Tomorrow, I am going to have a look around a room that will, should I be able to take it, cut my monthly outgoings by £200. This will allow me to do a number of things without feeling guilty, or having to drop something else: afford to eat things outside of the value range, buy the occasional bottle of rum, and keep up with the price hikes of over-the-counter/prescribed medication. My gym membership has, for the past four years of living in this city, remained static – a blessing, since the same can be said for my wage.
Even last year, the freeze didn’t bother me so much. I was still living with my partner, prices were lower. But circumstances change. I didn’t foresee depression and anxiety creeping back in – and thought I’d got off lightly – with the cost of living up, and not much else.
Today, tens of thousands of people have protested in London, Glasgow and Belfast about pay and austerity. My voice is among theirs, if only via tweets. When I first began working with my company in late 2010, the set rate seemed a golden egg; I was well over the basic minimum wage, and able to secure a flat with my then-partner.
Fast forward to late 2014, and I am single, happy to live independently, but currently selling off much of what I own to make ends meet. I’m still over the basic minimum wage, but below the Living one. There’s no place for sentiment when you need to keep the balance up; Ebay and Amazon are my new best friends. Apart from underwear, I haven’t bought any new clothes since last summer. This isn’t such a big deal, as I’d rather spend money supporting independent bookshops, second-hand vinyl stalls, and friends with crafty fingers and book-writing of their own.
I could jack in the gym membership, but for the security it offers. With anorexia nervosa and compulsive exercise disorder for the past fourteen years, I know what my boundaries are, and solitary “formal” exercise is still a stumbling block. I’m currently trying to keep serotonin levels high enough to feel enough like myself to warrant eating, while maintaining “sustainable” levels of activity. I can’t emphasize enough how important that balance is. In terms of therapy, I’d be required to shell out on bus fare to travel the distance to reach the next available psychiatric service specific to needs… which would also entail taking time off work.
The word “liability”, haunts my mind.
I could, as many people in my life have advised since I went back to work in 2005, post-hospital, find a “better” job. But I happen to like where I am. Let no one convince you that cleaning/maintenance is easy. In a police station, when you’re on your own and it’s pissing with rain outside, and the teams have been out on a search for a misper (missing person, to you), and they’re dragging back in all manner of mud and sludge and water… it can feel a bit like pushing a golf ball into a straw. But I get a kick out of it.
My colleagues are friends; more than this. They’re not called the Family for nothing. The midnight humour is often the only thing keeping me afloat, smiling, even if only on the inside. They’re no-nonsense, and accustomed to dealing with mental health issues; I don’t feel any awkwardness, having a chat with someone about the time spent as an inpatient, or long-ago suicidal tendencies. The thought of leaving this security knots up my stomach even more than the idea of having to face a cliquey office environment with faddy diets and gossip. Been there, done that. Nein, danke.
Working alone, I have all the time of a shift to burn off excess energy, stifling the gnawing demon in my head that demands a high-intensity day, while ticking over thoughts on writing, art, music … all the whimsical things that make me who I am.
I’m also spoilt rotten with rum and book tokens, nights out on the town, because they know damn fine what it’s like to work with the thin end of the stick, and collectively go out of their way to give me the chance to experience “normality”, away from mental illness and memories of this. In the last four years, I’ve woken up to the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around me and this eating disorder, and that it’s a very complex kaleidoscope, with plenty of grey. Things you can’t pick up in reading books and articles, watching TV.
But they can’t pay my wages directly. And to be honest, given what they have to put up with on a daily basis, I’ve got the easy job. That’s an obvious statement, but I thought I’d put it out there, in case anyone thought I was square with what these men and women in uniform – in every sector of the emergency services – do for our country.
Each year, the corridors echo that little bit more, the building flakes off more plaster and paint, and lights go out in more offices. The great-awful thing about cleaning in the Nick, is that I never run out of things to do, and take home nothing but knotted muscles and a feeling of satisfaction. I learned from a very good woman in 2005, who saw a kid with stubby hair and stick limbs, and still decided she’d make a decent apprentice for a private-hire cleaning company. It was just the two of us, and I learned as much about hygiene as I did the general upkeep of a building.
For now, my job description would overlap several sectors.
I’ve never looked back. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s work, and crucial to every part of society. Sure, there are some who don’t work up to standards – but as with anything, it’s what you bring to the day (or night.) I happen to be one of the lucky few who is still in full-time employment, given the rise of the zero-hour contract, particularly in this trade. The chances of finding anything remotely like what I have at the moment, are few.
There are many people going through it, across sectors, with some working up to three shifts just to get by, as with the Whitehall cleaners who campaigned this week outside HMRC, for a pay increase to the London Living Wage of £8.80.
“Iolanda said that she leaves her home at 4:30am and lives on the other side of London. She said that she gets back home at 11:30pm and earns £6.31 an hour. ‘I’m trying to do this for me and my friends. It’s too much.'”
I’m only offloading what has been on my mind for quite some time. I bury it, usually, under things that don’t concern me directly. But every now and then, a situation unfolds to drive the message home, that things can’t stay the way they are. I’m rather good at running from responsibilities, and have the ostrich-thing down to an art form. Writing about other worlds, I don’t need to focus on my own.
Until I’m balancing medication against drinks for friends, cosmetics, sanitary items, birthday and Christmas presents.
Until I can’t take a train journey to see family in the south.
Until I can’t take a holiday, because it would mean digging into reserves I don’t have.
Until anorexia prickles its cold little fingers into my head – “do you really need to eat that?” – whenever I look at my weekly collection of shopping receipts.
Until I’m starting to consider quitting the gym, which sets that pale thing in my head shrieking all over again.
With downsizing on the flat / selling off unnecessary items, I will hopefully have accumulated enough cash in the next couple of months, to go and see my family and old school friends. I’ve been promising to do so all year. A change of scene wouldn’t hurt. Maybe, in the new year, a walking holiday?
Let’s not get above ourselves.
Still. I’ll find time to get out and see people more, jumble up the habitual life, which – as secure as it feels – tends to act as an incubator for this bloody thing in my head. I might even be able to pull off a job-hop, if necessary. But I’d rather just get a bit of a wage increase, and stay with the people who make me feel like a person – a team player – rather than a shadow. I’d rather give back to them what I can, in tea ‘n coffee runs when the weather is terrible, and extra hours put in to make the poor old place as comfortable and functional as possible. In my own small way, I make a difference. But in the end, it might not even come down to choice.
Whatever happens, I’ll find a way to concentrate again, with financial and emotional reserves. To sleep, and visit art galleries in London, the theatre, attend gigs; wandering around among the things that colour up my mind. I’ll be able to write, and actually have things to say. Maybe even take up studies with the Open University, to challenge this hive-mind with politics and economics, history – even if it’s just for the additional knowledge to put thoughts and current events into context.
Hope this wasn’t too much of a whinge. I know I’m better off than many, and am grateful to still be well enough to work. But every now and then, I need to put things into perspective, and this is the only place I have to do so. It’s difficult to talk about, and I’ve hashed out enough arguments over work with the people who care (and some who don’t, but feel they have the right to an opinion anyway.) This isn’t the issue – I like the balance of fewer take-home responsibilities / time for writing (mostly), and have more than enough reasons to stay at the Nick while still needed.
But ambitions come with increasing awareness of the world, reflective of improved mental health and experience – they form a push-pull scenario in my head, with the last ties of mental illness. I didn’t expect to still be alive 14 years on, let alone in a position to consider actually grasping dreams in my hands.
Maybe I should race the economic recovery.