So much has happened this year, it’s quite difficult to work out how I fit everything in. I set out in January to spend the year working on myself, as much as I was working on my writing career. I was turning forty and having a bit of a melt down (massive, massive understatement) because this coincided with the decision my husband and I had made way back in 2003, that when I turned forty we’d stop trying to conceive our much wanted family and accept childlessness. In reality we decided after the last disastrous IVF cycle that that would be the last cycle, and we wouldn’t go down the donor or adoption route, but I still clung on a little to the idea. Accepting infertility, embracing childlessness is never easy for anyone. It was especially hard after the incredible journey we had been on before reaching that point. However, I did feel I’d done quite a lot of the grieving around it beforehand, in the thirteen years of drugs, IVF cycles, miscarriages and of course the loss of our daughter, but it seems there was quite a lot more grief to come out. When I hit that age- boom – I imploded. My fortieth wasn’t anything like I’d wanted; we had no money, I felt like my career hadn’t progressed, I didn’t even look the way I wanted, I was still struggling with a bad relationship with alcohol and with food and diets. Fast forward to today and I am loving being forty. I can’t wait for my forty first. I am loving that I’ve done the hard work in grieving for my daughter and grieving for the family we’ll never have, and I can just get on with enjoying my life. And I am, I love my life. I still have some very bad downs, but 90% of the time I love who I am, what I am and where I am going. There are lots of things that have helped me reach this point, but two major ones are walking away from the diet industry, and changing my thought process around alcohol. They are both related, in a way, because my thought processes to both were about restriction and a punishment and reward system. I had to abandon a way of thinking about both of them which I feel society pushes on people to make it acceptable to be miserable. I’ve talked about The Diet Trap before, but that revelation: that this multi billion pound industry was standing on the misery of the little people at the bottom, ME, was a real eye opener. Far from helping me to become healthy, restricting myself around food had enhanced feelings of good/bad failure/achiever in me and made me miserable. I bloody loved eating what I wanted at Christmas this year and I drank far too much without any guilt or remorse, weighing in on Thursday with just a 2lb gain and no panic or need to revert to starving myself to atone for it. I’m back at my beloved spinning class tomorrow morning with a clean head and a joy in what my body can achieve. Booze wise, I’d always thought that not drinking as much, or not drinking at all was about restricting consumption. But if you think of yourself as a drinker who isn’t allowed to/can’t drink, then it just makes the desire to drink even more crushing, in the same way that diets do. Before I’d say ‘I’ll be healthier, not drink in the week and only drink at the weekends’ which meant I spent the whole week waiting to have a drink and then drank two week’s worth of Sauv. Blanc in one sitting. As a society we have a funny relationship with booze, we tend tho think that if you can exert enough willpower over it and not drink whiskey on your cornflakes then you are fully in control – we will look with pity on someone drinking a can of lager on a park bench at 10 am, but won’t think anything of someone drinking a bottle of wine in the bath as part of their answer to a busy day, as a relaxation aid. Both liquids have the same chemical composition, they are both a drug which causes the drinker to feel an effect, the lager drinker and the wine drinker both get high. But we cling dearly onto alcohol as something fun and celebratory and acceptable, so we make rules around it to make ourselves feel better about the truth, which is that we are taking a strong, cancer causing drug whenever we drink. Anyway, back to me. I still drink. I think recognising that I was, at least in part, using alcohol to medicate quite a bad anxiety problem helped. But it also helped to be honest with myself about booze and to think outside of the general view of alcohol that society wants us to have. There’s a lot of money to be made in booze and the government does well on booze tax – just saying. Anyway, I have chugged through a fair old amount of booze over the festive period and loved it. But as a general point of view, I now think of myself as a non drinker who drinks sometimes, because I like getting a bit drunk. There’s no restrictions, no rules, I just changed my default setting to ‘non drinker’. I don’t really drink at home anymore, but if I’m going to the theatre I’ll have a glass of wine and then share a bottle with Chris when I get home, and that’s it. If we go to friend’s for tea sometimes I drive, sometimes I drink. It’s no longer a big deal. There’s no longer a feeling of ‘can’t go here or here to celebrate because one of us will have to drive’ – meaning that the night won’t be worth it without a drink. The night is worth it, if you’re wondering. I have discovered a love of good company and a real joy in experience which outdoes my enjoyment of alcohol. I’m enjoying stuff more as a result: using my camera to take early morning pictures, out in the car first thing knowing I’m not over the limit. I love it. On NYE I’m driving us to Flamborough for the Viking fire festival, and I’ll drive us back and then I’ll share a bottle of bubbly for the bongs and then probably go to bed so I can enjoy a nice fresh NYD dog walk.
It took a long time to get here, and I think part of the change in how I feel about things is the natural end to my grief over Matilda. I finished the collection that maps my relationship with her, and myself and my body and my self-image as a bereaved mother this year, and went right over the edge and into the underworld while writing it. I’ve not written about her since, in poetry, but I have just finished a long form article about her grave and the importance of grieving naturally without restictions. I will probably write about her again, but I do feel that the new collection, for which I am about to sign the contract, was almost like the end game of my grief, a fiery, primal retelling of myself which I am very proud of and will still be proud of even if the book flops. I started giving her things away, and that too felt right, and I started to look to a future with projects that aren’t based around stillbirth, I started letting her go, and am still, slowly letting her go.
If you’re on the journey of the bereaved parent, or the would be parent who is facing a future without children – it gets better, it gets easier, you can be a real, whole person again. I promise.
So that was my personal development year. Career wise I’d wanted to finish my next collection and have it accepted for publication, which I’ve done, and I had wanted to move into proper long form journalism. Long form is more suited to my skills as I’m an avid researcher and I like thinky pieces. I’m not an investigative journalist, but I write about human nature in a wider context. I was utterly delighted to land my first long form piece (short by long from standards, but in the long form style) for which I will have more news at some point. I’m so happy about that. It has been a huge boost to my confidence. In fact, my freelance career has really grown. I am now landing regular work, writing stuff I love and being paid for it. I started the year being paid just £4.65 for 200 words and am ending it being paid £100 for 200 words, which is a huge step up. I love being a full-time, freelance writer, but have a way to go before I’m making any sort of decent living. It’s coming. My poor long suffering husband is a God send really as he endures a very hand to mouth existance while I’m building my career, even though he has worked hard to reach a good position in his own work.
The other big thing that happened this year was that I was asked to take over the reigns of Dream Catcher Magazine as their first female editor. It’s going to be a challenge, I am still finding my feet and I am going to have to cut back on other unpaid work, but it is something I’ve wanted to have a go at for a long time, and this York based publication with its dedicated editorial team and brilliant work ethic is something I already feel proud to be a part of. I’m excited about my future with them.
And then, finally, the PhD. I decided, after having to take time off from it due to the stress of not having enough money to fund it, that I would have to think carefully about continuing with it. I finally decided, last week, to officially end the PhD. It was not an easy decision, there was a lot of crying and I am fighting feelings of failure around the decision. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to it without a maintenance grant, and I just can’t get funding for it. Sometimes you have to make really tough decisions that feel like the wrong thing, but are long-term right. I hate walking away from unfinished projects, I’m a hard worker, I like seeing things through. But this was not doable. Which leaves me in a very strange place. This is the first time in more than eighteen years that I have not been studying towards a degree. I feel a bit lost. But I also feel incredibly free. I have had the structure of learning around me all this time, and I suddenly feel like I have climbed out of a chrysalis. I definitely want to do another PhD, but it will be one which I am accepted for on a scholarship with a maintenance grant, and there’s a lot of competition with those. In the mean time I have started planning this year’s projects, there are just three:
- I want to finish my play and get it produced somewhere
- I want to de-clutter, and create an office for myself (this one is ongoing, but this year is the year)
- I want to write another short collection, for which I have an idea
That’s enough, alongside Northern Soul, Dream Catcher, mentoring, running workshops, running online courses. That’s enough. I also want to tackle my poor old camper van which is rotting on my driveway. I put a plan together for that too, which will involve a website and a blog, I imagine, because I like to make projects of things that interest me. I haven’t forgotten about doing my vegetarian/vegan blog either, but I want to work on the part of myself who can’t slow down, this year. I want to learn how to is slow down. It’s something I try to master every year, but this year I am setting out with less on my plate and a desire to be at peace, content and happy with my lot.
I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and I will catch up with you in the New Year, when I’ll be back to bore you with my resolutions. In the mean time, there is still time to book onto my January course: How to Write a Poem I have a few places left and am just tweaking the first course notes now. Be lovely to have you on board!