A few years ago I hit a bit of a snag. A snafu. A bad patch. Or rather I should say, I hit rock bottom. Hard. I was in my early twenties, just starting my PhD scholarship, and the world imploded. In the years that followed I would turn rock bottom into the solid foundation of a new life, a successful business, and a career as an author and copywriter. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
My troubles began in earnest early on in my teens. I’d been ignoring it, hoping it would all go away. By the time I finished my MA I was 22 and the periods of depression and…oddness I’d had all my life were getting progressively worse. I moved from North Wales, where I’d been studying at Bangor University, to Bury St Edmunds in South England. I was trying to escape my demons, but alas, my demons were in my mind, and there was no running from them.
My life quickly degenerated into chaos. Rock bottom was already on the horizon, though I wasn’t quite there yet…
I broke up with a very good guy who (like every other guy) couldn’t cope with the insanity of me. I struggled with work, finances, friends, and by the time I moved back up north, and successfully won my PhD scholarship, everything I’d known and loved in life was in tatters. I’d been working towards that scholarship since I was sixteen, yet I took no pleasure in it. In fact, I hated it. The stress of the world became unbearable and I buckled under the pressure. I was in a new (very unhealthy) relationship by then, and rushed into an engagement in a desperate bid to find stability.
At great length I was diagnosed with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder 1. As mental illness goes it’s right up there with Schizophrenia in terms of severity. I’d had it all my life, it had simply never been diagnosed. This is extremely common, as the characteristic mood swings that come with the condition generally kick into high gear during puberty. Bipolar Bears generally become markedly worse in their early twenties. Things really start unraveling, and people finally realise there’s something more going on than teenage angst.
So it was for me.
Rock bottom is not a pleasant place to be. I was in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic. I’d given up my flat and moved in with him because I couldn’t deal with living alone. I was in a hole financially and couldn’t afford to move out of his house and into a new place.
Worse than that, I didn’t believe I deserve anything more, and I was terrified of being alone.
Fortunately my then-fiancé did two things that made it a lot easier to leave: he let me get a puppy, thus ensuring I’d never be alone again, and he set fire to the house, with me, the puppy, and our two other dogs inside it.
Leaving him after that was easy.
Not because he’d almost killed me, but because he’d almost killed my beloved dogs.
That simply wouldn’t do.
I was in thousands of pounds of debt, most of my belongings had been lost or damaged in the fire, and there was no insurance money coming because a certain someone had stopped paying the monthly premium in favour of a few more pints at the pub.
With nowhere else to go, I was forced to move back in with my mum. This, for me, was the worst conceivable scenario. I was always fiercely independent and had never had an easy relationship with my mother. But there was nowhere else to go. So I packed up the sooty remnants of my life and my descent into hell continued.
I’ve always loved writing. And reading. A massive part of the road back from the brink for me was reading and writing. I devoured new books and re-read my favourites again and again. Among them, were the Harry Potter books. I’d always loved them, and they – along with a lot of other Fantasy novels – were a safe haven for me in times when the real world was just too horrible to deal with. Early on in my recovery I read a now-infamous quote from J.K. Rowling, delivered at Harvard in 2008.
I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
This is an enticing notion that really sticks with a lot of people: rock bottom, a place of intolerable despair that surely has no redeeming features, can become something positive. The idea seduced me. So I set about figuring out how to turn rock bottom into the solid foundation of a new life.
The concept of a solid foundation – stability – was the key for me. It was something I’d always lacked and constantly sought from others. For the first time in my life, I realised that the only way to ensure your life was grounded on a truly solid foundation was to build it from myself. My needs, my dreams, my passions. I wanted to create a life I could love, that I could welcome others into, that would remain standing if/when they left.
By this time, writing had become my therapy. But more than that, it was my dream to be a published author. To spend my whole life writing, sharing my words, sharing my stories, my dreams, my passion for fantasy, and getting paid for it. I wasn’t naive enough to believe I could crack that market and become an instant best-seller, but still, when I considered the position I was in, and the changes that had to be made to get my life back on track, it was something of a no-brainer…
For me, just like JK Rowling, writing was the answer.
Brave New Life
Several years, a successful business, and numerous published books and stories later, I find myself reflecting on the spark that started it all and thanking the gods for the existence of J.K. Rowling. But it’s easy to point to the quote that sparked the idea, and the outcome of that spark, and say that it was easy, simple, that once the idea was there, really there wasn’t much left to do.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Building a successful business from scratch take a hell of a lot of work. Finding the right balance between writing fiction and doing paid work for clients has been difficult. I need one to live, I need the other to pay the bills. Yet here I am, now aged 31, happily living in my own house, my business growing stronger each day, my fiction writing progressing with each new publication.
How to Turn Rock Bottom Into the Solid Foundation of a New Life…
It’s easy to tell someone at rock bottom they’re in the perfect place to rebuild, but it’s often impossible for the person sitting on the damn rock to see it.
Sometimes you do see it, but for the life of you, you can’t figure out the how.
For those of you confounded by the specific process involved, here’s how I did it…hopefully it will help you figure out how you can do it…
Step 1: Address the Avalanche…
There were many things in my life that were fundamentally wrong and caused my life to unravel. I had no home, no job, no friends, no money, few remaining possessions, and a penchant for bursting into tears without warning or provocation.
But I hadn’t ended up in that state without cause. There were reasons for all of it, and all of them could be traced back to my illness.
Bipolar was the pebble that started the avalanche that swept me away from my life, my career, and people I loved, and landed me at rock bottom.
There is no point trying to rebuild your life before you address the avalanche.
You need to seriously assess what got you to where you are. From speaking to others in similar situations I know there is often one root cause – a single pebble – that causes everything else to fall. It might be an illness, a person, a traumatic event, or another problem in your life. But when you really stop and think about it, all those things that happened, all those things you did, all the wrong turns, bad relationships, poor decisions, and outright ridiculous behaviour, would never have happened were it not for that one root cause.
Which means you have to deal with that shit. You have to get it under control.
Find the help you need. Whatever the problem, find a solution and work towards wellness.
Identify the areas in your life that are going to exacerbate this issue, and make you more likely to have trouble with it again.
For me, this meant leaving the world of academia, getting on the right medication, going to therapy, doing the work, and finding ways of coping when the worst did happen and I was subjected to another bipolar mood swing.
It wasn’t quick, it wasn’t simple, it wasn’t easy.
But it was absolutely necessary. I had to address the avalanche, or all the hard work of rebuilding would be wasted the second I relapsed.
Anything that can hurt you that badly never truly leaves you. And if it’s never truly gone, it has the potential to resurface. You need to minimise the chances of that happening, and make damn sure you have a mallet handy to whack it back down the second it rears its ugly head.
Step 2: Find Your Calm
In the face of so much adversity and confusion, so much pain and disappointment, it can be difficult to find a moment of peace. It’s hard to remain calm.
Before you forge ahead with your new life it’s imperative that you find your calm.
Find the thing that muffles the din, that lets you breathe, that just makes you feel…better.
For me that was writing. For you it might be something else entirely. It doesn’t matter what it is, just make sure it steadies you. If you’re to build a solid foundation for your new life, that foundation needs to be a place of sanctuary. You need to be able to exist there in quiet, in harmony. It can’t be a place of turmoil.
Step 3: Find Your Passion
You will often hear me (and many others) use the phrase ‘Make your passion your paycheck’.
The more passionate you are about the work you do, the better you will be at it, the more value you will get from it, and the more valuable it will be to other people.
When considering how to move forward in life – especially if you’re looking to start a new career, or set up a new business – it’s imperative your calm and your passion complement each other and are equally present. Your new path in life needs to infuse you with calm (to prevent that relapse), while simultaneously igniting your passion (to ensure success and a sense of accomplishment).
Step 4: Go Brick By Brick
If you’re anything like me you will be insanely impatient to get going with your shiny new life. The trouble is you can’t put the roof on until you’ve built the walls. Walls must be built, brick by brick. And you can’t build the walls until you’ve laid the foundation.
Once you have your rock solid foundation, take your time in the building. Go brick by brick. Ensure each brick is properly placed, the walls are exactly as you want them, and as strong as possible.
Step 5: Don’t Let Anything Damage Your Calm
If you build a bit that doesn’t work, don’t just carry on and live with it, knock it down. Rebuild it. Make it perfect.
This part of the process is demoralising, especially if you’ve put a massive amount of effort into something and realise it’s not right. It’s not your true passion, it’s actually damaging your calm.
You’ve worked so hard, and you’re already so tired. You’re impatient to get to the end, to have your shiny new life and live it. You don’t want to take a step back to correct a mistake, you just want to keep going.
It’s frustrating, heart-breaking even, but it really has to be done.
Early in 2016 I came to realisation that I was spending a massive amount of time and energy on work that seriously damaged my calm. It was bringing in the money, but it wasn’t doing me any good. It wasn’t my passion, it wasn’t my calm, and it was putting everything I’d worked so hard for at risk.
It took a lot to admit that, and tear it all down, but it was necessary. Less than a year later, my business – and my life – is already a lot stronger for it.
Step 6: Ask, Accept, Offer
This one is partly to do with ensuring you’re as strong as you can be, and partly to do with karma.
Ask for help when you need it.
Accept help with it is offered.
Offer help when you are able to give it and you see someone in need.
These are simple concepts, but so many women shy away from them. We think we must be Wonder Woman. Admitting that we need help, that we can’t do everything alone, is bloody hard for a lot of us. Accepting the offer of aid is likewise difficult. It dents our pride, it makes us feel beholden to people we might not want to owe a favour, and it tarnishes that Wonder Woman persona.
Get over it. We all need help sometimes. The better you get at accepting it, the stronger you and your fabulous life will become.
The offering of help to others is another thing we often struggle to do. It’s one thing to give help when we’re directly asked for it, but when nobody has spoken the words, “I need help!”, it’s difficult to know what to do. You don’t want to impose, or imply they can’t cope. And really you have enough of your own shit to deal with – if they need help they’ll ask for it.
Except they won’t.
Because we don’t, remember?
You don’t, why would they?
And by the time they do ask for it, it might be too late. By the time you realise just how much they need it, they could be at rock bottom themselves and a very long way out of reach.
If there is one thing I have learnt about rock bottom it’s that it’s a bitch of a place to be. If you can prevent someone falling that far, you should. If you find a friend has ended up there, you help them get out.
Which of course is the point of this post, and brings me to another of my favourite quotes (this one from The West Wing), and a little food for thought to leave you with…