Geeks Vs Loneliness: The decade of discontent

In which Jane revisits her least favourite decade, the 1990s.

Hello, and welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our weekly spot to natter about life. This week I’m thinking about the 1990s.

Regular readers of this column may have noticed I have a fondness for 80s nostalgia. I look back on the late 80s as a time of personal happiness. A time that shaped who I am today. A culture that is imprinted into everything I do.

What I don’t talk about so much is the 1990s. My decade of discontent. I left the 80s on a high – A levels complete, a place at university secured, skipping about in my pointy suede boots as happy as any goth can be.

By 1993 I’d experienced the following:

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– Suffered my first close bereavement as an adult

– Suffered my first anxiety attack

– Broken away from most of my school friends

– Failed the second year of my degree course

– Landed myself in hospital with a drink related head injury

– Engaged in reckless behavior on a regular basis (see above!)

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– Was unemployed and feeling unemployable at 22 years old

– In counselling for the first time

I suspect that a lot of the above was caused by the first incident – I lost my Grandma when I was 19 during my first university summer holiday. There was no outlet to my grief. I was back at home with very little money, in a situation that can best be described as volatile. As soon as I returned to university digs and got my first grant payment of the year I went off the rails. Big time.

This time in my life has been presented to me by family as a huge failure in my life. Failed at education. Failed to get a job. Failed to hold down a relationship. Even to this day I am told that I failed when I should have succeeded. I have squirrelled that time away in my mind in a box marked NO ENTRY.

This is disingenuous. The truth is that I may not have gained a degree during this period but I gained a different kind of education. There were periods of great highs. There was skipping lectures on an afternoon to watch Flatliners in a near deserted tin hut of a cinema, rain pounding on the roof.

There was music, so much music. Gigs coming out of my ears – The Cure, Manic Street Preachers, Shakespeare’s Sister, Ian McCulloch, Marillion, Voice of the Beehive (who invited us back stage and told us filthy stories about those cultural icons of the 90s, The Chippendales). Grunge was made for a disillusioned goth looking for something with more substance than just grandiose melancholy to hide under the duvet to.

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There was work placement in a school in a deprived area where the kids were bright, curious and funny, following me around the library singing “Betty Boo Just Doin’ The Do” in honour of my newly bobbed hair.

There was JANET – the Joint Academic Network, precursor to the Internet. Days spent in VAX labs hanging out with the geeks. I felt I’d found a home. I adopted my first ever username, the appalling Strawberry Tart. Those lovely VAX lads introduced me to comic books, to The Sandman and Hellblazer.

There was real joy in the darkness. Nights where the only thing you could do was dance and sing, even if it meant missing lectures the next day. Reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen King when I should have been revising my Dewey Decimal textbooks. The notorious summer trip to Blackpool in 1992. Let’s just say what happened in Blackpool stays in Blackpool! The following summer I went to Berwick and played prize bingo. I was reflecting on my life choices by that stage!

Let’s go back to my original list. By the summer of 1993 I thought I was done. I saw no future. The day I told my parents I had been kicked out of university I sat on a playing field and drank vodka out of a coke can for Dutch courage. It went as badly as I expected.

But failure comes with unexpected consequences. That summer I began to volunteer as I was unable to find a job and I needed to get out of the war zone that was my house. I delivered Meals on Wheels which was a hoot. My unemployment benefit payments took two months to come through but when it did I had enough to pay for the first year at a local technical college to do an ONC in Computing – the one class in which I’d excelled. I got fit; walked everywhere, swam three times a week.

I talked to a doctor. It had become clear to one of my housemates I was in crisis towards the end of my university career. She helped me to access a wonderful counsellor. It gave me the confidence to talk to the doctor. To open up for the first time about anxiety and the past. To address my unresolved grief.

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Volunteering led to a job. My ONC led to an HNC, followed by a part time degree. I’d learned the value of education by that stage and I gained a much better degree than I ever could have first time round. By the end of the 90s I had a good job, had met and married my soulmate and was optimistic about the future.

When I look back now I can see I’ve written off an entire decade of my life for the sake of three rough years. I’ve avoided thinking about my failures of the 90s. The truth is that my failure led me down a different road to happiness than that mapped out for me by school and family. It taught me a valuable lesson about who I was and who I wanted to be. It showed me the edge of the abyss. I was fortunate enough to be able to pull back from that edge.

Failure is not the end. It can be the beginning of something new – something challenging – but it can take you to a better place. Shame burns and it can prevent us from reaching our full potential. One of the most important lessons I learned? Do not let anyone else define your failure. I did this for far too long and it allowed me to be manipulated and castigated as the family failure for far longer than was healthy. A second lesson – don’t define your self worth by the achievements of your peers. They may appear to be striding ahead of you but no one knows what goes on in anyone else’s life.

Acknowledge the past and accept responsibility for your own mistakes and deal with them if you are able to. Think about what you want to leave behind and what next steps forward are practical for you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – from friends, from family, from professionals. People can be pretty great when you least expect it.

I’m not advocating failure here. I am saying that it happens to everyone – through your own actions or from the actions of others, or simply the dice falling on the wrong side of fate. I look back at the 1990s now and I wouldn’t change a moment. It got so much better than I could ever have anticipated that day I sat and sobbed on the rugby field with my tainted can of pop.

The 1990s ended for me with two brilliant film trilogies spearheading the way into the next Millennium – The Matrix and The Lord Of The Rings.

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Each day is a new one. Let’s forgive ourselves where we can, and enjoy those steps into the future. Particularly one that includes Avengers: Endgame!

Thanks, as always, for reading.