Thank you again for the lovely responses to last week's post, uncovering my inner teenager was pretty emotional but also reminded me of lots of fun and creative stuff I had enjoyed in among all the seriousness. In this post I'm moving into my twenties, and I think things are about to get even tougher.
I'm not sharing any photos in this post, firstly because I'm still in the process of sorting out an old laptop and my photo archive is in a bit of a muddle, and secondly because I don't think there are actually that many of me, and those there are I'm not feeling comfortable enough to share just yet. Hopefully my words will paint enough of a picture for you to come along on this journey of remembering with me.
I graduated from university the summer I had turned 21, and probably my proudest achievement of my degree was my final dissertation - an exploration of cultural identity in the fictional world of the Lord of the Rings films. I spent hours, days, weeks, months working on this, watching the films over and over, taking copious notes while listening to the 'behind the scenes' DVD extra features, devouring every book and academic article I could get my hands on. It really was a creative immersion, and I think looking back I enjoyed the doing, the research and the writing, the project overall more than I hoped to get a good mark (which I did).
The end of university signalled my re-emergence into the 'real world' and time to get a 'proper job'. Here I had a stroke of luck - the part time job I'd had throughout studying to supplement my income turned into an opportunity for a promotion, and I found myself as one of the assistant managers of a high street clothing store newly moving in to brand new and enormous premises. It was a bit of a baptism of fire, I'd never trained new staff before, or dealt with as much 'back of house' paperwork, and the shop was extremely popular and busy. After nine months in this first job, a chance came up for another promotion to manager at the branch local to home, so I moved back in with my parents and fell into the routine of work.
What followed was several years of settling in to a new job, making positive changes to the shops I managed, then stresses arising from conflicts with staff or higher management and me leaving. I had five jobs in the space of eight years. During this time I did very little outside of work - the hours were long, the work demanding of me mentally, physically and emotionally, and an economic recession making the retail world a much tougher place, so by the time I got home all I had the energy for was eating, watching TV, and going to bed, just to get up and do the same all over again the next day.
Retail management is not for the faint-hearted. It is hard work, and you have to keep an awful lot of plates spinning all at the same time. I got very good at compartmentalising all the different parts of my job - daily paperwork, deliveries and stock management, recruitment and training of staff, customer service and so on. On the rare occasions when I took time off for a holiday, my teams would be horrified by the length of the list of jobs I left them to do in my absence, clearly not comprehending all that I had to keep on top of.
The one aspect of retail work that I loved more than anything though was visual merchandising. Getting a big delivery of new stock was my favourite, as it meant I could spend time moving things around on the shop floor to display the new collection to its best advantage, and at the same time refresh stock that had been there a while to bring it new attention (the number of times something that had been in for weeks would suddenly sell out after I moved it...). This task to others seemed like a huge pain - moving fixtures, figuring out what would fit where, disrupting the shop for customers trying to find things - but I very quickly found myself in my 'zone', immersed and in flow of what I was doing. I also found my own effective ways of carrying out these floor moves - it was much easier to clear a whole section of space and start with a blank canvas for the new collection than to try and shift things around one bit at a time. This meant I could get a proper feel for the balance of the collection, the colours that worked together, the potential outfits that would entice customers. This was my creative play for years, not just with clothes, but also jewellery and accessories, and even re-organising stockrooms to make finding things quicker and easier. Of course, from a retail point of view, the visual merchandising of a shop is firmly tied to KPIs and metrics like sales per square metre and so on, but frankly this didn't interest me at all. Yes, I could cobble together some figures if the area manager visited, but primarily I was focused on making my store look amazing. There were even times, when things were at their toughest, that I considered specialising in VM and stepping away from management, but I was always dissuaded by expectations about salary and working hours (many VMs work out of shop hours and late into the night). I did attempt a bid for freedom in the form of a distance learning course and trained as an Image Consultant, but I wasn't really in the right frame of mind to commit to the work needed to get off the ground as a viable business and compete in a tough market. It's still something that I love to do though.
During these years there was also lots going on in my personal and family life that contributed massively to my stress levels, and eventually lead to a diagnosis of depression followed my medication and counselling. I had one serious relationship during this time, but after a year together he decided it wasn't right for him, and the break-up came very unexpectedly to me (although in hindsight all the signs were there), leaving me heartbroken and shy of putting myself out there again - I'm not a naturally social person so internet dating was the only way I could see for me to meet guys and the prospect terrified me at the time. We also had a few tough years within the family - illnesses and bereavements took a heavy toll on all of us, but I was the one there at home trying to support my parents through everything, taking on more responsibility and absorbing every swing of emotion in my naturally empathic way. Not only was I having to try to come to terms with the psychological and physical illnesses and then the deaths of my two grandmothers, but I was also there in the eye of the storm of my parents' bereavements, their emotions, and then all the practical arrangements that went on for years afterwards.
Some of these days were my darkest, absolute rock bottom, and I truly believe it is only with the support of the most wonderful counsellor that I managed to pull myself back up a little bit towards the light. She offered me a safe space to express myself, to cry rivers of tears, to have my fears, frustrations, sadness and guilt heard, and to begin to feel that I could do things just for myself, not because others expected them of me. It was also during this time that I joined Rock Choir, and over six years later it is still one of the best decisions I made, despite feeling utterly petrified walking in to my first rehearsal. You'll remember that music had played a big part in my time at school, but I had more or less forgotten all about that by this point. Starting to learn the lyrics for different songs, and singing in multiple harmony with other people quickly reignited that love, and soon my weekly choir rehearsal became the brightest spot in my week and I would prioritise it over everything. Singing is a hugely cathartic experience - it is a physical workout as much as an intellectual challenge and an emotional release, but in general I find it incredibly uplifting, and it never fails to cheer me up if I've been having a bad day.
Following this darkest time, I left full time employment and worked part time in a different shop for a while, but eventually decided that even this wasn't working well enough for me to feel a sense of satisfaction with my days. I went back to university for another year to do a Masters degree in Linguistics and thoroughly enjoyed the time to delve deep into many different aspects of a new subject, to challenge my brain with new theories, to write essays again with my own opinions and evaluations, and to learn purely for learning's sake.
I never really had any intention that this second degree would lead to a particular career, but once the studying was over, the pressure began mounting again for me to get a 'proper job', to settle down into a career and get on with real life. Internally this frustrated me, repelled me even, and I had to force myself to scour the internet for jobs, to fill in applications and to turn up to interviews and sell myself. It didn't go that well, and took me eight months and dozens on rejections - you're overqualified, you don't have the right experience - before I was eventually offered a new position. Even then there was a part of me that knew it wasn't what I wanted to do, but I was so unused to listening to that voice, I bowed to the pressure and took the job.
Having rediscovered joy in singing with the choir, I slowly began to introduce more creativity back into my life. I took up knitting properly, having tried to learn as a child but never got the hang of it, this time with the wonder of the internet and magazines I picked up tips and developed my skills, quickly progressing to trickier techniques and getting excited about trying out a new pattern or buying a new kind of yarn. Now I knit pretty much every day.
In all, my twenties seem like a period in the wilderness, and it was only really in discussion with a good friend that I remembered how much I had loved doing the visual merchandising in the shops. Closing towards my 30th birthday, light and play were starting to return to my life, but the disconnection between my soul needs and what I was doing because I felt I 'had to' still had a long way to go before it would be repaired.
Depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues are never easy to talk about openly, which I think is a shame. When I finally admitted that I couldn't cope on my own and asked for help I realised that there are people and services out there to offer support, and they do amazing work. If you or someone you know is struggling I would really encourage you to reach out to your doctor, local mental health service, a private counsellor, or mental health charities like Mind to get help. You don't have to do it all on your own. I like the quote about depression not being a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of trying to stay strong for too long.