Tim Squirrell – Isolation

As exam season truly begins, TIM SQUIRRELL wants to broach the topic of isolation in Cambridge.

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Let’s chat about isolation.

It’s easy enough in the depths of exam term to shut yourself off, emerging from your room only to eat, shit or occasionally shower. It’s easy to start to greet people with a grimace and a terse ‘Alright’, or even to keep your gaze fixed purposefully in the middle-distance and avoid having to acknowledge that anyone exists besides you and the librarian when you need a book from the reserve collection. Easy to the point of being a Cambridge cliché.

What we don’t talk about so much is how much easier it is to become isolated the rest of the time, and how hard it is, once you’ve made yourself alone and lonely, to make it better.

It starts with stress. You’ve got a deadline coming up, so you need to pull an all-nighter. You’ve just had a messy break-up and you’d rather just lie in bed and binge on Netflix for the evening. You’ve left all your internship/job/Masters/PhD applications until the last minute and now you need to think up a way to make your CV sound more impressive than your achievements actually are. So when your friends ask if you’re coming to the pub, you say no. When they’re running up and down the corridor during pre-drinks and they knock on your door, you pretend to be asleep. When the cute guy that you went on a date with texts and asks if you want to meet up again, you just don’t reply. You close yourself off, just for the evening.

After that, it gets easier. Once you’ve skipped out a few times, your friends will stop asking every time they’re going out. Make a habit of it and before you know it you’ll be able to count on one hand the number of evenings you’ve spent with your friends in the last term. You might start to not even want to see anyone. It’s too much effort. You look awful. You’re tired and you have reading to do before bed. You haven’t done much social interaction lately and you’ve kind of just forgotten how to do it without feeling awkward, and you hate feeling awkward.

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These might be the only faces you ever see

When you see your friends outside Sainsbury’s you try to make sure that they don’t see you, or you make out that you’re rushing off somewhere, or else – if conversation is unavoidable – you spend the entire time trying to figure out how to make your excuses without appearing rude or awkward. You can’t even make conversation without worrying that each phrase that comes out of your mouth is an indictment of your total social ineptitude. You become a recluse – that way, you don’t have to worry.

Growing up, there weren’t very many people around. My school had maximum 150 students at any time, I lived in the middle of nowhere and there were periods when I didn’t have many friends. I found new friends – on the internet. It was great, because we all had interests in common, and we could play games online and talk on MSN all night and it was almost like they were there with me. Almost.

It’s the strangest kind of isolation, sharing your life with someone yet never being able to meet them because they live on a different continent – sometimes you couldn’t even phone them, because their parents didn’t understand that not everyone you met on the internet was a sexual predator. I was lonely, because I didn’t get to see my real life friends very much outside of school, and I never got to see my internet friends in person. What made it worse was that if I told anyone about my internet friends they were always dismissive – they’d laugh and talk about how I was being groomed, or ask how I could possibly ‘know’ someone without ever having met them in person. It was strange, because in my darkest moments it was always them I would turn to. They were easier to talk to. It had fewer repercussions. They understood. They accepted me.

Coming to Cambridge was the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. No longer would I have so few friends. I was going to be surrounded by people, hundreds of them, all as nerdy as me. I’d even cut off my stupid long hair so that I could be sure I’d fit in. I wouldn’t have to rely on my parents to drive me everywhere, would be able to see people all the time, any time. It was going to be incredible.

Oh god, the shame

Strange, then, that Cambridge seems at times the most isolating and lonely place in the world. It’s possible to go for days without having a proper conversation with someone. If you do more than one thing with your time, you’re likely to be so busy that even if you have a close group of friends you don’t see them much. If you have more than one group of friends, you can know everyone well enough that you’re welcome around them and can hold a comfortable conversation, but not so well that you get invited to parties or that your presence at a gathering is a given. In the most desperate of times, you might go to Cindies on your own, just hoping that you’ll see some people you know in the smoking area and then maybe you can hang out with them for the rest of the night.

It’s all too easy, though, to slip and end up spending most of your nights alone, wishing that you could force yourself through the fog of your own anxiety so that you could feel at ease in the company of others.

But once you’ve fallen down, it’s incredibly difficult to pick yourself up again.