The experience of university was a pretty mixed bag for me.
Having been part of the ‘cool’ clique at school, I really struggled when I first arrived at Exeter University to discover that the lion’s share of the social power and popularity belonged to the ‘Rahs’:
Those that had been to boarding school, lived in the home counties and had a penchant for pearls and pashminas (i.e: not me).
The Rah’s assumed superiority over the rest of us lowly commoners (or, the superiority I projected on to them, at least) infuriated me greatly - especially after I was nicknamed ‘New Money’ by one of the male polo players that lived in my halls, following my fairly dramatic entrance to uni life.
My dad had dropped me off there on the first day of Freshers week in a black Range Rover, Bob Marley blaring out of the stereo at full volume, making us stand out like sore thumbs against the mass of upturned collars, hunter wellies and younger siblings with nicknames like Bumpy, Bitzy or Muffy, who were being coerced by their parents into hoisting gigantic tupperware-like boxes filled with books and bants up five flights of stairs, to help their big sister Posie settle in to her digs.
(I jest, but… not really).
Considering that I hadn’t gone to boarding school, had no intention of ever picking up a lacrosse stick and my family didn’t own a stitch of tweed between us, I came out relatively low on the social ranking in that first term.
And it didn’t feel good.
(N.B. My friend Dolly captures the reign of The Rah’s superbly in her book ‘Everything I Know About Love’ – if you hadn’t read it yet, I insist you do so A-sap).
By the end of my third year, I’d mastered the art of slightly affecting my voice to sound posher than it actually was, as well as eliminating certain aspects of myself that didn’t neatly fit in with the Jack Wills-clad cliché that ruled the campus-roost - including the fact that I was the daughter of two drug addicts.
This feeling of being excluded reappeared whilst at Drama school, too – thrice, in fact.
Firstly, when I did a year-long foundation course in Musical Theatre at Arts Ed - one of the world’s best schools for MT, second, when I did a Masters in European Classical Acting at one of the world’s best schools for straight acting, and third while at a top drama school in Moscow, which was part of my Masters degree.
In all three cases, the students on the Bachelor of Arts courses - which the schools were famed for - openly looked down on students from any of the other courses, believing them to be less talented, and therefore less worthy of engaging with.
(I’m not making this up - I was told so directly by BA students on several different occasions!)
This really came to a head in the first term of my Masters when a now-very-famous student hung a sign in the corridor inviting absolutely everyone at the school to her Christmas party – so long as they were on the BA course.
‘NO MA STUDENTS ALLOWED’, it read. ‘SORRY’.
As author R. Baker observed: “People enjoy things more when they know a lot of other people have been left out.”
Considering myself to be a talented actor (never mind a fun friend!) being excluded for such a banal reason really, really got to me.
This sense of not belonging left me feeling infinitely small and humiliated, yet I was completely oblivious to the fact that I’d very probably made others feel exactly this way whilst I was at school and taking my position in the ‘popular’ group for granted.
But, instead of doing the adult thing and just channeling my attention towards my work and those who actually did think I deserved to share the same air as them, I put 100% of my energy and focus towards trying to impress the BA students into liking and/ or fancying me.
In the first term alone, I must have hooked up with at least a handful of the third year boys, who could likely smell my desperation to be included in to the fold a mile off.
There was just something so gratifying in (temporarily) winning the attention and affection of someone who had up until now graced you with nothing but ambivalence - or even mild distain.
This pattern of being drawn to those who oscillated between hot and cold with me, and shunning those who were consistent and loyal, was a pattern that had played out in my romantic life before university and drama school, and continued well after I’d graduated from both.
It wreaked havoc on my sense of self, but it was the only relational dynamic I knew.
When I started dating Joe and was the healthiest and most emotionally stable I’d ever been, I started to explore where my hyper vigilance towards feeling excluded had come from.
In a hypnotic regression session with a therapist, I recalled my first ever memory as an infant lying in my cot in the house I grew up in.
I remembered the cotton sheets being covered with bobbles that itched my delicate skin, and I remembered screaming at the top of my little lungs as I arched my head to see the hallway light on, and no-one coming up the stairs to rescue me.
That’s where the memory stops.
I have no how old I was exactly, but clearly young enough to still be in a cot.
I knew then that there were things my sister knew, but wasn’t telling me.
I know now that my parent’s would have been struggling in their addiction at this time.
And, around six or so years after the cot memory, there would be many instances where my parents seemed to be in a totally different place from both my sister and I, even though we were all in the same room.
That feeling, of being with someone physically and yet in two different worlds all at once (through their choice, not mine) - that’s what I hated the most.
It felt dark and unsafe.
Which is why I think I checked out in relationships before the other person had a chance to; I self-excluded so as not to feel forced in to exclusion by them.
Today, I can still feel the heady pull towards those who have little to no interest in me, and I’m still sometimes tempted to withdraw from those who give me their undivided attention, love and respect (I even felt a fair amount of resistance to committing to a relationship with Joe in the early weeks of dating because of this).
The difference is that my behaviour and choices are no longer defined by my fear of being excluded, or of being suffocated.
It’s from this space, this vulnerable, intimate space, that real love has the chance to start.
I’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU:
Have you ever struggled with the feeling of being excluded?
Or, if you’re feeling really bold, have you ever been known to excluded others in any of the ways I’ve described in this blog post?
I’d be so honoured if you’d share your experience with me below.
All my love,