Going back in time… the University of Hull 1998 vs 2018

It’s a ‘meh’ Tuesday morning in March 2018 (* ‘Meh’ now being a thing, and having full emoji status, of course.) But it isn’t any old Tuesday morning for me. I’m on my way across the M62 to Hull – the University of Hull, to be more precise – and back to the place where my mental health began to unravel so spectacularly some twenty years ago.

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This is one of the very few photos that exist of me, in the years shortly before commencing at Hull University.

When I took myself away from the University, aged just 19, I was so utterly broken, damaged and scarred (literally) that I swore I would never go back to that place. Not under any circumstances. But here I am.

I’m on my way back.

I’ve been invited to go and talk to a bunch of current students about some of my experiences which I’ve written about in my book, ”Running For My Life”. Naturally I say, ‘YES! I’d LOVE to come over and do that!’ But what they don’t know is that I am saying ‘yes’ in spite of myself. I’m saying ‘yes’ because I refuse to give in to the terror welling up inside me, trying to convince me to think of any excuse at all to say NO.

I can’t let that happen: I WON’T let that happen.

I’ve spent some time preparing for my talk. I’ve written a short introduction, and have repeatedly forced it upon my nearest and dearest (although my 7-year-old’s opinion is admittedly dubious) But the emotions I feel during the process of writing and rehearsing it have taken me by surprise. I sit in a coffee shop with silent tears streaming down my face as the memories are allowed to enter a space which has been strictly off limits for two decades; I burst into uncontrollable tears during one opportunistic lunchtime rendition at work. I find it hard to gather myself, and struggle to battle through the final few words. I look up, and I see that Steph, my good friend and work mate is crying, too.

Shit. I wasn’t expecting this.

As Gav and I drive along the M62, the sight of the Humber Bridge causes the frayed circuits in my brain to reconnect. Shortly followed by Princes Quay and the waterfront. I have flashes of that same journey from another time. “Crikey! You see over there? That’s the pub where I bumped into Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South,” I say to Gav, who has already been subjected to similar reminiscences for well over an hour. His love knows no bounds. The closer we get to the University, the flashes increase in both frequency and intensity. That’s the hairdressers who once bodged my highlights… Over there was a small supermarket on the corner, but it’s a Chinese take-away, now… There’s the park a burglar disappeared into who I disturbed as he’d just cleaned out my housemate’s bedroom… The memories crash into each other as my brain struggles to keep up with the tidal wave of visual stimuli.

The University entrance suddenly appears on the right. I remember it being grand, and feeling slightly cheated that ABSOLUTELY NONE of my lectures, seminars, or tutorials would be held in the impressive, listed building that greets newbies on arrival. Nope! We were based in the shit breeze-block 1960s car park around the back of the campus. Perhaps they could have mentioned this in the prospectus?? But I’m once again wowed by the Venn building. It looks spectacular and glamorous. It feels spectacular and glamorous. I feel spectacular and glamorous just standing on the steps outside.

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The Venn Building: Spectacular and glamorous.

I go inside to pick up our pre-arranged parking permit, and nearly burst with excitement as the lovely lady behind the desk talks to me in her genuine Humberside accent. It strikes me that some of the current Hull University students weren’t even born the last time I heard it.

I ask her to say ‘five [“farve”]’ and ‘nine’ [“narn”] again, explaining to her that I’m here for the first time since the turn of the millennium. Her eyes light up as I tell her the reason for my visit after such a long absence. I glance over my shoulder and realise that just around the corner is where I queued to fill out student loan application forms before anybody had to entertain the prospect of paying for their higher education. I only wanted a student loan so I could afford to buy a fancy raincoat from Ted Baker’s. Maybe that was the catalyst of my demise…

We visit the Waterstone’s bookshop on the University campus, and almost immediately I spot Running For My Life faking it amongst the Joe Wicks & Fearne Cottons. What on earth is my book doing hobnobbing with the stars? I wonder, before my mind is jolted back two decades on sight of the entire wall of ‘Law Study Guides’. I remember so vividly standing and facing that very same tower of ‘Short Cuts to Tort’ and ‘Pocket Book of Contract law’. I get a distinct feeling of déjà vu, of being in that exact same spot armed with a scribbled list of compulsory and expensive legal study materials I would be required to buy in order to eek my way through the ridiculous law degree (*it always felt ridiculous, to me.) It does however give me some small comfort to know that today’s law students are still required to hand over vast wads of cash in exchange for doorstop volumes of legal texts, so there is definitely evidence of karma in action.

I have a mooch around the bookshop, and eventually I pluck up the courage to go and introduce myself to John, the lovely sales assistant. I explain who I am, trying hard not to sound like an Author Wanker, and I tell him that I am reminiscing. I wonder if I’m rambling, but I’m enjoying talking to him. He is kind, and the bookshop feels like home to me, in a place that never did.

Eventually, we head over to the main hall where the ‘Hull University Alumni Careers, Health and Wellness’ event will shortly be taking place. ‘People are looking at you as though you’re famous!’ Gav says. I laugh, and assure him that it’s probably because my stripy jacket looks like a deck chair. We’re a little bit early to go into the large conference room, and so I find a comfy seat to settle down in just outside the ‘Rossetti’ canteen whilst Gav goes for an explore. It looks more like a posh service station following the mistimed arrival of several coach parties, or a British Airways domestic flights VIP lounge packed full of well-to-do travellers who can’t get to Edinburgh because of fog.

It didn’t look like this twenty years ago.

I observe people as they meander past. ID badges swing clumsily around necks, and I wonder if this is the only distinction between the students and A N Others on campus. Words like ‘dissertation’ jump out of the otherwise blended pool of chatter I can hear from surrounding conversations, and I wonder where I would be, if I were a student here, now. Would I be standing outside the Rossetti cafeteria, chatting and laughing with my friends about some dissertation I have no intention of starting until the eleventh hour, and complaining about the hundreds of pounds I’m obliged to spend at the Waterstone’s bookshop on dry, uninspiring legal texts? Or would I be stuck in my tiny bedroom facing a mostly unfrequented back street, staring at a disordered image of myself in a small, frameless mirror?

I think I know the answer.

It’s time to head up the stairs to the conference room and listen to the first group of speakers. Four confident, unblemished, successful, and proud Hull University Alumni stand up and talk to the room about their career paths, giving advice to the young audience who are lapping up their every word. Gav and I are seated in one of the front rows, and I simply marvel at the fact that these people appear to be entirely ‘baggage free.’ No issues here!!! Not a single whiff of any mental health disorder. It’s a place of SUCCESS and ACHIEVEMENT. This is about those guys and girls for whom things lined up and made sense; those who didn’t familiarise themselves with the intricacies of their own face at the expense of dream-chasing; who weren’t required to expend inordinate amounts of energy in preparation for leaving the house to go and buy a pint of milk. These were the movers & shakers of their respective academic years.

I momentarily wonder how that might have felt.

Following a short break, it’s time for the ‘wellbeing’ part of the day. We hear from some amazing young people who volunteer their time to look out for the likes of me – back in the day – as ‘Wellbeing Champions’ and ‘Hull University Angels’. I can only imagine what kind of difference this might have made to me, and how different my story might look, had the signs of distress been spotted by a kind, intuitive stranger.

Soon enough, it’s my turn. I walk to the front with my interviewee – John – and sit in my chair. And I read out the introduction that I have written. I am proud that the 2018 version of myself said ‘YES’ to coming back to a place which the 1998 Rachel struggled to be a part of; I am so proud to have been able to sit and talk to the young(er) people about my struggles, and to let them know that not all ‘success stories’ start out that way.

And if my purpose is to be the example of that, then it was worth driving over to Hull back in 1998, and again in 2018.

***

Introduction 

I first came to Hull University as a shy, naive, overweight, introverted, 18-year-old back in 1998. 

It was twenty years ago when I moved in to my student house on Marlborough Avenue with a random and eclectic bunch of strangers, and into a shared bedroom with a horse- lover named Bethany Barnes who had an unfamiliar west county accent, and a (significantly older) death-metal loving, biker boyfriend. 

My heart sank!

It was twenty years ago when I started out on a journey that I could never have predicted.

I came here to study for a 3-year Law Degree. Was it my dream to become a lawyer? Nope. Not at all! Did I have a dream to become anything, back then?? Sadly not. So, I followed the dreams that others had for me, instead. 

I didn’t know what challenges would lie ahead for me as I carried my super woofer CD player together with a god-awful selection of (mostly scratched) compact discs from my dad’s car into the ground floor bedroom I would share with a complete stranger.

I thought I’d just come here to study Law, but how wrong I was.

  • Mental health issues? What are those??
  • Clinical depression? How? When? Why?
  • Eating disorders? Who? Me?!
  • Body dysmorphia? Really? What on earth is that?

I would soon find out about them all.

I was blissfully unaware that I would be about to undergo a major operation to “fix” my delinquent body, or that I would soon suffer the cruel effects of increasingly worrying mental health disorders, including clinical depression and Body Dysmorphia.

I would become imprisoned inside my own mind, inside my own body, and – quite literally – inside my own bedroom – with no idea how to get out.

And as I stand here now, twenty years later, a happy and healthy 39-year-old woman, mum of a 7-year-old mini version of myself, a marathon runner, author of a book “Running For My Life”; and – most importantly – a woman who has wrestled with those bastard inner chimps and won, I’m happy to be able to share part of that journey with you.

I hope you enjoy listening to more about my story… 

Thank you

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A Tale of one race… told over four years: The Village Bakery Half Marathon years 2015-2018

Race No. 1:

It is early February 2015, and I am in the form of my life. I don’t realise it though, as my Bastard Inner Chimp constantly tries to beat me down with his infuriating chants of ‘Nope. Must try harder!’ ‘Still not good enough, Rach!’

Just 4 months ago I achieved a marathon PB of 3:16, and I am now in training for the VLM 2015. I am convinced that my result from the Yorkshire Marathon was just a fluke. How can I possibly repeat it in just a few weeks’ time? I seriously doubt that I can. But fortunately for me, there have been no bumps in the road, and I am running like a cross between Forrest Gump and Seb Coe’s love child. Nothing can stop me – I am FLYING!

We turn up to the Village Bakery Half Marathon race car park at some nondescript industrial estate in Wrexham, and turn off the car engine. There are just a handful of other hatchback family saloons dotted around – most likely the race marshalls – because we are a good hour-and-a-half early for the race. This is not uncommon for us.

I have the usual pre-race anxiety without any justifiable reason: I have no injuries, no illnesses; and no recent life events have hampered my training, or caused me to deviate from my Fast Track to Fastness plan. I am on it, and I’m steamrollering ahead.

The gun goes off and I run like I’m being hunted by a pack of famished wild dogs. It’s a fast start, but I can handle it. I have no idea what the course is like, but I motor on anyway. Because why wouldn’t I? Run hard or go home… I choose to run hard, and – entirely unaware that Gav has dropped out with an injury at 4 miles – he whoops and cheers me across the finishing line in a time of 1:31. A spectacular new half marathon PB. SHIT! I didn’t even know I was capable of doing that! I think to myself, as I inhale half a loaf of Bara Brith (a Welsh fruit loaf for the non-Welsh / low-carb fans amongst us) within milliseconds of crossing the finishing line.

Job done. Happy days…

***

Race No. 2:

It is early February 2016, and just 3 weeks since I hauled my sorry arse over the scorching finishing line of the Dubai Marathon in a time of 3:34. Yes – it was hot. Very hot; Yes – my legs are still broken from my monumental efforts; and yes – I am perhaps clinically insane for even putting myself on the start line of this year’s Village Bakery Half marathon race.

We park up in the same industrial estate car park, but this time it feels vastly different. I know that I shouldn’t be here. My legs are shot. I gave them all of 1 days’ respite after the mammoth effort in Dubai, and I am now paying a price. So why have I turned up to today’s race? I don’t even know the answer, and I haven’t yet learned how to be honest with myself for my reasons.

The gun goes off, and I run. Just like last year, I set off fast, but this doesn’t feel like it did the year before. My legs aren’t bouncing along the country lanes, and the fast early pace is just too hard for me to maintain. I know that I can’t keep it up for long, but I belligerently try to, anyway. As the miles tick painfully by, I can feel my speed slowing down further and further, until eventually, I must stop running. I pull over a few times and want to cry. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? WHY AM I NOT RUNNING LIKE I WAS LAST YEAR? Writing these words now, I feel a level of stupidity that I am ashamed to share. This is how it feels when running turns into the very thing you never imagined possible – it is a big old shitty stick with which I am now beating myself. Why can’t you keep up, Rachel? Why are you so slow? What’s wrong with you?! My inner chimp has a field day, trampling over my still fragile sense of self-worth, whilst my inner peace is all but destroyed.

I crawl over the finishing line in 1:37 and I am heartbroken. I wish I’d never put myself on the start line, today. My legs didn’t want me to run, and perhaps I didn’t want me to race, today. Not if I was being honest with myself, but I am not. I raced anyway, because I couldn’t say STOP. ENOUGH.  I will pay a price for my misconceived ‘commitment’ which is – if we’re being ‘honest’ – just self-flagellation wrapped up in fancy packaging.

I go home, and I cry.

***

Race No. 3

It is early February 2017, and I am not sitting in the industrial estate car park in Wrexham, but I so desperately wish that I was. I am supposed to be there, watching the hi-visibility race marshalls setting up around us for a good hour-and-a-half before the race starts.

Instead, I am sobbing on Gav’s shoulder at the sea front in St. Anne’s, with tears plopping into my polystyrene take-out cup of hot chocolate, because I am unable to run. I CAN’T RUN. NOT EVEN 100 METRES. How did I get here? I wonder. Why has my body simply stopped being able to run? I ask myself. Where have I gone?

I feel lost. I think back to the previous two years’ juxtaposed Village Bakery half marathon race experiences as I hold on to Gav’s arm and we plod like slightly subdued pensioners back to the car.

Talk about a fall from grace – this feels spectacular. From flying… to pained, forced efforts… to this.

To nothing.

I am heartbroken.

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THIS IS NOT A PHOTO OF ME FROM ST. ANNES. IT IS SYMBOLIC OF MY BEING – how do I say this nicely – FUCKED.

***

Race No. 4

It is early February 2018, and we have just parked up at the nondescript industrial estate car park in Wrexham. We are by no means the first car in the car park this time, but we still have a good hour-and-a-half to watch the Boy Scouts direct a now steady stream of mainly dark coloured family saloons into orderly rows.

Of course, I have the usual pre-race anxiety, but this time, it is with justifiable reason. I think back to the memory of my sorry self weeping at the seaside exactly a year ago to the day, when I was simply unable to run for 100 metres. I remember so vividly how that felt, and the memory still hurts me now. It has taken me the best part of a year to get myself into the position where I can even dare to put myself on the start line again. I’ve been nowhere near my 2015 self for such a long time, that I can’t imagine how it feels to bounce along the country lanes as I once did – on this course, on this day, just a few years ago.

But I am here, now. I am back, and I can run again. THANK GOD, I CAN RUN AGAIN! I play this mantra on repeat, over, and over in my mind when my Bastard Chimp threatens to interject with his usual shitty little jibes. I AM HERE, AND I CAN RUN. That is all I need to keep reminding myself as we step away from our Kia heated seats and into the Baltic Welsh air for our 2-mile warm-up.

Gav has been training hard over the past 6 months. He deserves to do well, today. We are both mid-marathon training, and I am willing him to emerge victorious. In years gone by, I have taken more than my fair share of the racing glory: now – I say hopefully – it is his turn.

The field of runners is much larger than it was just a few years ago. Word seems to have spread that this is a relatively fast course, and the start is packed with club runners all gunning for PBs. But I am not chasing a PB today – not by a long way. I am not my 2015 self who bounced along these same country lanes, and went on to beat that time again just 3 months later in Edinburgh. I wonder if I will ever be her again.

But thankfully, I am also worlds away from the sad, sorrowful figure who was moping around St Anne’s seafront with globules of tear-induced snot dripping into a lukewarm Cadbury’s hot chocolate, because she had pushed herself to the point where she was simply unable to run.

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IT’S GOOD TO BE BACK!

It is difficult for me to align the two extremes, and I honestly don’t know where to place myself, today. As my ego struggles to accept that I am not my 2015 running self, so my inner peace remains intact, safe in the knowledge that I am thankfully not my 2016 self-flagellating version, either. My legs have come to trust me again, and they have healed sufficiently to run – and to still run well.

I set off deliberately controlled – or at least I feel to be controlling my pace. I don’t want to burn my legs up within the first few miles, only to repeat the tortuous experience from 2 years ago. So, I try to bring a small amount of intelligence to the proceedings, which is most unlike me.

My pace is good, and it feels controlled. THANK GOD I AM HERE. I AM HERE, AND I CAN RUN! At mile 10, I begin to feel the tightening in my hamstrings increasing – they are now burning and it feels like clamps are being steadily ratcheted causing me to have less movement with every step. My pace slows, and I am simply unable to keep my 7:10 average min/miling.

I wonder where Gav is. I hope he’s having a good race, today.

Mile 11.5 and I pull over briefly for a drink, a word with myself, and to work out what’s happening with my legs. They are protesting again. It’s happening again! Gav runs up beside me. ‘Let’s do the last mile and a half together,’ he says, looking infinitely fresher than I feel.

We run the next mile side-by-side, and I smile knowing that he is running well, today. I also momentarily hate him, because he doesn’t have my broken legs, and he has springs in his shoes (literally, he does: some Nike 4% things costing nearly as much as a 4-year old Corsa.)

He does the right thing and in the last half mile, he motors on ahead – I can’t stay with him, but I’m OK with that.

I cross the line and stop my watch: the time on my Suunto says 1:35 and some seconds. I am perhaps 30 seconds behind my Gav.

I collect my fancy medal, a bottle of water and a packet of Welsh cakes, and we walk slowly over to a clear patch of tarmac where we can debrief. And before my Bastard Chimp can interject with his taunting jibes of ‘yeah – you’re still shit, Rach…’ and so on, and so forth, I tell him in no uncertain terms to FUCK OFF. Because:

  1. I can run again!
  2. I have been able to put myself on the starting line again;
  3. I have beaten my time from the dreadful 2016 Village Bakery Half Marathon experience;
  4. I have beaten my best half marathon time from 2017 (I struggled in the Amsterdam heat to a 1:38 finish);
  5. I am 11th F35
  6. Gav has had a good race;
  7. I CAN RUN AGAIN!
  8. I CAN BLOODY RUN AGAIN!!!

I inhale 2 Welsh cakes as we sit and watch the other runners throwing themselves over the finishing line, and chat in branded clumps about PBs and sore feet. And I think to myself, ‘Don’t even start with me, Chimp. I am here… and I can run.’

 

 

The Email

It arrived in my inbox just as I’d returned home from this morning’s Dewsbury 10k road race. It was my intention to write a running blog based on today’s race, and the ‘unfinished business’ I felt I had in going back to the very place where I’d been forced to pull out through injury this time last year, and which was the start of a surprisingly difficult journey back from another form of lostness – one without running as my daily ‘fix’.

But The Email blew that plan out the water. You’ll see why. Names, ages, and places have all been changed to protect the identity of ‘Gillian’ – but the rest is exactly as it was sent to me, at 12.57pm today. My reply follows…

For the avoidance of any doubt, this is every reason why it was worth bearing my heart and soul in 337 pages of a book.

Oh, and it looks like I may well be running this year’s Great North Run… with a new friend 🙂

***

Dear Rachel,

My name is Gillian, I’m a 28 year old living with my parents in Coventry and I’m suffering with depression. I have always battled with daily anxiety, and feelings of always failing at life and that I’m nothing but a disappointment to myself and those around me. 
Six years ago I ran a 5k race for life in memory for my Grandad, and two years ago completed the British Heart Foundation’s May marathon. I completed the marathon equivalent in miles in a month. 
My mental health since had gone incredibly downhill, I have gained two stone, and badly depressed and struggle with every day life and have suicidal thoughts. I try to find a fight for my family and then I found your book…. I don’t think I have ever read a book so quickly, and actually I’m not someone who even reads. My best friend laughed at me when I told her I was reading a book. 
From start to finish I loved it, and cried at the end as you completed and continued your marathon journey. I relate to you in your book so much with my daily struggles, as I too suffer with that bad voice in my head. But yesterday as I came close to completing your book, I took a step forward.
Yesterday morning I had a meltdown, hysterically crying feeling like I’m in physical pain and can’t go on, my parents are struggling to cope with me and don’t know what to do, and they begged me to find an internal fight. 
So, while slumped on the sofa feeling sorry for myself reading your book, I took a break and I entered the ballot for the great north run. I think I’m mad, and If I’m successful to get a place I don’t know how I will do it, but I wanted to thank you.
Thank you for helping me to take a small step forward, even if it is just entering for the ballot I feel it is a start, and as you know it’s a long road to go, I know it is and it terrifies me but thanks to your book I have taken that step, I have taken my first step to fight these demons I face every day. Tomorrow, I plan to take my new running shoes and go out, even if it’s just a walk, it’s a start. You have inspired me and I just wanted to take the time to thank you! 
Thank you, Rachel Ann Cullen, I too will now begin to run for my life.
Kind regards 

Gillian

***

Dear Gillian

I have so much to say to you as I sit here – in tears – on my living room floor having recently come back in through the front door after putting myself on the start line of a race (it was the Dewsbury 10k today) for the umpteenth time since that initial marathon journey you have just been reading about. I’m the usual cocktail of post-race emotions: tired, yet full of energy; self-berating (Bastard Chimp always tells me I should have done better) yet reasonably happy with my efforts. But most of all, I feel proud. Proud of facing up to those horrible, toxic thoughts that tell me I shouldn’t even bother turning up in the first place, because I have no right to be there. Once again, I’ve won. 

And then I read your email…

Your email doesn’t feel like a ‘book review’ to me. It’s so much more than that. It is you seeing the tiniest chink of light in a very dark place; it’s you knowing that you have a friend in the world – even one whom you have never met. It is somebody reaching out and holding your hand in the loneliest of moments, and telling you that you are, and can be stronger than you ever imagined possible. It is every single reason why I wrote my book, and – although I’m afraid I don’t have any miracle cures or answers for you – it was always my hope that somebody just like you would pick up my book, read my story, and know that recovery can be possible. 

Please know that running ISN’T and MUSTN’T be seen as a ‘fix all’ for mental health demons. In the very early, darkest days of my own struggles, I needed help. As you know by reading my book, I was prescribed anti-depressant medication, and I fully believe that at that time, it helped me and was absolutely vital in keeping me from being swept of a cliff of hopelessness and despair. I would urge you to go and seek similar help, and to do it now. You don’t have to struggle alone, and you don’t need to isolate yourself from the world. It’s a different place now to when I was at my lowest ebb. Please tell me you will do that. Book in to see your GP, and discuss with them your thoughts and feelings – even if it sounds muddled, confused, and you don’t know where to begin. Just start somewhere…

Secondly, I applaud you for taking those other incremental steps towards a brighter, happier place. You have already felt the positive effects of completing the Race for Life 5K, and you can do that again. It is so fucking possible for you to do this. In entering the ballot for the Great North Run, you have chosen what I realise must seem like a big, scary, and intimidating goal but it IS possible. You CAN get yourself to the start line, and you CAN run / jog / walk / crawl over the finish line. 

What’s more, I will do it with you. Obviously, I can’t possibly join every person who gets in contact with me after reading my book (!) but you’re Charlie Bucket on this occasion, and you’ve won the Golden Ticket (or the opposite, depending on your viewpoint!) You had the balls to email me, and to tell me your story, just as I have had the balls to write mine and publish it in a book. I respect you enormously for doing that.

Although there are no guarantees for either of us, it is my hope that we can run / jog / walk – or crawl – across the finish line of the Great North Run 2018 together. 

You have just made a new long-distance friend, and she will support you on your journey.

So, thank you for getting in touch with me, and for being brave.

I look forward to hearing your progress, and know that I am championing you daily from my Yorkshire home. Take the steps I mentioned above – see your GP, and keep reaching out for the help and the support that you need, just like you have done by contacting me. 

All being well, I will see you in Newcastle on the 9th September.

With my very best wishes, 

Rachel Ann Cullen

Xxx

 

Bullies, Trolls, and other Pond Life…

It was bound to happen. If you raise your head far enough above the parapet, there will be some outraged, small-minded wanker hovering there with a Home Bargains bazooka just ready and waiting to shoot you down. And I’ve just caught the back end of some shrapnel.

That this particular Troll may think that I am a self-absorbed, egotistical wanker on some quest for personal glory by virtue of bearing my entire soul in the pages of a book for all to see is their opinion, and they are entitled to it. However, had they taken the time to read my book and even begin to get any sense of the person I am, then they may have reason to question those initial judgements about me. But sadly, whether by sheer laziness, ignorance, or a mixture of both, they have chosen not to.

I haven’t taken a hit at this point. I realise and fully understand that people are people, and for every ten-thousand lovely, kind-hearted empathetic, supportive souls out there, there will always be one amoeba floating about at the bottom of the pond.

But the really painful, upsetting blow comes with an accusation from said Troll that I am somehow ‘cashing in’ on the fact that my old friend, Ness, took her own life. That fills me with a sickening mix of sadness and fury, on so many levels. The fact that I am sitting here, compulsively writing this at 5am after an entirely sleepless night goes some way in explaining the depth of my feelings on this.

You see, dear, ugly Troll, I spent many hours, weeks and months deliberating over whether to even refer to Ness in my story. I consulted with her lovely Mum, and asked for her thoughts. Ness could have remained anonymous. She could have just been ‘A Friend’ who had taken her life. Would that have been more acceptable to you? If she hadn’t been given a name, and remained without identity, would that have met with your approval?

And you throw a further hateful question into the mix. You ask, ‘where was I when it mattered? Where was I back then?’ And – clearly – you haven’t even bothered to read my story, to know that I was nowhere. I wasn’t there, as you quite rightly assert. But – if you’d taken the time to find out or even ask – it was far worse than being nowhere. It was a place I hope you never have to go. Throughout those desolate years, I was hoovered so far up my own backside living a fake life, that I couldn’t see daylight. Inching myself from one day to the next as though crossing stepping stones perched perilously across a gaping crevasse, whilst on a heady cocktail of Prozac and booze to numb the pain. That’s where I was. And I’m sorry for that. If I could have pulled myself back from that place, and been there for Ness, do you think I would have chosen not to? Do you think it was my choice to lose an entire decade of my life to mental health misery, whilst watching other people living life from the distant side-lines? Or are you simply too ignorant to care?

And – FYI – it wasn’t just my friendship with Ness that was impacted throughout that godforsaken time. EVERY relationship was affected. I didn’t go to see my own sister with her two young children in Portsmouth, because I was too entirely satiated with my own sorry little life; I have cousins I don’t know as adults, because a ‘vacant’ sign hung from my window for such a long period of time. I didn’t go to their weddings. I don’t know their children. I walked away from university without one single friend as a direct result of my mental health battles. It was all just too painful to even put into words.

So, you dare to ask me where I was? The pit of hell is where I was.

My friendship with Ness was different to yours. We don’t share the same memories. You weren’t there when she drove us up to Newcastle in her Peugeot 105, with N-Sync blaring out whilst I questioned why the birds would all build nests in one tree and not spread out a little, given that they had the choice. You weren’t there when she drove us the wrong way around a round-a-bout in Newcastle city centre, following our trip to the tattoo shop (mine means special fried rice.) You weren’t with us when we walked through town on our lunch break and a bird shat on her face outside Greggs. You didn’t come on the awkward double dates; and ‘MALCOLM’ socks means nothing to you. You didn’t receive 14 missed calls and 4 voicemails from her when you’d walked out of a temping job, because your anxiety had become too overwhelming. You didn’t drive over to my dad’s in Leeds with her one time for my birthday, when I thought no one cared. Ness did. She cared.

Because I don’t share your memories, as you don’t mine, then does that make mine any less valid?

Let’s talk about grief. My grief is and was different to yours. I didn’t cry the loudest, or go on charity walks. I didn’t join you in your own suffering, and collectively mourn as others did. I vanished back to my own insular prison where I would remain – still on Prozac and booze – for a good few years, whilst all of the shock and the impact hit me in my many quiet, solitary moments. You weren’t to know, and I wouldn’t expect you to. But does that make your grief any greater than mine?

And, I should remind you, that this is my story. It is about my life, and my journey. It isn’t about Ness. I don’t know what caused her to be swept along the tsunami of hopelessness from which she couldn’t return. I have no idea what took her to that place, or how / when / where the monsters began to consume her from the inside out. That isn’t my story to tell, and it isn’t my journey. That Ness played a part in my life for however long, and that I have so many lovely, crazy, happy memories of a beautiful girl I once called my friend, I am honestly grateful. But my story is not the same as hers.

Finally, Troll, I would ask you this. What are you bringing to the party, today? What are you contributing to even begin to help another person to feel less alone, or more supported in this mad old crazy world? What’s your legacy? Is it to stand at your morally defunct gates and guard them with your Home Bargains bazooka? Is that all you’ve got? Because surely you can do better than that. Are you going to be continually outraged when you see other people – other good people – trying to make a shit of a difference? Are you going to continue to judge them, and project your own self-defeating, minimalist standards onto them? Because on that, my friend, we differ. On that, I’m glad we don’t share the same memories of either joy or grief. I’m glad that you didn’t come to Newcastle with Ness in her tin can Peugeot, and that you weren’t there when the bird shat on her face. I’d hate to share those memories with somebody so small minded and ignorant as you.

So, crack on and be outraged by me, ugly Troll. Be appalled that I dare to tell my story, and be disgusted that I am living the happiest life possible, today.

Crawl back into your hole and fire your bazooka.

Hopefully, it will backfire.

The Ghost of Amanda Walker

It’s early Friday evening and I’m lying stretched out on my living room floor, with newspapers and magazines in which I am featured scattered all around me. I am sick of the sight of my own face. Fortunately, I have a small and (sadly) ever-decreasing pile of Cadbury’s Mini Eggs to my right, which is offset by the little pot of M&S Supergreen Salad to my left. The juxtaposition seems both crude and predictable, but I’m OK with that.

My life hasn’t been normal for approximately one week now. I’ve already written about the challenges of being a reluctant social media whore, and my initial apprehension at facing this inevitability. But the shocking thing is the degree to which I am successfully pulling it off.

‘You sounded so relaxed during the Marathon Talk interview, Rach. Great job!’

‘This interview is brilliant, Rachel! Well done!’

‘You were fab, Rach! Totally nailed it.’

And so it goes on…

In between Twitter messages congratulating me on my various PR performances, I turn to Gav and ask him, ‘How the fuck am I doing this, Gav?’

He has no answers.

I’ve heard from old school friends, ex- child-minders, long lost cousins, and work mates from two decades ago. I’ve been spoken to by the one mum in the school playground I had hoped wouldn’t acknowledge my existence, and quizzed loudly about my PR schedule in a Halifax nail bar, where an old lady sat listening in bemused silence, only to interject with, ‘some bloke threw himself off the motorway bridge last week, didn’t they? Poor soul.’ Although clearly spot on with the Mental Health theme, it did bring the mood in the place down to a point at which even a ‘Feeling Hot-Hot-Hot’ flame red couldn’t raise our spirits.

But on a manageable scale, and in a very small way, my story is impacting on people. As those who have (and haven’t) known me read my words on the page, and hear my voice on the radio, I get the distinct feeling that I’m not alone: I was never alone. And I can’t tell you the joy that brings me. To know that all the years of sadness, madness, and quiet, invisible lostness didn’t count for nothing; that my efforts to pull myself back from the brink of despair, and to watch my own mum grapple to do the same mattered. Hear that again: TO KNOW THAT IT MATTERED – means everything to me.

I sit opposite my mum in a coffee shop in town, and in between sips of extra hot skinny mochas (*again – the irony) we speak about the past week, and how it has felt for the pair of us. And as I look across at my lovely, endlessly selfless mum in her charity shop padded jacket and (what appears to be) a child’s headband keeping her mass of thick white hair from her dainty-featured face, I tell her about one particular question I was asked in a radio interview just a few days ago.

“So, you discuss you mum’s mental health issues in the book, Rachel. How is your mum now, and what does she make of your success?” one well-informed Northampton-based interviewer asked me whilst we were live on air.

I thought for a moment, and then it struck me that this is our story, and our success. You see, all those years ago, we wouldn’t have been sitting together chatting over our chocolate-sprinkled hot drinks in a busy place where people meet and talk. It wasn’t a part of our reality, back then. Just to sit and chat. It didn’t happen – it couldn’t happen – because the demons running amok in my mum’s mind held her captive, and they had pulled the curtains shut tight to avoid any hint of sunlight creeping in. The lightness couldn’t reach her – it was simply beyond her grasp.

“I’m pleased to say that my mum is really well, now,” I answer the male radio voice at the other end of the phone. “She has friends, and they go places; she chats to people she knows in town, and stops to have a quick word with a lady she knows from the knitting group, because it would be rude not to.” I’m now on a roll, pouring over all the remarkable changes that have happened in the years since my mum slayed her demons, and wrestled back the curtains.

“But most of all,” I continue, “This is our success. It is hers as much as it is mine. She showed me that she could find a way to accept help, and discover her joy in life – and she believed that I could do the same. So, the book and all it stands for is not some passive thing that she has observed from the distant sidelines. She has lived and breathed all of my struggles, and cheered for my success. She has cried quietly at times of despondency, and whooped loudly for every mini victory. All the races, all the medals; the first-place Breville Juicers and the no-place Christmas puddings. She has been there for it all, and – as I say in the book – I am as proud of her journey as she is of mine,”

 I glance across to another table in the very same coffee shop, and who is sitting there? None other than Amanda Walker, the girl whose mother inspired me when I was aged just 9 years old (Chapter ‘The Foil Blanket’) and who perhaps sowed the first ever seeds of marathon running in my young mind. I don’t even look twice: I know it’s her. She looks lost and alone. But then again, she always did look lost and alone. I wonder what the last thirty years have held for her, and I wonder why – and how – she is sitting in the very same coffee shop as me and my mum, today. Before I can find out, she has silently disappeared, as though a ghost has just vanished from a room.

And then I think to myself: Maybe it has…

***

It’s amazing to see photos of people (and pets) enjoying my book! You can buy Running For My Life by clicking here

Thanks for all the support, and the INCREDIBLE reviews we’re seeing on Amazon. Keep them coming!

Rachel x

 

Running For My Life… the birth of the baby elephant, 11th Jan 2018

It finally happened. After a 22-month gestation period, and some early complications -including a routine scan when it was questioned whether the elephant was in fact a giraffe (*ref earlier blog) – at 00:01 on Thursday 11th January 2018 I gave birth to a healthy, bouncing baby elephant. Or, to cut my now slightly overstretched analogy short – my book, “Running For My Life” was finally published.

The anticipation and build up to this event has been something akin to that of the European Space Station’s £80m investment into the human space programme. Weeks, months, and years in the living, writing, editing, re-writing and re-editing… and some more writing. Oh, and then a bit more editing…

And that was the easy part. Honestly.

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You see, back in 2015 when I began writing the book, and for the subsequent two years, I hadn’t quite factored in what might happen if and when my literary masterpiece ever made it out of the slush pile, and onto the shelves. That wasn’t anywhere on my radar. Simply writing and telling my story in the best way that I possibly could was my only goal / obsession. That was my focus and, it’s fair to say, it was my only focus.

So, in the very early meetings with my (admittedly amazing) publishing team, where there was some vague notion of a ‘marketing and PR plan’ closer to the publication date, I paid little attention. ‘Oh, that’s MILES off!’ I would reassure myself, and ‘We’ve got AGES until we’re anywhere close to all that stuff kicking off.’ Whatever “that stuff” was…

But just as day follows night, we crept ever closer to the Big Day. And as that happened, my levels of sheer terror began to build. I looked forward to Christmas, whilst at the same time waiting for it like Cinders counting down the seconds until the clock strikes 12 and her fancy glass slippers turn themselves back into God-awful Crocs. Christmas 2017 was my midnight hour. No more frolicking around with Prince Charming in an expensive little number from LK Bennett (ref. Prima magazine photo shoot); No more time to muse on these so-called ‘marketing and PR plans’ from afar. Along with the birth of Christ came the birth of all my fears: putting myself out there… whilst wearing Crocs.

I write in the book about introversion, and my natural tendencies towards this, and away from drawing any attention upon myself. That is, I’d suggest, reasonably understandable given the nature of my own experiences, and the gladiatorial inner battle with self-doubt vs self-acceptance I have warred over the past twenty years.

The whole idea, then, of going against my natural inclination and putting myself in myriad different guises of feigned self-confidence is as grotesquely warped as it is comical, considering the increasing levels of ‘social media whoring’ I may well be accused of over recent weeks and months. Like when Dustin Hoffman’s failing character actor Michael reinvents himself as ‘Tootsie’, the all-American female television actress, and then hits the big time with her fake teeth, tits, and dazzling red dress.

This is me. I am now Tootsie.

Unknown

PR:       “Right. We’ve got a photo shoot in London, Rach. Late November. You OK with that?”

Me:      ‘Yeah! Sure!” [I do a quick Google search for therapists within a 10-mile radius, whilst praying for the scabs to heal on both knees and elbows from Costa Rica, and the cold sores to vanish from my face…]

***

PR:       ‘Can you do a live interview on Radio Leeds next Tuesday, Rach?’

Me:      ‘Yeah! Sure!’ [I run across to the sink and think I may vomit the Vienetta I had as a post-run treat over an hour since]

***

PR: ‘Look North want to interview you live on the day of publication, Rach. Are you OK with that?’

Me: ‘Yeah! Sure!’ [I run across to the sink and actually vomit, just as soon as I’ve pressed ‘send’ on the email confirmation.]

***

PR: ‘Radio 2 have asked you to come down for a live radio interview, Rach… That OK?’

Me: ‘Yeah! Sure!’ [I don’t even get to the sink before vomiting, this time.]

***

I have sleepless nights. One day, the fear consumes me, and I send Gav a text. It simply says, ‘I think I’m going to pull out of Look North. Can’t do it.’ He tries to ring me, but I don’t answer the phone. The fear consumes me, because I am still that person who looks in the mirror and wants to hide away. I am Part 1 of my book – the 4-year-old little girl in the wretched pink ballet leotard who feels like a round shape amongst the rectangles.

But then I think of all the times when I’ve felt exactly the same trepidation and terror. I think back to the start lines of the hundreds of races when I’ve lined up questioning my right to be there, or my sanity in possibly making a monumental fool of myself. And then I know – I can do it again. This time, it isn’t on a start line of a race, but this is just another kind of start line. And running has given me the strength and the courage to know that I can – and I will – push myself out of my introverted, introspective comfort zone again. Because I’ve done so many, many times before.

‘So, Rachel. What’s the main message you’d like to give people, from reading your book?’ the glamorous female Look North presenter asks me, as we reach the conclusion of the live television interview.

‘It’s to be brave enough to try,’ I reply, as all my fears have now gone, melted away in a heady combination of adrenalin and hairspray fumes. ‘And not to worry about making a fool of yourself,’ I continue, on a roll. ‘Because we all have done, at one time.’

The live television interview is over, and I can’t believe that I even enjoyed it! I watch it back, and I realise – I have running to thank for giving me the strength to do this. Not only that, but I’ve had the most incredible experiences over the past week, and I have felt as proud of myself as I have running in any marathon.

Perhaps there’s another book in this, somewhere…

“Running For My Life” is available to buy now on Amazon, in paperback or kindle… Link here.

Giving birth to an elephant… Part 3. And a very Happy New Year #gettingpublished

SOUND THE CLAXON! STOP THE PRESS! ALERT THE NEIGHBOURS! It’s finally happened. I wriggle myself around, piss on a stick, and there it is: a double line flashing before my eyes. Me and the attractive, mysterious bull elephant are EXPECTING!

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IT’S A BULL!!!

In writing terms, this means that the once unknown, faceless gatekeeper to my literary dreams who expressed an early interest in my submission… loves it. SHE LOVES IT! She believes in my story, and – guess what – she has invited me to travel down to the posh publishing house in a swanky part of London town to MEET HER! OH. MY. GOD. What will I do? What will I say? What will she be like? Will she like me? More importantly, will she like my bull elephant, when she meets him in person? I just don’t know.

It feels like being invited for a personal meeting with Mr Wonka at his infamous chocolate factory – the real one – not some shitty Cadbury World Birmingham-based alternative which doesn’t even have a chocolate river (*although I have been, and it is actually quite good.) This one has an Egg Room with genuine golden-egg producing geese, a full Oompa Loompa workforce, and – she assures me – the world famous everlasting gobstopper. All these could potentially be mine, subject to the whims of Mr Wonka, of course.

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Willy Wonka’s factory… this is not.

I gather up my Yorkshire raincoat and the three of us – my bull elephant, my raincoat and I – pile onto the Grand Central Halifax-to-King Cross direct train one nerve-racking Thursday morning.

I am on my way to the chocolate factory to meet Mr Wonka.

I don’t see or hear anything on the train. I don’t notice the chatter, or where/when the train stops to collect more miserable commuter passengers. I don’t have any interest in the buffet cart, or the on-board restaurant facilities. I don’t even care for the half-price Kit-Kat offer when purchased with an overpriced hot drink. All I care about is getting to London, finding the posh publishing house, and meeting Mr Wonka.

I finally arrive at the swanky destination on King’s Road in Chelsea. I can feel small beads of sweat trickle down the back of my neck as I feign calmness and inform the suited gentleman at the desk of my appointment.

‘Lovely. Just take the lift to the 3rd Floor, Madam,’ he tells me. ‘The publishing house reception is just on your right.’

I shoehorn the three of us into the centrally-placed small glass elevator, and as we slowly begin to ascend, I peer down onto the shrinking reception desk, below. Shit. Did he say the 3rd or 4th floor? I wasn’t listening, and so I’ve pressed the number 4 on the elevator wall without thinking. The doors ping open, and of course it’s wrong. I think I can pick up the faintest whiff of my own body odour as my Yorkshire raincoat struggles to make it back into the lift before the doors close again, trapping a sleeve. Oh, Jesus. It can’t happen like this. No – not like this.

I’m overly sprightly, and vaguely reminiscent of a children’s TV presenter when I introduce myself at the publishing house’s reception. Thankfully, most people are still out on their lunch break. I gawp around me at the funky surroundings, and glance down to my Yorkshire raincoat. It looks dreary and unexciting in the uber-trendy, unfamiliar setting. And I can see the George label clearly sticking out of the collar. ‘I’m standing here in this chic, stylish, literary dream factory carrying a raincoat from fucking Asda,’ I briefly berate myself, wondering if I should slyly dump it in the loo before finally meeting the literary version of Mr Wonka in approximately 25 seconds’ time. But I have my sensible head on – it may be chilly on the long trek back home to Yorkshire. Plus, it was £35, and I’m not one for waste…

Meanwhile, my bull elephant has made himself at home. He has settled on one of the striking Union Jack comfy sofas placed conveniently next to the Jenga-style display of recent glossy publications. He doesn’t seem remotely phased by the fact that these appear to be mostly CELEBRITY non-fiction books. He is unflustered as he sits cross-legged and casually flicks through the pages of a millionaire racing driver’s autobiography. I can’t believe it – he looks to be entirely… comfortable, here.

Mr Wonka eventually arrives back from lunch, and I begin to breathe for the first time since 10.19am this morning. We head out onto the King’s Road high street, and I don’t know which words are coming out of my mouth, or in what order. It feels like a first date, or meeting the Queen, only far more important than that.

We sit down in the exquisite boutique restaurant with fairy lights adorning all available space, and Mr Wonka talks gently and calmly to me and my elephant. He looks kindly upon the bulbous grey mass before him, and makes no mention of the misshapen left earlobe, or his particular shade of grey. He even appears to look fondly upon him, as though I am merely the vehicle by which he has happened across this – what I also consider to be – rather attractive beast.

And it is then that I know.

My bull elephant and I must work with this Editor. We both instantly love her, because she understands us. She sees past our flaws, and to the very heart of who we are, and why we are here.  We talk and talk, and she asks us both many questions. I’m proud of my bull elephant as he sits and holds his own in the swanky King’s Road eating establishment. He’s come a long way since the MacDonald’s car park, where we sat and wept together just a few months earlier.

I have a strong feeling that this is it. I don’t yet know of the two-month nervous wait we will have to endure before an offer for publication is made in November 2016, or the subsequent year – yes, a full year – of a thousand different editing processes. I’m entirely unaware of the journey that will unfold, and the endless hours of reading and re-reading over 80,000 of my own words for the seven hundredth time. I’m oblivious to the fact that I will write and edit the book in Tenerife, Cyprus, Edinburgh, Mallorca, and in myriad Costa coffee shops within a ten-mile radius of our Yorkshire home. In fact, my bull elephant and I will travel everywhere together. We will eat, sleep, and breathe the same air for the next 12 months, until we virtually morph into one another.

Similarly, I cannot even begin to imagine what my bull elephant will become. I can’t possibly know that he will turn heads, and people will begin to notice him. I have no concept, yet, of the amount of love for my bull elephant, as he nonchalantly swings his legs under the table amidst the twinkling fairy lights and sips his San Pellegrino through a straw. He doesn’t know it either, but he will appear in national newspapers and magazines; he will pose for photo shoots; he will be invited onto the television and radio, and asked, ‘Could you please tell us exactly how you have transformed yourself into the elephant we see before us, today?’

But Mr Wonka sees it all. His eyes can envisage the journey long before we can.

As we pack up to leave, Mr Wonka turns to us and says in his hypnotising, soft tones, ‘Congratulations to the pair of you…’

The expected due date is 11th January 2018.

You can pre-order a copy here… Running For My Life, by Rachel Ann Cullen

*And the great glass elevator in the publishing house? I’m planning on busting through the ceiling in it, next time…

All of the above will magically transform into this…