Thursday, 21 June 2007

The way out

Just two messages - two little threads of hope, two little paths to follow - were all that it took. To be precise, one little book in the post and one email link and I was suddenly set back on some kind of track. It was just as they said in the coaching books I'd become morbidly addicted to: baby steps, little changes, mini-successes were the way to go about changing your life.

My first tiny success came in the form of a commission - my first for many months - the result of a contact name I'd been given by a colleague. Writing on my woeful state of unemployability, the article was cathartic to write and what's more, I did it without so much as a mild case of anxiety - let alone a panic attack. I could write without becoming a gibbering wreck/devilwoman/crazed nutcase.

Buoyed by this, I flicked through the Weightwatchers book I'd received. I'd always been dismissive of 'diets' (hmm...could that be why I was so fat?) and I hated the idea of having to turn up every week to be weighed-in (more to the point, I resented the idea of having to pay for the priviledge). But, with the book to hand now, at no cost to myself, I reasoned that I could just look at the principles and try it out - mini step by mini step, no pressure, no obligation, no real expectation.

At first glance, it seemed that I was already doing everything right. 'That figures!' I snorted, self-righteously, stubbornly convinced that nothing would ever stop the incredible expanding woman. Still, I casually added up my 'points' and over the next few days, made a few little half-hearted alterations to my existing dietry habits: I switched to skimmed milk (yuk), had a salad for lunch and cut out little extras like cheese toppings and salad dressing. Baby steps, I thought.

Within one week, I - the enigma woman - the woman who moaned continuously that she could not lose an ounce whatever she did - had lost 4 pounds. Energised by this victory, I put more energy into the enterprise, adding a few further changes - making sure though, that my alcohol quota was sufficient to keep me happy of an evening. Unbelievably, the weight kept dropping off. I began to feel like a complete fraud. All that complaining, all that indignation, all that outrage - for what? I'd been quite capable of losing weight all the time - I just hadn't known how.

As the coaching books say - success builds on success. Over the next few months I got sudden commissions, started writing more prolifically, finally got invited to interview for some jobs, got offered a job (which I turned down), passed my counselling course and discussed the possibility of completing my PhD with someone at my university who at last seemed genuinely interested in my work. I joined a Rock Choir (to fulfil the Wendy Craig, creative-type evening class thing) and I kept on losing weight.

So here I am now: 2 stone five pounds lighter, my jeans hang off me and my t-shirts cling but no longer ride up above my belly. I can walk without waddling, I can run without feeling like a lumberjack and I can wave at someone without flaps of flesh wobbling uncontrollably under my arms. And I'm INCREDIBLY SMUG about it . "Have you lost weight?" people ask me nowadays. "Why yes," I reply with a satisfied grin, "two and a half stone!" (well almost) "It was easy," I add with a patronising flourish, waggling my firm behind for good measure.

I've now become the sort of person I would have envied - if not despised - five months ago: a self-satisfied, slim hipped middle aged woman, who is happy in the knowledge that there is more to life than children and is doing something about it. I'll be starting my PhD in September, I'm performing at Guilford festival with my Rock Choir and I've just finished training to become a volunteer for a charity helping families with small children. Not bad going in half a year.

I'd like to say 'IN YOUR FACE' but I don't really know who to say it to - perhaps I don't have to say it to anyone in particular :

IN YOUR FACE previous life!

Next baby step - to stop being so bleeding full of myself. Goal for this month: that this will be the very last time I will be quite so smug.- promise!

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

The turning point

It was the final straw that broke the camel's back.

I'd applied to loads of jobs. All had been carefully selected - I'd made certain that I was well qualified for each and every one:

Research assistant in Southampton
Research officer/editor in Oxford
Assistant tutor Open University
Researcher - Oxford
Part-time proof reader Thompson Local
Receptionist for student services at the Art college in Farnham
Any job: Surrey University
Any Job: Hampshire County Council
the list went on...

Result? The recycling bin every time. I wasn't even called to interview, not once.

Discouraged, but not defeated, I saw an ad for an exam invigilator at my local sixth form college and applied. Though it offered no real prospects, it would place me in an academic environment and would give me a small but steady income while I could continue my freelancing. I had a good chance of getting it; I'd done invigilating before and one of my referees actually worked there. If I didn't get that job, I thought, I'd never get any job.

Weeks later:

Dear midlifer
We had a strong response to our advertisement for this post and the level of application was very high. We regret to inform you that in this instance you were not successful....(or words to that effect).


I was almost apoplectic. If I'd been a cartoon, steam would have been whistling out of my ears, my eyes would be popping on stalks, my face would have turned puce (actually it really might have done), my head would have spun round faster and faster until it finally exploded into many itsy bits.

For goodness sakes - what on earth would it take for me just to get a poxy job? Enough was enough: the line had been firmly drawn in the sand, the gauntlet had been thrown down and I was mad as hell.

To add insult to injury, my other resolutions had taken a nosedive too - despite what I thought were my very best efforts. My attempt to find some way of using my research data had reached a cul de sac and my weightloss/exercise progamme had stalled irrevocably and my attempts at journalism were proving fruitless. The final nail in the coffin was when I had to decide what to wear for my in-laws' Golden Wedding anniversary. I tried on garment after garment only to cast them off, rejected, on my bed. Despite my increasingly vigorous exercise regime, I had become so massive, so voluminous, that nothing - but nothing - would fit my marshmallow of a body anymore. Not even those black satin trousers that had been WAY too big for me only a year or so ago.

I was both outraged and despondent at the same time. For days on end, I railed bitterly against the injustice of it all to my friends, family, associates, neighbours, fellow forumites - anyone in fact. And I successfuly bored the pants off everybody. Some commiserated, some pointed out the positives, others effectively told me to get a grip and stop complaining.

But two people actually offered me what turned out to be a way out. One sent me a Weight Watchers book and the other gave me a lead for an article idea on my experience in the job market. My fortunes were finally about to change.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Setting Goals

September 2006. The end of the summer holidays and the start of a new school year.

The pressure was on to start afresh and get 'active'. I desperately needed to do something about my unsatisfactory life. If not, I'd either be heading for another meltdown or I'd have to book in for an anger management course.

I looked back at the goals I'd scribbled down enthusiastically before the holidays conveniently prevented me from doing anything; I certainly had my work cut out for me.

1. Find a job/ earn some money

A job or income would help to increase my self-esteem and sense of worth, allow me to contribute to the family income and possibly enable us to move to a bigger house so my youngest child didn't have to sleep in a room the size of a shoebox. In my dreams, it would also set me up for a possible later-life career, but I had to act quick, because time was really running out.

I was looking for a part-time job which could fit in with school timings and (ideally) holidays as I have no family locally who have enough energy for childcare and my children have an almost pathological dislike of the thought of a childminder or after-school club.

Bearing this in mind, I had two main options:
*self-employment i.e. journalism/home business
*part-time post in an academic institution/charity/government organisation which offered the possibility of personal development and use of my existing skills and background.

The problem:
* Local part-time, term-time jobs are at a premium where I live and competition is fierce.
* I have not had a regular job since I married 15 years ago and many of my referees have retired, died, moved on.
* My academic qualifications make me over-qualified for local admin jobs and the non-completion of the PhD means I am under-qualified for part-time research jobs at local universities.

I didn't hold out much hope. I'd already been applying for jobs since March and hadn't even got as much as an interview. I felt as though I'd fallen into some sort of holding area for the qualified yet unemployable - people who just don't seem to fit anymore - the 'white elephants' of the job market.

Though I was determinedly pessimistic ('I'll never get a job!' 'No-one in their right mind would hire me!') I set out to try a little harder, sending out speculative applications to likely employers, widening my search, expanding my job criteria and improving my CV either underplaying/overplaying my academic background. At the same time, I decided to persist with the journalism, to see if that got me anywhere, nervously working on a few ideas and pitches to get me back into it.

2. Get another qualification/retrain.

Even though I'd spent much of my life in one form of training or other and even though I'd just finished a journalism course, I could see the logic of getting a decent, vocationally-oriented qualification which would set me up for sure employment.

The problem: I didn't know quite what direction to take or what course to do. What's more, retraining would mean yet more time out of the job market and even less money coming in. It would also mean that my earlier education might be wasted - especially the PhD. I wondered what the point of doing a Master's was when I could always spend that time actually finishing what I started all of those years ago. The unfinished business of the PhD was still a gaping wound.

After some thought, I decided to enrol on an 'introduction to counselling' evening class. I rationalised that this would help with my listening and interviewing skills (valuable for my journalism and social research), but also allow me to see if this might be a direction I would like to take. I also resolved to look into ways in which the data from my postgrad research could be used, so I could reach some sense of 'closure' on that one.


My body image was not good. On the few occasions when I was driven to look at myself in a full-length mirror, I was increasingly horrified by what I saw. I didn't look like me anymore. My tummy, stretched beyond all recognition by my last pregnancy looked like a deflated balloon, my breasts like dried out gourds hanging down to my waist, my legs and thighs huge, wobbling and riddled with new and expanding tracts of cellulite, my upper arms flappy and my elbows saggy. And now, after two weeks in the US over the summer I found myself the heaviest I had EVER been. In theory, losing weight and toning my body would help me feel better about myself and increase my confidence, but I knew it wouldn't be quite that simple.

The problem: My ever-increasing girth was quite frankly, an enigma to me. I didn't get it. I'd always eaten sensibly, I went to the gym three times a week, did lots of walking and swam regularly. I'd tried to 'think myself thin', I'd tried eating out of smaller bowls, chewing my food properly, I'd come off the pill, I'd had my thyroid checked and I'd even entertained the idea that I might be in the menopause, but it seemed that whatever I did, I never actually lost any weight.

Just before the summer holidays I'd joined a gym especially for women, called Curves, which originated in the US. So far, I hadn't been able to go to it much, but I planned to try it out for a few months to see if it helped at all. If not, I'd then take the drastic step of cutting down on food and drink.

So those were my goals for September last year. And I tried - I did - I tried hard to work on all of them, but in late November I hit an all-time low and this proved to be my turning point.