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.
Before the date, he warned me that he got very nervous on first dates and often talked a lot. Fine, I sometimes talk a lot too.
But he really wasn’t kidding; I sat and listened to him talk about himself for the best part of three hours.
Eventually, he paused for breath, looked at me and said:
Date: “I suppose I’d better ask you something about yourself, hadn’t I?”
Me: “That’d be nice.”
Date: “So, tell me about your ex-husband.”
Date: “Your ex-husband. How did you meet each other, how long were you together and when did it all go wrong?”
Me: “I don’t really want to talk about my marriage, thanks. Isn’t there anything else you want to know about me?”
Turns out there wasn’t, as he went straight back to talking about himself again. At the end of the evening, he apologised again, put it down to nerves, and promised to do less talking and more listening if I’d meet him for a second date. I agreed.
So, the second date arrived and, again, the gentleman started talking about himself without asking me a single question. I tried to get the odd word in, but he was a tsunami of conversation. After two hours:
Date: “I said I was going to ask you something about yourself tonight, didn’t I?”
Me: “Yes, you did.”
Date: “So, tell me about your ex-husband.”
Date: “Yes. How did you meet each other, how long were you together and when did it all go wrong?”
Me: “You know what? I’ve got an early start in the morning, let’s call it a night.”
I can’t ever sleep on public transport. Ever. No matter how tired I am.
There is a good reason for this.
I’d been up all night in Brighton; it was my best mate’s hen night and we were celebrating hard. We didn’t bother getting hotel rooms; we were too young and too broke. The plan was simply to stay up all night until the trains started running early the next morning.
So, we bounced round the town, in and out of clubs, giddy with excitement and whatever the hell we were drinking until, exhausted, we fell onto the first London train of the day.
This was sometime in the 90s, and the train was the old-fashioned stock with small compartments. Each little carriage had benches that were the perfect size for sleepy revellers to crash on. There was barely anyone else on the train, so we grabbed a separate carriage each, stretched out and passed out.
Suddenly I was awake. Very awake. Something was wrong.
There was a man stood over me.
No, more than that. He was leaning in, right over me. Much closer than he had any right to be. There was a man, who was hovering over me while I was sleeping, and I was suddenly aware of how vulnerable I was.
Me: “What are you doing?”
There was an awkward pause.
We looked at each other.
I had the distinct impression he was trying to think of something convincing to say.
Him: “…I was thinking that you might want a foot rub?”
Me: “No. I really don’t.”
He left the carriage pretty sharpish.
That was a good 20 years ago. I’ve not slept a wink on public transport since.
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.