My Schrodinger’s Cat approach to university offers

It’s probably time for another university update, something I’ve been deliberately avoiding partly because I’m trying not to think too hard about it and partly because you would not believe how difficult it is to make a post about university applications actually interesting.

As it stands so far, I’ve had offers from four of my five universities (Southampton, Reading, Birmingham, Aberystwyth) and have an interview with Royal Holloway next Wednesday.

*break for crazed, ecstatic dancing*

They’ve said that they send out offer confirmations or denials the same day, after the interview.The interview is an informal chat at the end of the applicant visit day for staff to get to know you better. This means that the entire day (complete with ‘fun laboratory exercise’) is going to be an interview.

In some ways, I absolutely can’t wait for the interview because this is my dream university. In other ways, I’m absolutely terrified because I’ll know one way or another by this time next week. And I’m really, really, really hoping they give me an offer. This is the only university I really want to go to.

I’m a single minded person; unlike some of my friends who dithered over their choices for weeks and still don’t think they’re in quite the right place, I’d pretty much made my decision the moment I stepped on campus (nothing at all to do with the Founder’s Building being utterly stunning…). It was the same when picking my secondary school: there are some places I just feel ‘right’ in and Royal Holloway is one of those places.

Anyway, all of this is adding up to a big pile of nerves. I’m not one of those people who has to have an answer, one way or another. I much prefer not knowing things; that way I don’t have to deal with potential disappointment. I was exactly the same with results; I didn’t want to know. Hence my attitude being ‘my offer or rejection is sitting in the box and until I open that box I can consider myself as both having and not having an offer’.

Which, now I’ve written it down, doesn’t look all that comforting.

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Dear Chartres, you are badly designed.

The absence last week was caused by me hopping over to France to visit my aunt and uncle, who are living the dream on a vineyard near Toulouse. My aunt has recently gone vegan, which meant that I spent last week as a semi-vegan. I could say vegetarian, but I only had fish once and I barely ate any cheese (I am a cheese-fiend normally so this is a Big Deal) and besides, I actually consumed a wheatgrass smoothie with soya milk which I’m fairly sure is the standard qualification required for veganism.

We also went skiing on the Wednesday, which was extremely fun because it involved snow and extremely terrifying because I’ve never skied before…

Amazingly, I picked it up pretty quickly and only fell over once (I’m not counting the two times when I fell off the button lift in a crumpled heap and rolled around like a beached whale until I figured out how to extract my skis from my arse). Of course, my pride was completely put to shame by the sight of my six year old cousin skiing down the blue runs at an eyewatering speed and my eight year old cousin heading off to tackle the red runs with my brother.

It’s becoming a recurring pattern for me to come home from my aunt and uncle’s house with various exercise-related muscle pains…

Also, it’s a theme that I either go there with a cold or I come home with a cold. In this case, I went there with the remains of a cold and came back with a minor lymph infection which is presenting itself as an insanely painful lump in my right armpit. Queen of attractive ailments, me.

Speaking of coming home, the journey back was…eventful. We’d taken my car (the Invisible Fiat Punto) in order to give me some driving experience on the French roads, which was a white-knuckled thrill-ride as we kept the speed to around 80mph which still isn’t breaking French speed limits. My car handled this amazingly well, only really struggling on the hills and not, as I had been having horrible thoughts about, losing all four wheels at once and exploding with a high-pitched engine whine.

The only problem with my car is that, being an older model (2001), it’s not quite as economical as the Citroën, which is the usual car of choice for when we’re going to France for a short trip. Of course, my Fiat is nowhere near as bad as the Land Rover, but the Land Rover only comes with us when Dad’s there too, and he has a map of every fuel station in France in his head, plus the mental capacity to calculate the exact points at which we will need to refuel, accounting for traffic, random diversions and the need to take a twenty mile detour because we can’t find a McDonald’s.

Anyway, my Fiat was probably doing about 35mpg, which isn’t bad but did mean that we had to refuel several times because the fuel tank is smaller and one way, the trip is 770 miles. The upshot of this is that we ended up in Chartres at 10pm with a train to catch 300km ahead of us and a fuel gauge pointing on Absolutely Empty, Completely Parched, There’s A Desert In My Fuel Tank.

I hereby propose that the saying ‘needle in a haystack’ be changed to ‘fuel station in Chartres’.

After getting lost on the ring road around Chartres, we made it through one of the outer suburbs (in which we were also lost) before finding an E. LeClerc in a particularly abandoned part of town. Being France, most fuel stations are unmanned. This one was, too.

It didn’t take Visa cards.

We accosted a poor man attempting to fill up his car and established that the next service station was less than a mile away. So we set off, with the fuel gauge demanding food and found the next service station.

It was closed.

My mother then took off to the other side of Chartres, muttering furiously about how bloody towns this size should be crammed with bloody service stations and most bloody places didn’t even require you to leave the bloody motorway, etc, etc. I attempted to call my father (built in map of France, remember) and couldn’t get through.

Eventually I did get through, at which point he established that we couldn’t reach any of the motorway service stations and opened up Google maps to look for fuel stations in the centre of Chartres.

Google Maps had decided to upgrade, and insisted on taking him on a tour of all it’s new, improved, world beating features before declaring that it couldn’t do service stations in Chartres because Chartres wasn’t in England and therefore the location was ‘invalid’.

At this point my mother pulled into a layby on an industrial estate and we had dinner while establishing where we were, where we needed to go and how we needed to get there. My mother made it quite clear that she understood the instructions my father was giving her, we set off and promptly realised we were lost again. We called my father  and I explained the situation.

There then followed a slightly blurry twenty minutes in which we careered through the streets of Chartres centre-ville while I said things like “we’re going down a straight road, the cathedral’s on our left, we’ve just crossed a river, I think, but it might have been the train tracks” to my father and my father responded with “one street name, that’s all I’m asking! Can you please give me a street name?!

The names of streets in France are printed in ridiculously small letters and on walls at such an angle that it’s only possible to see them for a fleeting second while you’re directly in the centre of junctions. Matters were not helped by being stuck behind a car whose occupants felt the need to double-check their brakes at every green light.

Eventually, my mother said something along the lines of “bugger that for a game of soldiers” (only more succinctly) and screeched to a halt next to an understandably startled pedestrian. He directed us to another fuel station, mere minutes away. Third time lucky, this one was open, accepted Visas and was only let down by the fact that it was nigh-impossible to find because it happened to be behind a supermarket, as far from the road as it was possible to get.

My car has a 45 litre tank. We had to put in 44.8 litres.

Psychology: The Final Frontier

I have struggled with anxiety and panic disorder for the last six years. It was diagnosed two years ago and, up until that point, neither me nor my family knew about the existence of the disorder. I didn’t even know that what I was experiencing were panic attacks; I thought I had a heart condition, hypoglycaemia, hyperthyroidism or possibly some strange and permanent nausea. Over all that time, not once did I hear anything about anxiety on the radio, at school; anywhere. Even the doctors were determined to check for every possible physical reason for my behaviour before admitting that my symptoms could be psychological. Psychological problems were taboo.

But in the last month, something has changed.

Billboards have started popping up with guidance on where to go if you have anxiety or a similar disorder. Adverts on the radio and TV are suddenly playing several times a day. The last Woman’s Hour I listened to covered anxiety and panic in considerable depth, and there’s even been an article in the Sainsbury’s magazine (I am a sad, sad person) on teens with anxiety disorders.

In short, anxiety appears to have become the New Big Thing. Anxiety sufferers are speaking out.  I’d like to call what’s happening a paradigm shift, even though it’s more like clever advertising. Whatever it is, it’s great.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s enough. While it’s really amazing that people are working so hard to put disorders like anxiety and OCD into the public eye and so many are trying their best to keep them stigma-free, we’re still working from the outside in. As my Extended Project into horses’ hooves showed me, you cannot fix a problem from the outside. Hooves can only get healthy from the inside out. Makeup doesn’t get rid of acne. The stigma of mental illness will not go away until the perceptions surrounding mental illness are fundamentally changed.

Psychology is often seen as a social science; something that doesn’t belong with the real, hardcore medical sciences. As sciences go, it’s a young one, having evolved into it’s current state around the late 19th century. It doesn’t exactly have a lot going for it; practitioners are often seen as ‘wishy-washy’ or unnecessary. Take, for example, what happens if you search ‘doctor’, ‘surgeon’, ‘vet’ and ‘psychiatrist’ in Google Images. ‘Doctor’ calls up multiple images of white-coated, be-stethoscoped, reassuringly cheerful people. ‘Surgeon’ is scrubs-wearing, masked, serious people. ‘Vet’ calls up smiling people wearing scrubs and holding stethoscopes while cuddling various animals.

‘Psychiatrist’ brings up cartoons featuring vaguely amusing variations on the ‘standard’ questions asked in a psychiatric assessment.

I think what separates Psychology from the rest of the sciences is that it deals with abstract concepts. Psychology is ‘the study of the mind’. Unfortunately, no one knows where the human mind is. It could be located in the gallbladder for all we know; it is not a physical entity. Biologists focus on the physical aspects of organisms: the majority of Biology can be seen. Chemists, regardless of how small the things they are working with, are still working with actual objects. Physicists are looking at constants, even if they’re not always visible. Psychologists, however, have no standard to work with. The most up-to-date Psychological theories are still just that: theories. They can never be conclusively proven and we subscribe to them because they have not yet been disproved.

Whereas Biologists can grow as many cells and body parts as they possibly can and have a plethora of small animals to test their theories on before taking it to the human population, Psychologists cannot grow a human mind. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, it’s impossible. And for some reason nobody is particularly keen to breed a wave of humans to be grown in controlled conditions and studied.

Science is supposed to be objective; free from all bias. It’s incredibly hard to be free from bias when you’re using your own head as the laboratory. There aren’t many people frantic to have parts of their brains poked to see what happens. Psychologists do a lot of their experiments on rats, pigeons and monkeys, which answers quite a lot of the basic questions but doesn’t really help when we need to understand the most complex parts of our brains.

A lot of the most informative studies were conducted decades ago. We can’t repeat them because the ethical committees in charge of such decisions would decide that the potential harm to participants would be too great. And they would: Milgram’s study of obedience caused epileptic fits, shock and nausea, among other symptoms, and the participants weren’t even the ones being ‘electrocuted’. Zimbardo’s study into prisoner-guard mentality was cut short after just six days, in which time the participants (all completely mentally sound) had begun to inflict severe psychological torture on each other.

Clearly, there are much darker sides to humanity that we can’t adequately test because of the ethical limitations. But this post isn’t about the hidden psychopath in all of us. It’s about the attitudes towards the science of the mind that are still limiting how people see those with mental illness, despite how advanced and tolerant our society has become. Mental illness frightens us far more than physical illness. Perhaps it’s because it’s out of our control. With a broken leg, you can heal it. You can see the problem and you fix it. With cancer, there’s cells that aren’t supposed to be there and so you fight them.

How the hell are you supposed to fight your own mind? We can’t see where these problems come from. We don’t know why some people react so much worse to trauma than others. We don’t even know how the medication we give to treat mental illness works! All we know is that what works for one person makes another one worse. Something that blocks dopamine receptors in the brain can have one effect on one person and completely the opposite on another.

We’re scared of the unknown. We’re scared of what we can’t physically handle and so we resist it. We push it right to the edge of society and pretend it doesn’t really exist. Until now. I always used to be scared of telling people that I had anxiety. I thought I’d be seen as some sort of freak who could go berserk at any time. Even worse, I thought people would see me as weak, as somehow lesser than ‘normal’ people because I couldn’t always control what I thought and how I dealt with stress.

Over the last few years I’ve discovered that countless people I thought were completely normal and free from the kind of struggles I was having were actually experiencing similar problems. Some of them were worse than me. Some of them still are. What was driven home to me was that actually, mental problems are the norm. I’m not saying everyone is insane. I’m saying that there is no ‘normal’; everyone has their own internal struggles and it’s the fact that we don’t talk about it that makes so many of us feel like outsiders.

I used the phrase ‘mental problems’ in the last paragraph. Perhaps reading that made you a little uncomfortable? Perhaps you didn’t like the idea that mental illness is so common? That’s stigma working it’s magic again. How about ‘health problems’? “Health problems of all kinds and severity are very frequent, from the common cold to HIV to cancer”. Does that sound better than “Mental problems of all kinds and severity are very frequent, from anxiety to PTSD to schizophrenia”? They’re no different, really. Nobody chooses to have a mental illness, just like nobody chooses to have the flu.

Most of the people I’ve told about my problems have been incredibly understanding. They haven’t treated me any differently and it hasn’t affected how we interact. Other people I’ve told, and there have been a few, have called me ‘insane’, ‘unstable’, ‘weird’. They’ve laughed at me and actively avoided me. But the truth is that everyone has experienced mental abnormality of some kind. Have you ever stayed in for a week to study for an exam and not showered for a few days? That’s an example of abnormal behaviour (Deviation From Social Norms, to be precise). Have you ever not been able to eat because you’ve been worried about something. Abnormal (Failure to Function Adequately).

Before we pat ourselves on the back for actively ‘accepting’ people with mental disorders, we should remember that we’re all a little bit insane.

Otis Redding sums up my horse.

So, I’ve decided I’m getting back into making videos, now that I actually have something to ride. I actually made this one back in November last year, after a break of eight months. I kept it pretty simple, partly because I want to keep a record of Pepper, the horse’s, progress and partly because I’m fairly rusty and didn’t want to overdo it. Also because there’s only so much you can do with schooling clips. At this point in the video, she’d been backed for about a month and a half and it’s her first time being ridden in a field.

Clearly, she had other, less cooperative plans.

Channeling my inner Hermione

Somewhat paradoxically, considering all the issues I have with exams, I actually love completing exam papers*. Other people go bungee jumping to get their kicks, I get a rush from knowing the answer to a question and then getting full marks for said question. It hasn’t happened very often in the last few years so I’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to hand a past paper in and get it back without enormous scrawls of red pen and grades so far down the alphabet they’re encroaching on Dr Seuss’ version.

So, tonight I completed my first past paper after starting my new revision kick. It was a Psychology AS one, covering Memory, Attachment and Research Methods. Bear in mind that my original grade for this module was a low C (62%) and that was two years ago. After one week of revision, in which I made extensive notes, lists of research studies and questions for Memory, slightly less extensive notes and research studies for Attachment and stared blankly at the textbook for Research Methods, I did the past paper and guess what? I’ve gone up to a B (75%) and if I hadn’t completely lost the plot with behavioural characteristics I’d have an A.

And my father, who marked the paper and is notoriously impossible to impress (Cambridge scholar + maths prodigy = high expectations) said my knowledge of the topic was ‘pretty encyclopaedic’, which is the equivalent of a gold star and standing ovation. Mostly I messed up on not reading the questions properly and, to use his description, brain-farting everything I thought might be relevant onto the paper.

I suppose this is a good time to go off on a tangent and start talking about universities. So far, I’ve received offers from Southampton (AAB) and Reading (ABC/BBB) and…I have an interview with Royal Holloway! I’ve now got to go and see Southampton, Reading, Birmingham and Aberystwyth for applicant days, although whether or not Aberystwyth will still be there next month is debatable as it seems to be in danger of falling into the sea.

In slightly less happy news, now is the time I have to start sorting out student finance. Fortunately, my fees are covered completely but the maintenance loan I’m eligible for doesn’t even come close to covering my potential accommodation costs. Originally, my parents said they were going to have nothing to do with the financial side of things and that, as an adult, I was going to have to sort out and deal with my loans myself. Then they saw the cost of everything. Currently, their approach is ‘we’d like to help you out, but if that means financial ruin…good luck and we hope you earn lots in the next six months!’

Moving on from my impending destitution, I’ve got one more drawing to add to the portfolio:

 

I drew this one way back in 2012 to go in the Order of Service for my grandmother’s funeral. The updated one is yellow, as yellow roses were her favourite flower but I don’t have a copy of that on the computer so here’s v1.0. It’s an example of why you should never take those ‘How To Draw Flowers’ books too literally, because I got completely bogged down in the details and nearly ended up with a series of straight, intersecting lines in the vague shape of a rose,

*When I’ve revised.