Last summer I lost my lovely man. Wayne’s death, after years of struggle with a pernicious illness, was not a surprise but it was a shock. I’d never known real grief before: the inability to eat or sleep, the panic attacks, the dull physical pain like a brick under your ribs. It seemed so unreal that for a few weeks I thought it was a hoax and waited for him to call. A week after his funeral I was made redundant from the company I’d helped him set up five years earlier. I felt that I had lost everything and missed him dreadfully. I couldn't see a way forward.
A year ago today, three months after his death, I couldn’t bear it any longer. I left a brief note of apology, overfed the cats and went to bed for a long sleep. My parents found me two days later. There was no shortcut – I had to rebuild my life.
One of the things that helped me feel better was baking. Doing something practical seems to use another part of the brain and lets the rest go for a break. At the end you have something to show for your work: a nice warm cake that you can give away or share. Cake is for happy occasions – birthdays, christenings, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, celebrations. Cake makes other people happy. And it was making me happy.
I took an intensive course in cake decorating and loved it. I felt like I had come home. It was addictive and all I wanted to do was make cake, then decorate it. So why not? I had no job and nothing to lose.
I hesitantly floated the idea with my dad one Sunday afternoon: “I’d love a job where I can just potter about in the kitchen with the cats, listening to 6music and making cakes”. Quick to crush my dreams, he shook his head: “Never in a million years”. He was, of course, right: there was no way cats could be allowed in a working kitchen. Nor would there be much pottering.
Once I’d made my decision, I set about it with an ambition I thought I’d lost years ago. Wayne had left me with some money and some good advice, for which I thank him every day. In the past few months, which have shot by like a montage set to an upbeat song, my kitchen was upgraded and I registered as a food business. I got a company name (thanks Lucy), logo and website. I got customers. I gained a stone in weight. I fought an infuriating legal wrangle and won. I took more cake courses and spent long, long hours in the kitchen baking and decorating. I felt so tired that it hurt. I felt invincible.
Today I feel happier and stronger than I have in years, perhaps ever. My cake decorating skills are still decades behind where I would like them to be, but it will be decades of learning something I love. I feel capable of doing anything, though admittedly the fleeting idea about doing the Great North Run was a step too far.
A fellow Classics graduate far more eloquent than me captured it perfectly in a speech three years ago:
“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life”.
I am grateful for the love and support of my family and friends and am sorry for the upset I caused them last year. I would like to say I’ve forgiven those who kicked me when I was down, but I’m not there yet. It was good, however, to be reminded of the fight inside me. I am lucky to be here and am enjoying every minute.
To anyone who feels they have a mountain to climb and is wondering if it’s really worth the effort – try it. You might enjoy it. There might be some nice people along the way. There might be a shop selling tea and cake. The Classics graduate who said she used rock bottom as a solid foundation was JK Rowling. And she did all right, didn’t she?