"University is your Age of Exploration; find yourself, find your friends, get wasted and come out ready for Life with a shiny Bachelor's Degree to prove it".
But despite expectations, my Uni life was seismically re-shaped by a ghost illness (which, for the sake of consensus I will call 'M.E'), a week into Freshers'. This cruel and unpredictable illness has all of the symptoms but none of the acknowledgement. My week-long headaches and constant nausea were a bad hangover, my inability to walk five minutes to lectures was first year slacking, and the brain fog was because of all the booze. On the face of it, I had become "quite the party animal".
But when I finally saw a doctor to ask when I'd be done with this weirdly long hangover, she replied: "Well I mean it's like saying, how long's a piece of string? It can last anything from 2 to 5 years, some people even have it for life!". So off I went with it, 2 to 5 years a slave to the unknown; plodding along to lectures, struggling through coursework, my social life hanging by a thinning thread and all the while not knowing if or when I'd miraculously wake up feeling myself again.
Despite the encouraging research towards validating M.E as a real physical condition for the estimated 250,000 sufferers in the UK, it is and has always been a fundamentally cultural problem. Its fickle nomenclature explains why people have struggled to take it seriously - it's been named everything from the condescending 'Yuppie Flu', to the more spatio-temporal 'Royal Free Disease' in the 1950s. Today, we've settled with the patronising catchall, 'Chronic Fatigue Syndrome' or the downright obscure 'Myalgic Encephalomyelitis', both of which discount 95% of all the symptoms and may as well have been the 'Don't-Be-So-Lazy Syndrome'. These damaging labels are perhaps the reason why many people soldier on to keep up with the daily grind, and discount their personal experiences because of societal perception.
And although I've been lucky to reach a stage where life is manageable, there are still moments where the line between "normal" and "Chronically Fatigued" is blurred - the mornings my joints ache, the days my lymph nodes flare up, or the times when the illness's cousin, Anxiety, doesn't leave my side. After 'looking inwards' for so long, I've had to carve out a life that works for me, every day.
Living with M.E has opened my eyes to the unsustainable nature of working life and the fact that, M.E or not M.E, we're all individuals with unique ways of living, working and thinking. Whilst the advertising industry has refined my thinking and sharpened my creativity, balancing my energy to keep up with the industry's rhythm forced me to re-evaluate my situation, and question the conventions that force people into living lives that might not be best suited to their unique biological and environmental needs.
I see clearly now, how unnecessarily rigid professional expectations can be, and the shameful lack of flexibility and trust agencies put in the people that sustain their businesses.
Why does it matter where you choose to work? What if someone works better in solitude for a chunk of the time? Or outside? Why must we all clamber onto the tube during rush hour when this is mostly unnecessary? 'Work hard' culture is shifting -ambition and purpose are no longer compatible with clocking hours and ticking boxes. Our desire for 'wellness' is changing our expectations at work and in life.
And the benefits of flexible working are well documented, both from the individual's perspective but also underpinning the success of many forward-thinking organisations. For those obsessed with 'productivity', it might be worth considering that:
1.The advertising industry recorded a 25% net global talent loss (2015), and the turnover has been increasing 10% year on year.
2.An estimated £184 million a year is lost to employee recruitment and retention.
3.The industry is ranked last out of 9 related industries for work/life balance, with evidence that talent is moving away to totally unrelated industries, where people feel valued as individuals.
Of course, there are many industries and people for whom flexibility might not be so manageable or desirable, but from my experience in advertising, it seems ludicrous that an industry that places such high value on creativity, innovation and 'disruption', are so backwards in how they treat the people who keep their clients happy - through the freedom of thought that leads to the best creative ideas.
Living with M.E has taught me an important lesson about agency and self-ownership. In an age where tangible goals seem increasingly elusive, it's no surprise so-called 'millennials' are focussing their energy on achieving balance, purpose and freedom in life and work.