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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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

 

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.

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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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving birth to an elephant Part 2… or is it a giraffe?? #writingabook

It’s a Tuesday morning in early March 2016. I’ve just come off the treadmill at the gym, as I need to keep even the smallest amount of headspace from my attractive bull elephant other half. It was very intense at the beginning of our courtship, but this relationship needs to be sustainable – we’re both in it for the long-haul – and so normality resumes as best it can.

I stroll back to the changing room with the slightest whiff of smugness, having ticked off my dreaded speed session. Phew! Thank God that’s over. Job done. I reach for my IPhone from inside the locker, and without thinking, I click on the ‘mail’ icon in the bottom right hand corner. I find myself doing this on average ten times every fifteen minutes over any 23-hour period (I leave one hour for uninterrupted sleep), just to see how the universe is responding – or not – to the story of me and my elephant. I don’t honestly expect to see anything different from the other 160 times I have already checked since 6am this morning, but this is how habits are formed (having undertaken some light research, I discover that this process is called ‘chunking’ – where the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine.)

I am now a chunker. I chunk.

And there it is. The Email. It reads:

Dear Rachel

We’re attracted to this submission. It has a lot of promise but it also needs some re-writing and re-ordering. On the plus side, it has a fierce energy and a raw honesty, absolutely no preaching, and we relate to a woman who finds and saves herself by running.”

WHAT? FUCKING WHAT?? I take a screen shot of The Email and, with shaking hands, I ping it over to Gav. But I can’t wait the ten nanoseconds for his reply, and so I immediately pick up the phone.

‘They like it!’ I scream to him down the phone, as the woman drying her crotch in front of me with what appears to be a shrunken tea-towel no longer exists in my reality: it is just me, Gav, my bull elephant, and The Email. ‘They fucking like it!’ I repeat, as if to begin the whole process of opening the euphoric email again, just to indulge myself, and relive the precise moment when my relationship with the attractive bull elephant was at least acknowledged by the universe as existing – like it mattered.

I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my body as the prospect that somebody, somewhere, sees some vague potential in my beloved bull elephant, and that they may think he’s beautiful, too.

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This isn’t the actual selfie, but you get the gist…

Outside the gym, I take a selfie as evidence to Gav, and myself, of this monumental turning point. I check the selfie once more before pinging it across to Gav on WhatsApp. But my ridiculous, euphoric smile isn’t what I see. Instead, an ethereal glow radiates from the photograph. It is the unadulterated joy of potential: of what might be. This person – the one who has typed out the precise words expressing their ‘attraction’ to my submission – is now The Gatekeeper: the gatekeeper to my dreams.

Emails are exchanged, and over the coming weeks and months, a dialogue develops between the two of us.

‘Dear Rachel. We think that maybe your elephant might benefit from a slight makeover. Would it be possible, do you think, for him to work out a little, and to lose a small amount of weight?

Yes, I guess that’s possible. Although I do like his chunky thighs…

‘And he seems a little… grey to us. Would you consider adorning him in some brighter, funkier outfits, perhaps?’

I look over at my elephant who is sitting quietly, reading a book about self-acceptance on the sofa. Hmmmm, I think to myself, imagining my bull elephant dressed up like Timmy Mallet. I happen to quite like that shade of grey…

‘And finally, if we are to proceed with your submission, we will need you to take drastic action with your elephant’s ears. They are too flappy, and there is a small, misshapen chunk missing from the left lobe. Without a doubt, comprehensive reconstructive surgery will be required.’

I look again, and my heart sinks. I love my elephant. I love his colour, and his misshapen, flappy ears. I love the essence of him, and I don’t want him to undergo major cosmetic surgery to morph into a non-grey, neon version of himself that I no longer recognise. That’s not to say that certain improvements can’t be made and aren’t necessary, even (I totally know that they are) but I suddenly realise: it’s not my elephant they want at all. In fact, they don’t even want an elephant.

They want a giraffe dressed up as Timmy Mallet.

With the heartbreak of this realisation, we part ways, and they wish me and my beautiful bull elephant the best of luck on our continuing journey. I sit in the car and cry, because fleetingly I wonder, ‘Why couldn’t you be a giraffe who looks like Timmy Mallet? Why do you have to be a big old lump of grey elephant with misshapen ears?’ I think about the point of our relationship. Where are we going? And why? Do I really love him like I once thought I did? Do I believe in him – and in myself – enough to think that we could make it work? Salty tears roll down my cheeks and plop onto my hi-vis jacket as I ponder our future together. And then my self-indulgent woe is broken by the voice of a small child sitting in the back of the car.

‘Don’t cry, Mummy,’ she says. ‘It’ll be OK. Please don’t cry.’

You see, we have just finished Junior Parkrun, and only now – sitting in MacDonald’s car park at 10am on a drizzly Sunday morning – have I allowed the weight of emotion to wash over me and to temporarily break me, whilst my daughter sits and watches, draining the contents of a blackcurrant Fruit Shoot, from her booster seat in the back.

‘It’s OK, Tills,’ I tell her, half laughing at the ridiculousness of the scene. ‘I’m OK. Honestly I am.’

How can I possibly explain to her how much this means to me; about the Joy of Potential, and the Gatekeeper to my Dreams? She frequently sees me sitting and tapping away on my MacBook Pro keyboard. She sees the Writers & Artists Yearbook 2016 take permanent residency on the small colouring table in our front room, and yet she has no idea that this is all for her. This is her story as much as it is mine; this is her elephant, and she will inherit all of it – whether she likes it or not.

I dry my exhausted tears and I commit once again to finding a home for my beautifully imperfect bull elephant.

We’re back to square one. Each submission is a masterpiece in itself: carefully crafted to the idiosyncrasies of the respective gatekeepers. I haven’t been through this process for a good few months, whilst I tried to bend and shape, flex and contort my bull elephant into the ill-fitting guise of a fluorescent giraffe. But I haven’t sold him out, and I haven’t sold my soul. For that, I am at least grateful.

I’m only at ‘B’ in my Encyclopedia of Hope, and I happen across a publishing house called ‘Blink Publishing’. I do my usual research on the internet, and I am unable to cross this off my list of potentials despite being overwhelmed with magnitude. These are big hitters – the real deal. They publish many incredible non-fiction, autobiographical books for the rich and famous, but I won’t be intimidated. I dig a bit deeper, and I discover a wealth of evidence to support this being a potential loving and nurturing home for my bull elephant. I swallow hard at the prospect of sending a snap-shot of my blundering, grey, scraggy-eared, unpolished bull to the appointed gatekeeper of said publishing house. But I think back to the encouraging words of Giraffe Random House and the early indications I have received of our potential, and I know I must.

It is now early August 2016, and I send my very best effort – an entirely filtered portrait of my bull elephant to the fancy publishing house. He is standing at an angle, thereby disguising the misshapen left earlobe, and the filter I have selected makes him appear to be more of a silvery grey than the miserable, rainy day, murky colour that he is.

I press ‘send’ and I know I couldn’t have done any more. The rest is down to good fortune, and the will of the universe.

One week goes by, and I hear nothing. I’ve hardened up emotionally since the trauma of the MacDonald’s car park pathetic fallacy scene. I simply must accept that this might be a long, or even endless journey. There may be another thousand condescending rejections to contend with, and I may be met with an insurmountable wall of silence (the slush pile is an over-populated, hostile place) so best I get my head around those realities now, before I fall foul of the ‘joy of potential’ honey trap again.

My newly emotionally-resilient self sends a politely worded chase-up email to the faceless gatekeeper at Blink Publishing. I feel nothing as I send the email. My task is now purely pragmatic, and I cannot afford to become too emotionally involved.

But then, I receive it. Another Email. It pings into my inbox, and once again the joy of potential dances around, flirting with me.

‘Dear Rachel

I have indeed received your submission, and I have been reading it for the past few days. I am really enjoying it, and will be able to give some more detailed feedback once finished. Please expect a fuller response by the end of the week!’

I show Gav, and he hops about it the living room, whilst I remain seated.

I just hope they want an elephant, I think to myself, as I look across the room at my bull who is lifting weights over in the corner. He’s just come back from the local tanning salon. What shade of grey is that? I wonder.

He’s already beginning to look rather different…

TO BE CONTINUED…

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Why writing a book is like giving birth to an elephant. Part 1 – The First Dates

It’s almost here. It’s booting me on the insides making my ribs ache, and the acid reflux is now so bad I’ve started adding Gaviscon Extra Strength to my tea instead of milk. I can’t sleep in any other position than on my side, propped up at a 45-degree angle with an expensive tubular pillow wedged between my crotch.

I am about to give birth to an elephant. The due date is 11th January, 2018. 

It all started back in April 2015, when a rather fetching bull elephant caught my eye across a crowded room. In writing terms then, this is where it all began. Lying in the bath the day before the London Marathon 2015, I began to write about how I was feeling. And I began to wonder… what if? Those two simple words: What if? What if I could tell my story… by writing a book? I was curious about the possibility.

Me and the attractive bull elephant exchanged numbers.

Our romance was a slow-burner. We went on many, many dates. We regularly met in a local coffee shop, where he read whilst I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote – and wrote – and I didn’t stop writing. Sometimes, he would up and leave as he had a train to catch, but I would sit there and carry on pouring my story onto the MacBook Pro, as though my life depended on it. Maybe it did? I don’t know.

It was a quiet, unspoken thing, our relationship. I knew we were casually ‘dating’ – that I was courting an elephant – but what do you say to people? ‘Oh, – I’m busy writing my – erm – (embarrassed cough) my… book.’ And sound like some arty farty literary wannabe wanker? Not likely.

Then the standard, polite response comes back. ‘Oh! That’s nice!’ complete with pitiful smirk as if to reiterate that:

  1. a) you won’t ever finish writing your (ahem) ‘book’; and
  2. b) even if you do, only your mum will ever read it after you’ve paid £500 to get ten copies printed for close Family & Friends.

Nope, it’s easier to avoid telling anyone that you’re dating an attractive bull elephant than it is to be the recipient of the quietly judgmental, mildly condescending looks and comments from those who genuinely do think you’ve lost the plot, and should go and get a ‘real job’ (I do have one of those, BTW)

But the feelings are already there. You care about the bull elephant. He matters to you. A great deal. There isn’t a day that goes by when you don’t think about him, or want to spend time with him. He needs you, and you need him. The naysayers have – thankfully – arrived too late to intercept the budding romance.

It’s game on.

Weeks roll into weeks, which bleed into months. Words don’t just appear on a page. They are crafted. They are placed there – every single one of them – until you begin to see the vague, shadowy formations of a book. A story is emerging, although it will take many more months until it even resembles a book as you know one to be. But somewhere, through the word blindness, the story is taking shape and morphing into something… you’re not quite sure what yet, but you will keep going. Because you will finish the book. You will continue to date the attractive bull elephant.

Because – you realise – you are falling in love with him.

The dates continue. Nothing much changes. We meet at the same time, go to the same place, and order the same drinks. Sometimes (in fact most times) we tell each other the same old stories we’ve told a thousand times before. We repeat anecdotes and laugh in the usual, predictable places. The writing follows suit. I write and re-write the same chapter 14 times. I chop this part and place it there; that once ‘hilarious’ section stopped being even remotely funny after I read it for the hundredth time. The words sometimes frustratingly dance on the screen as if to deliberately provoke a migraine.

Sometimes, I wonder if we will ever go somewhere different, the bull elephant and I, or even order a chai latte instead of a regular cappuccino…

A year goes by, and things have progressed to the point where we need to venture further afield. There is just enough meat on the feeble, literary skeleton to believe it could grow into something strong and beautiful. I believe in the story – I have lived and breathed the story. I also happen to believe that somewhere in the universe, another person will believe in it, too.

It’s time.

 

I know it’s not perfect. It’s a million miles away from being perfect, but the essence is there. The story – my story – is there. I do my research and buy a copy of the Writers & Artists Yearbook, 2016. I start at the beginning of the doorstop voluminous authority on all things publishing-related, which makes The Bible look like a pamphlet on ‘Keeping Warm through the Winter’. I conscientiously wade through the alphabetic list of potential publishers and agents who might – just might – be interested in the barely formed body of a story I have spent the last year piecing together. My inner perfectionist winces as it knows that much work is still to be done, but my desire to give this thing a heartbeat thankfully overrides any perfectionist terrorism which would otherwise kill my dream.

I spend hours and hours putting together carefully constructed synopses and example chapters, each requested in specifically onerous formats by individual publishing houses:

‘…Will consider unsolicited MMS (first three chapters only); include covering letter and SAE and allow 3 months for response. If possible, find an agent first…’

‘…Include SAE and allow 3 months for response. For novels, send 3 sample chapters and synopsis only. Max 10,000 words. Do not send MMS via email. Original documents will not be returned. If you do not hear from us within 6 months, you can assume your submission is unsuccessful…’

‘…Go straight to jail. Do not pass ‘GO’. Do not collect £200…’ [sorry, this one’s from Monopoly, but is a hell of a lot more straightforward…]  

‘OH F*CK OFF WANKER RANDOM HOUSE!’, I scream out loud, but then immediately regret it, as I know full well that they are the gatekeepers to any chance my fledgling relationship might have to succeed.

Meanwhile, my bull elephant sits and waits patiently, watching Strictly on the telly whilst I ignore him completely and wade through my publishing bible. It’s late on a Saturday night, but I can’t rest. I must send in just this one final submission which I’ve been working on for the last four-and-a-half hours. My daughter wakes up from her sleep, and I only pause briefly to go and tuck her back in bed whilst my subconscious mind continues to hunt around in the universe to find a home for my story. As I send out my thousands and thousands of carefully, individually crafted words into the vast unknown, I wonder: Who will read it? Where will it end up? Will anybody even bother? I’ve heard a lot about The Slush Pile. It’s commonly known that the majority of literary submissions end up there many, many times before they might be mercifully plucked out and defibrillated into life. Precious few make it.

That night, I don’t sleep.

The bull elephant is relegated to the sofa. And I wonder. What will happen to us? Will we survive? I’m desperate to know the answers, but I have none. I’ve done all I can.

The rest is down to the universe…

TO BE CONTINUED…