I’ve learned to be suspicious when there’s an empty seat on a packed train. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way.
It was a Monday morning, and I am not a morning person. Befuddled from sleep, and desperate for a bit more rest, I was chuffed when I boarded the Victoria Line and spotted a spare seat.
I slipped into it triumphantly.
My joy was short-lived, however, when I noticed the smell. So strong—rancid, meaty, curdling the air around it—that I thought I might puke. I looked around for the source of it, then realised, with some horror, that it came from my neighbour.
And then, he rested his head on my shoulder.
This was not good. I’m quite socially awkward at the best of times and I don’t like being touched by people I don’t know. So, I had a stranger’s head on my shoulder, so close I could smell his hair. I was feeling a little faint. Surely, there had to be a good reason for him to be doing this? Ah, he had his hand in his pocket. He was having trouble reaching into his pocket, so he’d stretched himself out and that’s why his head was on my shoulder. Perhaps.
But he was spending quite a long time reaching into his pocket. And his head was still on my shoulder. And his hand was moving pretty rhythmically in his pocket. And… oh… oh god…
Yes, he was cuddled up to me while he had a wank on a crowded train.
So, what did I do? Did I shout at him? Did I leap up and move carriages? Did I hit him with my bag?
No. No, I did not. I did none of those things.
Instead, I sat where I was and pretended that this thing wasn’t happening. Because I am very good at pretending that unpleasant things aren’t happening.
We’d been flirting online for weeks. It had all been leading towards a real-life-actual-date but—just as I headed out the door to meet him—my phone rang.
It was him.
He sounded panicked: “I can’t make it tonight. My dog’s not very well.”
Well, fair enough. When you have dependents—whether they’re a human or a furry friend—you have a duty to look after them. So, I didn’t mind him cancelling at all.
I texted him the next day to ask how the dog was, and to see when he wanted to meet.
But I never heard from him again.
I still have no idea whether he’d got cold feet and the dog was just an excuse, or whether dog-illness-sadness prevented him ever dating again, or perhaps he was whisked off his feet by a particularly sexy vet.
Maybe you’re already rolling your eyes, but hear me out. Forgiveness is pretty powerful, but it’s much misunderstood.
There’s probably someone in your past—possibly even your present—who troubles you. Who wronged you, who wounded you. Their very existence is the grit in your eye, the stone in your shoe. And that’s why you need to forgive them.
It doesn’t mean that the things that happened to you don’t matter; they do. It doesn’t mean you have to be friends with people who have wounded you; you certainly don’t. It certainly doesn’t mean that you have to face that person and tell them you forgive them; they don’t even have to know that you forgive them, or even that you thought of them at all.
Forgiveness isn’t about them. It’s about releasing the hold that those incidents have over you. It’s about escorting those people out of your head. It’s about reclaiming your life from them.
I spent a lot of my life carrying those ghosts with me: the shadows of conversations, of friends I didn’t see any more, sometimes even of people who weren’t alive any more. Always there in a corner of my mind. Tinting my thoughts grey. Taking me away from the present.
And I wasted energy fighting them: endlessly replaying arguments, raging against how I was treated, confronting people in my head because I couldn’t confront them in real life. Over and over. Exhausting. And it didn’t bring me any peace; instead, I built a prison and trapped myself in my own thoughts. I was waiting for apologies that were never going to come (and in some cases, I later reflected, weren’t even owed to me).
There was only one way to release the hold they had on me, and it was within my power, not theirs. Forgiving them.
Frankly, the thought appalled me at first. I’d been nurturing my resentment over the years: it felt powerful. It even gave me a strange sense of importance; I’d been wronged, which meant that I mattered. But the crushing, all-encompassing rage was tiring, and I wanted to put my burden down. So, I started looking more closely at what I was really angry about.
A number of those injustices evaporated as soon as I prodded them. Take, for example, the friend who hadn’t been there for me when I needed him; I’d felt resentful towards him for years. But, eventually I realised that my upset actually stemmed from my own inflated sense of self-importance, rather than from anything he’d actually done. The fact was that I clearly wasn’t as important to him as he was to me. However, rather than understanding and accepting that, I’d made myself important to him—in my head only—by inventing a situation where he’d deliberately wronged me. My expectations of him had been unreasonable, no apologies were due, and the anger vanished. And the same with many of my grudges: I was surprised how many of them boiled down to nothing worse than a bruised ego.
Of course, that wasn’t the case with every situation, and eventually I was left with the people who’d genuinely wronged me. These situations ranged from the relatively trivial—the ‘friend’ who’d stolen money from me, the anonymous car driver who shouted “FAT BITCH” at me when he didn’t like my driving—to the devastating, the life-changing (I’m not in the mood to give examples today, but you can probably imagine). I didn’t want to carry those memories and those people around with me any more. And so I started forgiving them.
As I’ve said before, this does not mean trivialising the things that have happened to us. They still matter. But releasing the anger was therapeutic. My teenage ‘friend’: everyone makes mistakes. She didn’t even owe me the money any more; her parents paid every penny back at the time. In my head, I hoped that she had grown up to be a more honest person, and I forgave her.
“FAT BITCH” man? I reasoned you had to be a pretty angry, unpleasant person to want to shout something so nasty at a woman. I felt sorry for him, and then I forgave him. These were the easy ones.
The deepest wounds were, of course, the hardest to forgive, but also the most necessary. I looked at those incidents one at a time; with each, I sat with my pain for a while and reflected on it. I reminded myself that none of these people were monsters; they were just people. People with flaws, people who might not be terribly nice, people who I didn’t like; but, ultimately, just people. People that I could forgive.
And I did forgive them. One by one. And, at first, it hurt like hell—saying the words “I forgive him” for the first time made me cry—but I still forgave them. And, with each act of forgiveness, I took another piece of myself back. The heaviness, the shame, the fear gradually lifted within me as I kept forgiving.
Of course, the pain doesn’t just vanish overnight, and some people needed repeatedly forgiving. Actually, some people I forgive everyday. But I remind myself, I’m not doing this for them. I’m doing this for me.
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.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore my step-kids. It’s just that I don’t want to call them my step-kids.
There’s something distant about that “step”, something that I really don’t like. That “step” implies that a degree of disconnect, a lessening of love. That “step” says, they’re only my partner’s kids, they’re not mine.
Wading back into the dating world, as a single mum, I realised that most prospective suitors would probably also have children. But I was concerned, remembering stories from acquaintances of how they could barely stand their partner’s kids. What if I wound up in that situation?
And then, a mate and I surprised ourselves by falling in love. I knew he had kids; he’d often shown me pictures of them, told me how great they were, how proud he was of them. I used to look at those pictures, nodding politely; never imaging I’d ever meet them, let alone that I’d love them too one day.
I remember the day I finally met them. Struck by that sweetness, the blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar, making them so easy to love. He’s charming like his dad, with his nick of mischief too, and an innate confidence that’s all his own. She’s got her father’s strange, endearing mix of impulse and caution, twisted in her own sense of humour.
Love is a funny thing; there is never quite enough time for everything, but there is always enough love for everyone. Suddenly I didn’t just have a boyfriend, I also had two bonus kids. They weren’t his children anymore, they were ours.
We have an understanding. When we’re out, people often say, “Does your daughter want…?”, “Doesn’t your son like…?” And we don’t correct them. Because it might not be factually accurate, but it’s certainly good enough for us.
I say to them, you know I’m not your mother, I’m not trying to be your mother, you have a wonderful mother already. But I love you like a mother does. I love you like a mother does.
This is terribly shallow of me, and I’m still quite ashamed of myself.
I went on a date with a chap who may well have been very nice. Or perhaps he wasn’t. I genuinely have no idea.
I couldn’t concentrate on a word he said, all evening, because I was too transfixed by the enormous pulsating boil next to his nose.
Seriously, I think it had hypnotic powers as I couldn’t look away from it all night. If I close my eyes, I can still picture its magnificent glory. I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I do remember that I named the pustule “Augustus The Majestic”.
I’m very sorry, Mr Whoever-You-Were. I hope you found someone more deserving of your company than me.
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