The View Point

What Doesn’t Kill You

Abstract stairs with open door on landscape background. Opportunity concept. 3D Rendering

Is it just me, or does the expression, ‘When one door closes, a window opens’ make you cringe, too?  I get that it’s a neat phrase designed to provide comfort – a slightly more creative alternative to ‘don’t worry, it’ll be OK’  – but the fact that it’s trite and meaningless is surely indisputable.

It suggests that, when a ‘door’ closes in your life, all you have to do is sit and wait while ‘windows’ fly open all around you.  For most of us, that simply doesn’t happen.  And when it doesn’t, you start getting paranoid, asking yourself: is it me?  And that can ultimately be more damaging than never having been offered the platitude in the first place.

If I’d been given £1 for every time someone said those well-intentioned words to me a couple of years ago when an important door in my life slammed shut, I’d be considerably richer than I am now. Read More…

The Power Of The Pause

Mulitcoloured blocks with the word STOP put together and has a mirrored reflection on the ground.

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.

Samaritans

pastel 90s colour teacups and teapot on contrastic backgrounds

The decorations have been taken down and stored away for another year.  The turkey’s been made into sandwiches, stir-fry, soup, and the remainders fed to the dog.  The tree’s been stripped of its twinkling lights and dumped in the street for the council to collect.  New Year’s celebrations are behind us, and the hectic, unforgiving daily rhythm of life is upon us once more.

Some of us will go on holiday – somewhere hot, or to mountain slopes, to escape those gruelling early weeks of January, this longest of months.  Most of us, though, will grit our teeth, put our heads down and get on with it, the dark nights, frosty mornings and long days in between stretching ahead.  We’ll get through, knowing that February is just around the corner and the green shoots of spring will soon be poking through the snow.

For me, January is a month of anniversaries I’d rather forget – emotional tripwires that can send me spinning off kilter without warning.  Early in the month is the anniversary of the catastrophic stroke that eventually killed my father.  The same date marks the death of my sister in a car accident a few years later, and the last day of the month her funeral in a packed church, her coffin barely visible beneath a blanket of flowers.  Midway through the month comes the anniversary of that awful morning, twenty-eight years ago – when my husband casually announced he’d been having an affair and walked away, leaving me and our three-month-old baby daughter to fend for ourselves.

And then, towards the end of January, the much more recent anniversary of me saying goodbye to the job I loved after twenty-five years, leaving behind the structure my life had revolved around, the work ‘family’ I’d grown to know so well over so many years, and my identity.

Of course, it’s not just me.  At any moment of the day, any one of us could receive news that will blow our world apart – a devastating diagnosis, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job – with all the shock and fear that comes with it.  This is the month when enquiries to divorce lawyers will soar; behind every call lies the pain of relationship breakdown, of families torn apart, of anger, recrimination and estrangement.

And then there are those for whom the struggle to cope is a daily challenge – those who may be living with mental health issues, disability, addictions, long-term depression, or who may be lonely and isolated as a result of having become dislocated from friends and family for any number of reasons. And those whom society excludes on account of their ‘differentness’, for any number of reasons.

None of us gets to live a perfectly glossy and flawless life.  We’ll all find ourselves buffeted by headwinds at some point, and even the strongest among us might need a helping hand to get through. Even the Queen – who famously described 1992 her ‘annus horribilis’, and must rank last year as one of her worst – has had years she’d rather not remember, when she must have wondered what she’d done to deserve so much sadness and confusion.

So let’s get this clear: it’s no admission of failure if you find yourself needing to reach out for support at any time – nearly all of us will have been there at some point or another. None of us is immune.

Two years ago, after leaving my job as an award-winning magazine editor, I found myself in a dark place.  Gripped by anxiety and panic attacks – both wholly unfamiliar to me, a naturally optimistic and buoyant person – I needed support to get through.  Although I recovered quickly, I realised how frightening these episodes can be, and how useful it may be to talk in confidence to someone neutral about issues that can be deeply personal.  I wanted to see if I could help others going through difficult times.

And so it was that in January last year, I explored the possibility of becoming a Samaritans volunteer. After an interview and selection day, I undertook ten four-hour training modules. A couple of months later, I took my first call in my local branch, a cosy upstairs room in an unprepossessing office building tucked behind a busy south London thoroughfare.

Since then, I’ve completed more than forty three-hour shifts answering calls and emails, as well as face-to-face callers, and helped to raise funds and awareness for Samaritans at summer county fairs and community events.

It hasn’t all been hard work.  My role as a Samaritans volunteer has introduced me to a wide group of new colleagues – my fellow volunteers – people from all walks of life, all ages, all backgrounds; people who are interesting, lively, fun, kind and thoughtful.  Every shift has felt like a privilege. And the work certainly puts any problems I might have in perspective.

I think of the young woman, calling from her car at the edge of a wood as the rain came beating down, intent on taking her life.  Estranged from her family, her boyfriend had broken up with her and she found herself literally alone in the world, with nowhere to sleep that night, and no roof over her head.

And the elderly lady, widowed a few years ago. She knew she was fortunate, surrounded as she was by the love of her children and grandchildren, and with no money worries. But – through tears – she told me how desperately she missed her husband.  She hid her true feelings from her family, who wanted her to ‘move on’ and be happy, but nothing could fill the void of grief deep in her heart

The man, clinging to the embers of his dying marriage.  Communication with his wife – now in a relationship with someone else, but still living under the same roof – had broken down.  He still loved her; all he wanted was for things to go back to the way they had been in their early days together, and the thought that that might never happen was unbearable for him.

Or the caller whose brilliant brain should have guaranteed him life’s glittering prizes, yet whose gender issues had instead earned him a lifetime of disappointment, humiliation and rejection.

As Samaritans volunteers, we aren’t able to wave a magic wand and make these caller’s problems disappear.  All we can do is offer them a safe space in which they can talk about their troubles, and listen – actively listen – without judgement, interruption or offering advice; to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their moment of need.

For many people, this might be the first time that anyone has ever really listened to them, taken them seriously, and empathised with their position and the depth of their despair.  For that reason, calling Samaritans can be a lifeline.  Simply talking through a problem can sometimes give a caller a fresh perspective on their situation, and sharing their troubles can help diffuse some of the anxiety and stress around them.

January can be a difficult time for many of us.  That’s why on January 20th Samaritans is launching ‘Brew Monday’, a fundraising initiative encouraging people to reach out to others who may be lonely and invite them to share a cuppa through January and February, and raise vital funds for Samaritans.  All you need is a kettle, a teabag or two, and a couple of mugs.  Such a small act of kindness can make a huge difference in someone’s life, and you would gain something immeasurable from it, too – the knowledge that you’ve offered the hand of friendship to someone when they needed it most.

Sign up for a free Brew Monday fundraising pack, hereAnyone can contact Samaritans FREE any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch, where you can talk to one of our trained volunteers face to face.

 

Why I Love Newspapers

newsletter

Sue Peart is the multi-award winning editor of The Mail on Sunday YOU magazine.

It may be unfashionable to admit it, but I love my daily newspaper. I know I could get the same – or similar – content on my laptop, iPad or smart phone, but for me, nothing quite beats the thrill of sitting down with the Daily Mail (my newspaper of choice, though I read and enjoy the others too) and really savouring the experience ahead of me.

Not wishing to be over-dramatic about this, but the moment when I sit down to read my newspaper is like that moment in the theatre when the orchestra starts to play, before the curtain goes up. You’re not sure exactly what’s in store, but you know you’re in for a thrilling ride that will leave you with plenty of thoughts and opinions running through your head, and that will take you out of yourself for a while.

I discovered the Daily Mail when I first moved to London in the late 1970s. Every morning, I would take the No 19 bus from my flat share in Putney to the office where I worked as a secretary, just off Carnaby Street. While the bus would take me on a geographical journey of about 45 minutes, the newspaper would take me on an emotional journey of the about same length. At the end, I would fold my paper and tuck it into my little basket, step off into the sunshine on Regent’s Street and walk the last few yards to the office feeling uplifted and informed, and with at least one thought-provoking idea itching at my brain.

I now realise that this was down to two things. The incredible talent of the writers and journalists, and the genius of the editors. While I often look at Mail Online to get the latest news, it is not quite the same as turning the pages of a newspaper and appreciating (albeit subconsciously) the pace of the articles, the alternating weights of the pieces, the contrasting light and depth between stories, the different tone and style of the writers. The paper is paced in such a way as to lead you on, to keep you turning the pages, ever onwards until you reach the end.

People who make gloomy predictions about the ‘death of newspapers’ don’t realise, I don’t think, the very different experience between the product you hold in your hand, tuck into your bag, pull out again to read over coffee, tuck away again, and then take out again later for a last read before you go to bed … and the thing you call up on your computer screen for a quick scan. Read More…