Last week I turned 33 years old (I know, I know, I don't look it...) On the same day, I walked into my parents dining room to find that my graduation photo had appeared on the wall, staring back at me. For most 33-year-olds this might be a memory from 10+ years ago. For me, it was this past July. When I emerged from my A-Level-induced meltdown in 2001, aged 18, the last thing I wanted to entertain was more education. I'd had my fill of learning. I was done. I wanted to experience the world, earn money and do all of the exciting things.
In the years after I left school, I crammed in a lot. I learned a skill (hairdressing), travelled and did a lot of socialising. For the best part of 10 years I accepted my life, working chaotic, minimum wage jobs in the service industry. I took home my wages every week, saved just enough to pay my bills and spent what little was left behind the bar down my local. It was hard, it was stressful and it was even fun in places, but I hated my job. Eventually, I completely burned myself out to the point that I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and struggled to even get out of bed for the best part of a year.
Funnily enough, this was what set me on the path towards where I am now. I was permanently exhausted, in pain and unable to enjoy anything. I hadn't been well enough to work as a hairdresser for some time so I found an outlet for my love of the beauty and fashion industry in this blog. I've always had a great love of writing and, as I got more and more immersed in the blogosphere, I uncovered the world of social media, marketing and public relations.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I went to school in a small Derbyshire town, far away from London, or that marketing and PR just weren't then what they are now but - and I know this for a fact - if I had found out about these options before I left school, I honestly think I would have made more of an effort to continue on to University. As it is, I was 28, unable to work full time, and desperate to do something meaningful for my future whilst attempting to get myself well again.
It turned out my career epiphany was perfectly timed. I got in just under the wire in terms of the tuition fee increase. I completed a foundation degree in management before taking the plunge and relocating to London to continue with a BA in Public Relations and Communications at the University of Greenwich. As a 'mature' student (pffffff), my student life and experience wasn't typical, but it was never going to be with my health issues and two ferrets in tow. I also would never in a million years have wanted to live in halls and get drunk every night either. Been there, done that, got the WKD-stained t-shirt. I was 100% committed to my learning.
As you can see from these photos, the Maritime campus at Greenwich University is an extremely beautiful and inspiring place to study. Did I make it every 9am lecture? No (my CFS didn't always allow for that), but I had the full support of my lecturers and the other students on my course. I worried that, being a bit older, I would struggle to connect with my fellow PR students. I'm at a completely different stage of my life, with different needs and priorities, but they are all absolutely wonderful and I wouldn't change any of them for the world. It was a pleasure to study with them and we made an amazing team.
Now, here's the kicker... Now that I have graduated with an upper-second class honours degree, I have a new-found confidence and drive to succeed and push myself that I never had before. My career was never going to be typical due to my health circumstances and, while I'm still unable to work full-time, I can still honestly say that I feel like I have so much more to offer. I can finally see my own potential. I'm also thoroughly enjoying what I'm doing as a freelance PR and social media manager, so much so that it barely feels like work. I'm working at my own pace and this has also done wonders for my health. It has been worth every second of the exam stress, every tear I shed over my dissertation and every last penny of the student debt.
To round this rambly post off, I don't regret the years I spent running myself ragged in pubs and salons. I had some great times along the way. If anything, it allowed me to get everything out of my system and really throw myself into my degree once I finally decided I was ready. Following my CFS diagnosis, everything just fell into place and brought me to where I am now. Without it, maybe I would still be struggling behind the bar, with a tenner to last me until next payday...