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My best decision

Last month, after a lot of stress, frustration and unhappiness, I decided to make a decision that would take me out of 25 years of secure, full-time employment and into the great unknown: I said goodbye to my well-paid job and to the profession I have been working in all my life.

I am now classing myself as a blogger and a writer, a freelance for eventual hire, and a semi-retired lady of leisure. My former industry – libraries – has changed so much since I started.

Do more with less has been the mantra across all aspects of service, while expectations continue to grow from what we now call ‘customers’ rather than ‘readers’ or ‘users’.

I cared so much about my profession. I contributed so much to it: building teams, changing strategy, giving presentations, writing articles, serving on committees.

I built a national and international reputation for being tough but fair, for wanting the very best for any service for which I was a part. I worked in every area of the business from unpacking boxes to supporting and advising executive staff.

But – my health was suffering underneath for years. I have crippling social anxiety so networking became more and more of a chore. And although I never doubted myself once as a professional, things started to change so fast and make me so worried I fell into depression, anxiety and insomnia.

I knew what it was, and I also knew that support in any business is still sorely lacking. Eventually with the help of my GP, a Harley Street psychologist, doctors at Occupational Health, my lovely husband, and the wisdom of friends who had also strugged to cope, I steadily improved, realised that getting well = getting out, and so here I am.

It’s by far the best decision I have ever made. I retain my column in Serisls Review. I am stepping up my blog. I hope to get some guest slots or invitations to write elsewhere. I’m planning a third poetry book.

In terms of eventually making money I want to get my proofreading and copyediting qualifications (so if you’re reading this and can put any work my way which I could use to build my portfolio, please contact me via the About page here).

I want to be out and about reviewing theatre, film, archive television, books. So if you would like me to engage with your work, send me an email.

Most importantly, now I don’t have a day job where I have to watch what I say, I can now be more political, more activist, more honest in how I engage on social media. Of course as an ex-librarian I retain their code of ethics, but if I want to call something out I will do it.

Being constrained and squashed was making me ill. I’m still tired, rundown, and sometimes have bad ‘crawl under the duvet’ days.

But I sleep better, and don’t have the knot in my chest or the pain in my stomach that are physical manifestations of stress. At least not as much as before.

I’m hopeful. I’m contented. I was absolutely right to say ‘so long’ to Louise the librarian and ‘hello’ to Lou, the brave.

Via Redbubble

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Why theatre is therapy for me

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Regular readers will know that currently I am living with anxiety, stress and depression, which had restricted my ability to engage in my working life and left me taking each day at a time until I get back to my full strength again. I have written about it here and here.

However, I am also a blogger and one of my primary interests is the theatre.

From my first trips with school to the Oldham Coliseum, through years living in Yorkshire and taking advantage of theatres across the North, I have always loved the escapism of the footlights (but as an observer, never a performer).

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My first theatre trips were at the Oldham Coliseum

I’m lucky enough to live in London, which has over two hundred theatres, West End, off-West End, fringe and pop-up. Whether your taste is the big, tourist-trap musical or the above-the-pub experimental, the huge organisations (National, Old Vic, Barbican) or the exciting stuff in the smaller houses, there is something here for you. London is also home to several suburban theatres in its surrounding towns, which host travelling tours.

This is not the post where I will discuss theatre pricing, although that may be something I return to at a later date.

No, this is about how going to the theatre has had a positive effect on my mental health. How seeing others performing in something created for the masses lifts my spirits and keeps me calm and relaxed. How having an hour, two, three, to think about something else other than the triggers that make me jumpy and unhappy, is the best non-medical intervention money can buy.

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Image from PR Week

For me, live performance – and I will stretch this to concerts to some extent, although sometimes they are too crowded and noisy for me – is an escape, and in building this blog over the past few years I have been able to concentrate for short periods to review and reflect on what I have seen. Even shows which are dark and challenging can offer something to a brain which is slightly off-kilter; it doesn’t have to be something silly which brings nothing but laughter.

I do plan my visits, though. I usually attend theatres I have been to before, or stick to the centre of the city. If I do venture further out I plan my journey, make sure I know where I am going, and always get there at least half an hour before so I can get my bearings, take a deep breath, and get settled.

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Lonely Anxiety – by Michelle Porucz

If I can, and I’m on my own, I try to talk to people around me in the auditorium, although being in London that’s not always an option, and I have become acutely aware that there may be other people in attendance who are just as anxious as me. So sitting in silence and just looking around the place is fine. Now and again my lovely husband comes along with me, and then I’m a bit braver, maybe going to somewhere without all that double-checking, and just purely enjoying myself.

I love the atmosphere of a theatre. What the outside looks like, how the show is promoted on the frontage. The lights in the evening, the bustle outside in the day. The foyers, the staff, the pictures, the programme. How people act before the house is open. How everyone always grumbles about the loos even when they are fairly palatial (ENO Coliseum, take a bow). The nooks and crannies of larger venues – the thrill of finding a new corner of a new level at the National, the weird little rooms around the basement stalls of Victorian buildings.

Once you’re in the auditorium: sneaking a peak at the set on stage, watching as the levels fill up, the scents and sounds and sights of a unique new audience, checking out the seat and the leg-room, the arm-rests, the strangers who will be neighbours for however long the magic lasts, the busy ushers who have eyes like hawks. The half-darkness in many houses well before the show gets going.

What’s the stage like? A traditional proscenium? A thrust stage? In the round? What props are visible? What’s the lighting like? Is anyone on the stage already, and what are they doing? Is there music playing before the show starts? Working out the sight-line (especially if a larger head is directly in front!). Putting the baggage of life out in the real world away under the seat, working out where to put the programme, having a quick check for the nearest exit at the end of the show.

All this helps to calm the anxious mind and push any difficult thoughts away. For the next hour, two, three, my reality is what’s showing on that stage in front of me, and those people who are performing are not the people who are listed in the programme, but characters who are taking this journey with us and for us. I have always been fascinated by actors and that ability to inhabit another body and soul. Actors I have followed for years across different roles and shows, or those I am seeing for the first time, and there is always the chance that one of them will settle in the memory forever, for what they do on the stage, now.

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Some shows leave you laughing, some leave you crying, and some have a touch of both. When you’re unwell, and your emotions have been squashed a bit by medication or by something that really doesn’t feel quite right, being able to connect on whatever level with the theatre is invaluable. Thinking, talking, reading and writing about it later helps that feeling even more.

If something is rattling around in my mind, the best way to stop it for me is watching a play or musical on the stage (I also watch lots of films too, and they have the advantage of being able to revisit as often as you want, for far less than the outlay for two visits to the theatre), but the theatre has an immediacy and is being shared, just that one time, by those who are present at that time, on that day.

Without the escape and cocoon of the stage I would be far further back along the road to recovery. Even if I have to take that two steps back now and again, the show pulls me back and gives me strength. And that’s why it is special, and valuable, and essential, for me.


Mental Health Awareness Week

Twitter will be sympathetic this week, even empathetic.

Tips will be shared, there will be discussions about ‘stigma’ and how in these more enlightened days, mental health issues are treated in the same way as physical ones.

Except that’s still not the case.  Why is that?  Are people frightened that their own minds might be as fragile as those around them?  Are people embarrassed, irritated, inconvenienced?  Do they see it as yet another modern ‘trend’?

I wrote about my own engagement with the black dog recently.  The more of us who do this, who say, ‘this is me’, in just the same way one discusses a broken arm, a dicky heart, or a chest infection, the more we will break through the awkward silence, the suspicion, the blatant disregard of situations which need our help.

This is me.  Get over it.

Follow the #mentalhealthawarenessweek tags on Twitter.  Read around the links and articles which will be shared.  Take a look at the cartoons and photographs.

Don’t say people ‘confess’ to a mental health condition.  Don’t treat them as something shameful – if a colleague of yours is ill, then treat them the same way you would with a physical ailment.  Send them a get well card.  Say you hope they’ll feel better soon.  You know, ‘normal’ stuff.

Because these are ‘normal’ people.  I hope this week makes that clear, and gets the dialogue moving, continuing, and progressing.

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Lou’s Top Tips:

  • Put yourself first.  Not anyone else.
  • Fight for what is right for you, whether that is in work or personal life.
  • Engage where you feel up to doing so, disengage where you need to.
  • Don’t feel guilty is you can’t do something.  It doesn’t matter.
  • Find something you enjoy, as that will lift you up.
  • Forgive ignorance, however well meant.
  • Be honest.
  • Value yourself.  If you don’t why should anyone else?
  • Go out and listen to the birds sing.
  • Look back to those you loved, and situations which made you happy.
  • Be mindful.  Meditate.
  • If you believe in something, don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong.
  • Be that inner child again.
  • And finally … life is short.  Don’t waste it.

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