Saturday, 31 December 2011

On A Successful Year

So, we’ve now reached the end of 2011 (well, give or take an hour or so), and, in a rather unoriginal and clichéd way, I’m going to look back on the year just finishing (and possibly speculate on the year just starting).

For me, 2011 has been very different from the years that immediately preceded it. I spent much of 2009 and 2010 feeling very ill, struggling to cope in the world, and not really feeling comfortable in my own skin. As 2011 started, it still wasn’t clear how things would work out, and there have certainly been one or two hiccoughs along the way, but as the closing hours of the year approach, I can look back and see that things were, in fact, starting to work out, even at that early stage.

I don’t think the successes of this year have been entirely rooted in this year either. After a very shaky 2009, when it became apparent that my determination to control my own mental health (or, at that time, mental illness – bipolar disorder) wasn’t working, I made a sort of pact with myself – for 2010 I would relinquish control, take the drugs the medics prescribed, do whatever the psychiatrists and community psychiatric nurses told me to do, no matter how silly it seemed, and see whether THAT worked any better.

Of course they were right, and it did. I was still pretty ill at the end of 2010, but the actions I’d taken that year would reach into the future and enable me to start to build a better life. Instead of getting whatever job I could take, I gave up work completely, and, with the help of the community mental health team, applied for disability living allowance and employment support allowance. I accepted that I would be financially worse off, accepted whatever help I could get from friends and family, and cut my standard of living as far as I could without actually making it unbearable. The Wonderspouse and I completely gave up the idea of going on holiday, drastically cut the number of concerts and gigs we attended (in general, only going to the ones we’d already booked, and not booking anything new), discovered which “value” products were just as good as the regular ones, ignored the wealthy people on the internet who talked about Waitrose, and moved the cats from Whiskas to own-brand cat food (which probably saved more than anything else).

So, at the start of 2011, things were changing. I had the nearest thing to a “clean sheet” to start with that I could get while retaining parts of my life that I was keen to keep. I also knew that my 40th birthday was coming up, and that being 40 would be a good excuse to get my life in order. Life may not exactly “begin” at 40, but I figured that it might be a time when I was finally as “grown-up” as I was likely to get, and that it might be time to look at what I actually wanted out of life, rather than letting all the baggage from childhood and upbringing, my previous expectations and hopes of what life would be like, and the opinions of others who didn’t really know, or in some cases care, what would be best for me, affect my choices.

By the start of the year I was working with an “employment specialist” at the community mental health centre and starting to think about what kind of work I could do. It had been established that the dead-end administrative envelope-stuffing jobs that I had been doing were not only a waste of the talents I had, but didn’t actually help my mental health either. I don’t need to do EASY work, I just need to do work that suits me and that I can, to some extent, control. This fact was brought home to me sharply just before Easter – I accepted a full-time maths teaching job in a secondary school, which seemed like a good plan at the time (especially as the money situation was really beginning to bite at that stage). However, after just 6 days I was exhausted, tearful, and unable to continue. It felt like a disaster at the time, especially as I had come off my benefits, not been paid for the work I had done, and was completely without income for a month. Fortunately, my best friend kept us afloat and prevented total meltdown.

That was the final time I tried to conform to previous expectations. My new career would have to be, well, NEW, not a rehashed version of anything that had gone before. My employment specialist asked if I’d ever considered adult education – I hadn’t, but I started to think seriously about the possibilities that might offer me.

At around the same time, my relationship with the internet and my internet “friends” changed. I use the word “friends” advisedly, because, in early summer, around half a dozen or so of these “friends” decided they didn’t actually like me very much. I believe it all revolved around one particular person, who, for reasons that nobody was prepared to tell me, took against me, blocking me and unfriending me wherever he could, but since these people won’t actually tell me, I can only speculate. I had tried to be a good friend to this person, but my friendship was not, ultimately, reciprocated. He didn’t even have the manners to respond to e-mails I sent him, despite the fact that I just wanted to help him cope with various situations in which he found himself.

So, at that point I drew a line under it all. If those people didn’t care to be friends with me, then they could go. If the originator of the trouble is hell-bent on destroying himself, then there is precious little I can do about it – there is only so much of my life that I’m prepared to waste trying to help those who don’t want my help. If any of those people wish to be friends with me again, they’re very welcome – I don’t bear grudges, and will forgive those who apologise and wish to reconnect, but it’s all on my terms from now on. I am no longer a slave to the internet, partly because I now realise that living my life entirely online was actually rather detrimental to my mental health, and partly because I have lots of interesting and good things going on in the “real world”!

I also realised at that point that I had regained my self-esteem. During 2009, I’d felt hopelessly inadequate as I hung out on twitter with people who talked about books I’d never even heard of, spent hours talking about different types of computers (most of which I could never even think of affording), and I tried desperately to fit into their world, in the hope that I’d fit into any world at all. At that time I spent pounds and pounds on books that I suspect I shall never read. The Wonderspouse and I now have a good laugh about it – what WAS I thinking, spending a tenner on some tome on Indian history? Goodness only knows. But I’ve now realised that reading is, for me, about relaxation and enjoyment, and I’ve returned to what I enjoy. If others want the heavy stuff, then I’m pleased to leave them to it!

So, as my 40th birthday approached, I had started to be “me” again, and it felt good. I’d also started to swim outdoors at the local lido, and was beginning to lose some of the weight I’d put on through medication and silly eating in the previous years. As I pounded up and down the pool, I also sorted my head out, going through all the rubbish of the previous couple of years and gradually dealing with each piece, bit by bit. I also got fitter and stronger, and life began to feel easier and more manageable.

Then came one of the defining moments of the year – I finally got a pair of beautiful rats. I published a post on this blog yesterday about how I got into rats, and my relationship with them. I’d wanted rats for years, and being 40 gave me the perfect excuse finally to get some. Getting rats was something I did because I wanted to – in some ways, taking on more animals wasn’t “sensible”, but I’m now learning that if I wait until “the right time” for some things, then I’ll never do them. Furthermore, the decision I made has turned out to be a good one. Having my little rat men around has made me so very very happy!

Just after my birthday, the Wonderspouse and I celebrated 9 years of marriage. Our 8th anniversary had been overshadowed by the final illness of our beloved cat Athena, but the 9th was good. We decided around that time that we would have a party for our 10th anniversary in 2012, and started to plan it – the first time we’ve done any such thing together – it’s quite an adventure, and there’s still much to be done (planning ground to a halt in the autumn for 2 reasons I’ll mention shortly) but we’re determined it’ll be a fabulous occasion, done OUR way, and something we’ll enjoy working on together.

The other thing that my 40th birthday (and, to some extent, the 10th anniversary of the Wonderspouse and I getting together) has done, is finally enable me to put aside any thoughts of parenthood. Yes, there are all sorts of tales of people having children later in life, but since I have failed to conceive all through my 30s, it is now extremely unlikely that we shall ever be parents – so unlikely that I have now accepted that that won’t be our lot in life. Five years ago, this seemed like the end of the world, but now I’m used to the idea that we are the end of the family line. The Wonderspouse and I will be together “until death us do part” I’m certain, but we shall not have children (nor nieces or nephews) and will spend our life together doing other things and having other interests.

Along with assuming that I would work in a full-time job and achieve financial stability, I had also always assumed I would have children – but now another expectation that I held throughout my early life is gone, along with going to work in a suit, and living in a house that I owned. As well as this acceptance (and maybe also to do with the 40th birthday) the bitterness I felt for many years about my incomplete doctorate and my previous failed careers has evaporated. I’ve learnt, somehow, that academic qualifications, which seemed, for many years, to be the be-all and end-all, are actually just a tiny part of life, and that finding something enjoyable and fulfilling to do has much more to do with interacting with people and being able to offer them something they need, than it has with raw brain power.

By this stage, life was looking pretty rosy. The Wonderspouse had a new job that he was really enjoying, and was starting to bounce back after the workload of his old job and looking after an ill me for over 2 years. I was getting fitter, enjoying my rats and swimming, my benefits were all sorted out again, and I had a career plan lined up that was all starting to fall into place. I had also started practising my viola again seriously and played the Telemann concerto better than I’d done before at a concert in Wales, and my maths degree, which I’d abandoned a couple of years earlier, was back on track. I was also doing voluntary work – helping out one of the mental health charities that had helped me by playing the keyboard for their music workshops, and teaching adults who had no experience to use computers in a local library jobclub.

Then came one of the more difficult parts of the year. The Wonderspouse’s Mum had been to the doctor’s and there was talk of “a shadow” on one of her lungs. There were more tests, lots of worry, and she was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer and Hodgkin’s disease. Party planning went on hold as we spent more and more time driving down to visit my in-laws in order to try to help them through an autumn of chemo and radiotherapy that finished shortly before Christmas.

However, unlikely as it may seem, even this illness HAS had a positive side (not that I wouldn’t have preferred it not to have happened, of course). But we’ve become closer to the Wonderspouse’s parents than ever before, and have been exchanging regular letters and phone calls with them in order to keep up with how they are and to update them on what we’ve been doing. We have all valued each other much more – they’ve accepted our help, and we’ve been able to show them how much we care about them. It’s also meant that we’ve spent much more time with them and realised how much we all have in common – so much, in fact, that the Wonderspouse has said to me on many occasions “You’ve inherited that from my mother”!!! He has an interesting take on genetics!

The other big feature of the autumn was a completely positive one. My plans for a new career were put into action. I got a place on a CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) course at a local college just as my time with my “employment specialist” was coming to an end. The course was “part time”, although turned out to be very intensive. Luckily, it got off to a very good start owing to plenty of preparation (practice journeys into college and so on) and a spell of beautiful weather in the first few weeks of the course!

The course suited me very well, and, apart from a couple of short episodes of ordinary physical illness, I remained well throughout. I walked around half of the 3.5 mile trips from where I parked the car at my friend Scharwenka’s house, to college, which helped me to keep fit, and, more surprisingly, I started to use the local buses on my journeys. I haven’t travelled by bus for years, after a series of debilitating panic attacks on public transport, but, it seems that I’m once again well enough to use buses for short journeys! I also saw Scharwenka more often, which was good, and spent time in town, out in the world, rather than sitting on the sofa at home.

At the start of the course too, I finally took the Open University Maths exam that I’d delayed three times through illness in the past. Once again, my degree was moving forward – I didn’t cover myself in large amounts of glory with the result, but I passed comfortably, and was delighted to have finally got things underway again!

Fortunately, just as I was beginning to get tired, college stopped for a half-term break, and I had a chance to catch up. I acquired Laura, the hyperactive hamstress, during the break, and Robbie the Roborovski shortly afterwards. I also did something else that I’d been determined to do for my 40th birthday.

People seem either to love tattoos or to hate them. I love them. I’ve wanted to have one for years, and decided that it was time to get one. Those who argue against them seem to say “You’ll regret it when you’re older” rather a lot. At the age of 40 I decided that I was probably old enough to have made up my mind, so, after finding a good studio on the recommendation of a friend, I went to get inked! I now have a 4 inch long picture of my viola tattooed on my right upper arm. I love it. It IS real (I’m asked “Is it real” by quite a lot of people) and permanent. It’s exactly what I wanted, exactly where I wanted it, and is a beautiful piece of artwork by a very talented artist. It didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as I expected it to, and it healed well, in a relatively short period of time.

I don’t think it’ll be the last tattoo I get. Far from regretting it, I love it every time I see it!

After the half term break I returned to college, and spent the next few weeks working really really hard on my CELTA course. I discovered that I did actually have an aptitude for teaching after all, and when I could do it in an environment that didn’t mean arguing with teenagers about whether they wore ties or not, it was much more enjoyable. I’d always found enforcing such things as uniform regulations tricky as a school teacher, especially as I, personally, don’t care at all what kids are wear to school, just whether they work hard, learn stuff, and behave politely while they’re there.

My work at college was made much easier by the arrival of a new pair of specs. Being grown-up enough to take charge of my life has been accompanied by a change in my eyesight – 2011 will also go down in the annals as the year that I started wearing bifocals. And, as is my way, I was delighted to get them. Suddenly, copying from the whiteboard became a whole lot easier (particularly for the tops of my ears, which were getting worn out because I was taking my single vision glasses on and off so often), and at home I could now see my dinner in focus, and then look up and see the telly too! Genius!!!

As the end of my college course approached, life got even busier, as I started the first course of my Open University Languages degree. I had planned to wait until I’d finished my Maths BSc before starting my Languages BA, but I knew that changes in university fees structures that will start in 2012 meant that I would be unable to afford to study languages if I waited, so I started studying the two subjects alongside each other. Most of my language study will be in French and Spanish, but since the OU offer a course in beginners’ Welsh, I thought that would be a good place to start! So I did!

Shortly before Christmas, the CELTA course results came through. I was delighted to learn that I’d got an A, the highest grade available, achieved by around 5% of students. I also got 95% for my first Welsh assignment, so 2011 is ending on something of a high, workwise.

Christmas itself was peaceful and spent at home with the Wonderspouse. We saw my family shortly afterwards, and went to visit my in-laws on the Wonderspouse’s 40th birthday – he was delighted to be able to spend it with both parents, and also seemed not to mind having his wife around! And, just to put the icing on the cake of a year that has got better and better as it has progressed, George and Henry, a couple of adorable baby rats moved in yesterday.

So, for the first time in a while, I’m looking back on a year and liking most of what I see. I’ve met wonderful friends this year (including some I first knew online); learnt not to worry about those who have turned out not to be friends after all; moved much of my life back into the real world, talking face to face with real people (even when I’ve found it challenging, for ultimately, life cannot be lived fully in front of a computer); learnt what I can and cannot do career-wise; lost weight; got fitter, and a little bit slimmer (although there’s still a fair way to go, I’ve made a very good start); got bifocals and had high blood pressure (the body is showing a few signs of wear and tear); resumed my Maths degree, started my Languages degree, and done a CELTA course; had my first tattoo; enjoyed our 5 cats, and acquired 2 hamsters and 4 rats; started to plan a fabulous party; had my 40th birthday; and, as I’ve got well again, enjoyed being with the ever fabulous Wonderspouse, who helped me so very much through the more difficult years.

Now that I’ve finished writing this blog post, the rest of the evening will be spent working on my goals for 2012. I don’t do “resolutions”, as they can be broken, and are then over, but I do like to set goals for the things I’d like to achieve in the coming year. I have so many ideas and wishes and things I’d like to do, that sorting them all out into manageable chunks may take some time - I just hope that I can sit here on 31st December 2012 and look back on another successful year!

Happy New Year everyone!


  1. Wow! What a read. You've had a very busy, meaningful year. You've done so well. You should be proud of yourself.

    We had 3 robo hamsters. They're very quick, but lived longer than we expected. The last one lived for 2 and a half years. This is the equivalent of a person living to 113 years - the oldest they CAN live.

    Well done and I hope the rest of your courses go well. Good luck with the goals and of course, the anniversary party.

  2. Happy New Year to you too. Yours is the twitter friendship that I've enjoyed very much this year the most and has made that particular endeavour worthwhile, despite its inherent limitations! Best wishes to you for 2012, and also your studies with the OU - kudos for sticking with that, it's something that I've tried but couldn't get on with, (I prefer a much more hands on [ok, traditional] approach to learning), but I admire those who can achieve their goals this way.

    Good luck and best wishes for the future,

    Rebecca (bexlegood)

  3. Happy New Year! It was great to meet you in 2011. I'm glad it was such a good year for you - here's to 2012 xx

  4. Happy New Year! Phew! What a year 2011 has been for you!

  5. share words of motivation friend
    People who think negatively always sees the difficulty in every opportunity, while successful people are always looking for an opportunity in every difficulty.
    Greetings, success always and I wait behind the visit: D

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  8. Well done and I hope the rest of your courses go well. Good luck with the goals and of course