Cambridge columnist Oscar Ridout brings us the second instalment of a weekly diary series they call Taking Time. This week they think about their experiences with intermission.


CN: Mention of being sick,

doctors, exams


The only information forthcoming about intermission (what Cambridge calls taking a year off due to inability to work) from college was that it was a hassle. From the moment I set my mind on it as an aim and a possible escape from my miserable attempt at study, it was presented as something complex, best not approached. There is little to no information (depending on College) available publicly to students before starting the process. I only knew the answers to whatever questions I thought to ask, felt able to ask. Many questions were un-thought, unasked, unanswered. Still, though, it felt like the right thing to do. Friends wanted me to stay, but came to understand it would be worse; family, detached from the immediate by inevitable distance, sought assurance.

Term had slipped by in a haze of sleepless nights, flu, duvet days, ever rarer nights out, and a last-ditch attempt at attending lectures and classes. Punctuated by meetings with my tutor, DoS, college nurse, college counsellor and GP, weeks flew by

Trumpington Street Surgery, by kaet44

I was the prey time the eagle dragged below

and term ended. Week 8 was marked by the eventual fixing of a meeting with DoS, Tutor and Senior Tutor at once, in which I finally expressed my intention to intermit, and sorted out getting the GP’s letter
to them. Frustratingly, proper protocol was never pursued – I have, to date, signed no documents about intermitting; but this will have to do. I’m doing what I can to make sure things are handled better for people after me.

Then I was thrust back home, my belongings – vestiges of Cambridge Me – packed up and stored in a basement, before I knew for sure whether I would be coming back after Easter, as the deadline for the college’s application to the relevant university committee was set to be missed. So began a holiday that stopped being a holiday.

I knew before starting university that I would be best seeking work in vacations. I didn’t manage any meaningful employment over Christmas, so I was determined to do better this time. I started by handing out CVs in local shops and cafes, as I had so fruitlessly done previously. Then I had a cryptic and succinct email informing me that I wouldn’t ‘need’ to come back, so I refocused my job-hunt. I’ve landed a lovely, stressful, high-paid, exhausting job in a café. It keeps me busy, stops me from thinking too much, stimulates my social self to an extent.

But I’m home, and everyone else gradually filters back to Cambridge. First a handful of finalist friends, then more and more then all my friends from the last six months reappear on social media in Cambridge. My neighbour, whose room was even smaller than mine, has taken my room on; a close friend taking his space. Cambridge is evidently a different thing – exams are looming for others, and I manage to persuade people that I’m worth envying, in the exam-free world of work. No more essay crises; no more academics who somehow (infuriatingly) combine vagueness with obstinacy.

Truth be told, I’m just as miserable as I was at my worst in Cambridge; if not worse. When I leave work, I am near-asocial, too riddled with anxiety to venture into what I know is likely a fertile future social life in London. I’m out of touch with all but very few friends from before university. The realisation dawns that my last “proper” (in inverted commas to emphasise my poor opinion of Cambridge’s nightlife) night out was probably a regretted Cindies from which I escaped early to be sick, or cry, or both (probably both). I have a burning desire to stay in touch with everybody, but said Everybody has much less time and much more stress than they did when I knew them.


“Cambridge had become a place of beauty again, did I miss it? Did I regret my decision to take time away?”


Finally, on a day off, I organised myself a final appointment with my Cambridge GP, around which I would also slot in seeing friends and gathering together the last of my belongings. The weather that day was lovely – a novelty for me, as Cambridge, particularly through this last Lent term, had become synonymous with dark and dreary weather. My mental health was definitely not helped by the unrelenting featurelessness of the stone-grey sky that stayed from January to March, and now that had evaporated and Cambridge had become a place of beauty again, did I miss it? Did I regret my decision to take time away?

Cambridge Backs at Dawn, by Alex Brown

I was very pleased not to be at all nostalgic when I visited. I had the lucidity to recognise that this town is truly lovely, beautiful and an idyllic habitat for a student, but that the institutions and I were incompatible. I deeply cherished seeing friends, and appreciated the time taken out of their revision schedules just to see miserable little me. I stayed as long as I could, my sojourn between two ten-hour days being truly exhausting but beautiful. I want to deeply thank all the friends I saw that day; those I saw individually (exploring the botanic gardens for the first time was something I thought I’d do in my third term, or my second year, these things are meaningless now) and those I saw together (I always had the inkling that burritos are best with friends on grass, but could never test the hypothesis). I want to thank too my GP, whose direct helpfulness and compassion will likely be missed as I sail into uncharted territory of London NHS services. Cambridge is always going to be a special place for me. I can’t wait to come back for May Week.


“This town is truly lovely, beautiful and an idyllic habitat for a student, but the institutions and I were incompatible.”


I’ve become deeply determined to keep a firm attitude in this confusing time. I have made an active decision to have confidence in my agency and actions in intermitting. I have adopted a deterministic view – not necessarily that this is happening for a reason but that it couldn’t be any other way. This, along with my deeply loving and supportive family network, and the challenge of writing this very piece, is allowing me to push through the feeling of a total vacuum, through the unnecessary tears, the (emerging) moments of dissociation (I need to talk to somebody about this), the boredom and the general emotional turmoil I’m facing.

I am glad to be home, if that’s what this place is.

Next week I’ll introduce the exciting topic of moving house while seeking mental health treatment and trying to hold down a job and not knowing things I would like to know. Thank you for reading this.


Header image by Chad Kainz

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