Taking on the Beloved British Tradition: the Gap Year

Last August, I watched all of my friends head off to school and all of a sudden I was the only one left still living at home. I hadn't even graduated high school, but I was getting to experience the time-honored and popular British tradition of a taking a gap year.

March 22, 2016 | 5 min read
Mara Cray

This past August, when all my friends were heading off to school, I felt like that kid in first grade who hadn't listened to the instructions in art class -- everyone around me was busy with the assigned task, moving with industrious certainty. Then there was me, holding my glue stick upside down attempting to mimic the actions of the kid next to me.

All of a sudden, I was the only one who was still living at home. I wasn't going to college. I wasn't even accepted into a college. I hadn't even graduated high school, which came as a shock to many who know me. But I was experiencing the time-honored and popular British tradition of a taking a gap year.

I spent the first few months of my gap year making awkward explanations to old school friends, relatives and former teachers. It wasn't the actual gap year that was surprising, it was the fact that I hadn't graduated yet. I had always been the type of person who made the principal's list, and had therefore stacked expectations against myself. Even my family had expected me to graduate early.

Ironically, my health wasn't solely responsible for my academic delay. A major reason was my desperate need for a change. During my last nine years of school, I had been trapped in a vicious cycle: start school, get sick, improve slightly, catch up and repeat. It was hard work and not at all rewarding.

School took up a great deal of my time and energy, while the rest of it went to cystic fibrosis. I had no idea what it would feel like to be working towards something that really mattered to me. So of course, I had no clue what I wanted in the way of a career. But I really wanted to find out.

The truth is, I could have finished school on time, or even early, if I had wanted to. After all, I had perfected the art of expedited (rushed ... ahem ...) school work. But when you're tired and unlucky and you've been sick for the past 15 years, you deserve to actually want something.

I wanted to know who I was outside of my constant survival mode.

So school, as a priority, got downsized. I began to work at a specialty bakery and helped teach youth tennis lessons. I served on two panels, one for a National Disease Research Interchange symposium and the other in a congressional briefing about CF. And I wrote. I worked on projects with the CF Foundation, including this blog (which subsequently led me to write some more). I transitioned into an adult CF clinic, and recovered a large chunk of my lung function and actually kept it this time around. All the while, I was working towards a high school diploma which had admittedly become something of a holy grail.

Initially, my gap year looked like 365 days of social deviance and self-inflicted mental torture. I felt utterly inadequate compared to all my peers who were off at college. But once I waded into the year a little bit, I started to have fun with it. For the first time ever, I was learning things about myself other than how much stress (both mental and physical) I could withstand. I found out that I enjoy working with non-profit organizations. I found out that I love to bake, but could never be a full-time baker. I found out that I'm fascinated by psychology. I found out that I like kids, just as long as they're not my constant responsibility and are also perfectly behaved and also make no noise whatsoever ... really not looking for a career working with children.

At the beginning of this year I was actually dreading going to college. I knew that I was going to be working non-stop in order to earn a degree and also maintain my health. I knew that most of my college experience would be vastly different from those around me, and that I would inevitably miss out on some of the good parts. Those facts are all still true of course, but what changed is that I know I'm the type of person who's going to love their job. Four years of school is going to be hard. It's possible that I won't like it any better than my other school experiences. So the thought that keeps me going is that after I graduate, I get to go to work.

To Be Continued ...

This site contains general information about cystic fibrosis, as well as personal insight from the CF community. Opinions and experiences shared by members of our community, including but not limited to people with CF and their families, belong solely to the blog post author and do not represent those of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, unless explicitly stated. In addition, the site is not intended as a substitute for treatment advice from a medical professional. Consult your doctor before making any changes to your treatment.

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Mara has been living with CF for 24 years. She recently earned her master's degree in public relations and hopes to continue her work in health communications. In her spare time, she loves reading, baking, and spoiling her dog, Zoe.

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