I had a plan. ‘The plan’ no less. A plan that I’ve pursued pretty much all of my adult life. My passion for the plan and my belief in what I was doing saw me through the huge financial, emotional and social sacrifices I made in order to fulfil it. I worked insane hours and juggled a variety of odd and often unappealing jobs to support myself while I completed the PhD I needed to achieve the plan. I finished my PhD with an achievement-studded CV and a healthy clutch of publications that all bode well for the dazzling completion of my plan. In fact, there’s every reason for me to think that if I just stuck at it for a year or two more, I’d realise the ambitions that have been shaping my life for the past 15 years.
But just at the point where it seemed that all my hard work was about to bear fruit, life happened. Relentlessly. Brutally. Repeatedly.
I can’t tell you what’s happened here and do justice to what me, my partner and others have been through. But to give you a sense of it, when I turned to therapy because I thought I wasn’t coping because I was depressed, after a few weeks, my therapist said there wasn’t an awful lot he or I could do because mentally, I was healthy – appalling things just kept happening around me in a way that was entirely out of my control.
The latest such event happened three weeks ago, when the company my partner was working folded at the exact moment that my temporary teaching job finished. The end result is that we’re moving out of our little rented flat in London and shipping our stuff to my parents’ house for a while.
Believe me, this was never part of the plan. Moving back in with your parents at the age of 34 because you’re technically homeless is an intensely guilt-laden and shame-riddled experience. Can we seriously not support ourselves at this age? Have we done things so badly that its landed us in a state of teenaged dependency? Is this what happens when you idiotically pursue a (mildly) alternative plan rather than following the more established or traditional paths through life? (Seriously, the plan involved a stable job, pension, nice house – it wasn’t wild!).
Tangled up in this menagerie of self-loathing has been the overwhelming sense of failing, of falling short of the plan, of not being dedicated enough to the plan to push all the ‘life’ stuff aside and achieve it anyway. Even as we’ve been packing up our home, figuring out how and where we’re going to live, trying to get work in order to feed ourselves, I’ve still been beating myself up for not dedicating enough time to the plan. The mantra’s been that I’ve failed at the plan because I haven’t sacrificed enough. The fact that pursuing the plan has contributed to the fact that we couldn’t weather one more financial upheaval doesn’t factor in my mental noise. Somehow not achieving the plan has felt worse than not having a roof over our heads.
But on the flip side of this is the knowledge that in the past, I’d carried on with the plan through thick and thin, through relationship ups and downs, through house moves and dwindling bank balances, through a whole array of personal crises and wrenching sacrifices. This time, or more accurately, over the past few months, I’ve barely lifted a finger to push the plan forward. I’ve thought about it, I’ve scheduled in time to work at it and then, nada. The passion that kept me plugging away has gone. I’m running on empty. I just don’t care.
Given that I’ve spent so much of my life working towards the plan, it’s not surprising that seemingly running out of steam on the cusp of finally reaching my goal is shattering. Or it should be shattering. I’ve spent months picking over the emptiness where my motivation used to be, asking myself whether this is some form of cowardice, laziness, or self-sabotage – me being reluctant or unable to go that last extra mile and clothing it in lack of interest. For weeks, I’ve been waking up at 3am, wrestling with the certainty that this lack of umph is just final proof that I’m one of life’s losers, an innate failure, a dream-addled idiot. After all, other people achieve their long-cherished aims, so why can’t I?
It’s only been in this past week that I’ve realised that you cannot witness and experience the kind of pain, violence and loss that we have over the past 18 months and still be the same people afterwards.
This might not sound like much of a revelation, but it’s amazing what kind of effect it can have.
Of course my passion for the plan has gone. Of course the umph that kept me pushing away at it has disappeared. For me, this person sitting here, the plan is meaningless. It is a dead thing. It’s somebody else’s plan, a plan made and pursued by someone who valued and loved different things to me. It’s not a bad plan – it’s just not mine anymore.
So this is us, me and my partner, starting out without a plan for the first time in over ten years. No home, no mortgage, no kids, no permanent jobs. Though there’s no escaping the fact that this situation causes severe bouts of self-pity, shame and feeling like a failure, we’re not so engrossed in self-flagellation that we can’t see this moment for what it is – a really rare opportunity. It’s not everyone who gets the chance in their mid-thirties to pause, take stock and re-think what’s important in life. And then start from scratch.
It might work. It might not. But we’re putting all our eggs in one basket and experimenting with our lives, because at this point, we can.