Friday, 26 August 2011

The darkest days: 10 years on

I'm sitting in a cafe in Mumbai where I've just finished working on the first draft of our first submission on skills policy to the Indian government. It's been a bit of a tough week in some ways - with any new initiative or change in life you experience ups and downs, and I've been on more of a down this week. In fact it's the first time since my two week wobble that I've felt acutely aware of being on my own in a foreign country without any of my usual social supports available. So I called a couple of very dear and trusted friends and let it all out, and as always from very dear and trusted friends, got a couple of very sensible and thoughtful responses that left me feeling much more positive. One of them pointed out that my blog posts tend to be more about my environment than about me - maybe a more personal entry might help me deal with things?

As I sat here pondering this suggestion and sipping a much-needed cappuccino, it occurred to me that, exactly a decade ago, one of the most important and formative times in my life was just starting. I was 23 and had just arrived in Korea on my first posting with the Foreign Office. The circumstances were, for a number of reasons, difficult for me personally, and the six months or so that followed were far and away the most horrible time in my life. Isolated, anxious and endlessly unforgiving of myself, I started an inexorable decline into a deep depression that very nearly ended in my requesting a transfer home on health grounds, and that caused tremendous worry and pain to those in my life as well as to me directly.

At the time, I couldn't see any future that wasn't dominated by this gaping chasm of futility and guilt. I felt guilty about everything. Guilty that I wasn't making the most of the amazing opportunity I had been given; guilty about wasting taxpayers' money by being useless at my job; guilty about the sleepless nights I was giving to other people who cared about my welfare. The idea that I could feel positive about things ever again was as remote as Jupiter. Somehow I dragged myself out of the mess I was in, but the experience coloured the rest of my time in Korea and still casts a shadow today.

Looking back on that time is hard for me, but necessary. In the years since then it has served as a reminder of what can happen if I don't take care of myself, and as a yardstick to measure my feelings by. If I am feeling down, but there is no hint of that awful hollow feeling that was my constant companion in those early days in Korea, then there is no need to worry. If things feel a bit worse, then I know how to get back on track: exercise, talking to friends, eating better, sleep, fresh air, relaxation, and a number of other tricks I've learned over the years.

In the 10 years since then I have had some thrilling highs and some fairly spectacular lows, but I've never yet fallen back into that hole. My despairing self of 2001 has been proved, on the whole, completely wrong. I have met and loved some truly extraordinary people, who have enriched my life more than they know. I have made many amazing friends, kept the amazing ones I already had and refound several friendships that ended too soon (thanks Facebook). I have travelled to beautiful, inspiring places and been able to share my experiences with people who may not even have been completely bored by my stories. I've taken steps into the unknown and found rewarding new discoveries as a result, whether on the other side of the world (yes, including Seoul) or back in the UK, most of all in Peckham where I chose to buy my first home and to which I will definitely be returning.

I've had opportunities to step away from the regular mill of things, to learn about myself, to try out and experiment with different sides of my personality and interests, and I keep learning more every day. I've found that I can do more than I ever thought I could, and that the things I can't do can usually be done if I work with others to achieve them. I've been part of teams that have done great things, with people whose passion and commitment have been and remain an inspiration. Life continues to throw me tremendous opportunities, and I'm now - thankfully - more able to make the most of them.

I know what's good about me, and I think I know more than I did about the things that are less good - and how to change, control or just accept them. There are many times when I could have done better, and I hope I have learned from them. But I'm sensible enough now to know that the self-blame game is one I can't ever win.

So ten years down the line, I am once again a new arrival in a foreign country, dealing with isolation, emotional baggage and a challenging job. But the rest - how I think about and react to my situation - is, I hope, a different story.

At 33, I am not where I thought I would be when I set out to Cambridge as a wide-eyed, over-excited 18 year old, or when I began working life as a hopelessly naive 21 year old. But back then I knew a fraction of what I know now - and what I know now, I hope, is a fraction of what I will know when I am 43 or 53. Life will throw more surprises and challenges at me, but I'm looking forward to the adventure. The darkest days are, I fervently hope, behind me for good.


Anj said...

To think, you did all that - and may I say, not in a shy way...


FranBMan said...

Very proud of you, pal.

Anonymous said...

Wow. That's all very personal.

I think I know you a little better today than yesterday.

Looking back can be a scary thing. It does make you wonder about what life will be like in 2, 5, 10 even 20 years time.