Somebody Else’s Cambridge Interview: The road back from self-destruction

Charlotte Ivers 10 May 2014

“You know what the best thing is? I wake up, and no part of me is sore. My eyes aren’t dry. I don’t have to down a litre of water every morning just to make my throat feel acceptable.” A year ago, the man sitting opposite me gave up cigarettes and alcohol. He is telling me about the impact which this has had on his life. I narrow my eyes at him. I am wearing my old school tracksuits and a college sports sweatshirt. I am alternating sips of coffee and soluble paracetamol. There is still a trace of somebody else’s Caesarian Sunday face paint on my neck. I’m not quite sure how it got there, but I am acutely aware that it needs showering off. It is hard not to look at him without seeing a little smugness. Nonetheless I can’t help but feel that this subtext may be nobody’s fault but my own.

Why did you stop drinking? He laughs sardonically. “Ah, the million dollar question. Essentially, when I was your age, I was on about ten cups of coffee, minimum three pints and twenty odd cigarettes a day. I was feeling a bit off and went to see the nurse. She told me my blood pressure was higher than my gran’s. So that made me realise I kind of had to sort myself out. I did, and now I’m fine. It went back to normal after a couple of months. Plus, you don’t get to that state by accident. I was pretty reliant on all those stimulants: coffee for working, smoking for concentration, drinking to forget the previous two. There was a point when I would be getting through about ten cigarettes for a supervision essay, and I’m a scientist. Everyone has their own coping mechanisms, and for me those coping mechanisms were pretty self-destructive. I realised I had to get out of that cycle.”

What were you coping with? Another laugh with an edge to it. “Oh god everything. I got myself into this state where everything felt difficult. Taking clothes to the laundry or walking to lectures became this massive ordeal. I think I just felt that my life was out of control, and the more I convinced myself of that the more it became true. Which isn’t to say that those things were trivial, they certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. Yeh, my first year was pretty grim to be honest.”

But it is better now? “Yeh, definitely. Nothing has really changed about my external circumstances, I think I just got used to looking after myself and dealing with everyday life. Coming to university was a big shock to the system. I had been at boarding school before and had never really had to manage my own time, so I guess the shock of the change really hit me. I was just dazed and wondering around in what was actually a really miserable haze for a long time. I wasn’t in control at all. Hopefully now I have better mechanisms in place for next time I experience a big change. I can’t let my life get out of control like that again. There are too many things to do.” What is there to do? He grins, broadly. This time there is no sardonic undertone. “Everything. There is everything to do. And that is really very exciting.”