We met at University. He had a ponytail. I took the piss out of that ponytail mercilessly. We were studying English so would spend hours in the local pub discussing what Faulkner was trying to say in As I Lay Dying, how Toni Morrison wrote so magically, or what Joyce would have been like had we met him. Then we’d go to a dodgy Northern club, drink WKD and Slippery Nipples and stumble home at first light. We were young and invincible. We were friends. When my boyfriends stood me up or spectacularly dumped me, he would always be there to comfort me.
Just before we left University we accidentally had sex. It was amazing. But I was just coming out of a relationship and made him promise that it didn’t mean anything. A few weeks later he was horsing around and broke his nose, I took him home and before going to hospital I gave him a blow job. Hey, I was young and thought it would make him feel better! But again I made him promise that it didn’t mean anything. Our friends soon noticed there was something between us and, it being the late ’90s, decided to call us Dawson and Joey. I laughed it off and we continued, as I wished, as friends. Deep down, I suppose I knew he had feelings for me, but at that time I thought it would be arrogant to admit it, and that admitting it might ruin the friendship. I was very scared of love back then.
After Uni, I moved to London while he stayed up North, not wanting to live in a big city. We stayed in touch though and would talk on the phone for hours every Sunday. I’m aware I am rose-tinting my memories as we used to argue like animals. We bantered, bickered or rather baited each other, but it was fun. He is the only man I have ever met who challenges me spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. One day I went to visit him. He was living in The Lake District and the weather was glorious. We had a fine time, rowing on the lake, eating fish and chips on the jetty, laughing and joking. Then he wanted to talk about ‘us’. I bottled it. I started raging at him – ‘How dare you ruin our friendship! I’m not ready! We live miles apart! We argue all the time!’ He stormed off down the jetty. When I had stopped crying I looked up, and seeing him standing there in the evening sunlight, shirtless and holding onto the rail of the jetty, I realised that he was my Dawson. But I knew I wasn’t ready to give in just yet – we were soulmates and we’d end up together so why hurry?
After the incident on the jetty things returned to normal. He had girlfriends, I had boyfriends. Sometimes we would both find ourselves single and would fall into bed. Having sex was easier than talking about a possibility of ‘us’. I remember once he came to visit my family. My two young nieces adored him and he was so good with them when we went blackberry-ing that I fantasised about what a great father he’d be to our kids one day, but still I couldn’t say it out loud.
Don’t worry, I got my comeuppance.
Five years ago, our University had a reunion. At that time he had a girlfriend but she couldn’t come… being back in the same location where we all met, with slightly more wrinkles and slightly less hair, we partied the night away. Nothing happened between us (I would never do anything with another woman’s boyfriend) but I did fall asleep in his arms. It was that night that I realised I was in love with him.
It took me another three years to say anything. He was single by then and we had fallen into the old habit of sleeping together….we only saw each other every couple of months when we would spend an intense night together, no strings attached, but my heart would wrench when he had to leave. One day I just couldn’t take it any more. I snapped and told him I loved him and if he didn’t feel the same I couldn’t see him again. He was so surprised after my years of denial that he looked as though I’d struck him. He slammed the door on his way out.
What followed then was a year of emotional torture. I wrote him actual letters on paper trying to explain why it had taken me so long to recognise my feelings for him and he replied, also by letter, that he had spent so long trying to eliminate his feelings for me that he simply couldn’t open his heart to me ever again.
Clearly my plan for our life together was unfolding. Maybe we weren’t going to end up together and have a family, maybe we weren’t even soulmates?
Eventually we met up. We drank a lot of tequila and off-loaded all of the pent up angst from the last 12 years. I still couldn’t believe that I wasn’t going to win this one. Logically, I told myself, the facts were there – we got on very well, we fancied each other, we loved each other deeply and we agreed on these points… but he just wouldn’t budge. I had hurt him too deeply, my plans (of course) didn’t matter. In short, he rejected me.
I have no guarantee it would have worked, but it saddens me that we didn’t even get to try. We are no longer friends and I miss him daily but the experience has taught me a valuable lesson. I was waiting to achieve certain goals before settling down, waiting for something better than my best friend, and in doing so, lost the most important relationship of my life. So, now I know. No more waiting or taking people for granted, no more masking my feelings with excuses.
Joni Mitchell was right, as usual, you really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Which would you choose? It seems until recently I have always gone for the ‘death’ option. I mean, it is so much easier, and less embarrassing, to not run screaming down the carriage when you see an unattended bag on the train, to get in the car even though you know your friend has had one too many, to not send a meal back when you just know it hasn’t been cooked properly, to not go to the doctor when you think there is something wrong.
These are, to us, small decisions which normally turn out alright. But what if they don’t? The consequences are monumental and yet the fear of embarrassing ourselves often leads us to make the wrong decision.
I overcame my fear of embarrassment last year in Las Vegas. My friend and I were in the middle of a roadtrip but we had not participated in several experiences along the road, such as riding a bucking bronco, because we were too embarrassed of what people might think. When we got to Vegas, however, we realised that although these were not dangerous or life-threatening decisions, they were killing the point of our trip – a trip of a lifetime – because we weren’t experiencing everything which was on offer to us. So we decided to stop saying ‘no’. To celebrate we went out, intending to do something which scared us. Singing All By Myself at Karaoke seemed like the right thing to do. I should mention that in my head I sound like Julie Andrews but in reality I sound like a strangled cat. So, there we were in Caesar’s Palace. A karaoke night was about to start so my companion put our names down while I got the (strong) drinks. Before I had placed the drinks on the table, the DJ call my name. We had been the first to put our names down. I was opening the night. There were at least 15 people scattered around the room. Holy crap. I gulped at my drink and walked towards the stage. Cruelly, the karaoke makers had chosen the Celine Dion version, but it was too late to turn back. The next FIVE minutes (yes it’s a stupidly long song) were, and I’m not gonna lie, pure hell. I tried to take the sting out of my voice by doing a few comedic moves in the style of the opening scene from Bridget Jones, but my knees were trembling so much that every time I moved I was worried I’d fall over so I ended up rooted to the spot, just wailing. At first there was deadly silence, I don’t think the audience could comprehend why someone who could barely carry a tune would choose such a song. Then my companion started whooping and I heard several others join in until the crowd was rooting for me – out of sympathy I’m sure, but they were on my side, they weren’t booing – and finally, after a big finish, it was over. Several people came over to me to say how brave (read stupid) they thought I was, and my heart slowly moved back down to my chest from my mouth. Soon, I was basking in my new-found freedom and it has lasted ever since.
In the grand scheme of things it was a small event, but since then I have been much braver, actively choosing the embarrassing option rather than the easy one. I haven’t seen an unattended bag since, but I’m sure I’d report it if I did, I have insisted on friends getting a taxi home after a night out, I have sent food back and I have finally been to the doctor, which led me to a situation which makes the Caesar’s Palace incident pale in insignificance.
My symptoms dictated that I required an endoscopy. Or more specifically, a sigmoidoscopy. Or more simply, a camera up my bottom. When I arrived for my appointment, I was given an enema – I naively thought this would be a pill, but no, I had to put on a hospital gown, lie on my side, and let a nurse pump fluid into my bum. After 2 minutes I was running to the loo, where everything came out. Predictably it was a busy hospital, the loo was quite far down the corridor and I had forgotten to put on the back-covering gown so, yes, I ran down the corridor with my wobbly bottom visible to anyone who cared to look. Thankfully, I made it in time. I won’t go into the details of the procedure but as you can imagine it was utterly undignified, with a doctor and two nurses looking at and talking about my most intimate areas. The leaflet said I might feel the urge to fart and that I wasn’t to feel embarrassed about it. Ha! I can’t tell you how embarrassing it is to continually fart onto a hot young doctor’s hands as he is guiding a camera up your arse. Thankfully within 15 minutes it was over and I was wheeled back to the ward, Naked Gun style, to get dressed and go home. The whole afternoon was a distinctly unpleasant, embarrassing experience and I felt violated and physically vulnerable but also, weirdly empowered. The results came back normal so I can eliminate colon and rectal cancer as a cause of my symptoms, which is an enormous relief. Thanks to my new-found freedom from embarrassment, and the NHS, I was able to do this quickly, and for free.
The biggest lesson I have learnt from these very different embarrassing experiences, is that the embarrassment will end and the benefits of feeling stupid and/or vulnerable far outweigh the drawbacks. There is no better advice than the old cliché to do something that scares you, as you never know where it may lead. For me it has changed my life.
So from now on I will always endeavour to choose embarrassment over death, after all you really can’t die from embarrassment – I am living proof.
It’s Friday night and I have turned down two party invitations to stay in and watch sport on TV, the rules of which I hardly understand. Yep, Olympic fever has become unavoidable and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I have lived in London for nearly fifteen years and have been trying to live elsewhere for the past two years but in the last two weeks I have seen potential in this city which I had previously thought was beyond hope. Wait for it – people are smiling at each other, offering their seats to others, engaging in lengthy, friendly discussions. The other day a trader, a tramp, an old women and a schoolgirl chatted for half an hour on the bus with each other, without a cross word – true story.
There is a school of thought which suggests a human being’s natural state is to be selfish and out for oneself, survival of the fittest and all others be damned. There are theories that this is why capitalism ‘works’ and communism doesn’t, that we thrive in small family units but we don’t fare so well when we try to make our neighbours into family too. But I disagree. I think that our natural state is one of kindness and community. In the words of the BBC’s wonderful twentytwelve sustainability minister, Kay Hope, ‘I really think that.’ (if you haven’t seen it, check it out). Even the athletes, despite being probably the most competitive people on the planet, seem to have an inclusive and respectful attitude.
I’ll admit I was extremely sceptical and non-plussed about the whole thing in the lead up. The Queen’s Golden Jubilee earlier this summer had brought some sense of community to the city but celebrating a monarch’s long reign is not exactly inclusive. In fact right up until I watched the weird and wonderful quintessentially British opening ceremony on my mum’s tiny TV in Glasgow, I didn’t give a monkeys about the Olympics. But suddenly, in the blink of an eye, here was something that I had barely witnessed in this country before, real community spirit. Even the Queen had joined in with her amazing James Bond sketch. The next day I got off the train at Euston station and was handed a free Olympic ice cream. Then someone asked me for directions, which I provided and they helped me down the stairs with my bag. Something had changed. London had become, even if only for 17 days, the greatest city on Earth. My new favourite game is pretending (in my own head) that I can understand what is being said in the 250 languages which are being spoken on the tube every day…of course I am imagining they are saying how wonderful London is, and not how many stops they have and how they need a pee.
Before I get carried away…what next? How can this new found enthusiasm and passion for our city, and the sense of community, ever last? And how can we avoid this national pride turning into hubris? I met a friend in the park for lunch the other day and there were people doing circuit training who had clearly never even run for a bus before. Inspire a generation is the slogan, right now more than one generation or one demographic has been inspired – even me. Confession time: I can’t ride a bike. I had a bike when I was about 8 and I posed for photos with it, but I’m not sure it went further than that. Either way, nowadays when I attempt to get in the saddle I invariably fall off or look like a fool. But I spent 2 hours early on Saturday morning with the lovely FREE council cycling trainer, slowly learning the moves. I don’t think I’m on track to be the next Pendleton quite yet – but I never expected to even bother trying. The power, joy and diversity which these games have brought to London need to inspire us to be humble and make us work towards being better people within ourselves and then we can give back to our community.
I don’t think this is merely a case of long lost patriotism or desperation for some good news in the midst of an extremely depressing era. Some of the stories which have come out of the Olympics – the sacrifices many of the athletes have gone through to be here can’t help but make you come together and wonder at the power of the human spirit and in turn, community spirit. I’m not being naïve, and I fully expect the London to return to the doldrums as soon as the Paralympics end, but the last 2 weeks have proved that with a bit of organisation human beings love being nice to each other, we have a great capacity for kindness and respect – for inspiration and inclusion – we need a little push once in a while and then it’s just like riding a bike, apparently.
On Saturday my friend came over and we ate pizza and watched The Muppets. We are 35. I can honestly say it was one of the most fun evenings I’ve had in a while. So what if the movie’s not a patch on the ‘turn left at the fork in the road’ brilliance of the original, it stayed true to the characters and message of the Muppets and it transported us to a simpler, safer time in our lives, free of drama and responsibility.
Having said that, the life I live now is actually not hugely dramatic or responsible compared to most of my friends and I have recently been worrying that I am being left behind – the only one of my group who is not yet, and may never be, a grown up. All around me people are buying houses, getting married, having children, things which traditionally give definition to the concept of ‘grown up’ and here I am renting from a friend, single, transitory, with not a plan in sight. I am stubbornly clinging to the conceit of youth, to the vain imaginings of Neverland, to the dim hope that I never have to change my life because I’m quite content as it is, actually.
I’m blessed with an incredible group of girlfriends, many of whom have been friends for over 20 years. We grew up together, we have so much history together that when I look at them I see the best parts of myself reflected in their eyes and their smiles, memories of all the love, advice and laughter we have shared over the years. We have always spoken candidly with each other and dinner the other night was no exception…only (and this has been happening a lot lately) I had nothing to contribute, no advice to impart, nothing to say. Of course this didn’t stop me and I ended up saying a lot of things, but everything that came out of my mouth felt asinine and irrelevant, juvenile and self centred. My drunken dating stories lost their lustre among their stories of trying to start a family, of being newly married, of planning for the future. After so many years of growing up at the same pace, I am finding it difficult to adjust to the differences between us and am having to ask myself if it’s time for me to keep up, to grow up, to settle down.
I’m not entirely sure why these two concepts – growing up and settling down – are so intertwined in my mind. I know many people who are proper grown ups who have never settled down, and plenty of people who have settled down and are as far from grown up as it is possible to be. But if they are not the same thing they are definitely related and I just don’t feel ready to do either, it feels too much like facing reality, like hard work. I know my friends don’t expect me to keep up with them – they would probably insist that they like my drunken dating stories, it allows them to live vicariously through me but I really don’t want to be that person. I want to be in their gang again, to understand what they are going through and share in their successes and failures, like I always have, but I am at such a different place in my life that for the time being I have to accept our differences and support them in other ways. One day I’m sure, my priorities will change and I will forget the name of the boy they gave a blowjob to behind the skate park and be able to remember the name of their firstborn child. One day. After all it’s not a race and I’m sure they are blindly negotiating the complexities of real life just like I am blindly avoiding them in my bubble of irresponsibility. We are all still growing, if not growing up.
So maybe I’ll grow up and maybe I won’t, maybe I’ll settle down and maybe I won’t but for now the differences between my friends and I will remain, but so will the honesty and so will the support, of that I am sure. Our paths may have diverged – I may have turned left at the fork in the road and they may have turned right but we will meet again because no matter how grown up you become, the friends you made when you were 12 will always remember who you were before life got in the way.
I sometimes have to pinch myself to remember how lucky I am to have been born into the time and place that I am. By an accident of birth I have been born into a life where I am afforded absolute freedom. I can make choices about every aspect of my own life and if I am not happy with any (or rather many) of the archaic laws which do still infest our society, such as the lack of equal marriage rights for every citizen or the lack of progress still being made in respect to equal pay for men and women, I can make my voice heard and protest until, hopefully, something changes.
It is easy to forget what a privilege this is and how we need to do justice to our forebears who bore arms to deliver us this simple human right. This is obvious stuff, but the shameful thing is, probably like most people, I have to admit it barely crosses my mind. In fact, more often than not I complain about the little things which bug me, the things which make my life a bit harder or which make me feel constrained and trapped rather than free. I forget that it is up to me to make the most of my freedom, it is nobody else’s responsibility.
I know I am not alone in this, but so often we allow ourselves to be hemmed in by what people think of us, how society reacts to our lifestyle or our attitudes, by the concept of fitting in, of being cool and in doing this we restrict our own freedom and disrespect the people who fought for it. This is why I say it’s time to stop conforming and freak out!
I’m not suggesting we all go parading down the street dressed as a gorilla (though if that’s what you want to do I don’t have a problem with it), neither am I advocating the fridge magnet philosophy of forced freakery i.e. ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!’ but I do think it’s time we stopped being so concerned about what other people think of us, whether we have the right clothes for an event or whether anyone is going to like us. Our true freedom lies in finding a way to be ourselves, and because the world is so wonderfully diverse, that self is always going to be a little bit freaky to someone else.
So, if you have to check 4 times if the gas is off before you leave the house, embrace it! If humming the theme tune to Dynasty helps you concentrate at work, hum it! If you fumble with your words in an important meeting, make a joke of it! Or, as one of my friends did recently, if you pretend to use a banana as a phone to impress a boy you like, so what? He’s an idiot if he doesn’t find that funny. Of course, everybody wants to be cool – literature and film have dictated to us for a century that being cool is the ultimate state to aspire to. But it’s an illusion. The world would be very dull if we were all David and Victoria Beckham, though I’ll concede it might be a little bit sexier. Some of the coolest people I know are cool simply because they are themselves. If you try to be cool, you simply never will be, and in trying to be cool you will never find true freedom, being yourself is what will make you free.
A couple of days ago I had a big work meeting with a few of my bosses at a big corporate office. The meeting went well, I think, I managed not to say anything embarrassing and as we said goodbye to the client in the reception I turned to leave. In front of me was a large revolving door. It was turning and turning. I will admit that I have a small, but not insignificant fear of revolving doors. I halted. I could feel my bosses queuing up behind me. After a pause I heard ‘Janey, are you alright?’ For some reason that prompted me to chuck my umbrella into the revolving doors as if to test them. They worked, but then my umbrella started turning and turning. I was frozen to the spot. Eventually one of my bosses jumped to my umbrella’s rescue, ‘I’ll get it!’ Beetroot coloured, I smiled in gratitude and humbly excused myself exiting via the push/pull doors.
On a 1-10 scale of freakery where I’m concerned this is definitely only a 1 but it was the most recent and it just shows that every day of my life is filled with such moments, and I no longer beat myself up about them. I am not for a minute saying that this makes me cool, but the more I accept that though it may not be cool it is simply who I am and what I do, the more freedom I allow myself. and being free feels great. So seek it out if you can, the freedom to be who you are, to laugh at yourself, to make mistakes and to be forgiven, is the ultimate freedom that we are all entitled to.
My nemesis, when I was 9, was also called Janey. One day she whispered something in my ear as we were leaving the lunchroom, and for the first time I felt a stabbing pain of injustice. I can no longer remember what she said (it was probably something like ‘you smell of poo’) but I remember thinking it wasn’t true but it could be perceived to be true and I didn’t know what to do to stop her from telling everyone else and being laughed at. I saw red. I leapt out of my seat and jumped on her, we pulled each other’s hair for approximately 5 seconds until we were separated and promptly sent to the headmistress. I was disciplined, she wasn’t. The injustice continued. Luckily this behaviour didn’t escalate too badly and I managed to stay out of her way for the next two years – but I was shocked by my reaction and my world had changed forever.
At senior school it happened again but the second time I knew better than to snap and I kept my head down, shutting out the taunts and staying in my dormitory at all times except for lessons. I read a lot of books during that time and learnt to play the Twin Peaks theme tune on the piano. I was lonely but it wasn’t so bad. Then one day it came to a head when the girl in question stole my brand new cowboy boots from my locker and took them to the common room. She was making everyone laugh about how stupid I was for wanting to be like an American. As I tried to snatch them back the red mist rose again and I pounced. This time the scuffle was broken up by her squirting peppermint mouth spray into my eyes, temporarily blinding me and making me run to the nurse. Ok, I know that stuff isn’t lethal and I may have exaggerated my injuries slightly, but it ended the fight, and strangely, she left me alone from then on. I was very lucky that my bullying experience was restricted to a few incidents, I think I would have had to be a much stronger person to withstand it for longer. There is a place that you have to go to in your head, a cocoon that you build around yourself and I think even today I am still chipping away to get rid of it completely.
The other day I was walking with a friend in Soho and a young, well dressed man and his girlfriend barged between us. The conversation went like this:
Me: (surprised) Ooooh
Him: (copying me, taunting) Oooh, Oooh, listen to her, Oooh Oooh Oooh Oooh.
Me: (unwisely) Ok, shut up you freak.
Him: (shouting) Yeah right, you wanna lose some weight love, look at you with your big fat belly wobbling under your dress it’s disgusting and look at your big fat ass you are so fucking fat, yuck put that belly away you’re disgusting. Hahaha…
Me: YOU F**KING C**T!
You’d think, being a writer, I might have come up with something a bit more inspired and articulate than that and I’m truly ashamed that I didn’t, but the red mist returned. His reaction to my stupid comment was so disproportionate, so hurtful, so personal, that I was shaking with anger yet powerless to do anything about it. I should mention that I had just spent 3 hours in the hair salon, was wearing a new dress which I thought was adorable and was on my way to a date. In a split second, that ‘man’ made me hate my body again, he had zoned in on my most sensitive insecurity and broadcast it to the whole street.
Anyway, I made it to the date that night and after a couple of glasses of wine I decided to tell him what had happened. He was sympathetic, ‘You’re not fat! What was he talking about?’ I didn’t believe him. Later that night he said, ‘You’ve got a gorgeous figure.’ I still didn’t believe him. What part of my brain’s twisted wiring has decided that I can believe what a complete stranger shouts at me aggressively in the street, but I can’t believe what this nice man who wants to keep dating me says?
Despite now being a strong, confident woman, I’m not sure I am that different from the 9 year old girl who first realised that people could be mean for no reason, and I was powerless to stop them. Contrary to the nursery rhyme, words can hurt, but this incident has made me realise that I only got hurt because I allowed myself to. That ‘man’ was probably filled with his own demons and self hatred and was projecting them back onto me. And he no doubt has a tiny willy too.
Therefore I have decided to interpret his words in this context, making them much less powerful and hurtful. So what if I’m a bit overweight? It’s just evidence of all the good times I’ve had and will continue to have. I’m sure I’m much healthier, both physically and spiritually, than he’ll ever be.
The truth is, sticks and stones probably won’t break your bones and words will only hurt you if you let them, it’s just a shame it’s not such a good rhyme.
The best thing my parents ever did (apart from have me, of course) was split up. I don’t remember much about the 7 years before my dad had an affair with a family friend, but I remember how our house felt – despite being a safe, comfortable family home, there was an underlying sense of unease that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
It was my mother’s second marriage and she had sworn never to marry again. She had married far too young the first time round and had two kids, my sisters, by the time she was 21. That marriage was mostly unhappy and marred by affairs, so when she finally found a way out and started to have the career she always dreamed of, the last thing she wanted to do was marry again and have another kid at 40. But she fell in love with my father and had me, so you can imagine her despair when she realised she’d been betrayed again. We had a tough few years – there were attempts at reconciliation and I do remember screaming rows and long nights of crying, but by the time I hit puberty, their separation was the status quo. I would see my father maybe once a month as he moved to a different town, but I had much more important things to think about, like schoolwork and boys.
I’m aware that this is a fairly typical tale of a kid from a broken home, but it really is only half the story. The remarkable part is that I never once felt unloved, or like it was my fault. My mother was never cruel about my father in front of me (God knows how she managed that) and I actually felt more at ease in my home now that the strange feeling of unease, which I believe was a symptom of their incompatibility, had lifted. I also had a beacon of support in my sister – or rather half-sister, if we’re being fussy. She invested an unbelievable amount of time and energy making sure I was okay and not adversely affected by what was happening. It was only years later that I realised she was giving me all of this love and attention at a time when her own relationship with the father of her first child was breaking down and she was struggling to get by as a single parent herself.
Now, 28 years later, I am surrounded by the most incredible, inspiring and mixed up family. I am close to my father who, after many years of it being ‘on and off’, is still with the woman he left my mother for, who I now call a friend. My sister is in a good relationship following two bad ones, which were not all bad since they produced two very brilliant daughters, to whom I hope I can repay a fraction of the support and love that their mother gave to me. My eldest sister has three gorgeous daughters, just got a PhD and is working hard at her marriage – and my mother is a towering matriarch of inspiration, even at 5 foot 3 and a half. She unsurprisingly never married again, but she lives for her three daughters and five granddaughters (yes, we are essentially a family of women) while still tearing around to social engagements aged 75 at a pace I can hardly keep up with.
I look at my parents now and can only see them as individuals. I can’t imagine them together as they are such different types of people. I am so thankful then that, whatever the catalyst, they realised this early on and didn’t waste time trying to hold onto something which was no longer there.
Families are complicated, but I know that most people’s lives don’t turn out the way they expected them to. Nobody I know sets out to make mistakes or bad decisions or to hurt other people. In order to live free of bitterness and resentment, we must learn to progress to understanding and forgiveness, to accept what has happened, learn from it and move on.
This may sound like therapy speak and sure, I’ve had some therapy and my life hasn’t all been plain-sailing, but the same goes for a lot of people I know who come from ‘stable’ homes, and I would argue that the love and affection in my family would rival anyone else’s. Therefore I’m grateful for my wonderfully complicated, not ‘broken’, family and I wouldn’t change them for the world.
I wish I could remember my twenties. It was only five years ago but there is a haze over that decade which I don’t think will ever come into focus. I remember my university years vividly, those first years away from home, the surge of independence, finally getting to know yourself as a woman not a girl and making grand plans for what to do with your life. However, as soon as I left those safe confines and entered the real world, everything I thought I knew was turned upside down.
I wanted to be a writer, but when I got to London the competition and a lack of confidence in my own ability meant I took the first job I was offered, a Production Secretary role on a popular daytime TV show. I’m a grafter so I quickly moved up and became a Production Manager. As a PM you are in charge of the budget, schedule and therefore, the happiness of the crew and no matter how well you manage these things there is always the old stereotype that you are the one who limits the artistic vision of the director, or ‘the bitch’.
A nagging voice in my head kept telling me that this wasn’t the career I wanted, but I kept telling that voice to shut up – after all, so many people would kill to work in television that I should count myself lucky. To balance my unhappiness at work I made sure I had an outstanding social life. This might be the reason for the haze surrounding my twenties – I drank heavily and started taking cocaine socially too. I liked to get high. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of – such as flashing a boob in exchange for a line of coke and many other (worse) things I can hardly remember. These shenanigans make for amusing stories nowadays but at the time they made me feel not just cheap and ashamed, but completely lost – who the hell was I? I’d lost myself and I didn’t write a word in 12 years.
Towards the end of my twenties I started to behave. I was diagnosed with high blood pressure so needed to be careful, plus it just wasn’t fun any more. But by then, after years of numbing them, I had given up on my writing dreams and accepted that I would be a Production Manager forever. I was working on a good series, but suddenly it relocated and I had to make a decision; move with it, find another job or do something radical.
Doing something radical was the best decision I’ve ever made. I booked myself on a screenwriting course in New York and planned to go travelling afterwards. In the weeks before I left, I have never been more filled with fear and self-doubt. I hammered the booze and had a few coke-fuelled nights to avoid the questions ringing in my head. How was I going to write anything after 12 years of nothing? Was I going to have any ideas? I had no imagination! I desperately wanted to run away from the decision I’d made and return to my safe (but frustrating) existence. When I boarded the plane at Heathrow, these fears finally started to drop away and by the time I landed at JFK, I was already evolving and finally pursuing my dream. The best thing was I hadn’t forgotten how to write and even had some good ideas – my amazing tutor and classmates taught me so much in those two months.
The travelling part of my sabbatical was equally insightful. Driving across the States with my (26 year old) niece, we had no guidebook and no route mapped out. We would drive somewhere we liked the sound of, set up our tent, meet local people and ask them where we should go the next day. All we knew was that we had to end up in California.
Landing back in London, after 7 months on the road, was tough. I was in debt and moved in with my Dad. I get migraines so sometimes use an over the counter painkiller called Solpadeine which is essentially a (very) poor man’s Vicodin. It has just enough codeine in to de-sensitise you from the world, to get you high then make you numb. I started taking it every day. I stopped writing again, my old life started to re-appear.
In those seven months away I had finally started to know who I was, I had found confidence in me, just like Fraulein Maria and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste. I forced myself to stop relying on the Solpadeine and accepted that if I had to continue working as a Production Manager to pay the bills, I wouldn’t let it define me and I would keep writing. By changing my perspective I am now able to manage a day job and am writing three spec scripts – if I don’t write for a day I feel lost. I’m lucky that I don’t have an addictive personality, but using anything to escape from yourself too often can’t be good – drugs kill ambition – simple as that.
So the only way to truly be ‘you’ is to follow your dreams. Friends who have made similar decisions agree. One has gone from TV to mid-wifery, one from dancer to comedian, others have left high flying jobs to pursue social enterprise, but none of them have ever looked back.
I left for New York 15 months ago and I don’t recognise the old me – cowardly self-medicating to hide from myself. Following my dream has changed my life. There are still many bricks in the wall before I break all the way through to me, but that’s how it should be. After all, life’s about the journey, not the destination and I am certainly enjoying the trip so far – on a natural high from now on, of course.
My alarm goes off at 7.30am, I press the snooze button for half an hour, sometimes more. I drag myself into the shower, often leaning my head against the tiles. I get dressed, I walk to work. I sit at a desk for 8 hours, sometimes more, staring at a screen. I get the bus home. I eat, I watch a movie or write, I go to bed. This is my routine (and countless others’) 5 days a week. I don’t hate my job, most of the time I enjoy it, but I am not passionate about it, and committing the biggest part of your life to something you are not passionate about can be horribly depressing.
Carpe Diem! Is what Robin Williams liked to say in Dead Poet’s Society but that’s not always easy when you have a mortgage and bills to pay. I would love to wake up one morning and declare that I am off to seize the day and everything else be damned, but I have responsibilities and am maybe not as free spirited as I like to think I am. However, there are other ways to seize the day and, as I have recently re-learnt, it is all about perspective. I had a teacher at school who actually made us stand on our desks one day to get a different viewpoint, to remind us to look at things differently, just like Robin Williams had. We all thought it was ridiculous until we did it, and strangely everything did look different from that perspective. The familiar walls of the classroom didn’t look so familiar, the view from the window was completely different, and, in turn, we felt different.
I forgot this technique for many years and before I went on sabbatical last year, I was working on average 10 hours a day, 5 days a week and regularly lamenting the fact that I didn’t have time to do ANYTHING! No time to go to a yoga class, no time to catch up with friends and family, no time to write, or go to the cinema, just simply no time. And what was worse – a lot of the time I spent at work, there wasn’t actually a lot for me to do, I just had to be there in case anything happened so I could sort it out. When I look back at myself now, I am flabbergasted by my attitude. The truth is I had so much time but I just didn’t know what to do with it. In my downtime at work I would spend hours learning about the world via the ‘random article’ link on Wikipedia (of course I don’t remember a thing), or on Facebook. In the evening I would go home and watch TV. I watched hours and hours of soap operas and told myself I had no time. When I returned from my sabbatical I promised myself I wouldn’t get stuck in the same trap, but of course I did…then I remembered I had something special, my sabbatical had taught me a way of looking at life from a different angle, I had even remembered my teacher’s advice and had taking to doing headstands when the mood took me. I reassessed my daily grind and realised it wasn’t so bad. In my usual geeky way, I did some sums. There are 168 hours in a week. Most people work for between 40-60 hours of them, and sleep for an average of 6-8 hours a night so if we take the average of 50 hr work and 49 hrs sleep, that leaves 69 hours in the week to play with which sounds like a lot of time, and fun, to me!
I have now almost stopped watching TV, except for The Conversation, of course, and I avoid surfing the net aimlessly. I have achieved so much. I now write every night so I actually have something to show for my free time and meeting up with friends is much more of a pleasure because I feel as though I have earned it. I can’t believe I’m about to admit this but I also have a technique for dealing with boredom at work. I look to my working role model, CJ Cregg from the West Wing, and simply ask ‘what would CJ do?’ And then pretend I am CJ, I’m certain she would always find something productive to do.
For the first time in my life I feel as though I am living deliberately, making use of the precious time available to me and striving to achieve a goal. I am also making more time for family and that is making me feel more alive and grounded than ever. All these things and making the most of every opportunity afforded to me, speaking to people I don’t know at a party instead of shyly cowering at the back, accepting invitations, even doing some exercise has given me a new perspective and joie de vivre. So, oh captain, my captain – myself, I salute you.
I don’t believe in God. Even in the 21st century it’s a hard thing to admit, and I sometimes get raised eyebrows and expressions of shock from friends who didn’t know. I went to a Methodist school and was exposed to religion from an early age, we prayed every morning in chapel, I (mostly) respected this ritual and joined in, but it just never clicked for me. My parents weren’t religious but they very much allowed me to make up my own mind, even allowing me to join The Brownies (Girl Scouts). Sadly I was thrown out for making people laugh during prayers (I did say I mostly respected prayer time) but I was 7 years old – not very forgiving of them, I always thought. so despite trying I am just not able to believe. But I do have faith.
I have faith in people, I think humans are capable of extraordinary and surprising deeds and despite all the cruel and hideous things we do to each other my cockles are regularly warmed by tales of immense generosity and kindness, and particularly of endurance through adversity. People are bloody amazing.
After The Brownies incident, I was allowed to join The Woodcraft Folk, a kind of alternative, hippy, tree-hugger organisation. I loved it. We went camping, did a lot of bark rubbings, and sang better songs round the campfire than Kumbaya – there just seemed to be a much stronger message in respecting nature and the world around us than praying to a heavenly Father who did some art in heaven.
I am not a devil worshipper though and I do have a strong belief system. Honesty, respect and equality are at the forefront of my values and there are certain religious sayings which have resonance, particularly ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – this has to be a universal human value. Another prayer which has universal value and which traditionally starts every AA or NA meeting is;
‘Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference’
This is a great piece of advice, and you certainly don’t have to say Lord at the beginning of it if you don’t want to.
So you see I am not completely anti-religion, like most atheists. In fact in a way I am envious of people with a deep religious conviction, the comfort they must get when going through difficult times of knowing there is a higher force guiding things and of believing that there is a better world after this one must be so, well, comforting. I enjoy visiting churches and religious buildings and have often been moved spiritually in them, but I know this isn’t to do with God, it’s to do with the majesty of the architecture and the history associated with it. There are moments when I would welcome the comfort of religious faith; when I hear about the casualties of war and natural disasters, during personal tragedy, even when I am in severe turbulence on a plane it would be great to pray and to believe that it might help, to ignore my conviction that these acts are random and unpredictable. But instead, donating money to charity, being with friends and family or drinking a Bloody Mary are the only ways I can find comfort now.
It took me a long time to accept that I was an atheist, for years I called myself agnostic, and I don’t think I was really sure for a while, it’s tough to think that this is all there is and we are here for no other reason than an accident of evolution, but as soon as I did accept the glaringly obvious facts of science and stopped being scared to tell people what I was I felt much more at ease with myself and more whole. This is the only crack we get at life, I’m gonna make the most of it before this remarkable body gives up and I am nothing more than a memory.
At the risk of sounding naïve and/or patronising I think religion is a force for good on a personal level, the rituals and traditions bind people and communities together, and give them a sense of purpose but there are aspects of it which terrify me. As a woman all I can see is patriarchal religions, most of which have practised suppression for years and are struggling to adapt to life in the 21st century. Marriage equality and abortion rights are two hot topics in the US at the moment and, although they are not the only opponents, religious leaders are stalling any progression with their outspoken prejudice. The fact that so many people believe in the poppycock of creationism, and that it is actually being taught to children, is frankly horrifying. But I have to have faith that there will be a natural evolution towards secularism and to equal choices for all, I can’t fathom a future world which doesn’t allow that. It is so obvious to me that religion should never be mixed with politics, it has started too many wars.
As an addendum, I’m fully prepared to admit I am wrong when my time comes. If I ever get to meet Saint Peter or go to Paradise I hope they will recognise that I have lived a fair and honest life and treat me accordingly. Unless I come back as a beetle, and then there’s not much hope.
So I thank God I’m a heathen and I’m pleased to say that although it took me a while to get here, it is possible to be a happy, contented and whole atheist, you just need a little bit of faith.