Anxiety, pandemics, and feeling useless

I’m nearly six months into my new job, in an organisation that is at the forefront (a “First responder”) of the global pandemic we are now living through.

Full disclosure: I’m not one of the people that’s working on COVID-19. When the first call came for volunteers the required hours were difficult to fit around a partner who does shift work, and the needs of children. I also felt that I wasn’t quite ready to get stuck in with the level and complexity of work that was expected. Instead, I’m one of the ‘business of usual’ people, picking up the everyday work, but that’s dried up a bit (a lot) as efforts are rightly focused elsewhere. feel a bit useless, to be perfectly honest. I’m told that things will change and that more of us will likely be pulled in to support those working on COVID. I’m working at home, feeling a bit disconnected (aren’t we all?), and wishing I could do more. I’ve volunteered for a couple of external things, but they’re so overwhelmed with offers of help that I’m not needed. I like to feel useful, to have focus, to work on definable tasks and to tick things off lists. I have none of that right now.

I’m on Day 11 of social distancing and finding it a struggle. I last felt like this in 2016 when I had the breakdown. At least back then I could still live a relatively normal life e.g. have therapy, interact with people that I didn’t live with in shops and cafes, have haircuts, get my eyebrows threaded, smell candles in John Lewis, not be a Richard Osman distance away from another person. Also, I was the only person I knew that felt like the world was ending. Now we all feel like that to some degree. I feel exhausted all the time, even though I’m sleeping reasonably well, I have no motivation or energy to do anything. I start a task and struggle to complete it. I live in complete terror that someone I love will die. I’m worried that someone (no-one specific) I severely dislike will die. I don’t want anyone to die.

This has replaced the horrific, intrusive scenario that barged into my head at bedtime eighteen months ago and has prevented me from getting to sleep pretty much every night since. It started as a sliver of a thought and has developed into a densely plotted drama that leads to me clutching the bed, heart racing, trying to remember my “I am safe, this can’t happen, I am ok” mantra.

I’m one of the lucky ones. My employer has said that we can focus on our families and home life when we need to. I can still go out once a day for a run or walk (I’m opting for the former at the moment.) The weather is lovely. None of us have underlying health conditions. Our incomes have not been affected. The girls are old enough to understand what’s happening and are self-sufficient in terms of cracking on with their school work from home. Their work ethic puts me to shame. I think that without having the girls to focus on I’d be in a mess. I’m finding it hard to get up in the morning but knowing that they have school work to do and that I need to be there for them gives me a sense of purpose.

I’ve adjusted my ‘soft strategies’ for coping with anxiety. The strategies that currently work for me are: tracking planes on Flight Radar 24, watching old series of SAS: Who Dares Wins, watching iRacing on Twitch (I’m *far* too old to have a Twitch account, but there we are), taking part in the live PE workouts in the morning with the girls (and my sister via Zoom), video calls with my family, the COVID-19 Whatsapp group for my neighbourhood (we all did the NHS clap thing last night and it was *so* cheering to be part of), reading Tom Clancy novels (I hate myself), listening to my records, going for runs and taking photos early in the morning, doing Wii Fit, and painting my nails in the most cheerful colours in my collection.

At the weekend my friend sent one of my favourite quotes to me: “Everything will be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end”. It’s a sentiment I’ve held on to during some really dark times. This *will* end. We don’t know when, but it will. Yesterday a dress I’d ordered was delivered. Buying a new dress during a time when I’m essentially living in pyjamas feels silly, but I needed to do something normal. I’ve decided that I will wear it at the first opportunity I get when all of this is over.

In the meantime, please stay safe, stay well, and stay at home. I can’t bear the thought of losing anyone. Even people that I think are complete bellends.

From there to here

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with my line manager during a 1:1 recently. I’m still in my probation period (four months down; two to go) and I get frustrated when I don’t know things. She said that I should remember and appreciate how much I’ve achieved since I started in October, and that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

I finally told her about the burnout and subsequent breakdown I had in 2016. How odd to be able to share it with rooms full of strangers at conferences but to feel like I can’t discuss it with people that know me in real life, as it were. Telling people face to face that I had (have?) a mental illness and a breakdown exposes a part of myself that I keep hidden away. I lose a protective layer of skin every time. Writing about it depersonalises my experience in a way that looking someone in the eye and telling them doesn’t.

Recap: In October 2016, after months of gradually falling apart, I broke down at my desk, went home and didn’t got back to work for six and a half weeks. I couldn’t write a simple email. I couldn’t read text longer than a page. I had no concentration span. I couldn’t function on a useful level. At one point I couldn’t see how I would ever return to work again because the idea of doing my job was utterly unimaginable. I’m still amazed that (with a lot of support) I was able to not only go back to work but to achieve everything I did between 2017 and 2019. Every single day I went to work was a victory; a triumph over the inner dialogue that told me I was done, that I should just give up, that I was no good to anyone.

[Side note: I had extensive therapy from an experienced, qualified psychotherapist, which I would highly recommend if you can access it. I don’t hold with anyone without a clinical background offering to help people deal with mental health issues on a one-day course costing £££.]

It would have been easy to settle. Indeed, it probably would have been safer for me to stay at my old job for the rest of my life. It didn’t tax my brain, I knew it inside out and I was entirely comfortable in my role. It was my safe little cocoon and on my down days I miss it, even now. [I’m still angry that someone was able to shit all over my recovery by telling me that I wouldn’t be developed further, that the library wouldn’t change and that if I wanted new opportunities I needed to leave. When I questioned that, they doubled down and made the situation worse, shattering the protective cocoon I’d developed to deal with life, taking me away from something I loved, and probably leading me to leave before I was quite ready to do so.]

I knew that at some stage (ideally when *I* was ready) I needed to test my recovery from everything that happened in 2016. Getting a new job was a huge deal for me because I would be out of my comfort zone. I now perform complex searches on a whole range of systems I’d not used before I started this role. I hadn’t used Endnote before; I now deliver training on it. I’m learning every day. My brain is still capable of learning new things and that’s both exciting and scary. I honestly didn’t think I could deal with this level of change. [Spoiler: some days I don’t cope, and I cry because it’s incredibly overwhelming.]

In the spirit of looking back to move forward, I think it’s important to acknowledge where I came from and where I’ve got to in the last three and a-bit-years. I know I’m incredibly hard on myself. I am my harshest critic and think I will never will be good enough. I regularly tell my inner dialogue to shut up. I still have bad days, but I remind myself how far I’ve come in a relatively short period of time.

In 2016 I thought I was done. In 2020 I know I’m not. I’m not finished yet, not by a long way.

Three months

During the interview for my job one of the set questions was along the lines of (I can’t recall the precise wording) “What would you hope to achieve in your first three months in the role?” It’s a standard interview question and I didn’t have a very good answer. I stumbled through a reply that included: working through the induction process, not being afraid to seek help when I was stuck, admitting when I was finding things difficult, understanding the role, and aiming to become a useful part of the team. At the end of my response I apologised for not answering the question better.

I’m now (just over) three months into the role and it’s a useful point at which to reflect back on this interview question. Quite honestly, in October and the early part of November I couldn’t imagine still being in this job in January. I honestly thought I wasn’t worthy of the job. I can now look back and reflect on how badly my confidence had been dented by what came before, and the significant impact of this on my transition to the new role.

  1. Working through the induction process – I got through the checklist stuff very quickly, because it was a useful distraction from how terrible I felt at the time. Of course, there’s an the less structured, ad-hoc, unwritten stuff and I would say that I’m working through that because it takes time to understand a large organisation.
  2. Not being afraid to seek help – I used to be the person that people went to for advice. Becoming the newbie again was/is hard after such a long time. I am buddied up with a very experienced, kind colleague who I can message when I’m finding things hard and she regularly contacts me to make sure I’m ok. I’m part of a geographically dispersed team but we use Skype extensively and everyone is at the end of an email or messenger.
  3. Admitting when I was finding things difficult – after (what I perceived to be) a terrible first week/month I decided to be honest with my colleagues about how I was feeling. We have regular Skype sessions where we share information on a theme. As part of a ‘Day in the life’ session in November I delivered a presentation on being a KES (Knowledge and Evidence Specialist) Newbie on which I received good feedback.
  4. Understanding the role – I would say that I understand it *more* now but I’m not there *yet*. I have dealt with several literature searches of varying difficulty including one for a systematic review, I’m in the process of setting up a current awareness bulletin, I’ve provided 1:1 and ongoing support on Endnote, I peer-review publications as part of the in-house publication standard committee, among many other tasks. Lots already done, lots more still to learn.
  5. Becoming a useful part of the team – I would tentatively say yes but you’d have to ask my colleagues what they think.

I was involved in an incident at the beginning of December that, if it had happened month before, would have seen me walk out of the building and not return. Briefly, I was on the receiving end of some unexpectedly unprofessional behaviour. It was one of those moments where you check with the people around you whether the behaviour was acceptable and if my reaction was appropriate and professional. The response was, respectively, no and yes. I subsequently received excellent support from my manager and colleagues. I know from previous experience (a long time ago) that this isn’t necessarily a given*. The fact that I was able to bounce back from it (I went from the bad incident at 10am to a lovely moment at 2pm) shows how far I’ve come in the last couple of months.

My feelings towards my previous role versus my current job have evolved since my last post. I can miss bits of my old job whilst simultaneously enjoying  my new role. I’m particularly missing managing people and collections. I can’t do a lot about the former but it’s no coincidence that I’m playing at lot of Sims Freeplay in the evening**. I’m visiting one of our libraries to help with some stock work next month. As long as I can top up my hardcore librariany goodness from time to time, I’ll be just fine.

I was chatting to a friend recently who said it takes six months to understand a new job, rather than three. I’m hoping to be able to report further progress in April.

*If I’d known what gaslighting was in 2010 it would have applied here *shudder*

** It’s extremely therapeutic controlling other people’s lives WHICH IS NOT THE SAME AS LINE MANAGEMENT. Combined with watching the Press Gang boxset it’s the perfect way to unwind.

It gets better

It has taken eight weeks for me to feel like I’m finally enjoying, and can be good at, my new job. On Monday I realised that I no longer miss anything about my old job at all.

As I indicated in my previous post, October was a write-off as I was a complete mess. Luckily, I was on holiday for a week during that time, which acted as a wonderful distraction. At the beginning of November, I saw some glimmers of hope and over the last week I’ve realised that I actually, finally, really like my new job. I might even love it. (No job is perfect of course, but this is pretty good.)

There was a creeping realisation that I deserved better. I need to make a distinction here between being too good for my previous role (that’s not something I can necessarily say) and feeling that I deserved to be treated better and, frankly, looked after a bit more. Some of this is professional pride kicking in, but a lot of it is being in a new situation and realising that the old one really wasn’t as great as I thought it was.

The best analogy I can come up with is that it’s like dumping a no-good partner, going through the terrible phase where you’re worried you did the wrong thing, and finally realising you’re much better off without them. I had people close to me telling me that I needed to leave my job two years ago for the sake of my health, confidence and self-worth, but I wasn’t ready to make the break at that point. My old job was comfortable and familiar but in hindsight it didn’t respect or treat me very well.

The impact that my old job had on my physical and mental health (particularly the latter) should not be underestimated. I was ground down and tired after many years of fighting the same battles. My old line manager and I likened it to Blackadder Goes Forth, where the soldiers battle for months on end to move the general’s drinks cabinet (the library) six inches toward enemy lines, only to have it (and my ambitions) pushed back.

I’ve been a complete pain to be around over the last few weeks. Interventions have been staged at various points. In October I cried on a lot of people. I have realised a few things as a result of this process though.

Learning points:

  1. Starting a new job is bloody awful,
  2. No matter how bad it seems at the outset, it will get better, or at least less worse
  3. It takes time to get used to a new role, particularly if you were in the old one for a long time
  4. It’s good to talk about how you’re feeling and share concerns
  5. Writing about what you’re going through is incredibly cathartic

I still have so much to learn about my new role, but I have already developed a whole host of skills over the last few weeks that will be incredibly useful regardless of what happens in future. There are huge benefits to being part of a larger team in terms of expertise, mutual support networks, opportunities and information-sharing. Having the management support and budget to get proper training and development is eye-opening. I gave up asking for training in my old job because I knew it would be a no unless it was free, I could get a bursary, I spoke or podcasted at it. Now I’m actively being encouraged to attend all kinds of training events. It’s made me realise how short-sighted it is to expect people to learn on the job without access to training opportunities. It’s a cost-saving to the organisation but it makes services far less efficient.

I am soon to celebrate A Birthday and to be perfectly honest I’m not massively happy about it. One good thing about getting older though is that you realise and value your self-worth. I put up with a lot of nonsense before, but I’m simply not prepared to do that now. I am worth more and deserve better.

First-world professional grief: Part 2

I don’t think I’ve cried as much as I have this year as I have…well, ever…really. I spoke about the first world professional grief I experienced over Fellowship earlier in the year. What I didn’t expect was the gut-punching, air-gasping, all-consuming grief I would experience over leaving my old job. I refer to it as first world grief because nobody has died, I’m still in gainful employment and everyone is healthy.

I wrote about feeling calm about the decision I’d made but I don’t think it really hit me until the very end of my last day. EVERYONE expected me to cry at some point during my last week. I’m fairly certain that some people tried to make me feel sad ON PURPOSE to make me cry. I remained dry-eyed throughout the leaving speeches, presents, cards (the lovely messages!), leaving do, laughing, dancing, hugging and then…It was all over and I was broken.

I started crying at approximately 10:30pm on my last day and essentially didn’t stop crying for a week, which was awkward as I started my new job during that time. My new colleagues (who have been lovely) must have wondered what they’d taken on. I had a panic attack one night (the first in a year) where I screamed and sobbed as the walls closed in. I felt disoriented, frightened and overwhelmed.

The grief I’m experiencing is complicated. I went through a difficult time during the last few months in my old job and while I ultimately won the battle I was fighting, it directly led to my decision to leave. The crux of it is, there’s some unresolved ‘stuff’ that I can’t deal with or change. I’m having coaching to help me work through it to find solutions and offer some level of peace. This stuff can eat you alive if you let it and I’m determined to feel my feelings and move on.

I’d taken the library as far as I could without additional support, development and funding and it was made crystal clear to me that I wouldn’t be developed further and that the service would need to remain as it was for the time being. I was bored, frustrated and stifled. I was tired of fighting the same battles on a never-ending loop. I hadn’t learned anything new for a long time (years, probably) and everything was easy and utterly routine. I could have stayed there for the rest of my career quite comfortably but that wouldn’t have been healthy for anyone.

In May I was so mad at myself about Fellowship that I ran a marathon. In October I ran a trail lap event and covered 18.5 miles through woodland, brambles, clay-like mud and leg-busting hills. I planned to do 4 laps (I like events where you can do as many or few laps as you like) and realised I wasn’t done yet so I went back out for a fifth because obviously an additional 3.7 miles would cure everything and I have a unique ability to hurt myself through running. It didn’t cure anything (obviously) but I was quite “SCREW YOU AND ALL WHO SAIL IN YOU” (inwardly) at the end so maybe that was a positive outcome.

The library was my third baby. I planned it, birthed it, parented it, got mad at it, it broke me, I cried over it, and I was proud of it. When I’m passionate about something I really love it and I don’t have that thing any more. I’m angry with myself for the time I missed with my girls when they were tiny because I was setting the library up and working ridiculous hours with no support. They don’t seem to be particularly scarred by the bath and bedtimes I missed but I’m mad at myself for letting that happen. I sacrificed an awful lot and for what, exactly? Perhaps it will be clear one day.

One of the many reasons I left my old job was that I felt my contribution to the organisation and my professional achievements weren’t appreciated in some quarters. When the interviews for my replacement were carried out, three of the four candidates apparently mentioned that they had seen me speak at conferences, knew me through professional networks, listened to Librarians with Lives, or highlighted my achievements. It shouldn’t have taken my leaving for this to become real. I’d hardly hidden any of it.

During the third week in my new job I realised something valuable. I’d spent the previous couple of weeks thinking I was a complete idiot and that I didn’t recognise a good thing when I had one. I *had* to stay put for a long time to ensure stability for my family when my girls were smaller. Moreover, after 2015 when my world fell apart, I craved safety and routine. My job was a safe, fixed, reliable place in an uncertain and frightening world. The loss of control that I’ve experienced over the last few weeks is quite scary. I was the queen of my domain, the person that knew everyone and everything. Now I’m the most stupid person in the room.

A month on the grief is less intense. I don’t feel like my brain is full of thick fog that isn’t going to clear. I still have moments where I feel very sad and angry. I’ve got good coping mechanisms in place and am developing new routines. I’m hoping that one day I’ll look back at this time and be proud of myself for doing something brave and for challenging everything I thought I knew about libraries. I think that leaving my old job, whatever happens next, is actually a bit of a baller move.



The long goodbye

I’m in the middle of a two-month notice period at work and I’m sliding into a state of irrelevance. Handover work is ongoing and I’m helping with the recruitment process for my replacement. Nearly two months is an incredibly long time when you know, and your current employer knows, that you’re leaving. I haven’t quite reached the chair-spinning stage yet (on my last day in a previous role I spent the afternoon in the library office spinning in my chair and singing Goldfinger to my bemused colleagues) but I’m definitely winding down.

There are now meetings that I don’t attend – or meetings that I attend the start of and then part-way through someone says ‘You don’t need to be here for this bit Jo…you’re welcome to stay of course’ (I am not expected to stay and if I did it would just get awkward, so I gracefully depart.) All meeting invitations after 27th September have been declined and deleted, some with more relish than others. I do have the occasional ‘Oh’ moment though, when conversations and meetings about the library happen without my knowledge. It’s a forcible reminder that it’s not *my* library any more. I think I’m allowed to feel a little sad about that.

More and more people in the organisation know that I’m going. I started off telling those close to me in person, which led to some difficult and sad conversations. Then my departure was announced in team meetings. Then it was announced in the strategy directorate news email. I have booked a venue for my leaving do and now the wider London team knows. I’ll be writing something about my departure for the next current awareness bulletin. There’s talk of my departure being announced as a news story on the staff intranet. Gradually everyone will know.

I have been described by colleagues as irreplaceable, an institution, a massive loss to the organisation, a hard act to follow. All of which is extremely flattering, but the sun shines, the world turns and later this year someone else will become LIS Manager and I’ll quickly become a distant memory, if I’m even remembered at all.

After I handed in my notice I expected to have a middle of the night “WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?” moment but it simply hasn’t happened. I have done everything (and more) I could possibly achieve in my current role and while I could sit here for the next ten or twenty years quite happily, I don’t think it would be healthy for me or my organisation.

It’s an oddly enjoyable time. I have been able to let go of a lot of things that were irritating me because they simply don’t matter. Whether they really, in the grand scheme of things, mattered before is now irrelevant. The pressure is – finally – off for a little while and I’ve started doing long-neglected hobbies again because I have more brain space to enjoy them.

I’m going to be incredibly busy in my new role. I haven’t been a newbie for a very long time and I know my brain will ache with exhaustion from trying to remember names, procedures, how to get in and out of the building, and learning a completely new job from scratch.

Even though I’m becoming irrelevant to my organisation *now* I have done some impressive things over the last decade and that I shouldn’t allow myself to minimise my achievements in my current role.

New job and reflections on interviews

Since I submitted my Fellowship portfolio I’ve been feeling quite ‘What next’? As I said in a previous post it feels like the end of an era and the right time to move on and do something else. As a result, I’m leaving my current role to move to Public Health England as a Knowledge and Evidence Specialist in October.

Having been in the same job for a long time in a niche sector (social care/work) I didn’t quite know how to pitch myself. I was put forward by recruiters for some terrifyingly grand jobs and was rejected by them. I gained considerable insight into structuring an application.

I wrote a key skills document for one role that I was approached to apply for, which highlighted areas of my current role that I really enjoy (my FCLIP portfolio was a good starting point, proving that it is useful beyond the qualification): building relationships with colleagues across departments, internally and externally and getting them to buy into and become advocates for a service; compiling literature searches and really getting under the hood of a subject; and (cheesy alert) helping to make other people’s lives better and supporting policymakers to affect positive change.

I picked up advice from friends. You shouldn’t overinvest in a role you’ve been ‘found’ for because it’s a recruiter’s job to find you, encourage you to apply for a role that’s well beyond your reach, help you craft a great application and then send you a rejection email prior to the first interview stage. If you’re very unlucky you won’t get an email, but you will see the role advertised by a different recruiter. Also, go for an interview if you’re offered one. The worst-case scenario is that you hone your interview technique and get to see a different workplace and the best-case scenario is that you get offered the job.

Since 2003 I have had four jobs; five if you count an internal promotion. I’ve been in my current role for ten years and I didn’t have to interview for it as I was TUPE’d over from my previous employer. During the LwL 50 AMA I talked about turning down a job a few years ago. I don’t regret the decision I made as my dream job in my twenties was no longer right for me in my thirties.

There are good and bad interview experiences. The good experiences make you feel better about yourself even when you don’t get the job. The prospective employer goes out of their way to make you feel comfortable, doesn’t act like you’ve shot them if you ask questions at the end of the interview, procedures are followed and promises of feedback kept.

I’ve had a few bad interview experiences over the years. Usually you get a ‘Please prepare a 5-10-minute presentation on X and Y’ in the interview invitation. On one occasion, with no warning, I was given 30 minutes prior to the interview to write an on the spot scenario-based PowerPoint presentation. I got about half-way through delivering the presentation, was enthusiastically outlining my plan for saving a failing, fictional but not really, library service and saw the HR representative on the panel roll their eyes. The interview got worse from there. I think they wanted someone to slash library services and I was all about saving and improving them. I didn’t get the job. Three and a half years later I’m still waiting for the promised feedback that I requested twice afterwards.

I was once asked to value a book in an interview, for a post that was mis-advertised as a library job but was really a curatorial role. The book dealer on the interview panel painstakingly explained how I should have been able to value the book he gave me based on the binding and some other subtle clues that I had absolutely no idea about. The ability to value books was not a requirement in the job description and I didn’t indicate that I possessed such a skill in my application.

Early in my career I had an interview for a library assistant role and it was clear the moment I walked through the door that they were just going through the motions of interviewing me. The interview lasted twenty minutes. At the time I thought I’d done something wrong (I requested feedback but didn’t get any) but now I think they’d already found someone amazing and I was simply making up the numbers.

Feedback tends to be along the lines of ‘The skills of another candidate more closely aligned with the job description than yours’, which roughly translates as ‘We liked someone else better than you’. I was once told to contact an email address for feedback on a job I didn’t get. The address they gave me was for a no-reply mailbox.

I saw an advert for the PHE role and crafted an application. I received an interview invitation before I was due to travel up to Manchester for the CILIP Conference, for the following week. The fact that I was so busy may have worked in my favour because I had less time to overthink the process.

Everyone I met at the interview was lovely and put me at ease. I raced through my presentation (the nerves!) and felt that I answered some of the questions better than others. I took myself off for a consolation Frappuccino afterwards. I was kicking myself because I thought of a really great example for one of the questions and it completely fell out of my head during the interview. I braced myself for a rejection email and feedback. I was shocked when I received a phone call offering me the job. I went away and spoke to my brains trust as I have three other people to factor into any decision I make. Their unanimous verdict was that I should accept the role.

I leave my current role on 27th September and I am actively supporting the recruitment process for my replacement. I start my new role on 1st October. I’m excited and terrified but most of all I’m looking forward to a new, very different, challenge.