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‘Striving for an ordinary life almost destroyed me’ – here’s why we founded Evolve Politics

I generally don’t like to talk about myself, but given that most of us are on lockdown and bored out of our minds, I thought it might be interesting to explain a little bit more about myself, including exactly why I got into politics, how I came to view the world in the way I do, and why myself and Jess decided to start Evolve in the first place.

I’m Tom D. Rogers, the co-founder and Senior Editor of Evolve Politics. My upbringing wasn’t overtly political in any sense. I come from a rural village in North Devon. My dad was a French teacher at a local school and my mum worked as a legal secretary in a solicitor’s office. I had a pretty good childhood (apart from my first memory being swept out by the sea and almost drowning when I was 18 months old), and whilst we were never well-off in any sense we were able to afford everything we needed to survive.

Whilst I did have a penchant for mischief and intentionally causing hilarity during my early years, I was always relatively good at school – gaining 10 GCSEs all A-C, before passing my A Levels with pretty average results and going to University. 

However, I was never exceptional at any one thing. I’d been passionate about football since an early age, but despite playing in numerous teams during my childhood, I was forever feeling unfit, getting injured, and never really got good enough to go any further. I also enjoyed writing from an early age, but never really thought about using it in any potential future career. In fact, I don’t recall ever thinking practically about what I wanted to do after I finished my studies – something which, with hindsight, I probably should have!

During my early teens I got really interested in music. My dad played guitar and he had a huge collection of CDs. He introduced me to the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Frank Zappa – to name a few. These influences, combined with what my friends were listening to at the time – bands such as Nirvana, Papa Roach, System of a Down, Linkin Park etc – gave me my first real creative inspiration. After irritating my dad by constantly asking to play (and inadvertently breaking the strings of) his guitar, he eventually caved in and bought me my own – a cheap Fender Squier – and from that moment I was hooked. I played for hours every day, learning countless songs and improvising my own style.

At College, I studied English Language, Psychology and Music Technology – three of my favourite subjects. However, despite getting better results in both English and Psychology, I knew that I enjoyed all aspects of Music more than the other subjects – and I decided to follow this path into university. I applied to numerous universities in a variety of the three subjects, but I decided to accept an offer to study Creative Music Technology at what was then Anglia Polytechnic University (now Anglia Ruskin University) in Cambridge.

Uni was extremely fun, and I made some really good friends and had a fantastic time overall. However, throughout the second and third years, I struggled with both my mental and physical health. During this same period, my brother (who is 3 years older than me but was still living with my parents in Devon) was experiencing his own, significantly worse, mental health problems. He had started taking drugs a few years earlier, and was eventually diagnosed with numerous conditions, including Schizophrenia and psychosis, before simply being palmed off with highly addictive meds by his GP. Seeing him in such a state every time I went back home hit me pretty hard – and I often worried, for numerous reasons, that I might end up in the same situation as him. Our extended family has always been prone to mental health problems – and, as I had briefly dabbled in soft drugs when I was a teenager and always been pretty mentally quirky, worried that I could go down the same route as my brother if I wasn’t careful.

However, at this time in my life I wasn’t the type of person to tell anyone that I was struggling. I didn’t want to put any more burden on my parents as I knew they had enough on their plate trying to deal with my brother’s erratic, and often dangerous, behaviour. Also, due to the hopefully now outdated toxic macho mindset that boys are often encouraged to adopt around such issues, I never really felt I could open up properly to any of my friends about my health struggles either.

 During my second and third year of uni I began to slip back, and despite finishing the full 3 years, I never completed enough credits to fully graduate. All it would have taken for me to graduate was at most another year of studies, but I was placed in a dilemma that has, for better or worse, shaped my life since.

I worked numerous jobs before and during uni. I spent my college summer holidays working in a factory packing flat-pack furniture to save a bit of money. At uni, despite having some financial help from my parents, I worked at Wetherspoons and also earned extra money through agency work cleaning uni halls to make ends meet. However, as soon as I finished my third year of uni, my parents moved house – downsizing from a 3 bed house to a 2 bed bungalow, meaning there was only room for them and my brother. Since there was no prospect of going home or being able to afford going back to uni to finish, I realised I needed to get a full-time job immediately or I wasn’t going to be able to survive. And this is what I did.

After writing up my CV, I spent days going round every potential employer in the area looking for something – anything – that could give me some kind of income. The first offer I got was from Asda – a 15-hour a week contract to join their cleaning team. The contract was from 5am – 8am, 5 days a week. It was a struggle waking up at 04:15 for these days, but I was desperate to try and survive on my own. Despite only being contracted for 15 hours, I was handed loads of overtime which basically made it enough to pay the bills. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was a start – I thought.

During my early days at Asda I was working hard, but constantly haranguing the managers to give me something better, and I was simultaneously applying for countless full-time positions in more suitable jobs at other companies every day. I was invited to numerous interviews for full-time entry-level jobs at various places, but nothing ever came of them. After about a year of this merry-go-round, I was offered a supervisor role at Asda – a full-time position that also meant a change to the evening shift, which was a blessed relief having woken up at crazy-o’clock for the past 12 months straight. Obviously I took it, but I was still perpetually irritated about the constant rejections from my other applications and interviews.

After 5 years, and after more than 100 interviews and 1,000s of applications, I finally got a break. I was offered a full-time job at Papworth hospital, working in the admin department for their Respiratory and Sleep clinic. My job was to transcribe voice recorded notes from doctors, and to complete data entry from patient reviews. It was a job that anybody with a basic grasp of English and computer literacy could have done – but it had taken me 5 years, countless applications and a ridiculous amount of interviews to finally get. Yet, despite being ecstatic about being handed my first real opportunity, things were about to come crashing down.

I had been warned in the interview that the job was monotonous – and that numerous people who had accepted it hadn’t lasted more than a few months because of how tedious and repetitive it was. At first I didn’t think twice about the warning – I was just happy to have a job which (virtually) paid the bills and seemed to have prospects of career progression.

However, as the weeks and months went on, I began to realise what they had meant. Despite my colleagues being incredibly fun, I was still sat in a chair for 8 hours a day doing a single never-changing task. I felt like a robot. And, what was worse, my wage wasn’t enough to cover my bills – in fact, it was actually worse than I was being paid at Asda.

To make up for the shortfall, I decided I had to do something on the side – so I started applying for casual writing jobs in the evening. I eventually got an offer to write for a football website that paid £5 per article for what was basically half an hour’s work each time. It was actually fun and it brought in a little extra money which helped plug the gap.

However, I was far from happy. I also wanted to progress in my career so I could earn a decent wage from a single, reasonably enjoyable job – and then perhaps think about starting a family with Jess, who I had met back In 2012 and moved in with 2 years later. Throughout my entire life I had been led to believe that, for people with a decent education and a basic level of competence, having a reasonable job and being able to grow up into a fully-functioning adult was just a formality. But my real-life experience had shown that things had clearly changed since my parents’ generation.

I was so desperate to progress in life that I took every opportunity thrown my way – a decision which eventually led to me taking on a ridiculous amount of responsibilities at one time. In addition to my full-time 9-5 job at Papworth, and my evening writing work, I was also studying for an NVQ in Business Administration and playing in a band during the week and at the weekends. I basically didn’t have any free time. Thanks to this, I was gradually becoming extremely unhappy, completely demotivated, and almost entirely burnt out. And then came the illnesses.

During this period, I started suffering from what seemed like a never-ending stream of viral illnesses. It began with mild flu-like symptoms mixed with stomach issues, excruciating migraines, and constant dizziness. The symptoms came in patterns – I’d have a week of feeling awful, then a few days of feeling better, then the symptoms would be back and I’d feel even worse than I did before. This cycle lasted unabated for months. However, being the stupidly stubborn person I am, I simply tried to push through it – but it was no use. One day I realised that I needed to try and recover, so I reluctantly called in sick to work. After recovering for a few days and feeling slightly better, I went back – but the cycle started again, and it was even worse than before.

Eventually it got to the point where I couldn’t take any more time off work, I didn’t have any free time to see the doctor, and I was virtually dead on my feet every second of every day trying to push through. 

On February 17th 2015, my body and mind gave in. I couldn’t take it any more. The combination of physical pain, illness, mental anguish and downright exhaustion had finally caught up with me. It was mid-afternoon, and it was sunny outside, but I was hunched over at my desk at Papworth. I finally turned to my colleague next to me and uttered the words I never thought I could: “I’m really not okay.”

I explained the situation to them and they told me to phone my GP. I arranged an appointment, but I knew that I couldn’t carry on at work in the state I was. I was so worried about losing my job because of the numerous periods of absence I’d already had to take – but I couldn’t see any other way out. After finally plucking up the courage, I explained the situation to my boss and she allowed me to leave work.

At this point in time, the NHS hadn’t yet been completely ravaged by the Tories – and my appointment to see the doctor was thankfully the next day. Being the type of person I am, I only explained the physical nature of my symptoms and left out the fact that I was also unable to cope with my situation mentally. At first I was diagnosed with all manner of different ailments such as Gastritis and IBS – for which I was prescribed medication which, unsurprisingly, made absolutely no difference.

After a few weeks of going back and forth to my GP, I finally decided to explain the full situation – that I’d been suffering from illnesses for months, that I’d been stupidly trying to push through it whilst working myself half to death, and that my mental health was clearly in the gutter from both physical and mental exhaustion. However, the only thing they could prescribe for this was anti-depressants, which I took, but which, at the time, made no real difference. The fact was that it wasn’t simply a case of my brain being low on serotonin that was the problem – it was the situation, of knowing I needed to work despite being clearly unable to, and that I couldn’t escape from it, that was the real problem.

In March, I decided to give things one last go. I called my boss and said I was ready to go back to work. I knew I wasn’t, but I wanted – for one last time – to try and push through. I agreed with her that the best way to try was to have a phased return – working for four hours a day on my first week back, and gradually increasing things back to normal over the next few weeks. I made it through the first four-hour day.

However, when I woke up the next morning, I could barely move. I was worse than I’d ever been. In my mind, the memory of this feeling, of complete and utter helplessness, still haunts me. In that moment I knew I was going to lose my job – the thing I’d worked tirelessly for 5 years to get – and it seemed like the end.

Over the next six months or so, I had countless GP, hospital and specialist appointments – which finally culminated in a formal diagnosis. According to my specialist, I had a classic case of a Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E) – a chronic systemic neuroimmune condition which I had probably been suffering from for a while, and that was probably caused by a huge combination of factors.

My diagnosis was both a relief and a cause for huge anger. I was relieved that I wasn’t simply going crazy. However, I was growing increasingly angry that – despite playing by the rules, getting a decent education and working extremely hard for my entire life – the capitalist system we are forced to live under had effectively pushed me to the brink of self-destruction simply for trying to pay the bills and have an ordinary life.

Yes, my parents, like many others in their generation, have clearly experienced their own struggles and financial difficulties – especially after Thatcher got in. But, for them, getting a steady job was relatively easy, buying a house only cost three or four times their annual salary, and being able to grow into fully-functioning adults and afford to have kids wasn’t a seemingly unreachable dream.

It was this realisation – that things have become drastically worse for my generation than they were for our parents’ – that started my obsession with politics.

Astoundingly, at almost precisely the same time as my anti-capitalist radicalisation, something monumental was beginning to happen in UK politics: Jeremy Corbyn, with his anti-austerity, pro-worker, anti-neoliberal message, was defying all the odds in the Labour leadership race.

In September 2015, just weeks after Corbyn’s unprecedented election as Labour leader, Evolve Politics was born. And the rest is history.

Since then, whilst I still suffer with illness and pain every single day, I have become reborn. I now have a true, justifiable, personally-rewarding purpose. 

It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn that radicalised me – it was life. But he gave me hope, inspiration, and purpose in my darkest hours.

No matter what we think of Keir Starmer, he is still standing by Corbyn’s hard-won political agenda – and we need to do everything we can possibly do to ensure Corbyn’s tenure as leader does not go to waste.

If even half of the policies that Labour are currently standing on can be implemented, it would ensure that countless people don’t have to suffer the same plight as me.

Our system is seriously broken – and people are suffering, every single day, right now. We need the Tories out, and this means compromising slightly by throwing my support behind Keir Starmer – someone I didn’t support in the 2020 Labour leadership election, but who, at this very moment, is our only real hope – then so be it.

Like a lot others who supported Jeremy Corbyn, I am desperately worried about Labour moving back to their pro-corporate, pro-neoliberal days. But, as long as they continue standing on their current platform, I will continue to support them – albeit with constructive criticism where necessary.

However, if they do revert back to Blairism, I have already accepted that our movement will be forced to challenge them with a new political party.

[UPDATE, Sept 2021: Surprise surprise! Keir Starmer backtracked on all his promises and Labour have indeed reverted to Blairism. And now, new, truly progressive parties (The Breakthrough Party and the Northern Independence Party) are indeed emerging to challenge his utter gobshitery.]

I can’t say what the future holds – but I know that my views aren’t going to change any time soon, and that my lived experience has given me an insatiable passion to try and change things for the better.

So, if you see value in what we are trying to achieve with Evolve, please think about subscribing if you can afford it – we can only continue what we do with your support :)

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