Catriona: The adventure continues
What I desperately needed at that age was the world. I wanted to look outward
I had a very happy childhood. I grew up in London then ran away for a bit to Bolivia, to get as far away from [where I grew up] as I could. It was great… my first little adventure in the world. I worked as a journalist on a newspaper… Spoke a lot of Spanish… Had an accident…got myself into having emergency surgery…
I grew up bilingual. My mum’s German. It was a relatively dormant part of my identity for a really long time. Then, after graduating, I got the opportunity to do this scholarship where you got money to go and study something somewhere in Germany. Which, it turned out, was quite underapplied for because nobody was that interested in Germany, and I was keen at that point to get my German up to scratch and have some experience of discovering my heritage.
[I] went to Berlin to study Arabic…For a while I’d studied a lot of Arab politics at university and was really interested in The Middle East. I found Arabic as a language and the script really beautiful so, out of nothing but intrigue and curiosity, decided to study it. I went purposefully with the idea: ‘I’m gonna have a really fun time, for 8 months.’
The overriding wonderful experience of Berlin was getting home at 7 or 8 in the morning with the sun shining. It wasn’t like you necessarily had any type of a wild night. It was just the kind of place where one drink leads to another, often in quite quiet bars. [In] London, if you want to just have a drink at 1 or 2 in the morning and just sit with a friend and have a chat, that’s just impossible. In Berlin you can do that all night long. That was the fun of Berlin.
There was a period in my teens when I was steadily unhappy. I had a period of about a year and a half where I was in a real consistent low. The period just before that I was incredibly creative and energy filled, I’d have these immense highs and desperate lows. Even at the time, you just know that it feels very different from what everybody else’s experience seems to be. At the same time, you know that you are a teenager and you’ve got nothing to compare it to, [as] you don’t have a steady sense of identity because you are developing so quickly, year on year. In a way I didn’t know that it wasn’t just me.
I went to a private girls’ school which, in many ways, was a good school. I found it quite a negative environment. It was pressured and it was very inward looking. What I desperately needed at that age was the world. I wanted to look outward, I wanted to be interested in things. I don’t think that quite closed environment was very helpful.
In [our] teens, it’s quite hard for people to pick out what’s just a normal part of growing up and where does it get to the point where it gets risky or unhealthy. It was, in the end, my decision to go to a doctor, which [my family] were supportive of, but I don’t think they knew particularly how to talk to me about that. Not helped by the fact that I didn’t really want to talk to them.
Part of the reason I was so unhappy when I was 16 was really not knowing what to make of this world and what my place in it was, and having had a really happy childhood… emerging and seeing the world around me and [thinking] ‘Wow, this place is a mess!’ Partly, in a way, my code for living came quite importantly out of that time, more than any other, which was about how to balance my own happiness with what I do with the fact that there is a world where there is lots of suffering. So what I do professionally does link a lot to that period of my life. Being involved in social change stuff, deciding that if I’m going to put my energy into anything that’s what I want to put my energy into.
Getting to a balance of recognising ‘I’ve got this one life and I should use it to have as positive an influence as possible in the world around me,’ that doesn’t mean that I have to be unhappy at the same time. I came out of that period with a sense of purpose, which is itself a positive thing for me. In a way it helped me become who I was and the life I wanted to lead.
One of the difficult things about being a teenager is you don’t have much control over what you do. You go to school, you have to do GCSEs. I was quickly quite frustrated with [it]. I wanted to be doing something different, while I wasn’t rebellious enough to want to quit school or do anything really dramatic. Being able to plot my own course and make my own decisions [as I’ve got older] has made it for me easier to be able to live happier because I feel like I’m living by my own decisions. That’s hard when you’re a teenager.
I didn’t choose to settle down [in London] and I still haven’t! It sort of ended up that way. I kept on meaning to leave Europe and live somewhere where the sun shines, and have not achieved that yet. The field I’ve been working in for the last 9 years is education. It wasn’t really the plan… I work in the UK and have set up an educational charity working with kids who need some extra support at school, children who are falling behind and have [fewer] opportunities in their personal circumstances.
One of the things that I’m generally proud of is how many people get involved and get inspired by this mission and make it their own, now having a staff team of 5 other people who really bring their own experiences and their own stories and their own passion to it.
There are so many things to be excited by. In a way, for me, it’s managing my excitement. I don’t lack for enthusiasm. I need to stay even sometimes. People don’t think I was somebody who was depressed. They tend to be very shocked when I tell them. People say to me, ‘Oh you’re so balanced, you’re so even’, which isn’t my perception of myself at all, but I do think it’s something that I’ve learnt.
I have had the benefit of having a negative period and having a rich and fulfilling life since then. There was a period where I thought that would be entirely impossible, I couldn’t possibly imagine life being fulfilling and fun again. It is.