Tough times, strong women

Time is a little bit blurry for me at the moment, but the fact that we’re now in July means that I’ve been at S’s house for about 10 days. Wow. Which at least is enough time for some dust to settle. Life persists in feeling surreal, though, so I think I might still be in some kind of shock. I’m aware of waiting for life to get back to normal, so I have to keep reminding myself that this is the new normal.

What I’ve learned, or rather, been reminded of, is that when the going gets tough, it is the strong women in your life who you fall back on. For the practical stuff, for the pep talks, for the wine, the doughnuts and the kick up the arse to get out of the house or do some yoga. So it’s my sister who says ‘Don’t be stupid, of course you’ll get another job and in the meantime you could do this, and this, and this…’ It’s my friend S who cleared out her spare room, set up the air mattress, made space in the closet and the fridge and the freezer, and made dinner –  and all that on the day she got back from the US after an overnight flight and a painful journey home. It’s the friend who, amid her own crazy work and family life, makes time to call and check in on me; and the friend who said ‘If you need me, I will get on a ‘plane.’

These are the women who are keeping my head above the water, and I know damn well that I’m lucky.

Meanwhile, in the latest dramatic switchback on the hurtling coastal road of life, the house is back on. Well, maybe. I had a couple of conversations with my vendors, who have found a new house to buy and are pretty sure it can all happen by the end of July. That is the cut off point I’ve set, and if all goes tits up again, I will walk away and back to the grim world of renting. For now, it’s a holding pattern.

Which means, the cats are now in their second cattery. This is far and away the worst part of this whole life collapse business. I don’t care how luxurious a cattery is and how much people claim their cats settle down, it’s jail for kittens. I saw Belle and Charlie in their last, lovely, spacious place, where I know they were being well looked after by great people. Charlie would barely come out of his box, both of them were jumpy and wide eyed at every sudden noise. It breaks me to see them and it breaks me not to see them and I will never get over the guilt.

There are jobs to be applied for and some recruiters are calling. There is a certain kind of freedom and luxury in stepping away from the position of ‘Well, I earn x so I don’t see how I could work for less than y’ to ‘If I earn z then I’m covered.’ I’m lucky here, too, in that as my identity isn’t bound up in holding a certain professional position or earning a certain amount, any which way I can cover my costs will be fine by me. I’ve stacked shelves in a store before, and I’ve also been in meetings that are way more boring than that. Thank goodness for savings, though. I can hold the wolf from the door until the end of the year, and if I have to I will fucking kill and skin the wolf, the cats can eat him and we’ll all huddle together in a wolfskin.

So that’s a plan, right?

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In which I do not have a home

Last week, when I started packing boxes for the move, it was tiring but it was also exciting. Because the boxes needed labelling as to which room they were destined for in my house, and so I had that image in my head of the unpacking and the sorting and the arranging. After months of waiting, my own place was finally in reach.

Now, I’m finishing the packing and I don’t know where the boxes will go. On Monday, the chain collapsed. One of the vendors further down the line doesn’t even have their mortgage approved; my vendors decided not to go ahead with the sale. While this saved me a decision, it also crash landed my hopes and wrecked the day dreams that have basically gotten me through the last few months. I had a lot riding on that house, and I am bereft of that vision of my future, of my own home.

On Tuesday, I had a conversation with my manager in which I negotiated my exit from my job. (I’ve just realised that was yesterday, but time seems particularly fluid at the moment.) I’ll take a few days to wrap things up, some paid vacation time and then three months’ paid gardening leave. It will see me through to October, and in the moments when I’m not panicking I think it must be perfectly possible to find a job, any job within that timescale.

Also on Tuesday, I took a lunch hour and spent it sitting in my car, phoning letting agents and trying to book appointments to see rentals at the weekend. The usual conversations ensued: ‘No, the landlord won’t accept pets’, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry we’ve just had references back on that one’, ‘Well, we’ve got four viewings on that today so I think it’ll be gone by the weekend’. And so the whole, tedious process began.

Then I came home to a half empty house because A had moved out. Odd how a half empty house can seem emptier than one that is fully vacant. I suppose because what is missing is emphasised.

Today I tricked the cats into their carriers and took them to the cattery. We all cried, until I realised that I would absolutely never forgive myself if I had an accident and they got hurt, and so pulled myself together. I don’t know when they’ll be coming home or where home will be.

If I could pack myself away in one of the boxes, I would. It would be dark, and cosy and safe. It would be time stolen from time, and I would just sleep, dreamlessly.

In which I’m not being performance managed

I now have a counsellor, as my anxiety achieved a sudden spike one day and I thought ‘I’m not sure I can do this any more’. She immediately made me feel better by listening to all the shit that is happening at the moment and saying ‘Well, of course you feel like it’s too much, it is too much.’ So, not just me being a whiny ass, then. We agreed that the anxiety was situational and that as soon as I moved house, I’d feel a lot better. Hurrah!

But, that was at the point when I still thought I’d be moving house next week and I would take a week off to move and get myself settled. Now there’s a problem with the chain, and someone is going on holiday and maybe I’ll be moving end of July. Maybe. This gives me pause for reflection, given that the removal company is coming on Thursday and the new owners are moving into my current house about four days later. Short term lets are crazy expensive and you can’t have pets. The cats are facing six weeks in a cattery. I was freaking out about one week. This is not good.

A day after all this landed, I had another one of those ‘Is this the right role for you?’ chats with my manager. Parsing this out of corporate speak, what it means is ‘I have decided that this is not the right role for you and I would really prefer it if you could hurry up and arrive at the same conclusion and hand in your notice. Please jump so I don’t have to push you.’

Well, he is right. I hate my job, I would never have applied for it, I would never have been recruited for it, and I have never claimed to have the requisite skills and experience. It’s just where I’ve ended up after unofficial departmental re-shufflings.  Since January I have been calling out that I don’t have the experience and could I have some help or training please, so I’m finding it a bit ironic to be informed of the gaps as though it’s a surprise to anyone. My manager did say ‘I think you’re good at thinking and strategy’, to which I managed not to reply ‘No shit, Sherlock, that’s what I was hired for.’ Unfortunately, that thinking role never existed as other than an outgoing hiring manager’s dream.

Of course, this isn’t an unusual situation in a large company, and the official line is coaching, training and finally, performance management, all of which is supposedly intended to upskill the relevant person so they can stay in role, or in the business. I’ve done that with someone who reported to me and it takes time and effort and determination on both sides.

But performance management is also a very easy process to exploit. It’s subjective and there’s no oversight and by the time you body slam an employee with what is seen as a threat, they’re scared. They don’t know the process, they don’t know their rights, there is little HR support. Consequently, performance management has a bad rap in the business because it’s usually done to make someone’s life so uncomfortable that they leave, and that is exactly what happens. I’ve been told just this week that managers should have 10% of their reports on performance management all the time, because that way you ensure that a proportion of people will always be leaving. So it’s a way of managing headcount and staying lean.

In my case, my manager can use all of this to circumvent going through the hassle of doing the right thing. He’s told me that he already knows what the outcome would be (very capable, but in the wrong role), so he wants to avoid going down that route. He’s also done some not-so-subtle cuing up by telling me that he thinks I’m stubborn and I don’t like to give in. Right again, but surely being pretty focused on trying to do a good job is a positive trait…? Yes, except when it isn’t.

This creates a clever trap, in that even if I force the issue (stubborn!), the outcome is pre-determined. He’s also using the perception of performance management as a lever: ‘You’re well respected in the business, I’d hate to tarnish your reputation’ style messaging. That’s a threat neatly wrapped up as concern, all dressed up in the wide-eyed guise of ‘I’d much prefer to have an honest conversation.’ Really, you’ve got to admire the tactic, even if not endorsing the ethical standards it evidences. This is how managers get to say ‘I’ve never performance managed someone out of the business.’ The system is weighted so that they don’t have to.

So, next steps? Jump or be pushed. Or more likely, ‘reach mutual agreement that I will leave the business’. Either way, it’s a three month notice period so the only conversation is around whether I work those three months or not. I’m thinking not, as I can’t afford to be unemployed so I’ll need that time to get something else.

I have to think seriously about whether proceeding with buying a house at this point is the right thing to do, or whether it’s too risky. I could still get my deposit back and that would buy me a few more months’ survival without a job. I will need to move fast because if I have to rent again, it will be impossible without a job so I need to still be technically employed.

I don’t think 2018 is going down as one of my favourite years.

Another thing about anxiety

It’s boring. I mean, really boring. Mine bores me. It makes answering the question ‘How are you?’ really hard, so I’ve taken to saying ‘Pass.’ This isn’t because I want people to dig, it’s because my brain jams and somehow, the only answer anyone wants in response, ‘I’m fine’, won’t come out. I don’t want to talk about being anxious most of the time anymore, even to the people who I think I believe I know are genuinely willing to listen. And that’s invidious, because staying trapped inside your own head all the time only makes it worse.

Anxiety is also one greedy motherfucker. It will feed off anything. I am constantly balancing on the high wire of trying to calibrate my own reactions, and it doesn’t take much to tip them one way or the other. Am I being paranoid or should I legitimately interpret that comment as criticism? I can’t really tell, so I have to make a judgment call, but my judgment is shot to hell. Or is it? I don’t know. That’ll be a fiver for another spin on the merry-go-round, lady. ‘How are you?’ ‘Pass.’

My other answer to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Two glasses of white a night.’ This is a new thing, but it turns out, while white wine doesn’t disturb my sleep or give me hangovers, it does knock me out. It is, therefore, fucking brilliant. And I don’t have to worry about the calories, because I’m not eating so much, so that all balances out then! Ok, I know it doesn’t. I know it isn’t ok, and it isn’t sustainable, but I’m not expecting it to be. There is a magical future land where everything will be ok, and it is called ‘When I move’. Unfortunately ‘When I move’ is indeterminate.

Or rather, ‘When I move’ into the house I am allegedly buying is uncertain. I have lost any sense of time in that regard, so it could be next week or next year. Who knows? If I was previously struggling to find the excitement in buying my first house, now even the ashes are cold. But the removal company are rocking up on 18th June, and either the boxes and I and the cats will go to our new home, or the boxes will go to storage, I will go to my friend S’s house and the cats will go to a cattery.

I’ve always sworn that I will never put the cats in a cattery, and the thought of being forced to do so by circumstance now creates a fantastic mix of tear-inducing murderous rage. They will hate it. I will hate it. There isn’t really anyone I can blame for this, not even me, so I simply snarl and growl and snap at the binds of the situation, and pour another glass.

The logistics of this potential interim move become further sources of anxiety.  I know that all of the decisions involved are in fact, relatively minor. They are all manageable. There are solutions to all of the problems that only even seem like problems because anxiety has no truck with problem solving and prefers to skate over answers and loop endlessly back to questions.

And that’s another thing about anxiety. It’s tiring, because it’s relentless. Not even in some grand, dramatic way. Anxiety is pettifogging and small, mosquitoes of the mind that refuse to be swatted. They will die, one by one, because life is not a stagnant pool, it’s clear running water. I just need to get out of these shallows.

Life lessons

So, Charlie-with-the-broken-leg is now out of his cage and under house arrest. It’s been a week so far and I can see him getting stronger every day: he’s gone from limping a little and being uncertain about some jumps, to bounding wherever he feels like. He got out one night by going through an open window and down a sheer, 8 foot wall. A couple of hours later, at the sound of the snack packet, he came racing across the lawn to me.

He’s got another 10 days in the house before he’ll be back at the vets to have the pin removed from his leg. Then normal life will resume. I’m looking forward to that, as he’ll be so much happier being allowed outside; but he’s taken to following me around and I’ll miss my little shadow.

Meanwhile, my other cat barely comes in the house because she no longer recognises Charlie. When I do lure her in, usually with food, she’ll tolerate him for as long as it takes her to eat, then resume growling before making for the nearest exit. I’m hoping the trade off for seeing less of Charlie will be that Belle feels comfortable in the house again.

With all this cat care going on, I’ve been at home a lot more. I haven’t done any overnight stays away and I’ve been working from home as much as I can. I’m at my laptop by 8am latest, but as everyone who gets to skip their commute knows, you get to sleep in, do a fuller day’s work and still have more of an evening. So for me, despite working longer days, it’s felt like something of a holiday simply because I only recharge by being at home.

I hadn’t realised the extent to which I had gotten into the habit of looking at the various locations ahead of me during my week and thinking ‘Just got to get through it.’ Or the extent to which a constant low level of tiredness and stress was delimiting my ability to relax in what felt like very limited time in my house. The balance was off and although I knew some of the negative effects, I hadn’t appreciated all of them. There’s a pretty long list:

  1. Not getting time for lunch at work, so 3pm lunches of popcorn and granola bars, plus too tired to cook proper evening meals.
  2. Not drinking enough water
  3. Drinking too much tea, I think, and therefore over-caffeinated and twitchy
  4. Plus tired and unable to concentrate properly, so too much time on my phone
  5. Therefore internet shopping and then wondering where my money goes
  6. Not enough exercise
  7. A bit of not-exercising guilt
  8. General sense of should be doing something but failing to tackle any of the above because tired and lazy

And the big one, not feeling as though I had any time. Which is different to not actually having time: if I had any time at all to read Popsugar then I certainly had time to make decent food or practice yoga. It just didn’t feel that way because I had trapped myself in an apathetic circle of lethargy.

Now, I am definitely busier when I’m commuting, and I had been spending a couple of nights away a week. So it wasn’t all perception. But the situation wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, either. It’s just taken a bit of critical distance for me to be able to reassess the situation. I’ll have to get back to a more normal working pattern, but there are still steps I can take to keep some balance:

  1. More driving, fewer hotel stays. Not that more miles on the road is ideal, ideal but it’s the necessary swap for me to be at home where I can relax.
  2. Less time on my phone. I don’t think it’s a smartphone addiction, I think it’s a lazy habit (I can stop any time). Right now, I’m not sure where my phone is, but it’s definitely not within arm’s reach.
  3. Yoga. I’ve found a great yoga studio about half an hour away, and I’ve been trying to go to at least one class a week. I’m going to try to start a home practice, which is something I’ve never been successful with before.
  4. Water. I don’t understand why I struggle with this one so much. I spent Monday with a self-induced dehydration headache and it’s still hovering in the background, waiting to come back if I’m not careful. I can drink tea by the bucket but even with a water bottle on my desk, I can fail to take a single sip. I know all the benefits, I know from experience that I feel better if I’m hydrated (no shit, Sherlock) so why am I punishing myself? Argh.

So that’s kind of my promise to myself. Nothing huge there and yet, in small ways, life changing.

In which there is a missing cat, a cat chase and a hopeful outcome

On Friday night, I called Charlie in from the garden and he came sprinting across the lawn to me, neatly avoiding Belle as she launched at him from the side. Later, there were odd scuffling noises in the night, which turned out to be Charlie scratching at the laundry basket as he nested amongst the pegs. So far, so normal.

I saw him in the basket in the morning, petted his head, and trotted happily off to London. Some few hours later I had three missed voicemails and a text: ‘You need to call me. Charlie has hurt his leg and I can’t get to him’. It turned out that Charlie was holding up one of his hind legs in a way that boded no good, but was so resistant to further examination that he’d run away to hide in an old outbuilding in the field next to the house. Outbuilding 1 is on the boundary line between our garden, the field and the neighbour’s garden. It doesn’t seem to have a door because it’s not in use, but it does have a cat sized hole in the rusted corrugated iron. And there Charlie stayed, just visible through the hole.

By the time I got home, he couldn’t be seen, so had either removed further into the outbuilding or moved on somewhere else. Either way, he wasn’t giving us any signs of his presence and there wasn’t much to be done but hope that he’d come in overnight.

He did not come in overnight. I’m all for the cats having some independence and some time to walk by themselves but I’m also in favour of them eating. We went to look for him and finally found him in Outbuilding 2, which did have a door. He had curled himself up on an old cement bag, and was looking very unhappy indeed. He ate a few bits of Whiskas, leveraged himself up and walked unsteadily away for some privacy and a bathroom break. I had the basket ready to put him in… and as soon as he saw it, he adopted a surprising turn of speed and bolted straight back into Outbuilding 1.

So we took the side of it down. This still left some fairly solid corrugated iron at the bottom but there was enough of a gap to get in, slide down some rubble and hope that either Charlie would run back out of the hole (and into the waiting cat carrier) or realise there was no escape and sit mildly. There was another hole at the far side of the outbuilding, but up a slope of rubble and surely a three legged cat couldn’t…?

Oh, but he could, and went to ground in the neighbour’s garden. They were out. I fumed inwardly at the English obsession with gardens, privacy and trespassing and we went home to wait for the neighbours’ return.

The neighbours came home and we trooped round, with the cat carrier, a large towel, and a pair of gardening gloves in lieu of gauntlets. Charlie had ensconced himself behind their large pile of grass cuttings and beneath a web of sticks and branches. I carefully moved the wood away, stroked him a bit to calm him down. And he legged it through the wire fence behind him and into yet another garden.

You would not think a three legged cat could be so agile. It’s amazing what fear and adrenaline will do. On to the next garden, by which time Charlie had managed to jump up a few feet back into our garden, where we finally trapped him without anyone losing a limb in the process. Though all this, Belle was nearby, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings as though making sure no more harm came to her brother.

Now he’s spending his second night at the vets, after being diagnosed with a broken femur and biting a nurse’s finger in gratitude. We have no idea how the break happened, but he has no other injuries so it’s unlikely he was hit by a car. This morning, he had his leg pinned and plated, and tomorrow he’ll be home. The vets have all been great. Charlie is actually doing well but they’re keeping him in to monitor his pain management. He’ll spend three weeks in a crate (which we’re renting from the vets) and then, hopefully, he’ll be out wreaking havoc on the local wildlife again.

Five ways cats are like millennial employees*

*Some millennial employees. Not to tar an entire generation with the same brush. I personally know some great ones. On the other hand, did I mention my new job comes with NO DIRECT REPORTS? FTW.

  1. It’s all about them.
  2. They look blankly at you when you ask them to do something they don’t want to do; then they don’t do it. It’s as if they have no idea who’s in charge.
  3. They are capable of disappearing for long stretches of time with nothing to show for it. [? are millennials asleep on top of a dustbin]
  4. They think just showing up is enough to be deserving of attention and reward.
  5. They make you say to yourself several times a day ‘What is wrong with you?’