I’m not cut out for this, I’m really not. Being an adult is much harder than it looked in the brochure. When I was small, I couldn’t wait to grow up, fondly imagining the time when I’d have all the answers, gliding gracefully between the days, busy only with the sheer enjoyment of living. I’m glad I had no idea how wrong I was.
Life is much more complicated than I ever gave it credit. There are bills to be paid, lines to be drawn, principles to be defended. And laundry to be done. So much laundry. Don’t get me started on the bloody laundry.
But then, there’s the sweet contrast between being a grown-up and growing older. The former promises disappointment and expectations that can’t ever be met. The latter is a balm; the older I get, the more comfortable I am in my own skin. The more secure I become. The more I sense and value the love that surrounds me; the more I appreciate my friends, my family.
The flip side to that: being able to lovingly let go of some relationships and people. Recognising the friendships that used to work, but don’t any more. And finally understanding that what other people think of me is none of my business.
These days, I have a sense of happiness, of peace, of calm, that I’ve never known before. Even amid the chaos of the endless logistics and paperwork. And the sodding laundry.
Being a grown-up royally sucks, but at least growing older is great.
I spent my life trying to make sense of the world by trying to see patterns in it. When walking, not only would I studiously avoid the cracks, but I’d have to tally my steps as well. Counting to nine, over and over, soothed me. The world was scary and confused; I wanted to smooth everything down and make it safe. No cracks, count to nine, no cracks, count to nine.
Words were a challenge. If I saw a poster when I was out—perhaps an ad on the side of a building or a bus—I had to make that add up to nine too.
Let me explain it to you. First, I’d count up the letters in each word. Then, I’d have to find the combination that let them produce a 9.
Let = 3
me = 2
explain = 7
it = 2
to = 2
you = 3
(3 – 2) + (7 + 2 + 2) – 3 = 9. Phew.
There were no exceptions. If a sentence didn’t work first time, I had to jerry-rig a solution.
Let = 3
me = 2
demonstrate = 11
(3 – 2) + 11? No
(3 + 2) + 11? No
Let’s use the spaces in-between words now.
Let = 3
[space = 1]
me = 2
[space = 1]
demonstrate = 11
((-3 + 1) * (2 – 1)) + 11 = 9! Phew!
For one sentence? A bit of a challenge. For every advert I saw? Exhausting.
And so I measured out the world in steps and counts, keeping everything safe by reducing it to the magic number nine. Over and over and over. No exceptions.
There was comfort, for a while, in this endless result, but over time the game expanded. I would bang my foot as I answered my maths homework. I had to produce the answers in time to the beat. It wasn’t enough to count the written words, when people spoke to me, I had to add their sentences up, make everything sum to nine. Objects around me had to be mentally rearranged so that they spoke of nine somehow.
There’s a vase on my mantlepiece. It features a flower with six leaves, a stem, and a two-tone head.
It is a big ask of anyone to keep the universe safe by performing endless calculations. Let alone a child. But I had no choice; I was unable to stop. Walking and counting, walking and counting.
It didn’t even occur to me to tell anyone or seek help; this was simply my job and my comfort.
Now, for something that was so central to my life, it’s strange that I can’t tell you what happened next. I don’t remember when or how the obsession eased, but it did—so gradually that I didn’t notice.
It’s still there though, waiting for me. It occasionally returns—in other forms—when I’m stressed. I was sucked into Sudoku and spent hours boxing the world into grids. Similarly, solving logic puzzles. Latterly, Candy Crush.
The pull is still to ignore the mess in my life, and make neat sense of another chaos. But now, as an adult, I can think fondly of that little girl—frantically counting and counting—and understand now that the world simply can’t be sorted, solved and smoothed. Sometimes we just have to life with its jagged edges.
I was going to be an accountant, you know. I only received minimal careers advice at school, but I knew that I liked words and numbers; however, I presumed that I’d never make it as a writer so, accountancy it was.
Unfortunately, no-one had pointed out to me that I would make a terrible, terrible accountant. I’m too disorganised, too distractible; it would have been an awful fit for me. This isn’t to knock accountancy in any way; it’s an important profession. Indeed, I’m profoundly grateful that my own amazing accountant chose it as her own career path as, before I started using her, I struggled to complete my tax returns. The last seven words of that previous sentence tell you that I really would have been a disastrous accountant. Happily, I slipped sideways into a career in radio, and accountancy was spared the horror of my services.
Anyway, my own crappy career choices mean that I’m keen to help others avoid similar pitfalls. So I’m taking part in my daughter’s school’s career fair this morning; they’ve asked me to talk about my glittering* career as a book editor and copywriter.
Well, it turns out that very few kids actually want to talk to me (note to self: everyone else has corporate banners and freebies to give away. I have nothing except a few copies of my books; no teenager wants to read them, which is fair enough). So, I have plenty of time to ruminate on my working life and give you some career advice instead.
I mean, you probably don’t need any career advice. Certainly not from me. If you were here, you’d also be queuing for a free gonk from the paramedic—or a go on the policeman’s handcuffs—and giving a wide berth to my pathetic trestle table with its hastily scribbled sign. I don’t blame you; I’m hoping to score a free gonk myself. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned about work:
1) Do a job that you love—or at the very least, that you care about—or it will rot your soul.
Having done many jobs that I adored—and a few that made me dread getting up in the morning—I know I do my best work when I’m happy and motivated. Which leads me onto:
2) The money isn’t worth your health or your sanity.
If you suspect your job’s making you ill—whether physically or mentally—then you need to change something. At the least, talk to your boss about how the issues and what you can do about them. I’m lucky that most of my jobs have been brilliant, but I had a few that took their toll on my health. I quit them and didn’t regret it for a second.
3) There’s usually an open window somewhere.
I studied economics at uni, in preparation for my fabulous accountancy career. But life had other plans. I got involved in student radio, which led to some work reading travel bulletins, which led to a job in local radio. I kept thinking I’d get a proper job at some point but, 25 years on, I’m still in the media and I’ve never used that economics degree.
4) Say yes to everything that isn’t a terrible idea.
It could be an amazing opportunity; some of my most exciting jobs have come from chance conversations. But, even if it doesn’t work out, there’s always something to learn and something good that comes out of it. Even when one client stiffed me over a payment for some work I’d already completed, I was able to feel grateful (eventually); the skills I’d learned on that job opened a window for me somewhere else four years later.
5) You are not your job.
Enjoy your work, but don’t confuse it with your own value. When I had my first daughter, whenever I met anyone new, I’d usually blurt out: “I’m on maternity leave BUT I USED TO BE A RADIO PRODUCER”, as if that was the only thing that mattered.
Anyway, I’m having a lovely morning. I might have only spoken to a handful of kids who had any real interest in writing, but they were so sparky and passionate that it made doing the fair a pleasure. And if it saves one of them from an ill-fitting career in accountancy, then it’ll all be worthwhile.
I was talking to a darling friend who has depression. We said what a shame it is that some people don’t understand mental illness, or are scared of it. Because it’s hard enough when you’re struggling, let alone when you’re too scared to talk in case you’re judged.
So, let’s talk.
I know a little, just a little, of the bleakness of depression, having staggered through the dark for a year or so after my father died. Life lost its colour. And it wasn’t that I felt bad, it’s more that I didn’t feel anything. And, eventually, I just didn’t want to be alive any more.
Realising that something was desperately wrong, I did try and talk about it, but I chose the wrong person to talk to. This person told me to pull myself together, to get on with it, that I’d been sad enough for long enough.
Unfortunately, telling someone who’s depressed to pull themselves together is as helpful as telling someone with two broken arms to do a press-up. Hearing that I apparently wasn’t depressed—merely “selfish”—was enough to put me off seeking help anywhere else, which is a shame as I’d probably have recovered sooner with support.
But I did get better, for which I am profoundly grateful. As I say, I know a little of depression, so have nothing but deep respect for my friends who live with it as part of their everyday lives.
So. Mental illness. It’s just illness. Let’s be kind to each other, life’s hard enough as it is. Much love. Xxxx
I was round at a friend’s house for tea. She was busy in the kitchen, when the doorbell went. It was a good friend of hers—someone I’d met before but hadn’t seen in a number of years—and he greeted me with some surprise.
Friend-of-Friend: “You’ve lost weight!”
Me: “Yes, I’ve lost weight.”
F-o-F: “You’ve lost a lot of weight!”
Me: “Yes, I’ve lost a lot of weight.”
F-o-F: “Your husband must love that!”
I was totally thrown by that last sentence; in my world, love isn’t measured or contained by body size. My shape has indeed changed over the years, and it will change again, and it’s no measure of my worth.
Then, there was the insinuation that he used to find me unattractive, but now thought my appearance was acceptable; this troubled me. Why was this guy—who I barely knew—assuming that my relationship and my body were any of his damn business?
I wish I’d picked him up on it.
In a parallel universe, I’d have launched into an eloquent speech explaining all the above. Occasionally, I enjoy imaging myself simply shouting “OH FUCK OFF” as I slam the door in his face.
For the record, I was too flustered to think of a suitable comeback and instead stammered out a factually accurate but deeply unsatisfying reply:
Me: “I’ve no idea what my husband thinks about it. We split up a few months ago.”
The ensuing silence was immense, awkward and well-deserved.
I made myself really ill once. Obviously, accidentally. But I didn’t understand how to look after myself.
As usual, I was doing too much: my A-level mocks, running a local youth group, acting as the programme controller for a hospital radio station. That probably would have been enough on its own, but I’ve never been one to understand when enough is enough. In my infinite wisdom, I then decided to arrange a residential weekend, including a Ball on a Boat (these were quite the thing in the 90s in North London), for the national youth group. Single-handedly.
There are many things I’ve done in my life that started as terrible, terrible ideas, then became terrible, terrible experiences. This was the first of them.
If you’ve ever tried to arrange an event for more than three people, you’ll know what a hassle it can be. Arranging a night out for the other parents in your daughter’s class? Challenging. Sorting out a trip away with your buds? Tiring. Planning and managing a weekend away with 75 fellow teenagers, where you’re solely in charge of organising food, entertainment, accommodation, transport and the sodding Ball on a Boat? A living nightmare.
I barely slept in the two weeks before it. There was so much to sort, plus people phoning me up at all hours of the day and night. On top of that, I’d caught a nasty cold and really felt quite horrible.
The ball wasn’t the disaster it could have been. By some strange grace it all went reasonably smoothly. I think I even managed to have some fun at some point, but I don’t remember much about it. What I do remember—with hideous clarity—is the morning after the event finished.
I woke up, but I couldn’t get up. My body was heavy, unresponsive, seemingly unconnected to my brain. It wasn’t that I was so tired that I couldn’t get up. I simply couldn’t get up. My limbs weren’t working.
The next 18 months of my life are strange and painful to look back on. I had many good periods, where I could get to school and enjoy a normal day. And many others where my body simply shut down again. One day, I was sat at the kitchen table, looking at a glass of water. I was thirsty. I desperately wanted to drink. And I tried to lift the glass but I couldn’t even get it off the table. It was simply too heavy. I simply couldn’t do it.
After numerous tests and trips to the doctor, I got what was effectively a non-diagnosis. The doctors had ruled everything else out so, by a process of elimination, they told me I had ME / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome*. It’s still really poorly understood today, but 25 years ago things were even worse.
I really don’t remember much from that time but the one thing that did stick is how people treated me. A number of my friends—not proper friends, I now realise—didn’t believe I was ill. I was teased for having “yuppie flu”. I was routinely pulled out of classes by my teachers—when I was well enough to attend—and accused of faking my illness. My mother would write me notes explaining my absences; I was accused of writing them myself. The school eventually threatened to keep me down a year if my grades didn’t improve. I wasn’t offered any help, only the prospect of punishment.
I still don’t know exactly how I got well*. I tried everything: diet, vitamin B injections, protein drinks, hundreds of strangely-named supplements. And something must have worked as the cycle of wellness, relapse, wellness, relapse finally ended. There was no fanfare: one day I simply stopped relapsing and stayed well. It took a long, long time to start trusting that I would actually continue to be well this time.
Did I learn anything from my illness? Well. I didn’t learn to pack less into my life, I continued to be strenuously, stupidly busy. I didn’t even learn to take better care of my body until relatively recently. But I did learn to be grateful for my health. It’s still easy to take it for granted, but everytime I feel unwell or tired now, the fear returns. Perhaps the relapse is finally here. Perhaps this has only been an extended, but ultimately temporary, period of wellness.
I am profoundly grateful that I was only unwell for 18 months. I know some people suffer for a lifetime. If you have any form of chronic illness, I wish you good health plus compassion and support from those around you. If you don’t, I wish you not only continued good health but also an appreciation of it.
And for me? I hope my body never takes me prisoner again, but I accept that it’s out of my hands.
*I’ve been reading more about ME recently and I’ve been questioning my (non)diagnosis of it. Apparently most teenagers who develop viral illnesses will recover spontaneously within 2 years during their teens to early 20s; this would explain my relatively swift recovery. Only a small percentage of teens who suffer from a viral illness like this will develop long term ME/CFS. So, it’s quite possible that I didn’t ever have ME in the first place. I’m deeply thankful for that; the insight into what life must be like, with full-blown ME, was more than enough for me.
I used to harm myself in many different and subtle ways; one of them was with clothing. When I felt bad about myself, I’d dig out my worst clothes and wear them to punish myself. Jeans that bit into my stomach and made me ache all day. Sloppy tops that made me look ultra frumpy. I wouldn’t bother styling my hair; I didn’t deserve it.
That was a lifetime ago. As part of my recovery, I cleared out all the sad pieces and—over time—built a new wardrobe of clothes that I love to wear, that flatter me, that make me feel good.
However, there were still some things that I longed to wear, but convinced myself were beyond my fashion grasp.
Among them, scarves.
I’d look at stylish people, floating around with a jaunty scarf, and think how wonderful they looked. And then, in the same moment think “Not for me”. Surely I’d look too messy, too pretentious… just wrong. I’d look like an idiot, trying too hard.
But I was at a party. And there, on the opposite side of the room, was a charming man wearing the most beautiful scarf. Festooned in bright, graphical print. He looked amazing and I practically vaulted over a sofa to reach him and tell him.
“You look terrific. I wish I could carry off a scarf like that”, I burbled.
He grinned. “It’s just a scarf! Of course you can!”
I must have looked sceptical, because he unwound the scarf of wonder from his neck and handed it to me. “Go on.”
Feeling somewhat self-conscious yet oddly happy, I made a hamfisted attempt to tie it on.
“There you go! It looks good”, he reassured.
I peeked in the mirror. Damnit, he was right. I looked… stylish. Confident. Full of scarf. I looked like a scarf-wearer.
The next day, I bought my own jaunty scarf. Like an 80s explosion of a scarf; pink, blue, orange and green, all in ragged blocks.
I wore it. And I liked it.
And perhaps I do look like an idiot. But I’m a warm idiot, so who cares?