I think it’s fair to say that this year has knocked all of us for six. I have been sitting for a while staring at the blinking of my cursor on the screen not knowing where to start, which I suppose says everything you need to know about 2019. On all levels this year has felt primarily chaotic and turbulent, one that never let you quite settle or sit still. I’m leaving the big picture out of this blog, though, to focus simply on the personal of what this year has meant for me.
I have begun to see posts about how reflective blogs can make other people feel worse if they haven’t done as much, which made me wonder if I should write this blog at all, but at the same time it’s a helpful tradition for me and I think it’s right to make space for reflection – both good and bad. I hope that I’m generally quite honest on my blog and so I want my annual reflection to be in keeping. This isn’t intended to be a pure highlight reel – though I have plenty of highlights I want to recap – but also a space for learning from challenges and painful moments, as well as looking ahead with hope.
As with last year, I want to set out with aspirations for the new year – that are more thematic than specific resolutions. Last year I committed to the themes of “create”, “learn” and “be fearless”. Let’s see if I achieved them.
Looking back at what I achieved with work last year and then at how my business has gone from strength to strength this year has been such a source of encouragement for me. I went freelance from a position of necessity – I needed flexibility and control to be able to work and manage complex health conditions – but I have found myself this year in a position of real strength.
I began working for myself in an attempt to cobble things together in a way that worked for me; my vision of success was survival. Two and a half years on, my business has grown with me to the point where I’ve been turning work away instead of seeking it. I don’t think I could have imagined that work could look like this when I started. That’s not to say it’s perfect – I’ll go on to that part later – but it is so much more than I ever thought it would be.
This year really has allowed me to do so much. From frontline work with young people working one to one and in groups, to consulting on the youth engagement model for an international campaign, it has been a rollercoaster twelve months.
This year I have:
- Worked with over 1250 young people as a coach, mentor and educator covering topics such as mental health, social action, confidence and skills development
- Trained over 200 teachers and youth workers to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing
- Supported around 150 volunteers to work with young people to develop their skills and broaden their understanding of the world outside of school
- Worked with 10 charities as a consultant, facilitator, content designer and project manager
A pro-bono bonus…
The beginning of 2019 was also special as it marked the beginning of an exciting new project, which I piloted with Write Like a Grrrl. From January to March we ran a version of their initial creative writing course for girls and young women aged 16-24 from the brilliant Arts Emergency. Teaching the course and getting to know the girls was a privilege and a joy, and I’m hopeful we can launch the project on a greater scale in 2020. For me, the combination of creativity and teaching really is a perfect blend and the course had a brilliant impact for the girls we worked with too.
This year I continued my work with Action for M.E, becoming an official trustee in October after a year of shadowing the board. In addition to attending and contributing to meetings, I’ve also used my voice to raise awareness and understanding of M.E via a couple of media opportunities. I spoke to journalists at both The Sunday Times and UniLad to share my story and experiences. I hope my words helped other people with M.E to feel less alone and also helped more people to understand the genuine impact of the condition. I look forward to doing more to support the M.E community next year.
This year has seen me do the smallest amount externally in terms of writing since 2015 which – given how much I’ve done this year – feels kind of wild. For me, this has very much been the year of the novel.
I have poured my heart and soul into this project this year and it has paid dividends (not literally… but on a soul points level… jackpot.) This was the year I discovered the best motivational tool for my writing was… stickers. I wrote feverishly over the summer (sticker chart in hand) before finally finishing the first draft in September. Not long afterwards, I went on a long anticipated writing retreat with Arvon which I was very generously gifted as my 30th birthday present. It was a week of workshops, tutorials, quiet time (wifi free) and reflection. I loved it. I left with a plan for my second draft and a fresh wave of momentum to keep on going. I’m now about halfway through draft two – having made a lot of significant changes – and I feel more positive about it than ever. The novel has probably been the biggest joy (and struggle and loss of sleep agent etc etc) of my year.
In addition to the novel, however, I still snuck in one publication with my favourites over at Dear Damsels. Way back in the spring, they shared a piece I wrote for their theme of ‘escape’, in which I explored the time early on in my relapse where I felt like the only way out was a geographical move, when truthfully I was desperate to escape my body. As well as sharing my words on their website, they also discussed the piece on their podcast, which felt incredibly special. This wasn’t my first podcast feature of 2019, though, as the podcast “Airing Pain” did a feature on Lancaster University’s Translating Pain project. My contribution to the anthology was one of the pieces read and discussed in the episode and I feel so lucky to have had this experience not just once but twice this year. It really is so affirming to get positive feedback and support for something I work so hard on (and often doubt myself about).
Another creative outlet that has brightened my year immeasurably has been investing more time and energy into developing my skills as an artist. 2018 was the year I started dipping my toe in the water, building my confidence and interest; 2019 has been the year I’ve really embraced drawing and painting as a core part of my life.
I began 2019 with a short course at the House of Illustration, exploring different techniques for illustration over four evenings. I tried out collage, typography, pop up art, watercolours and monoprinting and loved every minute of it. Once the course finished I was keen to find other spaces to keep drawing, to meet other creatives and keep learning and trying new things. This led me to discovering the incredible Sketch Appeal, who run all sorts of brilliant events encouraging people to embrace the joy of drawing and creativity. I have attended several of their workshops, trying out different techniques and collecting a stack of mini portraits to treasure. I was so thrilled when they asked if they could feature me as part of their Christmas countdown of artists and I plan on keeping on sketching with them well into the new year.
Taking my interest in art outside of my flat has really encouraged me to do even more at home. Drawing more – and sharing my efforts over on instagram – has led me to some wonderful connections and even a commission from Dear Damsels. My first official publication and credit as an illustrator is coming up in 2020 and I couldn’t be more excited about it.
One of the main milestone moments of this year was turning thirty. I didn’t know how I was going to feel – and dreaded it a little bit in the lead up – but actually it was probably one of the best days of the whole year. It was very much my kind of celebration done my way. I started the day quietly at home, wrote a little and then popped on my favourite 70s disco dress (of course). I met some of my best friends for a wonderful brunch and then hit the pub for a relaxed afternoon (with a surprise cake). It was a day that set the tone for this new decade pretty perfectly, and I followed it up with a few days by the seaside to write and set some goals. Would very much recommend.
Aside from the big day and the other aspects of my year summed up above, here is a broad brush look at some of the things I’ve seen and places I’ve been this year… not bad, all things considered.
- Plays: The Inheritance; Alys, Always; Grief is the thing with Feathers; Home, I’m Darling; Emilia; Hoarding; The Lehman Brothers Trilogy
- Exhibitions: Diane Arbus @ Southbank; Seaside Photographed @ Turner Contemporary; Renaissance Nude @ The RA; Picasso Museum and Atelier des Lumieres in Paris;
- Trips: Broadstairs, Margate, Paris, Devon, Bath, Wales
Old habits die hard
I have always been the best at looking after my health when my health as been at its worst. It sounds funny when you say that – surely you’re best equipped to look after yourself when you’re faring better? The thing is, when you start feeling a bit more like your old, healthier self, it’s ever so tempting to avoid acting like you’re sick at all. If you’re so often starved of energy and life then when it comes to you it’s easy to snatch at it and run.
No matter how often my therapist tries to steer me away from self-blame, I’m sure that my relapse could have been avoided if I hadn’t been so dead set on being like everyone else and pretending my health problems didn’t exist. I took the milder form of my conditions for granted and then promised I wouldn’t ever do that again.
Except… I did a little this year. I’m nowhere near as well as I was four or five years ago – I would still class myself as moderate on the scale of my conditions – but I’m far better than I was in the immediacy of my relapse. It became tempting to push the boundaries this year, and also harder to justify to myself earmarking time to rest, time that shouldn’t be taken up by work, time for my body. It becomes easy to doubt yourself – am I sick enough to warrant this? I have always been ambitious, always hated letting people down, always a little bit rebellious against being held back by illness. I am someone who wants to do everything and struggles when my body says I can’t. I promised I wouldn’t let the rebellious tone or career ambition win again after my relapse but I did quite a few times in 2019.
I’m genuinely proud of everything I’ve achieved with work this year and the work I’ve done but the shiny highlights above don’t account for the personal toll. This year I remembered that pushing myself to work too much leads to feeling overwhelmed and my body not coping as it should do. Pushing too much means I’m always on the back foot and don’t end up with enough energy left for myself or my friends. I miss a time where my hobbies weren’t primarily conducted from a collapsible desk in bed. So much of what I’ve achieved outside of work has been done either through exhaustion or in spite of it.
I know that as we move into 2020 I need to be more mindful of how I plan my time and what I say yes or no to and why. I need to stop letting my need to be like ‘everyone else’ – when I’m not – take over from who I actually am and can be. I need to stop thinking that I ‘should’ be working more or if I have time to offer I should do so. I need to remember that a great contract doesn’t necessarily result in a great life for someone like me.
If next year contained fewer work highlights and more personal joy and stable health then that would be a win.
It’s ok to not feel ok
I think one of the hardest things for all of us to do is to sit with difficult feelings. We are constantly told from every angle that happiness is the ultimate pursuit, which suggests that any other emotion should be shunned at all costs. The thing is, that’s not actually helpful and tends to prolong the challenging feelings you’re trying to avoid.
This year hasn’t been without its share of challenges for me emotionally as well as physically. As I mentioned above, trying so hard to succeed in work and be a yes person for my business had an impact on my social life and feelings of connection. Loneliness and isolation are a common thread through the experiences of people living with chronic illness and there were moments this year where I felt that in full force. I also experienced a painful heartbreak this spring which was difficult to get through and involved a lot of emotions I would rather never have felt. Someone I trusted completely showed themselves to be someone else entirely and that’s a difficult thing to recover from. However, slowly, I have recovered and that’s because I let myself feel the hardest emotions, accepted them and let them pass. I trusted that in time I would feel stronger again.
I have had a lot of moments this year where I’ve not felt like I’ve been coping, like everything is too much and I’m not sure I can keep going. The one thing that has helped has been accepting those feelings as part of being a person – of being alive. Knowing that there is still joy to be had, even if not in that moment, and that negative emotions are valid experiences too. I have had my heart bruised and I have felt defeated but I have also been shown the kindness of strangers, the strength of my friendships and just how much love is open to me if I let myself receive it. The only real constant in life is change, and I’m slowly learning to be better at living with it and accepting that it won’t always feel ok.
The brightest moments of this year have come through sources of connection. Meeting wonderful creatives through Sketch Appeal, the ever enriching sisterhood of my writing group, meeting brilliant people through my work, deepening existing friendships and brilliant moments of pure love like my birthday.
My life, as I’ve admitted earlier on, is very much geared towards going through everything solo – I freelance, I live alone, I often don’t have much energy beyond my work – and I would like to try and change that a little this year. I want to find a better balance, making new connections and building a better sense of community, as well as dedicating more time to my favourite people. I think 2019 proved to me that, whilst I value my independence, I’m happiest when I’m not trying to do everything on my own.
This one had to get a second innings, didn’t it? This will probably be an eternal commitment but it’s nice to renew my creative vows annually (or something like that?), I suppose. In 2020, I want to finish draft two of the novel and, if I’m very focused, begin making headway on draft three. I would love to be writing my 2020 blog significantly closer to feeling about to start exploring publication.
I also want to make more time for writing outside of the novel in 2020. I had been resisting focusing writing time on anything else, but I found my creative energy for draft two was restored instead of depleted by making time to write some personal essays in the autumn. It would be nice to connect through writing a little more next year than I did in 2019. This goal will hopefully be supported by the third Write Like a Grrrl course, which I’m due to start in January, and a place at GrrrlCon in June.
In addition to writing, I of course want to continue developing my skills and confidence as an artist. I have a new course booked at House of Illustration in the new year, focused on the more technical side of drawing, which I’m hoping will help to take my work from strength to strength and give me new opportunities to explore.
This one is probably the loosest of the lot but feels important to put in there – and a good note to end this blog on. The general idea around evolving for me is to step away from old patterns – as I mentioned above – and to really start to live mindfully.
I want to be more conscious of my choices, to think more holistically, to have the courage to say no to things that won’t serve me and yes to the things that will (even if they scare me a little). I want to give myself the room to grow and the permission to change. Not so much ‘new year, new me’ as ‘new year, stronger me’.
Let’s see what happens, shall we?