Mind the Gap - On the Road with Madeleine

While everyone else was having a life when they were sixteen, I was reading. The final two years of school were, for me, a whirlwind of staying up late with my head in a book and working as hard as possible with the maximum amount of caffeine my body could accommodate. So by the time Year 12 was over, I had an impressive UAI (ATAR) but no semblance of a life of any kind. And I had absolutely no idea what to do next. Because I got into it, I applied to do Law. But the thought of diving from school straight into a five year degree made me wildly depressed, and so, on the suggestion of my father, I took a year off. And it was the best thing I ever did.

Other people do sensible and/or altruistic things in their gap year: they work full-time for a year so they can have enough money to move out, or they go to Africa to teach English to impoverished children. What I did was blissfully selfish: I worked part-time for six months, and then I went backpacking around Europe (also Japan) for the other half of the year. When I started out, I was dreadfully shy and awkward, and I had never worked before. Getting a job forced me to speak to people, and not only that, to speak to people I would never usually have spoken to in my relatively sheltered childhood. And I had money, for the first time, that I earned myself. And it also gave me some time to just relax and let go of everything that had been ingrained in school. I had no deadlines, I had no word-counts. While all my friends were stressing about their uni assignments, I could float around, when I wasn't working, doing whatever it was that I wanted to do, saving up until I could get out of the country.

Once I got there, I was with friends for half the time, and the other half I spent on my own. And more than anything else, that made me grow up. I had to learn to get myself places, to organise sleeping, flights, trains and what I was going to eat that night and how much I could afford to spend on it. When I got food poisoning on the train between Denmark and Sweden I had to look after myself, make sure I had a place to sleep and make sure I had medicine to keep me alive in what was, by then, a very snowy Swedish November. When my credit card broke at a music festival in Belgium (don't ask), I had to figure out how to get a new one sent to the Australian embassy in Paris. And I maintain that that was a useful experience, even though it never arrived. It also meant that, for the first time in my life, I was completely independent. I went wherever I wanted, I left whenever I chose, and I spoke to hundreds of strangers and made friends in five minutes, gradually killing off my shyness and the horrific awkwardness of my teenage self.

In hindsight I would have done a couple of things differently - I would have spent less time away with more money to spend, because it was the peak of the GFC and I was really stingy with what I was allowing myself to spend each day. I spent one week eating solely breadsticks, Nutella and oranges, which was conducive with being neither healthy nor happy. But what I remember most is lying in the grass in London and thinking to myself 'never again will you be this free.'

After all of that, I realised a lot of things. More importantly, I'd grown up. I had a better perspective on who I was and what I wanted and where I fitted in the world. After I came back, I knew I didn't want to do Law, and that what was going to make me happy was writing and studying English and other spectacularly pointless and artistic subjects. So that's what I did, and I'm happy, despite my mum persisting in referring to it as an opportunity I had thrown away. I haven't thrown anything away and I know if I'd gone straight from school into a Law degree I'd be a dithering wreck who nobody would want to speak to.

So if you feel like it would be right for you and it's something that makes you excited, take a year off if you possibly can. Take some time and do something different, and realise who you want to be. You may never be that free again.