Ugly Sofas

As I chugged the last of my tea I braced myself for the extra effort required to get up from the sofa. The springs had gone so much that when sat on, one felt as though they were sinking backwards. So deep and enclosed that even a short person like me could not lie out flat on them.

I momentarily laid back hoping the sofa would magically extend for me, and felt a muscle in my lower back spasm.

I was ready to buy a house—we almost had enough saved between us to buy in the area in which we already lived. The thought brought me so much joy. I imagined a cosy living room filled with furniture we chose together—I did love our living space, except for the sofas. 

Both two seats in size, burnt orange in colour and both so old that the cushions had completely lost whatever it was that made them ‘cushiony’. They were now lumpy, hard and ugly. 

I made it onto my feet and set about making sure I had everything.

Keys, gloves, bag… oh, sandwich!

I shuffled into the kitchen to retrieve my lunch from the fridge. As I did so I caught sight of the large pile of dishes in the sink from the night before.

He said he’d do those before coming to bed…

I clamped the thought before it could continue and threw my sandwich into my bag, shuffling with resolution back out of the kitchen and not looking in the direction of the sink.

‘Oh, Annie love?’

‘Ye-ees?’ 

I froze in the open doorway, listening for Brian’s response from behind the closed bedroom door.

‘Can you get some snacks on your way home tonight? I thought we could watch that new murder documentary.’

‘Oooh lovely! Yeah, see you later, love you.’

‘Love you!’

I let the heavy door to the flat go and stepped out into the pitch black morning, heading towards my car. October; my favourite month. 

I felt grateful today. Brian and I shared a huge flat in the heart of one of the most sought after neighbourhoods in the city. My job (despite a relentless case of impostor syndrome) was going well. My weekends were filled with friends and fun outings. 

Sure we were only renting, but that was temporary while we both saved up a deposit. Yes, I felt I didn’t have enough energy to truly thrive in my job, but didn’t everyone feel like that? It was also true that I hadn’t seen my oldest friends in over a year or my family in months, but I was lucky that Brian’s friends and family were all so lovely.

Ultimately, I had something I had always craved: security. I didn’t have to double check the price of groceries whenever I went to the supermarket and I didn’t have to think about what I would do if someone were to break in whilst I was asleep—this meant I was finally where I had wanted to be for many years. 

It wasn’t until I was halfway through my commute to work that I wondered why Brian couldn’t get the snacks himself. He was working from home and there was a corner shop, well, around the corner from where we lived. 

My working day started as they all did: fast. Somehow, the feedback from my manager and all of my colleagues, was that I was doing an excellent job. I kept getting given training after bonus after pay rise. It made no sense; I wasn’t doing an excellent job, I was exhausted all of the time and only just getting by. 

The one thing that kept me going were my daily lunchtime walks. Every single day, even if it was pouring with rain, I left my phone at my desk and walked around a local pond for half an hour. It had become a little pocket of time each day where I could get all of my worrying done. Instead of trying to fix my anxiety, I now tried to manage it—and part of that meant allowing some worrying.

However, this pocket of time also meant that other inconvenient thoughts and feelings would often appear uninvited. 

It would take him three minutes to walk to the corner shop, eight minutes in there to get snacks, then three minutes back. It’s not like I would bother driving past on my way home because that makes my journey home in the car longer… so I’m spending an hour of my day driving AND walking to the shops for snacks that HE wants when he’s sat at home all day— 

I stopped walking and took a few deep breaths. 

It’ll be really nice to watch that documentary together.

After all, not everyone was as lucky as me to be in such a supportive and loving relationship.

On my way home there was always a moment of apprehension upon joining the motorway where I would pray that there would not be a traffic jam; today my prayers were left unanswered.

Brian and I had been in a relationship for just over two years now, living together for just over one. My anxiety had stepped up a gear when I started seeing him, so I did the responsible thing and got myself into therapy. 

I was still in therapy, two years later, amazed by the sheer depth of the Pandora’s box I had opened and determined to continue investing in my wellbeing. 

What was becoming irksome though, were my resentful thoughts towards Brian, which were now surfacing on an almost daily basis. I could not understand it. He was the perfect partner, and yet these thoughts just kept on coming no matter how much therapy I had.

Maybe there’s just something wrong with me. I thought, as I gazed at the never-ending curve of cars and lorries. Maybe I’m just not capable of loving someone or of being loved.

After an hour of sitting in traffic I arrived home. A sigh of relief left me as I pulled into our private car park, and a smile crept across my face as I noticed Brian stood at our living room window waving. His mirroring smile turned to confusion, and he mimicked shopping bags at me through the window. My smile disappeared.

Can he really not figure out that I’ve not been to the shops yet?

I gave him no response and walked straight to the corner shop, taking pleasure in looking at the golden, orange and yellow coloured leaves now paving our quiet road. 

I stepped into the shop and unconsciously headed in the direction of the usual snacks Brian liked. One by one I picked them from the shelves and placed them into my basket. Still in my daydream, I paid and walked home.

‘Where have you been?! I want my snacks!’ Shouted Brian from the living room.

‘Give me a minute!’ I snapped, as I took a few seconds to not think about what I needed to do next.

Yeah I’ve had a good day thanks Brian, what about you? I thought in sarcasm.

Once in the kitchen and taking out the snacks, my eye caught sight of that pesky sink again.

‘Brian.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Are you going to do those dishes?’

‘Oh yeah, I will definitely do them tonight sorry. I’m just knackered from today.’ He closed the sentence with a deep yawn, limbs stretching out at odd angles due to the restriction of the ugly sofa he was sat on.

I did my best to bury my fury—I didn’t want to be a nag after all. But, Brian’s laziness with chores extended far beyond the dishes and had been an ongoing problem since I moved in a year ago. I did my best to brush it aside and settled into the other ugly sofa.

After half watching the documentary and trying to start a conversation with no success, I decided to go to bed.

‘Alright love, well I’m gonna stay up to watch footie, that okay?’

‘Yeah that’s fine.’

‘Are you sure? You’re not mad?’

‘No!’

I loathed it when he did this. His follow up questions only served to make me feel silenced.

I was drifting off to sleep when a message appeared on my phone; it was Brian. Now I really did feel furious—not a word when I was sitting right next to him, now I was trying to sleep and he was pestering me by text message.

I opened the message, which read:

‘I’m sorry for watching the footie. I love you soooo much. Thank you for getting the snacks xxx’

Feeling a mixture of validation and rage, I tried to go to sleep, but then another message came. And another. I wrote back:

‘Brian, if you want to talk to me can you come in here and not text me from the next room? It’s weird.’

Brian crept in a few seconds later and finally, we had a conversation about our respective days. This was the connection I always craved. With property buying already on my mind from that morning, I brought up the amount of money we now had saved.

‘We should think about getting a mortgage in principle you know, just get a feel for what we could borrow and then we could start looking without any pressure to rush it.’

‘Yeah… I just think buying a house is a bigger deal for you than it is for me. Anyway, I’m gonna get back to the footie. Night.’ 

He kissed my head and left the room, leaving me to process what he just said.

But he’s always been adamant he wants to buy too. I even offered to save up and buy a flat myself if he didn’t want in on it, but it was him that insisted. We’ve talked about it for months. He’s saved up six grand!

A blood-curdling realisation dawned on me—he didn’t care. He just cared about his football, his snacks, and his easy, convenient life.

It had been Brian who was so desperate for us to move in together. I had said I would only do so if we could agree on what the next step was; I didn’t want to move into a dead end. I now realised that is exactly what I had done. The blood-curdling continued as I remembered how Brian had fervently insisted we would buy together—that was what he wanted as well as me. He’d even brought up marriage again at the time—something he brought up often.

It dawned on me slowly and painfully that he must have only been saying those things to keep me in the relationship so that his convenient life could continue. It was a thought even uglier than those sofas. 

Too afraid to face the truth in person, I grabbed my phone and sent Brian a message:

‘Do you not want to buy? I thought we both wanted to?’

Typing. Typing. Pause. Typing.

‘I just like the idea of being free. I don’t know if I ever see myself buying somewhere or being married, it feels like getting pinned down to me.’

‘Are you fucking kidding me???’

‘What? That’s being a bit dramatic.’

I want and deserve better than this.

I knew in that tiny moment that I was going to leave. I realised in a second that my spiking anxiety at the start of our relationship had been my gut instinct warning me to take notice of the sea of red flags I was wading through. I looked back and saw how I’d had every right to be furious at Brian’s consistent broken promises and selfish behaviours. I realised I had been pouring my energy and love into an idea, not the person who was sitting on those awful sofas in the next room.

These realisations jumped to the front of my mind and then faded away. I tried to imagine a life without him and the thought terrified me.

An argument followed—many, in fact. Days of sleeping in separate rooms turned into weeks, as we entered into a grey area of trying to work out what to do next. I didn’t want the relationship to end. I didn’t want to start again.

I had one week where I felt intense physical pain every day in the form of stomach cramps, headaches, aching joints and insomnia. We talked everyday and everyday we reached the same brick wall. 

Brian couldn’t promise any of the things I wanted, he couldn’t even meet me halfway, and he couldn’t allow me to make any more compromises than I had already. How valiant of him.

I would swing from heartbreak and sadness to blind rage and a fear like no other. I leaned on the friends and family I had neglected for so long, not knowing when I would be able to stand on my own two feet again. Then one day, with my head hanging over a cappuccino and my heartbreak pouring out all over the table, my brother said something.

‘You know, you could just buy your own flat. You’ve got enough for a deposit and if you’re willing to relocate, there’s loads on the market you could afford.’

I almost responded ‘No I can’t’ without thinking, but then sat with his words and knew he was right.

I started booking viewings. As soon as Brian caught wind, his narrative changed. He went from not being able to compromise even a little bit to saying all the same things he’d said at the start of our relationship and throughout it (but usually after an argument). 

He had never felt this way about anyone, letting me go would be the biggest mistake of his life, all he wanted was a loving home to come back to, he would never stop loving me.

His words left me in disgust. Disgust at how insincere they now sounded and disgust at how late they had arrived. Disgust at how transparent his game was and at how many times I had fallen for it.

I proceeded with my viewings and soon had an offer accepted on a two-bedroomed flat.

Throughout the process Brian pushed boundaries, looking desperately for a way back in. Each time I held firm and suffered the tantrum that followed. With each one that came I wondered more and more how I had ever managed to live with that man. It hadn’t been a relationship. It had been a chore and a test of endurance on my part.

Completion day arrived out of nowhere and in what felt like an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ experience, I was in my new flat with a lot of work to do. Time sped up and started to feel more like an out of body experience than reality. I had carpets fitted, walls painted, appliances installed and started to furnish the place exactly how I wanted.

Now I had all this space.

As the to do list dwindled and my life started to settle again, the space felt exhilarating but also threatening. Where did I fit in with all this space? What if I couldn’t keep it all?

I expected to get a break from all of the pain I had been through, but that didn’t happen. Instead I had to dig deeper than ever before for inner strength, as the new sounds, creaks and smells of my home came out to greet me.

The desire to have someone there was so magnetic I had to work hard to keep myself busy, fearing that if I left myself alone for too long I might call Brian and say that I had made a huge mistake. Somehow, I resisted the urge to give up.

Alongside this huge shift in my life came something unexpected; I started to excel even more at work. I was sleeping better. Despite the enormous stress I was under, I had more energy and more focus. 

I came to the understanding that the energy my relationship with Brian had sapped from me had left very little room for anything else in my life. I started to remember parts of myself that I had forgotten, feeling a different kind of heartbreak—sadness at having wandered so far from myself in an attempt to make a relationship work. 

One day, after a few weeks of settling in, I woke up early feeling excited; my new sofa was arriving today. It was a three-seater, stylish and brand new. 

I made myself a cup of tea and sat on the spongy floor where it would go.

Now what? You do it properly. That’s what.

Grabbing the remote, I started up the Netflix account Brian and I shared—and which Brian had insisted I could keep using for as long as I liked. Just another way to keep some power, disguised as a nice gesture. 

I signed out of the account and set up a new one in my own name.

The intercom rang; it was my sofa. An hour or so passed of carrying parts upstairs, assembling and breaking down masses of cardboard. 

Finally, it was here. 

I took a moment to admire it. And then, I laid out flat on it.

Renewable Energy

As I am sure many of us have, I have been thinking and reflecting on the circumstances I’ve been forced into this year quite a lot. I was going to say ‘quite a lot recently’, but in reality I’ve been reflecting on them constantly since March.

Life is definitely about balance. Time alone can be cherished the most when there is also time with friends and family to compare it against.

After the local restrictions came into force in the North West at the end of July, there were quite a few moments where I wasn’t actually sure how I would mentally survive. I went through a relationship break up at the start of the year, then I bought a flat and moved in during lock down, and after redecorating and furnishing the whole thing by myself, I then had to learn to live alone for the first time in my life amidst a global pandemic.

It has been really, really effing hard.

I feel like I don’t exist anymore!

This is what I cried down the phone to my mum on one particularly bad evening a few weeks ago. I got all the hurt out, then I calmed down and then it started to pass.

I had a whole week off work and did nothing but go to the gym, make stuff from clay and listen to some of my favourite podcasts, including Unexplained and Alonement.

Something slowly started to fall into place. Like a jigsaw piece that’s been put in its place slightly off kilter and has been sticking out for ages, then you notice and slowly ease it into its right spot.

Whilst I still believe that balance is key, having this much time alone has allowed me to fully push through the barrier of pain that I was caught in a few weeks ago, feeling totally ‘invalid’.

Once I was through that barrier, I was left with this big empty space that felt weird at first but I’m now learning is actually just self-awareness. I have started to become very acutely aware of how my body feels and what thoughts pop up in my mind depending on this.

I’ve noticed that when I have self-sabotaging or unhelpful thoughts, it is usually because one or more of my needs have gone unmet. This could be a basic need like I haven’t drank enough water or eaten anything in a while, but it could also be something like I haven’t congratulated myself enough for a small win or something that went well.

I’ve started to really act like my own best friend. I mean, I will actually say to myself when I hit the mid-afternoon slump:

Right, come on love, you need a brew and a snack, and then a stretch.

I even literally patted myself on the back the other day for going ahead with something that made me feel really nervous, but I did it anyway and it paid off.

I’m learning to carry myself and it’s actually not exhausting. I’m learning to really trust and act on my intuition and I’m seeing tangible benefits from doing this. I’m learning how to keep myself company, and whilst at first this felt sad, lonely and scary, it now feels freeing and powerful.

I’ve realised that in the pre-pandemic world my life was going at too fast a pace for me.

I’m extremely introverted and highly sensitive to my surroundings; it’s important for me to choose my company very carefully and to prioritise time alone, because whatever energy is around me I soak it all up like a sponge.

I kind of knew that this about myself back then, but somehow I wouldn’t meet these needs until I had no fuel left in the tank whatsoever and was running on empty.

In today’s world, it’s different. Albeit not being to have friends over to my flat is still very difficult and I am having to dig deep for resilience and inner strength.

But, I know exactly where my boundaries will lie when normality does start to come back. I’ve even start writing ‘just me’ weekends into my diary as well as planned social outings.

This new level of self-awareness and this ‘unlocking’ almost of learning (brutally!) how to be comfortable alone and keep myself company, now means that I no longer experience that empty tank feeling. My mental and physical well-being of course doesn’t feel perfect, but it actually feels sustainable now; it’s like I’m running on renewable energy.

2020: The Year I Bit Off More Than I Could Chew

‘You are being so strong’

‘You’ve got more resilience than anyone I know.’

‘It’s huge what you’ve achieved.’

These are some of the things my supportive friends have said to me recently. At the start of this year I left a relationship that I’d been in for almost three years, and then bought and moved into a flat on my own. I lightly renovated and furnished that flat alone, and am now learning to live alone for the first time in my life. Doing this in the wake of a break up and in the midst of a global pandemic has been extremely bloody hard and lonely.

I am strong, and I am resilient, and it is huge what I’ve achieved. But I’m also so tired. I found myself waking up the other morning and wishing so much that there was someone else there to make me a cup of tea that it physically hurt.

The irony is I’m not even wishing for something that I once had; in my last relationship I made the vast majority of the hot drinks.

I’m just really pining for someone to carry the burden, even just for a couple of minutes.

Back in January and in full on survival mode, I could only think as far ahead as completing on the purchase of the flat, getting in and getting started on the work that needed doing to it. Past that I couldn’t visualise what my life would be.

Now I’m at ‘past that’ and we’re under local restrictions in the North West, meaning I can’t plan in visits from friends and family each weekend and I can’t really start to rebuild my life properly. Unfortunately, that’s very much what I need right now.

Today I am tired of being strong. I am tired of being brave. I am tired of being hopeful and optimistic about the future. I am tired of still having to ‘give it time’ to heal the wounds of my break up.

With so much uncertainty floating about and with the recent news that an old colleague had died very suddenly, I have started plummeting into a very low and unhappy mood.

Oh, there was also the moths nest I found in one of my house plants. That well and truly tipped me over the edge, because I have a huge phobia of moths.

Feeling scared about experiencing this depression alone, I’ve been trying to fix it and stop it. Now, I’m slowly starting to let go and accept that this is just how I feel at the moment, and it’s okay.

It feels like I’m still in survival mode. I’m trying my best to focus on eating properly, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and I’m going to the gym as much as my body will physically allow me to.

I sense that my strength and resilience reserves are starting to dwindle and I keep asking myself what comes next? Who knows, more waiting probably.

One of the things I am grateful for is the decision I made in the past to really gut the flat the second I moved in. Moth invasion aside, this place feels incredibly homely now and I do not think I could cope mentally if it still looked (and smelled) anything like it did the day I first moved in.

The only thing I can control right now is how I respond to all of these external factors, circumstances and events. I’m trying to choose acceptance. I’m sad; that’s okay. I’m scared; that’s okay. I’m hoping I’ll be able to have my family and my friends over to visit again soon; that’s okay. I’m struggling to adjust to living alone more than I expected; that’s okay. I’m impatient for the life I want to create for myself; that’s okay.

Whatever it is, it is okay and it will pass.

Awareness Level Up

yorkshire dales in the snow

Recently I have been lightly nudging people towards my Kindle ebook ‘Run Away Moments’, simply because it’s a way to generate a tiny bit of passive income and I often get good feedback from people who have read it.

It is a collection of 16 non-fiction short stories of my time backpacking and living overseas. It’s far from perfect, and the last time I read it I spotted more than one spelling mistake, but it was a very enjoyable lesson in self-starting. I learnt a lot about writing and why I enjoy it, and I taught myself how to format a book for Kindle and how to market a digital product using email campaigns.

A few people have purchased it, which still gives me a delightful feeling of excitement, but it has also prompted me to remember where I was in life at the time that I wrote it.

After my visa for Australia ended, I moved back home and knew what I wanted, but I didn’t quite know how to get it. I haphazardly made my way to Sheffield, where my life became a bizarre and draining parallel of making real, tangible progress towards my professional goals and becoming truly, dangerously burnt out.

I look back on that period in my life and the internal emotional pain that I carried every single day comes flooding back. I was scared and desperate to get to where I wanted to be.

I worked 3-4 jobs at the time. Office during the week, bar at weekends, freelance proof reading and also voluntary contributions to a wide range of online magazines, events and stuff I got involved in through my blog.

I had a lot of feelings to deal with following my departure from Melbourne that instead just got pushed to one side; a break up with a boyfriend, struggling to re-connect with friends back in my home town, fear that I wouldn’t achieve my goals.

I turned into a mess, unable to think even just one clear thought for months on end. Things culminated when a friend tried to commit suicide, and the stress of life broke me. I threw my hands up in the air, dropped the many plates I was spinning and moved back in with my parents.

At the time, it felt like the ultimate failure. But now I can see that it was actually the first time since moving back to the UK that I actually listened to my own needs and did something about it.

Being at home then enabled me to focus on learning to look after myself again. I started eating properly, I started running again, I stopped doing so many different things and I just focussed on getting to the next step. My goals were to build a career in digital marketing, and within 8 months I’d finally gotten over a big hurdle in that journey; I landed a job with a marketing agency in Manchester, and braced myself for another big move.

Once in Manchester, I naively thought things from this point on would be easy. They of course were not. Agencies, as I learned first hand, are a ruthless way to learn how to survive in the corporate world, and I started to get burnt out and stressed all over again.

I started to feel so fatigued and like I just wanted someone to look after me. I started to look for an outside fix, also known as external validation. Little over a year later, I entered into a relationship and immediately started investing far too much energy into that instead.

What I didn’t realise at the time, is I thought finally ‘having someone’ would make the unbelievable amount of anxiety I experienced on a daily basis magically disappear. Of course, it didn’t. Thankfully, I made a very wise decision early on in that relationship; I started having counselling. I went sporadically and sometimes with long breaks, but I kept going. The sessions became harder and harder over time, but my awareness of who I am, what I want and what I need reached levels that I didn’t even know existed.

After three years I’d built a very strong emotional foundation, which unfortunately also revealed that I was outgrowing what had been a very unhealthy relationship from the outset. That relationship ended shortly after this realisation, which I now can see very clearly is for the best.

What I know now is that the way to not burn out and feel like life is too hard, is to learn to listen to your intuition and set boundaries with yourself and others based on what your intuition tells you.

I look back on my younger self, a very eager, very anxious, very nervous woman in her mid-twenties who, despite crippling anxiety and depression, still managed to forge ahead and write an ebook, amongst all the other things she managed to do, and I’m able to feel compassion and gratitude towards her.

She did her best with the level of awareness she had at the time, it’s not her fault that she didn’t know how to look after herself better and it’s okay that she missed a couple of spelling errors before listing the book on Amazon.

She had so much fear that things wouldn’t work out as she hoped and I sometimes wish I could go back and tell her that things work out just fine. She learns how to manage her anxiety, how to listen to herself, how to set boundaries, how to take criticism without feeling personally hurt, how to think commercially. She learns to stay level headed regardless of whether things are bad or good. She learns how to trust herself more than anyone else. She buys a property on her own; a dream that she’s had from a very young age but always secretly believed would be too hard to do.

I used to look back on younger versions of myself and feel disdain or frustration at the decisions I made, but now I focus on compassion and gratitude. That time in my life definitely wasn’t happy, but it was necessary for my growth and it got me to where I am right now.

Still

Months of organising, years of saving, a lifetime of visualising. I’m a homeowner now. I keep getting hit by waves of discomfort, triggered by the unfamiliarity of having total autonomy in my own home.

For my whole life I’ve always lived within someone else’s space, whether it’s a rented room or a joint tenancy.

My first week as a homeowner has reminded me of two very small pockets of time that I experienced whilst living in Melbourne a few years ago. On two separate occasions during my time there I looked after a friend’s cat; two different cats belonging to two different friends. Both times I lived at the respective friend’s home while they were away. Both times were until now, my only experience of living entirely alone.

I remember both of those cat sitting episodes vividly, because they were both extremely serene, peaceful and relaxing weeks. I enjoyed the freedom of pottering around at home alone, I enjoyed the silence, and I enjoyed the stillness you can sense when you wake up somewhere and know you’re the only person there.

Now in my new home living alone, that stillness is back. I had completely forgotten how wonderful it feels to me.

Peace and quiet isn’t for everyone, but it most definitely is for me. The lock down restrictions we’ve been put under have come as a hidden blessing. At first the thought of being isolated with no social contact for so long was scary, but as time passed and I got back in touch with what being alone feels like, I suddenly started to feel more and more rejuvenated with each day. Now, it’s the thought of returning to a faster pace of life that scares me!

I feel well-equipped for it though. With my own space where I know I can be still, I’ll be able to re-charge my batteries far better than ever before when life gets busy again.

It clicked on my third or fourth day here. I’m now going to be able to live out those two lovely weeks of cat-sitting indefinitely. Yes, there is unfortunately no actual cat this time, but there is endless peace, quiet and stillness. It feels incredibly liberating.