It’s a human frailty which, I imagine, afflicts us all. Encounters are slightly tinted through our recollections to suit a narrative.
Sometimes this can take the form of a distortion, by design or not.
On other occasions it manifests itself through a chance single occurrence being placed within a sequence of events, as if to prove an almost pre-ordained direction of travel. Like an autumn leave dropping from a tree onto the surface of the wide river and then being carried along in the strong current.
I’ve started this post in such an oblique way, I suppose, as a health warning against myself.
In this part of my story I will relate my decision to leave my job. To detonate overnight a career I had spent a quarter of a century building up. To make the biggest decision of my life. To walk away from something which had consumed and dominated my thinking for years.
My brain has selected a certain moment in my working life as a neat parable to convey how what had once been so full of promise was now infected with blight. A single moment when I knew I was finished as a journalist.
The truth, of course, is rarely so neat. The water is a lot more cloudy. The event was just that. An event. Just one grain of rice in the bag.
But it’s the only way in which I can think to tell this story.
Please forgive me for it.
I had worked in newspapers for more than two decades. On this particular evening I was editing. The responsibility for producing the next day’s newspaper lay with me.
This was not unusual. It was my job.
Nor were the problems I faced that night unknown. They were the familiar headaches.
No front page story. No front page photograph. No headline. No editorial. A paper full of holes to be filled. No ideas.
I swivelled slightly in my chair and watched the staff. Chatting freely, sharing confidences. A few giggles. Some watching the clock to see how long was left in the working day. I had a common feeling of envy for those who were able to walk away. Those for whom this was merely a job, not a vocation.
I felt the ache of desire to be free of the responsibility. To be able to simply depart the office and not think about work until I returned the next morning.
It was a nice idea.
But the urgency of the circumstance brought me sharply back to focus. Staff needed direction. People depended on me making some decisions. I was bound to this.
I was working on the intro of a weak story. Staring wearily at my computer screen. My fingers flickering uncertainly over the mouse. Wondering if it could be turned into a front page lead. I remember a pain behind my eyeball was troubling me.
A young reporter moved beside me. It says something about how preoccupied I was that I didn’t notice her approaching. She asked me a question. Or made a remark. I can’t remember which. It was probably inane, touched with the naivety of youth. It was the wrong moment.
I blurted out some sort of bitter reply. It should have been a warning that now was not a good time to approach. But the reporter persisted with the inquiry. A shot of anger went through me.
I don’t think I shouted. It was quieter than that. Probably more sinister. I hissed at her, telling her that if she wanted to remain in employment then she should not say another word.
There were enough people around to hear what was going on. It was awkward for all. The young reporter retreated. I made decisions. I got a paper out. I don’t know if it was a good one or not.
The newsroom can be a harsh environment, particularly when deadline time looms. I’ve been on the receiving end of countless ‘bollockings’ over the years, and probably handed out a few as well.
But there was something about this exchange which bothered me. I didn’t sleep very well that night. I knew the situation had not warranted the reaction.
That probably should have been the end of it. A testy, unfortunate exchange. Not my best moment, but we all move on.
However, days later word reached me of another conversation. This same young reporter had told some of her colleagues that she was now ‘terrified’ of me. Nobly some of them came to my defence, arguing that ‘Jonny’s been under a lot of stress recently’.
And this bothered me even more. A young reporter who was now afraid to talk to me.
I was her boss. Responsible for her work. Her professional development. Her wellbeing in the office. Now she was afraid to approach.
I could argue that there were extenuating circumstances. I knew my health had been deteriorating sharply for months. My doctor had been pleading with me to slow down.
After my breakdown and hospitalisation three years before I had fought back. Returned stronger. Dazzled everyone with my powers of recovery.
But it was built on foam. The truth was I knew that I was falling apart again. The suicidal thoughts were now more persistent than ever, more precise. I feared it would be worse than before. I feared there would be no recovery this time.
I didn’t know what to do. So I just worked harder.
There is a particular pressure in working at a senior level in a daily newspaper. The cyclical nature of the work. You put one edition to bed and another one is staring at you.
There is never a lull. Never a chance to reflect. It never stops.
Busy days can be chaotic in a newsroom. Quiet days are worse. The same product has to be delivered with only a fraction of the base content.
It was all I knew. It was my life, my comfort coat. The only thing I had ever been good at.
This had been my mindset for as long as I could remember. Always thinking about the next edition.
I’d never had any particular ambitions as a journalist, other than to be one.
People from outside who viewed my career assumed I must have been driven to succeed. To always go higher in the business. It wasn’t the case. I just wanted to do the job.
I’d been a reporter in a daily newspaper. Then a security correspondent. Then a news editor. Then a deputy editor. All almost by accident. Progressing quickly because so many good people around me were deserting an industry which was perceived to be dying.
Over my years working in news I discovered that I enjoyed helping to find and develop new talent. Perhaps it was because I was scarred by memories of how uncertain and fragile I had been as a young journalist that encouraged me to give so much of my time to others.
The single proudest thing from my career has been watching scores of young journalists who I’ve tried to help go on to make successful careers in newspapers or in broadcast. Knowing that I’ve done my best to get them to think in a certain way about news, to have been a tiny fleeting figure in that long journey. Just to have helped a little.
And now this.
Now this realisation that when a young person comes to me for help I will threaten and bully and abuse.
This was how deep into the slurry I had gone. How far away from myself I had travelled.
I thought about how I would have reacted as a young journalist to being spoken to in that way. It made me shudder.
I felt deep shame.
There may be a bit of revisionism from my mind but it was certainly around this time that I began to think seriously about leaving the profession.
My already dry resolve was splintered just weeks later.
My son was starting nursery school. He’s a shy boy and struggles with new situations and environments. Both his mother and I knew it would be a difficult time. We both felt that we needed to be there for him.
But I couldn’t get the time off. The staffing situation required me in the office. As my boy wore his cute little red uniform and wept at the door of his new classroom, I was miles away, either in a newsroom or a boardroom.
It felt wrong. It was wrong. I knew it had to change.
I only have one child. One go at this. One chance not to fuck it up.
I couldn’t see a way forward with work anymore. I felt that if I I kept going in this way the best scenario was that I would miss seeing my child grow up. The worst was that I would not be alive to see him grow up.
I went to see my doctor and broke down. She ordered me to come away from work and I complied. Just like three years before.
But it was different this time.
Soon afterwards I left the company where I had worked for the last 15 years.
The decision was made quickly and I knew it was right. I’ve never doubted it for a second.
But that should not diminish how utterly terrifying it was. I had no plan B. No other skills. No idea how to make a living.
The truth is I still don’t.
The day that my departure from the company was confirmed I went home and sat on the sofa. My hands and legs began to shake horribly. I suffered a major panic attack.
I knew no other life.
Working as a journalist did not cause my mental illness. It existed long before I entered the profession.
Indeed, for a long time I believe it helped me. It gave me a purpose when I had none. It sharpened the skills which have allowed me to launch this blog. It provided an outlet for my creativity.
But I never learned how to have a healthy relationship with it. How to leave it at the door. How to be a professional and a daddy.
It was everything or nothing.
However, amputations are rarely easy or clean. The industry was woven into the sinews of my being like vines growing through a wooden fence.
You can’t just walk away so easily.
I still read the newspapers urgently each morning, like a rat scavenging for food. I read them the way a journalist does. Not for enjoyment, but to see what the other lot have got.
I rarely remember my nighttime dreams. Except for one. The dream where it’s deadline time and I have to get a paper out. But I’ve got nothing. Just a blank sheet of paper. No matter how many times I look at it the paper is always blank.
I’ve had this dream for years. I still get it.
I’ve apologised to the reporter who I barked at that evening. The incident clearly cut me a lot deeper than it did her.
I think I’ve said sorry to her so often that I’m in danger of annoying her more with my continual apologies than the original outburst ever did.
When I left the trade one of the first things I did was to contact some of the people who had worked for me. People who I felt a latent sense of guilt about my treatment towards. People who I thought perhaps I had not supported as well as I should have.
It was only a few names. I sent them messages. Just to say sorry for not being a better boss. They thought I’d gone loopy.
They all came back to say that they had loved working with me. That meant a lot.
Outside of journalism I found myself reconnecting with lots of people who I had neglected for many years. Old friendships which I had allowed to drift away were hauled back. The hibernation was over.
I made new friends too.
Odd things started to happen. I began being pleasant to others. Talking to people in the supermarket queue. I stopped pretending not to see my neighbour waving at me. I conversed with the barber. Made friends with the mummies of the other kids in my son’s nursery class.
I found a coffee shop I liked. I went there a lot and chatted with the staff. I no longer wore a permanent scowl.
I spent time with my son. Lots and lots of time.
On one of the first days after I left my job I took him to the park. As I pushed him on the swings I couldn’t help but think with regret about the things that I’d missed. The years that would never come back.
He was a little unsure on the day. Perhaps not used to spending time alone with his daddy. Usually he’d have been in childcare or at his grandparents now. He seemed to be instinctively aware that something was different. Perhaps he saw a change in me.
I took him to the ice-cream stand and ordered a 99.
‘Can I have strawberry sauce on it daddy?’
‘Yes, you can son.’
‘Can I have sprinkles on it daddy?’
‘Of course you can.’
The ice cream was handed over. It was bigger than his head.
He took my hand and we walked along the path.
The world was a different place now.
* If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog or need immediate help call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000