genuine? As I cried and bled?”

“Dunno what to say,” he shrugged. “I was lying.”

“Oh,” I said dazedly.

“Also,” he continued, his brow furrowed in feigned concern. “Cheers for the gifts. It’s awkward though, like am I meant to buy you something back? Is that how it works?”

“N…no? It’s fine? It was a gift,” I said. “How was Paris, anyway?”

He looked shifty. “How did you know about that?”

“What do you mean?” I replied. “Because you consistently asked me to come with you?”

“No, I did NOT,” he said, “You’re remembering wrong. I didn’t ask you that. I didn’t. That’s not true.”

“OK. Whatever. Did you enjoy yourself?”

“Yes, it was great. I saw all the sights.”

When I arrived home, I scrolled through Facebook. And there it was: an album uploaded by his ex girlfriend – the one who had warned me against him all those months ago in Bournemouth.

‘Paris’, it was entitled. Because obviously, of course, he had gone with her instead. The gallant knight had violated me, pressured me into sex, gaslighted me prolifically and shamelessly broadcasted the betrayal over social media for all of our friends to see. The beauty of first love… unparalleled.

If you are experiencing any of the above, please please please reach out to someone (me, if you like!). The lasting impact of this toxic relationship has been phenomenal – there are many components of it that I have not had the space to write about here – and I wish I had understood what I was a victim of as it prevailed.

What has this experience got to do with employment?

I have struggled so much to rationalise my behaviour with him. It opposed so much of what I preached, and continue to fight for.

But I am now better able to comprehend that it is not your fault that you are ensnared in a dangerous power dynamic and subjected to emotional manipulation.

That notwithstanding, my complicity in his overt sexism endured because I was enamoured by a patriarchal idea of being in a relationship with him (a process that I outline in greater detail in Good Girl ).

Note this extract from my therapeutic written reliving of it:

I apologise sincerely to all the women from your past who you violated, and who I did not defend. I made our arguments about me, and my trust. It should have been about how much better those women deserved; that your behaviour towards them did not reflect their worth, their intelligence, their wit, the complexities of their humanity. You had reduced them to their momentary utility and discarded them when they no longer furthered your agenda. I am sorry for seeing them as stepping-stones that led you to me, as though I was better than them because you preferred me. I am sorry for finding pride in the fact that I had been the one to ‘change’ you when you had been a force of degradation for so many. My only excuse is that I was still learning.

I saw his previous romantic interests as my competitors. We were all applying for the same, coveted role: his Tamer. My dream job. Him, the austere and notorious employer, could treat me with flagrant disrespect after having allowed me a free pass to the interview stage. He would have plenty of other applicants were I to duck out, after all.

When we become enraptured by the prospect of high-pressure and esteemed positions, we are blinded to the significance of the path we tread on our way ‘up’. We are programmed to value ourselves in terms of our ability to attain status, such as an envy-inciting relationship or job. We choose unemployment over working lower-status roles; we opt for abusive or toxic relationships over being single.

If we assume that underlying 99% of humans is a yearning to be loved and accepted, the impact of a universal construction of ‘love’ has upon every one of us is demisted. But the very things that have been socially fabricated to make us think that we are desired and important – professional and romantic standing – have the ability to sap us of confidence.

Our obsession with these end goals keeps power in the same circles. Our inability to define ourselves internally, via our generosity, curiosity, humour and intelligence, is caused by a universal aversion to the average. Social media normalises the Gloat – my first day at my new job! my first anniversary with my spouse! I overvame adversity and now, here is proof that I matter! Capitalism encourages an idea of love that is overwhelmingly external, and that the only way to find it is through mediums that conform to unhealthy ideals of success.

The path to happiness lies in revelling in the glorious in-between. We can relinquish our appetite for exceptionalism; being exceptional is a curse destined to bind us to self-scrutiny and insecurity.

Many of us will find great employment opportunities even without an excess of nepotism or neglecting our principles. Many of us will find comfortable and affirming relationships that do not corrode our mental health and self-esteem. Many of us will find the love that validates us even if – gasp – we are single and not working the job of our dreams.

Quickfire lockdown recommendations and memories:

Game: ‘Dobble’ – endless and savage fun with housemates (the picking up version is funner because of the aggression that ensues). I feel that Dobble management should pay me commission given how many of my friends have purchased it on my command.

Series: ‘The Great’ – SO funny and SO delicious and Elle Fanning is a massive babe. Also ‘Back to Life’ on Netflix.

Book: ‘The Sense of an Ending’ – an interesting take on the process of memory and the extent to which it unravels to suit our own narrative. Astutely observed and thought-provoking.

Breezy reads: Marina Hyde – iconique Guardian columnist.

Memories:

My new bedroom in its slender glory
My new housemates in their I wish we could go for a pint glory
Saoirse and Bella back when we could go into a bar without breaking and entering
My darling friends whose spare room I haunted for a month whilst I found a room to rent
The wildest New Year’s I ever did have
One of our many sofa days

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