Moving On

Two years ago I wrote a post with the very same title as this one. Although the content between this post and that are vastly different, the theme, however, is the same – change. As over the next few weeks and months, things will change for me in a number of different ways. I am not only moving house, I am also moving for work and to be in the same country and city with my partner of 18 months.

As I sit and write this post I am sat on my sofa occasionally glancing up from the laptop screen to take stock of the four walls around me. Above the TV on the opposite wall, there used to be a large map where I had placed stickers of the various countries that I have visited. Around this I had stuck photos and postcards from some of these travel destinations; some were of landscapes, and many contained images of family and friends.

Looking at it now the bare wall reminds me that I the life I currently lead is, and always has been temporary.

As I write those words, I feel a wave of sadness wash over me as if to encourage me to hide away, to try and pretend that things aren’t changing around me. But if there is one thing that I have learnt over the past three years it is this, although we may not have control over a lot of things that may happen, we do have some power over how we respond to the change. And at least for now, I want to face this change that conjures anxiety and uncertainty and try to embrace it.

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LIFTING THE FOG

I have found it difficult to write over the past few months.

Although I don’t want to link it entirely to my mental health, I feel as though it has been a significant contributing factor in the steady reduction in the quantity and quality of my writing. Any writing for that matter.

These are some of the words I wrote in my diary only two weeks ago:

It’s Sunday and I have woken up early and I feel that familiar heavy feeling inside. A multitude of emotions are consuming me that should be oh so recognisable that I shouldn’t question their presence as I have grown so used to them over the years, but that doesn’t help. I am sluggish, teary, and angry at myself. I thought that by now, I would have some gotten my shit together and have some fucking strategies in place: is this the best I’ve got? To spend the day alone? Again?

That was it before I spent the rest of the day driving myself insane (and experiencing a mild anxiety attack in the process) as a result of intense self-loathing.

During this time, work had been all-consuming to a degree that I couldn’t manage in a healthy way and therefore I felt myself slip into some familiar and unhealthy routines in my personal and professional life: excessive rumination, shutting myself away from others, skipping the gym, eating one too many takeaways, and just generally being the cause of my own frustration. My gremlins and the cloak of fog that they pull down over me took hold of my shoulder a little over a month ago, though I know they’ve been lingering in the background for longer than this, and despite my best efforts, they are real fuckers at letting go. But also, I was also feeling incredibly lonely. The ‘work’ I am working on and hoping to move on from next year, but the loneliness is a whole different animal. I knew that at the time there were people I could turn to when I go through this, but when I have decent to some of the lower depths of my mind, I truly can’t see this.

So I really was ready desperate for a break.

Some time out has done something remarkable in a short space of time (despite gaining a cold almost as soon as landing in the UK), I already feel re-energised. Quality sleep, good food, fresh air, exercise and seeing family and friends are all helping with lifting the fog.

In contrast, yesterday I spent practically the entire day writing when I wasn’t with family. It was heaven.

A CHRISTMAS POST

I feel like I am a child again, it’s Christmas morning and I am awake early. Some years ago if I was awake before my parents (which in most cases I was… by some hours), I would open a small selection of gifts that would have been left at the foot of my bed. There’d always be a book, some chocolate coins (which I would immediately start eating), usually an orange (usually left until after dinner) and a card from my parents. Now as I reach my mid-thirties and having travelled back to the UK to stay with my family during the festive season, I don’t wake up to find gifts at the foot of my bed but those memories as a child remain firmly with me, and the early start is more to do with jet lag.

Growing up, Christmas was run like a well-oiled machine. In my much younger years, the festivities were held at my grandparents where everyone would contribute to the dinner table. My mum would make the starters of smoked salmon and prawn cocktail, my Nan would do the turkey, the world’s best gravy and an awesome apple pie, whilst my uncle and aunts would generally sort the trimmings and bring the booze. As my grandparents got older, Christmas went on tour and my mum began to hold it at our house with pretty much the same format as above. Selfishly, this suited me fine, as hell, it meant that I got to play with the gifts that I had been given, which as a young teen was vital to my general satisfaction with the day. As the years rolled on, my mum’s younger sister took over the reins of delivering Christmas so we would travel the hour or so journey to her house where we were greeted once again with an amazing feast.

Then for two years I didn’t make it back home. In 2012, I moved abroad for work and although I returned for the first year the two years subsequently (2013-2014), I entertained myself with what Christmas could offer me outside of the UK.

Turns out, I deeply missed Christmas with the family.

Both years out of the UK were also spent with my ex-boyfriend, which added a degree of romance to the festive period but I couldn’t quite get over the feeling that I was missing out somehow. I wanted to be there sat at the table with my parents, brother and relatives. I wanted to sit around the tree taking turns to open gifts. Perhaps my ‘missing’ of Christmas with family whilst I was away stemmed from the fact that in part, Christmas allows me to regress to a child-like state in some ways. The traditions are cut and dry to a large extent and that brings familiarity and comfort.

So for the past two years, I have travelled back to the UK to spend Christmas with my family and also importantly catch up amazing friends. And it’s been fucking awesome.

REACHING OUT

As I introduced in my previous post, I am a little over halfway through a course intended to help me to make an eventual career shift. I have found the missions so far exciting, thought-provoking, and some others a little odd (with me wondering ‘How will doing this help?’). But overall, I am enjoying the process. Significantly, it is encouraging me, actually it is forcing me to question things about myself – my likes, dislikes, and my path to date in terms of my career and other related areas.

One of the earlier missions in the course was to actively search and reach out to people who may be already working in my fields of interest. This was to get a feel for their line of work and discover if it was something that I might want to investigate further.

Sounds pretty straightforward? Just throw out the emails and wait for a torrent of responses…

Well the universe and my thinking don’t work like that; would the people whom I contacted actually reply? Hadn’t they got better things to be doing than answering a random woman’s email? These were just two of my initial misgivings about the mission, but all of them pretty much centered on people not responding.

All in all, I was feeling fairly cynical about the process. But to help overcome the gremlins of doubt and pessimism, I decided to think along the following lines:

  1. WHO DID I WANT TO REACH OUT TO?

At this stage, the coaches encouraged us to not limit ourselves and our search for information and vitally, people.

This was perhaps a little easier said than done for someone who feels as though her brain is often a congealed mess of ideas. Therefore I started to do what I do best; I made a list. Lists ground me and provide a vital resemblance of structure for some of the messiness. Although they may not always inherently have ‘a point’ or ‘lead somewhere’, making a list of areas of interest allowed me to spill everything onto a page. It was a starting point.

For me, I found that my some of my core interests were in writing, mentoring/coaching and design. These, having been narrowed down from some of the earlier missions. Once I had done this, I now needed to focus on people – who was I aware of that worked in these areas?

The coaches recommended that this process best works like a hierarchy; at first consider reaching out to people already familiar to you, such as friends and family. These will hopefully be easy to contact and are much more likely to respond. Secondly, get in touch with people who you may have met already in a looser context, an acquaintance for instance or someone you know through a mutual friend. The third and final tier poses potentially more of a challenge. These may be people who you don’t know and it may be difficult to contact and interview; such as celebrities, experts in their field and so on.

  1.  WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO CONTACT PEOPLE?

So I had identified areas of interest, this was all well and good, but how do you go about ‘sourcing’ people (and their details)?

Simply? Research.

Initially, I contacted friends and acquaintances whom I knew were already doing work in these areas (and not necessarily in those highlighted above). I received a response from a few within a matter of hours. This bolstered my confidence and so I also started to reach out to more, including to a few of unknowns (such as authors, journalists and designers) having located their details mostly through their own professional websites. Other good methods included; LinkedIn and even other social media like Facebook.

My research led me down a number of avenues, some of which hit a dead end immediately. For instance, a writer/author that I admire did not provide contact details on her website. The only way to make contact was through her publisher and agent (understandable, when I imagine she receives many emails per day). After a little more research, I realised that perhaps this was one connection that should be put on the backburner, at least temporarily. It was something I could (and still will) go back to once I could put more energy and time into it.

Overall, I found that email was the best and perhaps most straightforward way for me to contact people. I was able to curate my correspondence in a way that showed a part of me in terms of my personality but also ensure that I had covered certain bases, such as making that important request – can I find out more about you and your work?

Some of the people I have got in touch with so far have emailed me back with answers to my questions, I have held Skype meetings, and I have even had some agree to meet in person.

  1. HOW DO I MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION?

There will be people who are too busy (or who may not wish) to reply and so may see your email and send it immediately to the trash. The odds are not necessarily in your favour; you may submit 20 emails and only receive a handful back. It’s a shame, but unfortunately a reality of the process.

However, the personalisation of that initial contact may cause people to stop and put the time together to reply, particularly higher up in the connecting hierarchy. A generic email with little grasp of the person or their work may elicit a response, but something that has been crafted for an individual may enable them to see part of the real you and thus lead to a better chance of a response.

So for this part, I considered carefully why was this person someone I wanted to reach out to in the first place? And what were they doing that resonated with me?

The idea of making a good impression was significant on a number of levels. People who are taking the time to get back to me offering their own nuggets of advice deserve to be met with someone who at least had a sense of purpose, and certainly not see a time-waster. So I ensured that I actually had something to say; what led them to their work, what mistakes did they make on the way and what advice would they offer to those looking to get into that field for instance.

Furthermore, I also ensured that I followed up with the contact shortly after the event. This is not only polite but it also allows a dialogue channel to open up and possibly remain open.

  1. ENJOY THE PROCESS

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reaching out, is to keep reminding myself to enjoy the process. Enjoy meeting new people especially if they work in something that fires up your imagination. And also enjoy the changes that you witness in yourself and others as they make their own career change.

Yes, there are going to be moments of frustration, such as when someone fails to get back to you, or you leave a conversation experiencing a sinking feeling that makes you realise that their line of work is after all not something you wish to pursue. But that is all part of the journey.

My two gremlins named doubt and pessimism still raise their heads every so often; their voices certainly are a little louder when I am tired or feeling fed up, despite receiving some feedback from some amazing sources.

It was a fluke!

Why are you doing this? Isn’t life easier as it is?

And so on.

But when I remind them that part of the shift process is that it’s meant to be fun, it shuts them up fast. As those gremlins are far too serious to understand the idea of fun.

THE COSTS OF AVOIDANCE

I like avoiding stuff.

Difficult stuff, like about what things hurt and upset me. For instance I love to avoid those conversations that you know are going to be tough, but sometimes need to be had, whether it is with yourself or someone else.

I tend to put a smile on things in public, feign happiness and acceptance. But then who doesn’t?

Over a year ago I felt deeply let down by one of my closest friends. Instead of addressing my upset with her about how I had felt treated, what did I do?

I bitched and moaned about her to mostly mutual friends and even some people I didn’t even know that well. I was left (and still am) feeling incredibly guilty, as I had opened up a fragile part of our friendship into the public sphere and permitted others to comment and pass judgement.

But my reason for not speaking to her directly was simple. I didn’t want the confrontation because of the potential explosion that it could cause. So I tried my hardest to avoid it all costs, despite deepening the scars associated with the issue for me. It seemed easier to brush things under the carpet than face them.

Another common avoidance strategy I have is related to my family. Growing up I often felt quite removed from my parents. We clashed over values and how we related to one another, and in turn how love was expressed. Mostly we were a unit of familiarity, which consisted of us getting on with our daily lives, only coming together for dinner and sometimes at weekends for rare trips out. Love was not something easily given and expressed. I knew I was loved, but there were many times when it felt like the love was held at arm’s length or it came with conditions. 

I know that I am being unduly hard on my parents. At times I was challenging, spiteful, I questioned their authority on many unnecessary occasions causing upset not just for me but also between them. Many times I was frankly irritating. So no wonder they wanted to avoid dealing with me. But I found it so difficult to express myself that I turned inward and to writing.

SAFETY NET

I can rationalise my preference for avoidance; it’s a self-preservation thing. If you avoid doing something in the first place, then you won’t be disappointed or you won’t disappoint others. It keeps things safe. It keeps you safe.

But always trying to stay ‘safe’ isn’t always the best way to live.

When I made the decision to move abroad for work, my mother’s first reaction was, ‘Why would you want to do that?’

It has taken her nearly four years and finally a visit to the country that I now call home for her to realise that by staying in the UK, (working and living where I did) was probably the biggest avoidance strategy I could ever make – I was avoiding living my life.

I was living in the shadow of what I thought I was expected to be. The same shadow prevented me from questioning the status quo. I avoided taking my degree choice seriously as it was easier not to, so I opted for something that I thought would bring me success, whatever I believed that was at the time, but it only made me poorer for it (financially but also creatively). I avoided asking myself what I wanted out of a relationship before finding myself a few years into two separate romantic relationships during my twenties and early thirties, before it dawned on me how unhappy I was. And throughout it all I avoided finding out what I am and what I can potentially be.

So I am about to challenge some of the status quo a little more and for the first time in ten years I am going on holiday, alone. I will be travelling without the aid of a friend or partner and only have my mobile phone as a support network.

Saying that I am nervous would be underestimating it.

Why am I doing this? That’s exactly what my mother commented when I told her. In fact anticipating her response, nearly led me to lie and tell her that I was going with Daniel or a friend. But then I would be heading down a well-trodden path right into another circle of avoidance.

I don’t want to keep hiding in the shadows forever, I said to her. And I meant it. 

BURNOUT OR DEPRESSION?

Melancholy, the darkness, the blue funk… just a small selection of the ways to describe depression but for me, the most appropriate is how Winston Churchill related depression to that of a black dog. Although he wasn’t the first person to describe the mental illness in this way, it is certainly something which I can relate to. Much like a dog, depression can be brought to heel and controlled. Other times you feel like it’s running rings around you.

I know when the dog has one up on me when I feel completely and utterly drained, almost devoid of energy. I feel like I am walking around in mud, and the harder I try to move the faster it holds. The most challenging aspect to grasp is that I genuinely don’t know how to feel, or how I should feel during these times – as I struggle to feel much.

Roughly five years ago, I went to see a doctor during one of my darker times. I had felt down before, sad even but I assumed that like all of our emotions they ebb and flow depending on our current situation, our experiences with those around us and our hormones. However, at this point in my life something felt different. The mud was thicker, the rings being run around me were created faster, and I simply kept falling over.

So I made the call and booked myself in.

My experience however wasn’t wholly positive; upon describing the reason for my visit the doctor asked me some standard questions about my recent medical history and emotional state and then recommended… doing more exercise.

Yes, exercise certainly can help. I know.

I enjoy exercising and it was something that I did quite a fair bit of at the time. Working in the field of psychology, I was already familiar with the symptoms of depression, which include prolonged periods (at least more than two weeks) of low mood, tearful, lacking motivation, change in appetite, lack of energy and sleeplessness (or conversely, sleeping a lot more). And I was also aware of the things that could help alleviate these symptoms such as exercise, spending time with loved ones, getting outside, taking up a hobby and so on.

I left the doctor’s practice feeling misunderstood and a little angry. Had I not explained myself sufficiently? Perhaps my symptoms weren’t ‘severe’ enough to be anything significant? Simply, I doubted that there was a problem in the first place and so I tried to put it to the back of my mind and tried to get on with my life.

At the time I was coming out of an emotionally challenging relationship and with few other choices I had moved back into my parent’s house (in my late-20’s, not fun). Initially, it provided familiar comforts but at this point, I had turned inward and aside from going to work and seeing friends, I shut myself away and therefore I shut my parents out. My mother had always been fond of my ex (I truly believe that she thought we’d get married, live ‘happily ever after’ that sort of thing) and she couldn’t understand what had happened. She wanted to know more, demanded even at various stages. I knew her questions were only out of concern, but I couldn’t even muster the energy to retrace the steps in my mind to address my unhappiness.

At its worst, I broke down at work. Initially behind the closed door of a toilet cubicle and then it became larger and I was holding back tears whilst in the office. I knew at this point I needed to do something more. Doing more exercise wasn’t going to cut it.

I revisited the doctor (the same one in fact due to no-one else being available) and this time, he recommended speaking to a therapist. He provided me with a few numbers, but it transpired that all but one no longer practised in the area. The remaining one had a full client list for the foreseeable future. It could have been easy to retreat further at this point. However, something pushed me on and a Google search provided me with some contact details for another private practice in the city and I managed to get an introductory appointment for the following week.

In all, I attended only a handful of sessions with the therapist. Unfortunately, they ended due to the therapist moving to another area of the city. At the time I couldn’t afford the additional transport costs on a regular basis. Looking back, I wish I had made more of an effort to continue to see her. She did more for me in those few months than she probably ever realised.

So why is now familiar to my experiences five years ago?

With the benefit of hindsight, I have been able to pinpoint one of the main reasons for my current state and that it relates to a degree of burnout regarding work. I feel utterly uninspired by my job for a variety of reasons and have done for some time, although it was in a recent training session with colleagues (which coincidently focused on motivation and importantly understanding how to stay motivated) that was my wake-up call. So although the time and situations were very different, I was experiencing similar symptoms as to before.

However, unlike five years ago where I kept a large part of myself hidden away, this time I reached out and spoke to a couple of close friends to let them know what was going on. Their support was invaluable as has help from a local therapist whom I connected with through Facebook.

Like depression, burnout has some similar characteristics such as loss of appetite, anxiety, lacking energy, forgetfulness and so on. Researchers from the US and Switzerland led a piece of research to address the link between symptoms of depression and traits of burnout through a study on teachers. In short, the researchers found a pattern between the two, with women more likely than men to experience both*.

This doesn’t come as much as a surprise. Whether you are burnt out by your job, family commitments or money worries, for instance, the result is the same – you are not able to ‘function’ at a level you were at an earlier period. Therefore, some things have to give.

One of my first steps to regaining a better sense of myself was to get back into writing (i.e., spend more time doing it!) Writing is perhaps one thing that provides the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, where I am able to express and explore aspects of myself and my environment. Furthermore, the support that I have received since speaking out to close friends and a therapist have reminded me that I am not alone. Although both not panaceas in themselves, I am becoming more aware of what I ‘experience’ and so I can address the symptoms in a healthier way.

I am not in no way out of the woods yet, but I am now in the position of considering how to address my burnout and other symptoms. And I have also slowly accepted that the black dog may follow me around for the rest of my life. It’s how I deal with it that makes the difference.

* A greater proportion of women were surveyed 75%.

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