By the time coronavirus hit London I had already lost so much, I genuinely caught myself thinking ’It shouldn’t be too bad for me. Most people I love have already died anyway.’
In the last seven years, my best friend died of breast cancer, my mum died of lung cancer, and my dad died of bone cancer. Like that wasn’t enough, I went through an early menopause at the same time as running a company and looking after two small children. Then my marriage ended, a home restoration went pear-shaped, and I realised that I was one pay-cheque away from a failed mortgage payment. I was so frightened I was literally walking into walls.
It came as quite a shock to me, the idea that you can do everything you’re supposed to in life – work hard, buy the house, marry the person, have the kids – and then you get hit by a series of massive plot-twists anyway.
So when the enforced slowing and solitude of lockdown started, I was kind of glad of the break. I’d spent the 12 months previous firefighting in every corner of my life, so becoming a stay-at-home single mum in the coronavirus capital of the country was a relief.
And that’s when the feelings came. They came and they came, and they would not stop coming. All the grief I’d been stuffing down, but also all the love and joy and longing too. I would set my children up in front of the TV and then go out and sit in my parked car in the street and weep – great wracking sobs for all that I was, and all I wanted to be.
“I had silenced and denied my inner self to the extent that I didn’t even know I had one, because it simply would have cost me too much to admit that the path I was on wasn’t taking me anywhere I wanted to go.”
Because for some time before everything went wrong, I’d been working hard to not notice that I no longer believed in the life I was living. Things looked okay from the outside, yet I’d find myself crying on trains, and thinking, ‘How odd, I wonder what that’s about.’ I’d been unable to listen to music or watch films for years, claiming I was too busy, but really, I was finding anything that brought up actual feelings completely overwhelming. I had silenced and denied my inner self to the extent that I didn’t even know I had one, because it simply would have cost me too much to admit that the path I was on wasn’t taking me anywhere I wanted to go. Instead, I learned to not listen to myself, not to trust my own instincts, and to deny my own desires.
And then when everything happened at once – all the deaths and the endings – I think that that part of me that was buried saw its chance. In a supreme act of self-preservation, I was finally able to hear my own voice. I had nothing left to lose, after all.
At the kitchen table, with the kids home-learning next to me, I went back to the person I had always been, before I got buried under all those plans and promises. I returned to the work that had always sustained me. For a long time, I had interviewed women about who they are and who they want to be, vaguely knowing I was writing a book, but never really backing myself. Suddenly the project had incredible focus and drive. It became the only work I was capable of doing – I think because, on some level, I knew that these intimate conversations with other women is where I would find my answers, my path, because they held the lessons that I so badly needed to learn.
I interviewed Hollywood reporters and London social workers, Vietnamese bankers and Kiwi school teachers. And in these interviews I found amazing women who took misfortune as an opportunity to change, and women who refused to allow decades of nappies and board meetings to become the only story they had to tell.
“I am learning that I have been using wrong tools in the hope they will get me the right answers.”
I found women who have pressed the ‘fuck it’ button on toxic careers, survived broken hearts or been tragically bereaved, and those that woken up to realise they’ve never truly been loved. Their stories vary wildly, but what they all have in common is that they are all women who decided to lean into their own lives and ask for more.
Hearing these stories, and thinking about what they mean has helped me rebuild myself, and has set me in a new direction. I see now that decades of endless business and overachieving was a ruse to cover the fact that I’d never truly engaged with the business of my heart. Thinking, it turns out, has been my defence against feeling, and now I know that, I am forever changed.
I am learning that I have been using wrong tools in the hope they will get me the right answers. I’m starting to see the value in being kinder to myself and more patient with others. I am allowing myself to notice how much I gain from being in nature and from really listening to my kids. I’ve come to see that sleep and exercise are hugely underrated and, and crucially I have backed my own creative work and let it come out from the sidelines into the centre stage of my life.
Tillie Harris is a writer and psychosocial researcher, working with the deep drives that underpin women’s choices and desire. Follower her on Twitter at @Tillietalk and on Instagram at @Tillieharris.Official
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