Category Archives: volunteering

Flinging a Burning Dream off a Cliff and then Switching Careers

A little while ago, some of you may remember, I had a major freak out and quit my job. It wasn’t heroic, it was something that I simply had to do for my mental health. I’m not saying that my job was the sole reason for my breakdown, but the industry I worked in didn’t help. The years of sporadic super highs followed by regular rejections had fostered the perfect conditions for my gargantuan burn out.

My dream was to be the next Sara Cox. I chased that dream throughout my school days and for the best part of my 20’s. I was positively neurotic, and it all seemed to be going remarkably well. Over the years I tirelessly produced my own radio shows on different internet stations, I set up my own club night and I started playing out at other peoples club nights too. I had mentors and producers helping me craft demo’s, and after being nominated for a Student Radio Award and a Sony Award (the now defunct Oscars of radio) I even nearly had an agent. The key word there is nearly. I nearly got my dream.

It was on a rainy summers day that it all came unceremoniously crashing down. On the side of my fledgling DJ career I made radio documentaries for the BBC. This is something I had fallen in love with, but that couldn’t sustain me financially. (For a 60 minute feature I would earn enough for around 2 months rent and maybe a much needed yet small trip to the Tesco wine department. With each documentary taking me at least 3 months to perfect, let’s just say – the London Living Wage it was not.) On this fateful day I had been pitching my documentary ideas to the then Executive Producer of Radio 1’s daytime output. Pitching days were my least favourite of days. I could write a perfect proposal in the sanctuary of my own bedroom, but trying to articulate these opposite the dino-esque exec whilst suffering severe anxiety and low self esteem was petrifying. He had very sharp teeth. It’s a wonder I ever got anything commissioned. After said pitch, Mr. Exec (I won’t name names) asked to have ‘a word’ with me alone. He had listened to my demo, the one we had been sending back and forth for months, in between me spending days meticulously making all the changes he’d asked for because this really was it! I was in there! My palms began to sweat. My heart jumped into my throat. The conversation went something like this:

Mr. Exec: I’ve heard your latest demo – and you really are a very, very good broadcaster.

Me: (bright red, couldn’t speak.)

Mr. Exec: I just don’t think that you’re suitable for the station.

Me: Oh, (went redder, tried not to cry) um…

Mr. Exec: Do you think I’m right? Have I made the right decision?

Me: *eyes widen in disbelief/shock/anger that he is asking ME to tell HIM if he has made the right decision about ME*

In hindsight I could have been more of a brazen ox, a bit more bolshie. More forthcoming. But I wasn’t. Anxiety wouldn’t let me. The assertive part of me evacuated and I became a small tiny fluffy rabbit in the headlights of a massive fucking truck.

via GIPHY

I just sank into the sunken feeling and smoked a whole packet of Marlboro Menthol’s out of the window of my basement flat whilst looking at a brick wall and listening to Bob Dylan, wishing I was born in the 60’s when real talent mattered. For someone with an apocalyptic view of the world and who hadn’t discovered mindfulness yet, it felt like an entire life’s work had just been set alight and thrown off a cliff. It was really, really shit.

via GIPHY

My mistake was, that I had chosen to do something that EVERYONE ELSE wanted to do too. I had banked on it, I had been so focused / deluded that I actually thought this could be my career in life. No matter how hard I worked, or how good I was – the world just didn’t NEED another jovial female radio DJ. Furthermore, whether or not I was going to have my ‘Big Break’ was in the claws of one sharp-toothed shiny-headed dino-esque executive producer and he wasn’t going to take a risk on someone who wasn’t already famous on YouTube. It just didn’t make economic sense. *Soul slowly dies.*

I carried on in radio for a while, because that was all I knew. This I had decided was my vocation, what the hell else was I going to do? I ended up getting a full time job helping younger people get into radio and the arts, those who hadn’t yet been broken. I could finally pay my rent AND pay for dinner but in hindsight, it wasn’t a very good idea at all. It was like sending someone with severe claustrophobia to fix a tiny, tiny lift. You get my gist.

Shit got really real. I finally had a whopping great break down. (See previous post.)

I had to do a lot of ‘getting real’ with myself to find my next move. I knew I had to make money, but I also needed to feel passion for something again.  Whatever I did next needed to be a job I could actually realistically obtain without offering up my heart on a platter to a dinosaur or working for free basically forever. Never again did I want to work so hard for a career that just didn’t really exist. I saw something recently that sums up this sentiment perfectly…

Image result for ikigai

 

It was quite simple in the end. I had to learn to be honest. I just had to do things that felt real and natural to me. After my breakdown all I wanted was to be in the woods as far away from radio / media / audio editing software / dinosaurs as possible. So with my new found freedom I went to live with a couple of hippies in the woods on the Welsh borders; I found myself in rural Sri Lanka being propositioned by a large hairy naked Australian man in the dead of night whilst sleeping in a mud hut with no door, I rode up the West coast of India on night trains, I lived in a huge pink Ashram existing on watery rice and then spectacularly failed at veganism by eating my entire body weight in chicken curry. I also lost and then gained 12 pounds. Most importantly though, I didn’t think about my career or what I should do with my life. For one year I gave up those thoughts. I’m not saying I was never a tornado of emotion over what was going to happen to me. But I tried my best just to live as fully as possible, to make decisions based on what I wanted to do next and not what I thought I should because-it-would-be-good-for-my-career. It was part of my healing process and it was the beginning of a new mentality.

I stopped worrying about the future and I focused on today.

To cut a long story short, the things that I got into over the subsequent year naturally led me to my next career goal. From living in the hippy woods I found out about Thrive – a horticultural therapy charity. From volunteering at Thrive I discovered I had empathy and was good at supporting people which opened up a volunteer opportunity at Better Health Bakery – a social enterprise providing training to adults recovering from mental ill-health. Working there lead me to the realisation that I could be actually be paid to work in mental health and BOOM there it was. The penny dropped and things began to make sense.

via GIPHY

What I’m saying is, switching careers for me didn’t involve making mood boards or spider diagrams, it didn’t involve getting careers advice (frankly it doesn’t exist for people over 16) and it certainly didn’t involve sitting around and thinking about it. I had to LIVE first. I had to try new things without the ulterior motive of getting a job at the end of it. Yes, I was beyond broke, beyond-the-bottom-of-the-overdrafts style broke, that was scary I’m not going to lie. I did have to work some bar shifts and I also took a job promoting the most putrid perfume ever made to disinterested cinema goers. It wasn’t my highest of points.

When I told people I was ditching the heady heights of media to become a mental health nurse, the reactions I got fell into two categories. In the first category, people’s reactions went something like “oh wow that’s amazing, good for you'” and the second category sounded more like “um, are you sure you want to do that?? You will have to look after dangerous crazies.” I didn’t let the latter category put me off. They stand for a small section of people who think that all people who suffer with mental health problems go round wielding knives in hospitals and thus shouldn’t be helped. Nobody likes a quitter, they didn’t like the idea I was ‘giving up on my exciting dream’ but it was in doing this that I saved my sanity. I have subsequently been accepted to study at Kings College London in September and until then I am a recovery worker for older adults living with mental ill-health.

The switch from a creative industry into the NHS is a very disorientating one, and this itself warrants a whole other blog post. Yes I do miss the buzz of winning a commission to make the story of Mariah Carey, or interviewing my radio idol at Bestival (although when that happened she looked at me disgruntled and said “urgh, you’re annoyingly young” which made it all very underwhelming.) The world I had so tirelessly worked to crack hadn’t lived up to my expectations and the faux glamour of it all really did stink.

via GIPHY

I had to re-evaluate what makes me want to get out of bed, and this is it. Yes it is tough, and no there aren’t any after work piss-ups, or freebie festivals, or glitzy award ceremonies. People just do their jobs and go home to their lives. No messing. When I finish work I feel exhausted yes, often emotionally drained. But I feel valued. It’s real. Life is about what I know and doesn’t rely on who I’ve just met at a party. It’s exciting in a very different way, and I haven’t even been attacked by any of those pesky knife wielders yet, funnily enough.

Annie x

 

 

 

 

 

Social Inclusion and the Power of Decent Bubble Bath

The isolation of battling depression is a major hindrance to recovery, loneliness and depression are best mates.

When I feel myself tumbling into a depressive phase the last thing I do is call my friends or family about it. Almost subconsciously I nestle in and I go full throttle speeding into hibernation mode. I stop making plans and confine myself to the duvet tent. I order greasy takeaways and play endless games on my phone, I watch an entire season of Orange is the New Black on every hermits Holy Grail – Netflix. I then trawl through Facebook to make sure no one is having too much fun without me (but of course, they are.) This in turn triggers loads more negative thinking, leading to another sizzling hot American (pizza) and a serious marathon session of ‘World Chef’ on my new best friend of an iPhone. I become ensconced in an unhealthy and insular grease laden bubble of misery.

I spent much of the last two weeks hibernating and this is after a full recovery from ‘The Episode’ aka my emotional breakdown last year. Which proves that this illness can rear it’s grim head at any point. Even though I am fully aware that cutting myself off is the worst thing I can possibly do, the feeling that I have nothing to add to any conversation and physically don’t have the energy to put my eyeliner on  straight in order to meet people in a social setting where normal humans dwell, is far stronger.

I’m telling you all of this because I can now feel myself coming out of this little bleak place, and the two key reasons?

  1. Self Care
  2. Social Inclusion

Basic self care goes out of the window when you’re depressed. You might start smoking because the nicotine rush takes you momentarily out of the hole. You might not shave your legs for weeks (when you’re a person who normally does.) You’ve run out of all the fucks to give about body moisturiser, but worst of all, you beat yourself up about all of this until your innards are black and blue and you feel all of the guilts. Sorry to be a cliche, but it’s just a ma-hoo-sive vicious circle. BUT, you can find your way out. This week I did it by:

  1. Running myself a hot deep bubble bath with the expensive shit I got for Christmas that I’ve been saving for a ‘special occasion.’
  2. Painting my nails
  3. Going to the London Buddhist Centre for my favourite yoga and meditation classes.

What I found was (and I always knew this really, I just chose to forget it) that small positive steps lead to many more. Good activity breeds good activity, just like bad breeds bad. Before long I started feeling human again and I got my confident walk back. (Instead of looking like Tigger.)

Social inclusion is a term I’ve only recently started using. I’ve often felt better when I’ve had a purpose and when I’ve mixed with people for that purpose (aka work) but I didn’t realise it was ‘a thing.’ Now I know that it is THE most crucial part of a persons recovery from depression. To feel like you are part of something and that you are needed boosts your self worth, which is why it’s a tricky thing to be off work on sick leave. It might feel like a relief at first and although my sick leave was indispensable in giving me the space to see clearly and have a new direction I also felt isolated and ashamed. That’s why getting involved in ‘stuff’ and keeping busy to me is so important. Every Friday I can be found digging and weeding and laughing at dogs in Battersea Park. I am a Volunteer Garden Assistant and I support other people living with mental ill-health for the brilliant charity – Thrive. By doing this I have developed confidence in the fact that I am a valued member of society and now I’m very much back on the job hunt AND I’ve applied to go back to Uni. I honestly believe that if I hadn’t started volunteering it would have taken me an awful lot longer to get where I am now, or even to develop the confidence to work out what I want to do next with my life.

If you notice a friend has gone off the radar, they may be on holiday, or having too much fun with their new boyfriend. But maybe, just maybe, they’re suffocating under a duvet tent and getting a repetitive strain industry from Candy Crush. Give them a text, eh? (Because they probably won’t answer the phone.)

Annie x

 

 

The Battersea Park Road to Paradise (and belonging)

IMG_7091

I’ve just finished reading The Battersea Park Road to Paradise by Isabel Losada. I picked it up in the brilliant Oxfam book shop in Brighton during one of my soul searching days out. The book jumped out at as the kind of light, life-affirming reading I needed after surviving a deep depressive phase and was beginning to rebuild my life brick by brick. It’s the kind of book that could easily be dismissed as another Eat Pray Love-esque chick-lit romance novel without a great deal of substance. But as I read, I found that this was not the case. Like me, Isobel was genuinely on a quest to emerge from a big black ‘hole’ and hungry to find meaning and substance to this life.

Feeling stuck? Yes, me too. I’m in a pothole on the road to enlightenment. You wouldn’t have thought a pothole would be deep enough to get stuck in, would you? But I’ve managed to get totally wedged in. – Isabel Losada

As I read more and more, about her voyage into the world of Feng Shui, motivational speakers, guru’s and Ayahuasca in the Peruvian jungle – I  realised that I had just bagged myself a new friend in Isobel with something in common. The desire to learn and make the most of life. To experience the extraordinary, to be willing to take the road less traveled for fulfillment.

She too is a woman living in the big city, and like many people in big cities all over the world – we can feel bereft of something. I love london, but I also long for a tribe. I feel envious of the Ashaninka tribe, that Isobel stayed with, who live off the land in the Amazon Jungle. Their basic needs are fulfilled and they want for nothing. I can’t help feeling that our insular and consumerist culture has a lot to answer for when it comes to our mental health. In order to sell us something, that shampoo advert, or diet pill or new Apple product needs to make us feel unhappy with that we’ve got. So we buy, buy and buy forever. We don’t need all this shit, we need people, warmth, love, knowledge.

As Isobel puts it:

Isn’t it ironic that the Ashaninka tribe are, in so many ways, living more happily from the land than most of us are living in our boxes in our towns and cities? They live simply and with people they love around them. We have to learn to love and cherish one another. We have to bring people together. We have to hold parties – not the kind where people drink, but the kind where people listen to each other, where real friendships are made.

We can’t all live in the Amazon, but in London we too can feel connected and vital. I have just started volunteering one day a week at Thrive – an organisation specialising in Horticultural Therapy – in Battersea Park (funnily enough!) I spend my Tuesdays there digging potatoes, planting seeds and cutting sweet peas with a small group of adults with different learning disabilities. Gardening is therapy – living off the land even in a small way is nourishing for the spirit, and soil can make you happy! But what I am finding to be extra therapeutic is the existence of a community of people, working together, and being nourished by each other. A team where everyone belongs, and are working hard together for a shared positive goal. Surely this human connection has to be part of the key to happiness and well being. If you feel like you belong, then you are part of the way there.

So join that rounders team, go to a community cooking class, volunteer at your nearest nature reserve if you have the time. There is something magical about people coming together for something that is not money driven. Something that adds to our sense of community and belonging. If you do this, then perhaps everything else will fall into place in your world and you might just find your tribe.

Annie x

 

 

 

10 things you need to know before you WWOOF

WWOOFing = weeding. Lots of weeding
WWOOFing = weeding. Lots of weeding

If you love the wilderness, want a break from the norm and are sick of playing sardines on the tube, WWOOFing can be very attractive.

The unfortunately named WWOOF stands for ‘Willing Workers on Organic Farms.’ Or ‘Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.’ (The number of times I have had to explain that I am not planning to go around the world barking like a dog, but that WWOOFing is actually a thing is outrageous.) It is a global network of farms, who host volunteers. The volunteers work on their farms in exchange for food, board and knowledge. So if you’re skint and want to travel, it’s rather perfect.

The idea of working for free (or in exchange for food and a bed) is alien to some people. “But what about your pension?” my Dad’s voice echo’s. “How are you going to support yourself?” my therapist quizzes, looking perturbed. But, contrary to popular belief, working with nature in exchange for food can be a wildly liberating experience. You are no longer pimping yourself out to do stuff you don’t really want to do in an air conditioned box. Whilst connecting to the Earth in a very real way and learning about sustainable living, you are – for a fleeting period – free from the grip of money. You literally don’t need it anymore. You have escaped the ratty race, you are emancipated. No contracts, no boss, no shitty coffee machine.

Every WWOOFer has his or her own reason they ended up in the middle of nowhere weeding someone else’s gravel path (it’s harder than it sounds.) For me, it was because I quit my job and was fed up of paying London rent. I needed some new experiences, I was hungry to see the world outside of the box, I was disillusioned with conventional work-life and I absolutely had to get away to think about what the devil to do next with my life.

The view from the 'office'
The view from the ‘office’

So far I have WWOOFed twice this year, and both experiences have been drastically different. The first experience I will spend the least time on, because it consisted of shoveling and spreading endless wood chippings in front of some ‘glamped-up’ yurts for 6 hours a day to make them look pretty, and watching the owner sever his thumb whilst showing off with an incredibly sharp axe. This was followed by being left alone to cook Aldi frozen scampi (I’m vegan) in an out building (we weren’t allowed in the house) for me and my fellow WWOOFer before me sneaking away in the middle of the night in a panic because frankly I couldn’t stand it any longer. It was hardly organic or eco-friendly, and a safe and nurturing environment it most definitely was not.

The second adventure was much more in line with my expectations. A self-sufficient forest garden on the welsh borders, with two punks. I stayed in my own little caravan, I bathed with the ducks in their pond, I ate nettle stir-fry for the first time, and I learnt loads about low-impact living and growing food organically. This is what WWOOFing is about, there’s no taking advantage. Both sides win, and it can work.

Since my story shows that it is easy to fall into the wrong hands when you WWOOF, (after all, you are basically going to live with complete strangers) I am giving you 10 things to ponder before you travel vast distances to give your precious free time away.

1. Expect the unexpected: WWOOFing is kind of like internet dating. You see a profile online, you peruse their gorgeous pictures and brilliantly written blurb and you think to yourself – this is perfect! I have found my soul mate! So you go along with a spring in your step to the date with a super high expectation of who they are, you create a rose-tinted world of what this is going to be. Then you turn up and realise they are much shorter than they said they were and much worse at making you laugh. The same applies to WWOOFing, so make sure you do loads of research about your farm before committing – and read other WWOOFers comments about your farm thoroughly!

2. Bring your own pillow if you are fussy about things like that: Otherwise expect a very flat, lumpy, musty one. Although you’ll be so tired by the end of the day that you probably won’t notice if you were resting your head on a jagged rock. What I’m trying to say is that accommodation is often BASIC. You’ll be very lucky if you get a towel.

 

My nest

3. Expect to be lonely: If you don’t like being on your own, then make sure your farm is hosting other WWOOFers along with you.  You’ll probably have a fair amount of free time each day, and when there’s no electricity and you’ve finished your book – it can become quite boring. If you love spending time on your own though, it can be amazing! The perfect chance to write, meditate or just stare into the distance nonchalantly without a heckler in sight.

4. Bring your favourite snacks: When you are living on the farm you’ll probably be light years away from the nearest supermarket, and it might be a long time until dinner. You’ll be doing lots of manual labour which builds up an insatiable appetite and unfortunately you are entirely at the hosts mercy in regards to food. When and what they decide to cook is up to them, so there might be times when you are left anxiously craving a KFC. So bring things like nuts, rice cakes, and chocolate to stave of the hanger.

5. Keep an open mind: The deal is that you’ll do jobs that need doing, so you might not be always doing your favourite thing. For every meal eaten, there’s a plate to be washed. So if you end up down at the bottom of the woods in the dark, washing up with rain water in a massive dirty bucket, just remember ‘this too shall pass’ and hold it together.

Washing up two days worth of pots with rain water at the bottom of the woods in the great outdoors. Washing up two days worth of pots with rain water in the woods.

6. Prepare to do heavy lifting: Especially if you are bigger than the other WWOOFers. There are endless heavy things to push, pull and cart around on farms. From trailers to logs, and dirty crockery to bales of hay. So get those muscles flexing and the elbow grease greasing. (Or just hope there is someone bulkier looking than you and stand behind them so you don’t get picked.)

7. Get used to being grubby: You might be one of the lucky ones to have access to a warm shower. If you’re one of these people then good for you! Or you might have access to a cold shower, which you can build up a tolerance to. You might on the other hand not have access to any traditional washing facilities at all – in which case you hope there is a pond somewhere close for you to bathe the old fashioned way. Even if the water looks like chocolate milk and it is brimming with tadpoles, you will get in it – believe me.

My bath My bath

8. Expect to have a ‘WTF am I doing with my life’ moment: This happened to me whilst I was kneeling on my sore knees in the baking hot sun weeding a waterlogged orchard. The weeds were not friendly, I had been doing it for four hours straight and my trowel was all bendy. I was hating life. I suddenly felt the urge to give my host the middle finger. It can be tough, the work can be repetitive and you might feel like a bit of a dogs body. But then they bring out the most delicious dinner of home-grown produce and you remember about taking the rough with the smooth.

9. Prepare to listen to permaculture wizards talking about themselves: You will probably be living with hosts who are incredibly passionate about what they do, or what they have created. This is brilliant, and you’ll probably learn loads from them. They live and they breathe their project, and they probably don’t go out very much because of all the work it entails. So although you are also a very important individual with your own story, and your own goals, prepare for them to want to talk mostly about themselves and their vision. In some cases they might want to talk about their  ‘spiritual journey’ and the time that they ‘meditated for so long that water came gushing out of their palms.’ These words were actually spoken, no joke. So practice your best ‘sincere/interested/captivated’ face.

10. Have some taxi numbers handy in case you need to escape: If the worst comes to worst you’ll just have to do a runner. If you’ve got a really nice boyfriend/girlfriend then they might rescue you. If not, keep a list of local taxis handy, so you can do a vanishing act. Obviously it’s better to come to some arrangement with your host if it isn’t working out, but if you suffer from anxiety and feel like you are trapped and aren’t able to rationalise in the heat of the moment – then get the hell out of there. Call a cab, go home, run yourself a bath, eat a massive sandwich of your choice and revel in your new found freedom. After all, you’re a volunteer and not a prisoner.

If you have any other WWOOFing tips, make it known below.

Annie x