Thursday, 12 May 2011

Who I am

I am crying.

The thing which set me off was John le Mesurier's famous death announcement in the Times, which said simply, "John Le Mesurier wishes it to be known that he conked out on November 15th. He sadly misses his family and friends.". I got to this via a documentary about John le Mesurier's life, which I arrived at via a chain which started with the biograpahical drama "Hattie", about Ms Jacques. I recommend it, followed by a clip from Hattie's This is Your Life episode in 1963, then a programme about John le Mesurier, interspersed with Tony Hancock's Wikipedia page.

The three of them, along with Joan le Mesurier and Hattie's lover John Schofield, were amazing people, all connected via marriages and affairs, and their stories are fascinating. John le Mesurier and Hattie Jacques were people you wish could have been your auntie and uncle. Since I was a child I've been fond of John le Mesurier, who reminded me of my grandfather. They were a year apart in age, physically similar, and both had the same deep but understated humour, immense dignity and composure.

So, his death made me cry. Because it's sad. Because he reminds me of my also-conked-out grandfather... but for unrelated reasons too. I'm a compulsive armchair psychologist and can never take emotions at face value. I assume underlying reasons for all my outbursts, and today my own life is making me cry. It wasn't even subconscious - the catalyst was John le M, but the thoughts were about me.

I left work four weeks ago. I had a couple of weeks' grace while I hung around with my son on his easter hols, but since then I've been bumbling about, alternating between being productive and worrying about not getting enough done, until last night it dawned on me that I've been so effective in sorting my finances that I don't actually have to Get Stuff Done 24 hours a day. I could sit back and chill for a bit. I've earned it, and given an acceptance of poverty as my baseline, I can afford it. But that leaves room for the guilt, and the self-doubt...

For the last eighteen months I've been working my arse off to become qualified in my new career. 6 hours' sleep a night was luxury, and 3 hours wasn't unusual. Success or failure was in the hands of others, and I had to submit myself to assessments every few weeks - sometimes more frequent - in which I was (more recently) routinely judged to be lacking.

The bigger picture of my life over the last few years ran like this:

I had a job, well-paid, in a stable career. I wasn't brilliant at it, because I wasn't motivated to give my all to it, but I was pretty good and found it relatively easy, and above all it was a stable, reliable life. Even better, I could afford to drop to four days a week and use the extra time to write a novel. Then I had a baby. Pregnancy was horrific and I took a year off from the career as well as the novel-writing just to cope with the physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth. But when my first son was still very young, I returned to work and returned to novel-writing, and not long after that, my first novel was published. So far, so good.

The novel didn't do brilliantly, but it was a small publisher and I was happy with it. But now I had a baby as well as a job and a writing career, and I was trying to write my second novel, and then my son started school and I fiddled with my job to start work stupid-early every morning just so that I could pick my son up from school, and the strain started to tell. But I was coping.

Then I decided I wanted another child. I had a miscarriage. I lost my job. I tried to be a full time writer, but quickly got pregnant again and ill again. My second novel was published, but only in a foreign language. My second son was born. I failed to earn any money from writing. It was all just a bit too difficult. So I retrained in a new career, and that's when the eighteen months of pressure and not enough sleep started.

And now here I am, in a sudden lull. Pleased to have escaped from my most recent job, but still not fully qualified. I've registered with an agency that will get me the odd bit of work in my new career. But it'll take a few weeks to sort out the paperwork. I don't know how long. They might have work for me next week. I need something to balance the books and pay the bills, and up to now I'd assumed I'd have to drop everything and run as soon as they find anything. Actually I can afford not to work every day, although probably not at first. The work itself will be demanding and unpredictable, but short term. I struggle to believe I can do it.

Ain't that a bitch? When the official judgement is that you're crap, but you know it was probably a biased judgement and based partly on external and unfair factors that are nothing to do with you. Independent witnesses reassure you that you are not as bad as they say, and your own knowledge confirms this. But what if those independent witnesses are just being kind? What if you are kidding yourself? Every time you tell people the details of your tale, they go "Awww" and "Grrr" and "Haven't you been treated badly?" and they tell you of other similar tales they have heard. Other people from the same workplace had similar treatment, and the sheer numbers are enough to suggest that something isn't right and you've had a raw deal. But...

In the back of your mind is always the knowledge that these sympathetic listeners have only heard your side of the story. That no matter what they say, at least some of them must be wondering. Maybe it was all perfectly reasonable and I am just a bit crap. It's embarrassing, humiliating, has made me question myself.

I'm 41, I have two children and a secure home, shouldn't I be at a point in my life where I have a stable career and some knowledge of the things I am good at? Shouldn't I know who I am? Isn't a bit late in life to be trying new things and, yet again, failing?

But I do know who I am. I am kind, and clever, and talented. I am, at least some of the time, capable and organised. I am a good mother. Sometimes I'm a little bit funny. I can sing.

The biggest thing I have to master is balance. Balance between hyperactivity and lethargy. Balance between productivity and leisure. Balance between preserving my mental health and securing some sort of income. Balance between accepting that I need, and have earnt, a rest... but that I'm happier when I'm active.

This all boils down to those small decisions and motivations, from one minute to the next. What should I do now? What can I persuade myself to do now? Am I surfing the net because I'm looking after myself and have earnt a rest, or because I'm avoiding doing some other thing which I not only need to do but would actually prefer to do, if only I could find the confidence and motivation?

Then there are the bigger questions. Have I really earnt a rest, or am I just terminally lazy and self-indulgent? What makes me think I deserve to have such an easy ride? Whoever said that happiness is even possible for anything other than brief fleeting moments? Isn't it just selfish and unrealistic to think that life should be comfortable, easy or enjoyable?

And there's the adrenalin hangover. I've become so used to being manically busy, I can't get used to not being. There's all this stuff that needs doing, and right now, otherwise I'll run out of time! I have to blast through the house and clear all those surfaces covered in piles of pushed-to-one-side crap! I have to do the gardening! I have to do my tax return! I have to apply for jobs, and organise all my career-related resources, and do reading and research and planning to make sure that when I return to my career I am Really Good At It and finally get qualified without any further failure! I have to get some exercise! I have to make time for family and friends! I have to be creative! I have to get out of the house! I have to avoid spending any money!

I enjoyed crying this morning. I am a crier, an inveterate spouter of tears, and a connoisseur. There are as many varieties of lachrymosity as there are of rain. After one of my recent job-related assessments, I locked myself in a toilet and sobbed. I couldn't stop. I had to do it silently because people were coming and going in the next cubicle, and I didn't want the humiliation of drenching my colleagues yet again in my hyper-emotional state. I can be very emotional and yet hardly make a squeak. My shoulders heaved and I couldn't breathe. I went through half a toilet roll. In the end I waited for a quiet moment and removed myself to a locked and darkened room in another corner of the workplace, because there were only two toilet cubicles and queues kept forming. I carried on sobbing for a while. It wasn't nice.

But this morning they were soft warm comforting tears. I practised the Buddhist loving kindness thing. I observed my emotional state, accepted it, let it happen. It needed to happen.

I don't know when the agency work might come in, or what kind of work it will be. I don't know what I should do, what I will be able to do, what I will want to do, from one day to the next. I've emerged from an immensely stressful period. Things are insecure. But I have ability, and I have time. I can say no to work. I can sort the garden out, sort the house out, sort myself out, and it doesn't have to be in a rush.

Maybe even, one day, I might know what the hell I am doing with my life. But really, does anyone?

I suspect not.


Karen said...

started *accepting*

See? I'm rubbish ...

Karen said...

Amazing post and one I'm sure many women will identify with.

I've long been prone to outbursts of crying about 'not being able to keep on top of everything' and 'what is the point of me, I'm just a bit rubbish at everything?' and have only just started I CAN'T stay on top of every single thing, because it isn't physically or mentally possible; it doesn't (necessarily!) mean I'm completely crap. The outbursts have become very slightly less frequent lately.

I hope you do find that balance :o)

Alice Turing said...

No you're not. Loving kindness my dear, loving kindness.

Sue Guiney said...

"Isn't a bit late in life to be trying new things and, yet again, failing?" This sort of statement makes me cry. I'm a lot older than you and I can tell you that it's never too late. And not only that, but if you aren't always questioning yourself, struggling with new things that you aren't particularly good at, trying and failing and trying again, then you're not growing. And believe me, that's when you get old. I know it sounds easy to say, and I certainly hope I don't sound patronising, but you have to let the world throw new things at you. You must be open to the unexpected - especially when you are as creative as you are. It's the only way to move forward and that's what we're all trying to do all the time. We're all in your corner!

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Oh love: your post is so honest and moving: the line 'no one knows anything' must come to mind, and that's fine. You have time on your side - in so many ways - and all that adrenaline that is rushing about inside you doesn't need to take over you.

The confidence will come back because there is a grain of it there, and you know it really: it's just hard to acknowledge when you have the personality you have ---- you know I understand because in some respects we have a lot in common: except I don't have the witty fiction writing skills or the breasts :)

I think those of us who have known you for some time - even just online - know that your self-doubt will always make your analysis of situations as even-handed as they could be. So although you worry that we only have your side of the story, in practice that probably isn't quite the case. So all that empathy and sympathy you so rightly have garnered - all that encouragement that you ARE worth believing in and that you can and should take your time to get your equilibrium back - does come from a place of even-handed understanding of what you have gone through.

Allow your tears: the good ones and the less good. You will know when you need to do differently. Play life by ear and somehow things will work out. And those who care about you - not least your family and close friends - will be there regardless to help you through the experience.

Hugs xxx

looby said...

A less "lazy and self-indulgent" a person I can hardly imagine.