Heads up: ‘I’m freer now than I’ve ever been’
’It’s slowly dawning on me that the Leaving Cert is no panacea.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
No great epiphany moment accompanied the end of the last Leaving Cert exam. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Life after the Leaving Cert is very much like life before it, minus the opportunity to socialise that school life affords. The past couple of weeks have been anti-climactic and others are similarly underwhelmed. For some reason, relief still eludes many of us.
I’m freer now than I ever have been. I’ve completed that great Irish rite of passage and have two months to spend as I please. I am on the cusp of “the best years of my life” – points permitting – so why don’t I feel good about that? Why don’t I feel anything about that?
Maybe because it’s not really over until we get our results and we’re safe. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when your future could go either way. I don’t dare indulge in imagining a happy ending, even if I was happy with how the exams went. Call it prudence or pessimism but it feels like thinking happy thoughts about August 14th would invite certain disaster.
I often take for granted that I’m looking forward to life in third level when some people I know are terrified that they aren’t ready to make the transition. Some of my friends are inherently shy, others haven’t come to terms with the fact that everyone and everything around them is changing and they can’t go back to before.
It’s slowly dawning on me that the Leaving Cert is no panacea. It was the refrain of teachers that “life goes on”, regardless of exams. That maxim proved to be absolutely correct, but not in the reassuring sense intended.
If you felt good, bad or indifferent before the exams, then you’ll likely go on feeling good, bad or indifferent after them. It would really be more appropriate to tell students that “your life goes on”.
Summer presents a lot of opportunities. I’ve put myself under pressure to make the most of them and have “the best summer of my life” when what I really need is a rest.
I need the space to do nothing and expect nothing of myself. Instead, I find myself feeling compelled to make up for lost time and start the to-do list we all make to get us through the exams.
These expectations seem to have replaced exam expectations, so much so that suddenly it seems more attractive to just sit at home and do nothing.
Goals and aspirations are fine until they start limiting your horizons and controlling your life but I find it hard to walk without that crutch. As the holidays go on, I find myself living more and more for the smallest of social events, even just meeting a friend, to break up the empty days.
The majority of our social supports went along with the school year, and the reality of life after the Leaving Cert is that I can isolate myself for days or weeks if I please and there’s nothing to stop me.
I have my phone and social media but that is no substitute for human contact. If anything, they provide false comfort, making exile more palatable. I’m finding that the posts, photographs and tweets of others can also have a depressive effect.
If everyone seems to be having great spontaneous fun, it’s hard not to ask, “What am I doing with myself?”
As I find myself just making it through the days it’s hard to ignore the fact that I’ve felt the same way for the past few years. I hoped that I would have left that feeling behind with my secondary-school life.
Naturally I pinned all my hopes on feeling great after my exams. At times that was the only thing keeping me going but some things you carry with you, some things never change.
I just have to soldier on now because there is no alternative, there is never really any other alternative. I can only hope that there is more than this.
Patrick Mathews is a member of the youth advisory panel to Headstrong, the national centre for youth mental health