This summer I made the fatal mistake (yet one I make every year) of thinking the next twelve weeks were going to be some kind of mind-and-body boot camp, thanks to the rose-gold glow of Instagram and its hoard of inflatable flamingo-straddling models, all of whom I forget are paid to bleach their teeth and drink shitty tea. Like every summer to date, I started this one with ambitions of returning for my third year well-read, well-dressed, and with 1% body fat. I would be living in London for two internships, and couldn’t imagine a more glamorous and grown-up setting in which I could finally emerge from my self-constructed cocoon of cake and anti-depressants.
Joking aside, I had also convinced myself that being busy at work, finally taking up some form of exercise, and catching up with old friends would surely subdue the depression which has been largely controlling my life for the past year or two, and which few of my friends know about. My second year at Cambridge was a definite and prolonged rock-bottom; I spent the morning of my 21st birthday crying in bed over last night’s cold noodles, because I hadn’t expected to make it that far. Moving to London was meant to be a fresh start, but even outside of Cambridge I was completely overwhelmed with self-expectation, and having returned to the murmur of Bristolian accents I am much happier away from it all.
(City Light Employee, City Light Photographic Negatives (Record Series 1204-01), Seattle Municipal Archives)
I started out at Condé Nast, working for ten days as an unpaid ‘work experience’ at Traveller magazine. Swinging through the revolving doors of Vogue House in my Primark (shhh) culottes, I thought ‘bloody hell, this it’. Turns out, after a few days of being completely ignored by everyone in the office, patronised by my supervisor who was probably about eighteen months older than me, and even going through a bin at her request, it was just bullshit, middle-aged The Devil Wears Clarks. The only highlight was when a French bulldog ran into the office and went unclaimed for a good half an hour, until a man finally rushed in panting ‘Josephine!’, scooped her up, and made an embarrassed apology. Obviously, no one else in the office even looked up. Joy!
A few weeks later, I started in the Special Events team at Breast Cancer Now. I’d wanted this internship to prepare myself for being one of three presidents for next year’s Pink Week Ball, especially following the behaviour of some students at last year’s event and the upset it caused within the Cambridge community. Although I was broke and knackered all the time I loved it, and felt so grateful to have responsibilities which weren’t at all about me. I was surrounded by people who seemed to genuinely care about how I was doing, besides having bothered to learn my name. However, outside of the office I was trying to follow an unsustainable routine of seeing old friends, going to the gym I’d joined (lol), reading and reading for third year, and living off soup and vegetables. And, shock, it just made me more miserable.
Nothing worked out like Instagram had led me to believe: getting up at 6am to go for a swim turned into dozing off and waking up in a panic ten minutes before I had to run to work. If I did make it to the gym I left with a sense of hopelessness, completely intimidated by the crowd of men in tight vests, grunting dramatically, and flexing in front of any reflective surface. Seeing friends became compromised by a mental deadline, a time to leave and return to my cave and get on with the next part of my deluded self-improvement, which always turned into binge-watching The Office and going to sleep in a shroud of self-disgust.
Out of this cycle of disappointment, however, came a real appreciation for moments of calm. I began looking for it out of desperation, and finally managed to create my own sense of quietness within my daily routine. I tried taking things slower at work, and found I could complete my tasks within the same time frame but with fewer mistakes. I’d make the effort to travel across the city to see friends and stay out, without panicking about rushing back to my rented room. I quit going to the gym and starting eating mayonnaise again, and it was glorious.
By week six of the internship, all my flatmates had moved out and I was living alone in an empty flat, eating my meals off sheets of tin foil and curling up into a sleeping-bag. It was as far from my perception of glamorous London living as you can get, but I finally felt a little more at peace. I may be going back to Cambridge completely underprepared for next year, more or less broke, and probably a little heavier, but then who the hell isn’t.
Main image: Abigail Smith