Two years ago, my life took an almighty pause. All the more almighty for being totally out of the blue.
One minute, I was hurling myself at life hell for leather, leaping out of bed before dawn, and crawling back late at night. In the working hours in between, I would resemble the main character in a particularly frenetic kind of video game, ricocheting from task to task, dodging obstacles, clearing hurdles, avoiding explosions, and spinning twenty plates (or was it 25?) while tap dancing on the desk. Or so it felt.
I loved every damned second of it.
The next minute, it all stopped. I found myself huddled on the sofa clutching a mug of tea, not able even to bear the sound of the radio in the background, wondering what on earth had happened, and not knowing how to make sense of any of it.
The question did sometimes occur to me while I was working; ‘What are you trying to prove?’ or, even harder to answer, ‘What is it you’re hiding from?’ The fact is, Fleet Street – where I toiled for 40 years – takes no prisoners. It’s their way or the highway. Their way requires full-on commitment 24/7 (particularly since the advent of digital communications), and everything has to be done FAST.
It isn’t for everybody. But some people (like me) love it. I love the feeling of being in the thick of it, of being needed, and of being constantly stretched to my limits and beyond. I was hugely enthusiastic about my job, pouring all my energy into it. The more I poured in, the more I got out: a motivated and thriving team, stellar results, a happy working atmosphere, and a fascinating and interesting job to look forward to every day.
Furthermore, my job gave me a rock-solid structure at the centre of my life – one that I could rely on to prop me up when life caught me in its headwinds. I slogged my way through an excoriating divorce, presenting to the office each morning in bright lipstick and unladdered tights – no hint that back home my life was in tatters.
I put in the hours without a blip during my father’s illness and eventual death, the untimely death of my sister-in-law from cancer, and my sister’s death in a road accident. Each time, when it was tempting to collapse in a heap on the floor, my work got me through. No wonder I paid it back in spades.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out that work was an avoidance mechanism – it released me from the obligation of facing my grief. Pain – of the emotional variety – can be very painful indeed, and it’s only natural to want to dodge that bullet if we can. And I did. Many times.
I didn’t even take a pause to have a baby. In those days you had to qualify for maternity leave by working in your company for 24 months prior to the birth. I’d only done 20. I remember the managing editor scratching his forehead and saying, ‘Well, we can give you two weeks’ holiday, and two weeks’ sick leave. How does that sound?’ ‘Perfect!’ I cried, and was back at my desk full-time when my daughter was just three weeks’ old.
I raised her alone, and even then never took a pause. I was too scared to. The main breadwinner, with a partner who’d done a bunk, I didn’t dare lift my nose from the grindstone for the next twenty years. I’m not proud to say this, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of holidays I took with my daughter during that time.
Then, on the one occasion when my daughter and I did finally manage a decent trip away – three weeks to New Zealand and Australia for my nephew’s wedding – I came back to the news that my job was no more. I guess I should thank heavens I hadn’t taken that holiday earlier.
It’s odd when you suddenly leave your job – or rather, your job leaves you – that people expect you to leap straight into another one without a backwards glance. Within days of handing in your lanyard and security pass they’re on the phone. ‘What are you doing now?’ they ask excitedly, apparently expecting to hear that the job offers were piling up in my in-box, waiting for me to sift through them and pick out the best.
I wasn’t doing anything, as it happened, but it sounded too lame to say so.
Sometimes I would say I was doing nothing, and then get ticked off. ‘You can’t say that!’ people would say. ‘Say you’re juggling offers!’ But I’ve never been good at lying, and I wasn’t about to start now.
I would mutter something about decompressing. That’s a good word, ‘decompress’. And the truth is you do need to go into a kind of decompression chamber after twenty years in a job before you’re in any fit state to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere.
You need to take stock. Take time to recover, to think and reflect. Take time to work out who you were, who you are, and who you want to be. If your identity was wrapped up in your job, you need to find a new one (identity, not necessarily job). You need to shed the old skin with gratitude, and bestow it with your blessing no matter how ugly the parting of ways. You need to pursue new interests, forge new networks, search out new horizons. You can only do this once you’ve worked through the feelings of hurt, rejection, anger and betrayal that many of us experience when a job we’d loved is snatched away from us.
And none of this happens overnight.
Sometime during that first summer after I left my job, I met Venetia, a former colleague, for tea. Venetia was axed from her job in brutal fashion some ten years before me, and was rightly angry at the time at the injustice of her departure.
She looked like a different woman. Sitting up straight, sparkling with joy, exuding confidence. Since her departure, she’d gained a Masters’ degree in Psychology with distinction, taken a Diploma in Executive Coaching, and set up her own thriving business. She looked like a woman in command of her life, fizzing with energy and relishing the control she had over her own destiny.
‘What are you doing now?’ Venetia asked, sipping her fresh mint tea. I didn’t need to lie to her; I knew her too well. ‘Nothing, I’m afraid,’ I said apologetically. She laughed. ‘That’s not true,’ she said. ‘You may not realise it, but this is actually one of the most productive periods of your life.’
With her psychologist’s hat on, she then went on to explain that while I thought I was doing nothing, I was in fact going through a very necessary – and important – process of transition. I was moving from one incarnation to another, a monumental shift that doesn’t – and shouldn’t – happen quickly. It’s a process that needs to be fully experienced, embodied and thought through. It needs to be honoured. ‘In coaching, we call times like this the ‘fertile void’, explained Venetia. ‘You may well look back one day and recognise this to be one of the richest periods of growth in your whole life.’
And it was true: even though I was practically unaware of it, re-generation was already happening. I’d started a course in modern calligraphy – something creative, meditative and fulfilling that I’d always wanted to do, and now had the time. I was loving being able to express myself through the repetitive pen-and-ink strokes, the beauty of the lines and shapes of the letters.
I’d also signed up to train as a Samaritan – I’ve always been interested in people and their emotional lives, and I’ve always had a huge interest in mental health.
I’d started going to films and exhibitions, catching up with old friends and making new ones. I was seeing elderly relatives I’d all but ignored for decades, caught up in the full force of work and motherhood as I had been.
A couple of the paths I ventured down turned out to be dead ends, but after Venetia’s words I started to view this period objectively as a rich moment of growth and experiment, of learning who I really was. And there was bound to be a degree of trial and error with that.
I started to look beyond my own issues to where my experience fitted into the big scheme of things. And I realised that most things in life follow a rhythm of push and pull, ebb and flow, light and dark, noise and silence, speed and slow, life and death.
I realised anew that those hours we spend asleep every night – far from being wasted time – are possibly the most valuable hours of the 24-hour cycle. While our body rests, our brain is hard at work making sense of all that happened in the day, working through the joys and hurts and filing them away, consolidating lessons learnt, so that we wake up in the morning primed for another day packed full of new experiences.
In the same way that our sleeping hours can be every bit as productive as our waking ones, so silences in a conversation can be at least as productive – if not more so – than words.
Have you noticed how uncomfortable people often can be when a conversation lapses into silence? How eager they are to fill the pause with chatter – no matter how mindless? I used to be that person – panicking, and filling in the gaps. I saw gaps as failure somehow, failure to keep the conversation rocking along. I suppose you could say I used to fear them.
One of the things my Samaritans’ training has taught me is to allow – and even welcome – these natural silences. We are encouraged to recognise silences in a conversation as fruitful. They give the caller a moment to reflect on what’s been said, and to think through again the meaning of their words.
Sometimes, a caller might articulate a particular thought aloud, say something they’ve never found the courage to say before. It could be something quite mundane, or it could be something deeply powerful. A pause will naturally follow while they ‘hear’ their own words for the first time. My training has taught me not to fear these pauses and silences, but to recognise them for what they are – a necessary moment of reflection while our brain catches up.
In that moment of reflection can come revelation. The sudden realisation of something the caller hadn’t thought of before. The dawning of a new option. The opening up of a fresh pathway through their troubles. A moment of intelligence. An ‘aha’ moment. That is why these pauses are so very valuable.
My own enforced pause came to an end after about nine months. I am now busy working again. Not in a full-time job, but doing various pieces of stimulating consultancy work for individuals and companies. Alongside this, I work voluntarily as a Samaritan, and as a mentor to young women working their way up the ladder in journalism. I go to Silver Swans classes (ballet for the over-55s) twice a week. I attend courses and lectures, visit galleries, and go to the theatre and cinema. I see my friends regularly. I have made a new life for myself.
I’m a very different person from the person I was before. No better or worse, just different. Looking back, I feel in many ways that my job imposed limits on me, and those limits have been lifted. I am free to live the life of my choosing. I’m adopting a dog, rescued by a British charity from the meat trade in China. Curly-haired Ben has had a rotten life, and I’m determined that what time he has left will be filled with love. He can lie at my feet while I write. Life is good.
These days, when people ask me ‘what are you doing?’, they have to wait five minutes while I reel off a long list of things.
Pauses are never permanent. They are simply that: a pause. But they are necessary. If you find the pause button pressed unexpectedly on your own life, don’t panic. Receive it with welcome and allow it time to work its magic. For it will.