Every day in our house starts the same. My husband and I sit under the duvet, drinking our coffee, eating toast and scrolling through the internet. Each morning, Peter turns to me and says, “Do you want to hear something terrible?” and I reply, “No, I don’t want to hear something terrible. It’s 8am.” Then I’ll go back to chatting to strangers on the Twitter and the article will ping into my Messenger for reading later.
I have many friends, particularly those of an anxious disposition, who’ve simply stopped reading the news. They feel the problems of the world right now are vast and they cannot change them, so why go through the stress? I understand this. It’s often seemed to me that anxiety goes hand in hand with extreme empathy.
I have lived experiences of domestic violence, homelessness, poverty, sexual violence, poor education and all the hopelessness that goes with all that. The first two decades of my life were punctuated with a whole array of problems that toppled, domino-like, to other parts of my life and created yet more problems. When I read those headlines, I don’t process them in my head but, rather, in my heart, belly and bones first. It’s natural, knowing what the reality is, that my first instinct is to want to “fix” things, that my first utterance after every terrible thing I read or learn about is, “What can I do about this?”
Before I wrote my first novel, I worked for AIDS, cancer and child-welfare charities. At least then, I felt that each day I was chipping away at the coalface of all the things I could see were fucked about the world. After I achieved my dream of becoming a writer, I came to believe that my books, focusing on the stories of people from backgrounds like my own, were a means to making change, of challenging a particular sort of narrative.
But the last few years brought us bogeymen like Brexit, Trump and Universal Credit and I decided I needed to do more, to write about my own experiences, to write a book that really communicated what it is to grow up poor.
I started writing Lowborn mindful of the emotional impact that writing about my own life would have. But I hadn’t understood how wearing it would be for my actual job to involve constantly consuming information about how terrible the state of things still is for so many in the UK. I hadn’t realised that the things I learned week after week, article after article, would wake me in the night because I was clenching my jaw so tightly, and sit heavily on my chest during the day.
Rather than becoming desensitised, and find my need to fix things waning, it actually increased. I began to feel utterly overwhelmed. Perhaps you’ll also recognise this feeling? That the world is burning around you and you’re sitting, eating toast, staring blankly at your email inbox.
Perhaps you’ll also recognise this feeling? That the world is burning around you and you’re sitting, eating toast, staring blankly at your email inbox
After a few months, I decided I wouldn’t allow myself to be forced into paralysis by the sheer scale of what there was to be done and I found a way to recognise that small steps were enough. If, like me, you’re plagued with hurt about what is happening right now, perhaps this will help you, too. It’s far from perfect, but maybe the very first step in making change is to accept our limitations. Because nothing I can do will be perfect. I can only strive to do my best and understand that something – anything – is far better than nothing.
I began by choosing causes close to my heart. I’m a time-stretched freelancer and live very simply to be able to do what I love (my wedding dress was £25 and I’m eBaying it), so I’m never going to be able to donate huge sums to a vast number of charities and there are only so many petitions I can ask my friends to sign. Knowing my restrictions, I focused on the issues that I felt were a punch in the stomach for me personally: child welfare, homelessness, food poverty, domestic violence and international human rights.
I started locally, then thought about what I wanted the future to look like. If, like me, you want to know that practical work is being done to alleviate hardship happening now, choose one or two local grassroots projects in your community to support. Next, find national campaigning charities on these issues, get informed and inform others, so that the very structure might one day change for the better and those local organisations can focus on making things better instead of simply not quite as bad.
I learned to pick my battles. Stop – I repeat, stop – arguing on the internet with people who don’t want to listen. Use your energy wisely. While, in real life, I won’t hesitate to challenge a bigoted view – try me, I dare you – on the internet, I only do this when it’s someone whose opinion I think I might actually influence. Shouting furiously into a black hole won’t solve any of the problems of the world, but it will rob you of your valuable time and sanity.
Finally, I learned to care properly for myself. Accept you are not going to be able to do anything positive if you are tired, hurting and unwell yourself. I started by telling my husband I wanted to wait until after my first coffee to tackle the news. Since starting to write Lowborn, I favour trashier TV and lighter films. I take a lot of pictures of my kitten. I turned off push notifications on social media. I began to understand I couldn’t be shaking my fist angrily at the sky all day, every day. Sometimes I needed just to be.
And sometimes I still feel guilty. I want to do more, give more, write more, march more. But I keep telling myself I’m simply recharging so I can stand up tomorrow and persist, resist and fight anew. I’ve learned to accept I can’t “fix” things alone, but believe instead that together, day by day, person by person, thoughtful decision by thoughtful decision, there is hope.