The familiar gloom

I was never very good at staying in a job. The very first job I had, as a waitress at 16, lasted all of one day. I did a bit better after that, working part-time in a shoe shop for more than a year, but I quit when I decided that spending time on hobbies and with friends was more important than money. There was another shoe shop, then a series of short-lived admin stints in offices. None of them ever seemed like jobs I could tolerate for very long. I knew that when I graduated, I needed to do something else. I needed something that I wouldn’t mind going to every day; something that might enrich the rest of my life rather than poison it. I wanted to Be a Something.

I don’t recall doing a very thorough examination of what careers might be good for me. I didn’t see a careers advisor or do personality tests (not at that time). I just looked for jobs and applied for what sounded appealing. There were a few options. I thought I might go into arts administration, or bookselling, or publishing. I started doing a copy-editing course and got an interview with a magazine publisher. I applied for a great-sounding writing job. I even thought about carrying on with academia and sent off a few queries to postgraduate courses in theatre and languages (and then realised I wouldn’t be able to afford to take that path). When I still had nothing lined up, I applied for anything and everything in my home town. I got interviews for some of them, but I never got the job because I was either overqualified or under-qualified (or just not very good at interviews). Finally, I joined a temp agency and resigned myself to more short-lived office admin jobs.

I decided that I would go into librarianship. I didn’t think too closely about whether I was the right fit for it, or about what my future in it would be. Two main things about it appealed to me: 1) The fact that it was not office-based – I would be working in a varied environment with different tasks to do; and 2) There was a clear-cut path of entry: work experience in a library for at least a year; a postgraduate course; and then a qualified job.

After several tries, I managed to secure a year-long graduate trainee post in a university library. I was pleased about this. I relocated across the country for it. I had to take out a graduate loan to be able to afford to do it. The year was good in some ways: new friends, new experiences; but I also found myself doubting whether it was the right thing for me. I didn’t feel like I really fit in. I was unsure about doing the postgraduate qualification, especially when I applied for funding and didn’t get it.

But I did the course. I took out another loan to afford it. I worked in part-time jobs to support myself. When I was still writing my final dissertation, I got a qualified job pretty quickly, which was lucky as I desperately needed money. I stayed in that job for just over a year, and then left to go to a similar but better-paying job.

Fast forward nine years. I am still in that job. For the first several years in the job I had a complicated work pattern: I was a temp doing maternity cover; then I was job-sharing and had a second job; then eventually I took up the post full-time and permanently. And there I still am. And although it is a library job, it is office-based with a lot of monotonous work. It is the exact thing I wanted to get away from. I do not feel like I am Being a Something. I feel like I have been quietly rotting. I feel like it has negatively affected my health and other areas of my life.

It is not a surprise, when you consider that I had doubts about the suitability of the field in my first job. And the question now is: why don’t I just leave?

It’s a complicated question. If I was swimming in money: of course I would leave. No question. But more recently I have begun to ask: is the money really more important than my health and wellbeing? And I have decided: no. Last year, I gave myself a deadline to leave. That deadline is approaching. I think I am prepared to hand in my notice. I worry that I won’t be brave enough to do it, but then I think: do I really still want to be in this position a year from now?

Giving myself the deadline meant that possibilities suddenly emerged. Whereas before I had felt trapped, when I acted as if I were leaving, the world opened up. I looked at what jobs were suggested for my personality type (INFJ, in case you’re interested). I tirelessly read articles about career changing and finding your perfect fit. I researched different job types. I applied for opportunities that I would have talked myself out of applying for a year ago.

This is a strange time to be writing this because I am not out into the clear, yet. I’m still trapped in the thicket. It will be up to me to find a way out. It is a battle between familiarity and the unknown. Do I want to stay in the familiar gloom, or will I be brave enough to step out of it? It is hard, having been in the same place for so long, to believe that things could be different.

But the longer I stay, the harder it will become. I don’t think it will be easy to make a change, just as it wasn’t easy to get into the job I have now. I know that also, I have been doing this alone, and have probably reached the limit of the amount I can do by myself. I have shut myself away, thinking I can find the answer. I have avoided others who are aware of my situation, because I think: surely I should have figured it out by now. I can’t show my face until I have. But I think perhaps it’s time to stop hiding and start asking for help.

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The wonder drug

Four years ago, I decided to take up running. I only had a job for two days a week because my work hours had been cut. I spent most of my free time looking for and applying for jobs.

One afternoon I went out for a walk around the small local park, as I realised I probably spent too much time sitting at a desk. It was good, but I felt a need for something more. I had heard of Couch to 5k, a nine-week run/walk programme that claimed to get couch potatoes running 5km three times a week at the end of it. It sounded like something I might be able to do.

I had barely run at all before I started the plan, apart from in school many years before, and a brief stint in 2008 when I ran/walked a Race for Life and got winded if I tried to run for more than a few minutes. For the first few weeks of Couch to 5k, my body didn’t know what had hit it. It took a little while to get used to being jiggled about after years of doing not very much exercise at all. But by the end of it, I could indeed comfortably run 5k, three times a week. It was like magic.

I built up from there and a few months later, I could run for five miles. I loved it. I loved the way running made me feel. I was constantly surprised and baffled by how I could feel tired and sluggish one evening, then go out for a run, jiggle myself about for half an hour or so, and afterwards feel clear-headed, invigorated, and with a head full of lively and hopeful thoughts.

I progressed very slowly after that – in fits and starts, you might say. I think this was mainly because I started to get injured. Once that had happened, my motivation was hit. But in 2014 I rediscovered my running mojo. I did another Race for Life – a 10k this time. I ran it all and felt great. Not long after that, I ran my first parkrun. A month later, a 10-mile race. Two months after that: a 25-and-a-half-minute parkrun – a personal best, and almost a whole minute quicker than my previous quickest time.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, that was all a bit too much progress in too short a space of time. I started having lower back and hip problems which got so bad that I had to stop running. My general health took a nosedive, too. I went to the doctor complaining of debilitating fatigue, flu-like symptoms, headaches, dizziness, and feeling overwhelmed. They did blood tests, suspecting diabetes or glandular fever, but found nothing wrong except slightly low vitamin D. I was signed off work for a week (which was a shock to me – I expected to just have to carry on and drag myself through the days as usual). The week turned into two. And then six. And then eight. And then I finally went back to work on reduced hours.

Four weeks into that time I was signed off, I started running again. I did the Couch to 5k plan from scratch. I followed it diligently. It seemed to improve my health and was maybe the reason for me being able to go back to work. This was around spring 2015. I kept up running steadily for about a year after that. I did most of my runs slowly and at moderate distances. I then felt able to build it up a bit. I completed my first half marathon early this year. I also did a couple of other shorter races that went well and that I enjoyed. I had the odd niggle during this time, but remained largely injury-free.

Then in May this year I took part in a weekend-long relay race around London. It was hardcore. I only did it because someone dropped out and I had little idea what I was letting myself in for. I ran one stage on the first day – 11 miles. This went well until mile 8, when I started to feel tired and dropped back from the small group I’d been running with. At mile 10 I was alone, got lost, and started getting sharp pain in my knee. When I finally reached the finish, I could barely walk. And then the next day I had to run 6 miles. I made it, but had to walk the second mile because of excruciating pain. There are few times in my life that I’ve been so thoroughly physically exhausted as after that weekend (which was also very fun, if you can believe that after everything I’ve just said).

That was over five months ago. I’ve been stuck with the knee problem ever since. I took time off running, which had no effect. I did Couch to 5k (again!) which went well, but after that, every time I tried to run more than a few miles, the pain kicked in. I felt frustrated and stuck.

After months of putting it off, I eventually went to see a physio. He said the pain was probably caused by muscle weakness and imbalance. I’ve had a few sessions with him now. I’ve been given exercises to do. I was doing some stretching and strengthening before, but not diligently enough. I have also had deep tissue massage, which is incredibly painful, but after the last session I also felt strangely uplifted and energised. The human body is weird.

We are told that exercise is vital for wellbeing. It is widely prescribed for all kinds of health problems, mental and physical. And it’s easy to see why. It can have wondrous effects. But what happens when you can’t do your chosen exercise?

I have found it hard, as with many other areas of my life, to find a balance with exercising. I have wondered if I shouldn’t run anymore because when it’s going well, I have a tendency to get carried away and overreach. I think: maybe I should give it up and just walk, as I did before I took up running. Maybe I should just do gentle yoga (although yoga can often be very not-gentle, so you have to be careful about that too!)

But I can never quite convince myself to give it up. I want to get back into doing it. I miss the sense of separateness that running can give me. By that, I mean that it seems to make me more able to separate myself from unpleasant parts of myself – negative thoughts, low emotions, physical niggles, etc. It can help provide that sense of awareness that I described in my last post. I hope that I can recover enough to get back to doing some nice slow runs at some point – and that this time I might have learned enough to know when to stop.

I am only me

When I was growing up, my dad often used to say to me, “Why do you have to make things so difficult for yourself?” I never knew how to react to that. I think I felt a little confused and maybe wounded, as if he was suggesting that everything bad that happened was my fault, and that it wouldn’t happen if only I could be a better person, or a different person.

His comment often comes into my head, even now. And now I reply, in my head: “Because, dad, I am me. How can I make things easier for myself, when I am only me?” If I am the one making things difficult, I will reason, there is not much I can do about that. I am only one person.

This idea of making things difficult for myself is a problem that has cropped up repeatedly over the last several years. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started. Perhaps I’ve had it my whole life. But it tends to follow a similar pattern:

1) I start having increased physical and behavioural symptoms, for example: headaches, dizziness, digestive issues, other aches and pains, fatigue, insomnia; withdrawing, avoiding people, crying, finding my daily routine overwhelming, anger and irritability, feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

2) I deal with all this in various ways, usually involving things like eating too much or not enough; sleeping too much or not enough; watching TV all the time; generally doing things that are bad for me. Sometimes I will see a doctor or other professional, thinking I must have an illness. They usually find nothing wrong.

3) I’ve got better at step 3 over the years. I think. Step 3 involves awareness of myself, and taking steps to get back to good health. But step 3 is dependent on me being able to detach myself enough from the part of me that is broken, or breaking. And that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it is talking to a professional that makes me realise; sometimes it is reading a book or online article. Sometimes the way I have behaved in public or when interacting with others is a wake-up call. More recently, simply writing out my feelings has helped me to become more aware; to spot patterns and see when I’m entering a bad patch and need to take better care of myself.

There seems to be more awareness of mental health issues these days. This is great, of course. There is still a very long way to go, but it’s great that more people are talking about it. I admire them for it. I have found, however, that I’m unable to join in the discussion. I still find it incredibly difficult to talk about my own issues. I think this is less to do with stigma, and more to do with the fact that I don’t fully understand my own issues. I therefore don’t feel able to discuss them in any way that wouldn’t seem distorted.

What is the point of my writing about this today? Well, I’m currently going through another three-step cycle. The fact that I’m writing this now suggests that hopefully I’m on my way out of step 2, and on the road to step 3.

Full circle

This is my first post here, but I am not new to blogging. I started a blog in 2002, when I was in my second year at university. A friend introduced me to a now-defunct blogging platform. It was a place where you could express yourself however you wanted. Like-minded people in this cosy online community could read what you’d written and comment. I was overjoyed! I plunged into writing posts, customising my page in garish colours, and making new friends with enthusiasm.

My initial posts were terrible.  I have a vague uncomfortable memory of pink and purple pages swimming in exclamation marks. Thankfully I calmed down a bit in time. I built up a (slightly) bigger following and worked harder on crafting posts for an audience. My writing improved. It even led to me writing other things – short stories and novels.

After about six years, I left the community. I bought my own domain and started posting on a blog there. Some of my old blogging friends migrated over and still read and commented. But it was essentially the end of my blogging career. I posted much less frequently. I was no longer involved in a community. I only posted reviews of books or plays which was probably alienating to my old readers. I wrote my last post in 2012 and gave up the domain (it now redirects to an online shoe shop with a slightly dodgy name. Poor old blog. Not quite the future I’d imagined).

Stopping blogging had a knock-on effect on all my other writing. I’ve barely written a word since then. I have kept up a private diary, but that’s begun to feel distinctly unsatisfying. Why babble away to myself when I can easily force it upon others? Such a question is what led me to write this post, and hopefully to write some more posts after it.

When I started the first blog, I was feeling a little lost in life. University was a difficult experience. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the future. And now, all these years later – well, I’m back in that position again. Wondering what my next step will be. Hoping that writing more will help me find out, or at least function as an absorbing distraction.