Friday, 24 January 2014

An unplanned future.

On Friday, January 17th, 2013, I read a letter in a national newspaper from a woman called Catherine Purtnell. She was responding to an item in a previous edition about 15 year old children having to think about a career. She wrote that she was 25 years old, a mother of one and had no idea what she was going to do in her life, while friends already had careers.

I wrote an open letter to her and sent it to the newspaper. Today they published an edited (understandably) version as their lead letter.

This is the original.

Dear Catherine

I read your letter published on Wednesday, January 15th and smiled. 

My mind wondered back to the days when I was 25. A mother of two, helping to supplement the family income by cleaning houses, in the village where I lived. I didn’t worry about any career, as I had already fulfilled the expectations of my life.  I had trained and worked as a nursery nurse, married and now had my own children. I imagined an uncomplicated future of motherhood, followed by grandmother hood. 

The children went to school, there was a recession and I needed to earn some more money. I returned to nursery nursing on a maternity unit. I loved it and had no reason to believe that I wouldn’t be there until retirement at sixty.

Three years later my husband changed his job and became a shift worker. This was incompatible with my shifts and I had to resign. Fortunately the local playgroup was looking for a leader and I stepped into that role. I became Auntie Alison and could see the future as one where I would be looking after the children of the children that I was looking after. I supplemented my income by becoming an early morning shelf-filler in Waitrose. 

My income was better at Waitrose than the Playroup and after six years I resigned and became a full-time shelf filler. I became proud of my shelves and knew my product well enough to be asked to do the ordering. Management offered me a management training course and I started to climb a ladder I never expected to come across in my life. I didn’t know that I had management skills, nothing in my education had revealed that. (I wish degree holders who deride shelf filling would realise that with hard work and the right attitude, they won’t stay as shelf fillers.)

I panicked. I was thirty-five and thought an career would be over if I didn’t race up the career ladder as quickly as possible. I climbed up, fell off and had to start on the bottom rung again. A truly horrible experience.

I moved up the ladder again, but this time more slowly. I loved it and again, thought that I would be retiring at sixty, after a fulfilling life in retailing.

At 42, my marriage ended. My work kept my head above water and a roof over my head.

At 44, I moved 250 miles away and remarried. There was no Waitrose or John Lewis in the area and I had to resign. Now what? More retailing? No. As I was in unfamiliar territory, I offered my services as a nursery nurse to an agency and took short-term work in a variety of locations, which meant I learnt about my surroundings. One day, I was asked to help a mother with post-natal depression, look after her baby on a psychiatric unit. Three days later, the ward manager asked if I would stay on as a nursing assistant.

I agreed, resigned from the agency and plunged myself into the world of the emotionally and mentally unwell.  I enjoyed the work, loved being back in a hospital environment and again, thought that I had reached the pinnacle of my working life and would retire at sixty. Around the same time I had also answered an advertisement in the local paper and after a thorough selection procedure, became a chocolate taster for Nestle. I job I still hold today, 18 years later.

While enjoying the work on the unit, I became increasingly concerned about patents seemingly getting worse, returning frequently and the reliance on strong medication. I thought it was due to a lack of education, so I trained in a psychological approach and gained a diploma. After a year, the conflict of interest became too strong and I left to open up my own practice.

 At 51 I was running my own psychotherapeutic practice, which I did for ten years. There were parents to care for in different parts of the country and by this time grandchildren. Not nearby, as I had imagined thirty years before, but spread around the UK.

In 2009 I stood for an hour on the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square as part of the Antony Gormley One and Other Art Installation. I made some new friends through the Twitter connection with the event and am planning a mini-break with them this year.

In 2012 I was a Games Maker at Eton Dorney for the Olympics and Paralympics. An extraordinary, if not surreal, experience like no other I have had or will have again.

In October 2013, at the age of 64, I published my first book, which is gaining great reviews and interest. As a result, a local paper have asked me to write a monthly column. 

My parents died at 92 years old. I may still have another third of my life still to live. So I’m attempting to look after my health through diet and exercise, though not always successfully.
My friends are running charities arising from life events, caring for partners with chronic ill health problems, elderly relatives, grandchildren or sometimes all three. Some are still working past retirement age due to financial problems and some because they enjoy their work. Many, too many, of my friends have already died.

What am I trying to say? Nothing that improves the quote, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”

Catherine, keep a copy of your letter and look at it again every five years. You will realise that you could not have forecast your future. Your friends with careers? Look at their lives too and realise that life hasn’t quite turned out as they planned either. 


Monday, 13 January 2014

1st newspaper column on Wellbeing.

Just before Christmas 2013, I was asked by the York Press, if I would write a monthly column on Wellbeing for a relaunched Health, Beauty and Wellbeing.

It was published today, Monday January 13th. 2014. It was written using my real name, as the paper is a local paper and my practice was in York.

Newspapers and magazines are full of quizzes in January. Here’s another one about my life:

What have the following in common?

Managing the events after my husband became suddenly unwell in October.
Mislaying credit cards on Christmas Eve.
Seeing the damage done to peoples’ property in the recent storms.
Finding a diary from 1978, in a January declutter.

The answers are in reverse order. 

No: 4: Looking at old diaries can be a bittersweet activity. There’s a possibility of disturbing memories which are best left in the past. An entry for Wednesday, December 28th, 1978 read, ‘The shops are still shut.” Wow!, How did we manage with such deprivation? How did we do without all that stuff we needed? Except, for the majority of items, they weren’t needed at all. Just wanted and we went without them, because there wasn’t an alternative.

No: 3. On Christmas Eve, somewhere between a bank in town and getting off a bus at home, I mislaid my purse or perhaps it was stolen.  Cancelling credit and debit cards is easy. Frustration arises from receiving new ones through the post over a long holiday period. Even online banking is useless without a card by your side. Result? For over a week, I managed well on what was already in the house. I could have borrowed in an emergency, but I had everything I needed and only went without things that I wanted. 

No: 2. Conversations turned to how traumatic it must be to have your home damaged by extreme weather and what would we save, if given little warning. Laptops, photos, some books and records. While it would be upsetting to lose the furniture and furnishings, I know from previous experiences, that materially, what seems upsetting to lose, is nothing compared with life itself. Life is the most precious acquisition we have.

Which brings me to No:1. For a week in October, my husband’s life was all that mattered. The important plans didn’t matter. The vital appointments and meetings didn’t matter. My surroundings, clothing, bills, wrinkles, didn’t really matter. Life is what mattered. Medical staff, family and friends were precious too.


Do you need something or just want it? The following may be helpful: 

I asked for strength and I was given difficulties to make me strong.
I asked for wisdom and I was given problems to learn to solve.
I asked for prosperity and I was given brain and brawn to work.
I asked for courage and I was given dangers to overcome.a I asked for love and I was given troubled people to help.
I asked for favours and I was given opportunities.
I received nothing I wanted.
I received everything I needed.
Adapted from a prayer by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)