About two months ago I felt ‘the fear’ about my life. My shop was becoming more quiet, and I couldn’t work out why. I correctly guessed that jewellery doesn’t excite me in the same way it did three years ago, so I rebranded my shop, and started selling stationery, such as notebooks and stamps.
After 6 weeks of selling stationery, I’ve realised it isn’t just jewellery that doesn’t excite me any more – its retail.
When I say ‘retail’, there are things I don’t mean. I don’t mean the other staff members I work with, the products I sell, and I definitely don’t mean my customers. I mean the struggle that retail on the high street has become. Even then I don’t mean the recession, or rental increases, or landlord woes – I mean a personal struggle.
I’m finding this hard to explain. As usual, lets rewind a few years.I’ll pepper this post with photos to break up all the text, and give you something to laugh at.
It’s 1994, I’m almost 19, and doing paid voluntary work before I do my Psychology degree. I spend time drawing and giggling, and helping someone finish their own degree. During my own degree course, I spend my time making zines and working as a Carer to supplement my grant. I finish my degree, and I become a behavioural therapist, drawing and giggling with children.
Now it’s summer 2000 and we have a crisis with the Carer for Ian. I have to stop working with children because we can’t find anyone to look after Ian. I’m pissed off about it, but I love him, so I suck it up and do it. I realise that I need a job where if I take time off, it’s not as big a deal as working with children. So I find a job advert where they list abilities as ‘enjoying coffee and talking’ and I’m exhausted with looking, so it seems right to apply. During the interview I’m told I’m overqualified, but I explain about Ian, and they hire me – its now my 25th birthday, and I’m a dental receptionist.
Chris, Sarah and Chloe, Leeds 2002
I loved this little job, answering the phones and helping people. All the staff were, and still are, lovely, and I’ve kept in touch with them all. Talking to patients was always my strong point, and my memory for faces and names, coupled with my organisational skills, made me a bit of a natural. I’m helping people who are in pain, being paid for it, and I don’t have to work full time.
A couple of years pass – we continue having trouble with carers, but my job carries on in much the same vein. Then my mum becomes terminally ill with cancer, and I start to re-evaluate my life. I want to spend more time with her, and I’m perhaps realising I want to go back into a profession, rather than answering a telephone all day, as my mum was doing right up until she died. She always told me she felt wasted as she had so much potential – I don’t want to waste my own.
Chloe and Esther, 2003
I hand in my notice, and think about teaching again. I start volunteering in a school, drawing and giggling with children again. I also start making t-shirts and selling them online – even now I can’t remember how that came about, but it was a nice hobby for a while. Eventually, I have an interview to do a PGCE but I don’t have enough voluntary work, and they’re worried about my ability to do a full time course if we struggle with care for Ian. I’m told to go volunteer some more, and try again. Before I can, mum dies, and I spend time grieving.
During me grieving, I get a phone call from the dentist, and they ask me to go back and work for them. I’m exhausted with grief, I’m not a teacher yet, and they sent me flowers when mum died, so I say yes.
The NHS has changed – we have targets to fulfil, and working in a dentist is no longer about helping people, it’s about earning the money we’ve already been given or they take it away from us. We seem to be constantly chasing our tails, and it’s miserable. I hate it, but I still like the staff and I can’t bear the thought of handing in my notice again. Ian and I decide to try and have children, but it doesn’t happen – that’s a story for another day.
I’ve talked about what happened next many times, so I’m sorry if you’ve heard this before. In 2008, I decide I don’t want to work there any more, but I can’t work out how to resign. I was hoping I’d have a child, and had that excuse to leave, but that hasn’t worked out. Instead I decide to demand a pay rise, a ridiculous amount, or I’m going to find another job. It’s almost double what I’m being paid, but I’ve looked around online and it’s about right for what I’m doing.
He says yes. My world crumbles.
Adrienne and Chloe, 2008
Now I’m being paid more, even though it’s right for what I’m doing already, he demands more of me. I’m already stressed and hate my job, but now I start to hate my boss too. I start to hate the patients, the other staff, and even Ian. I start to drink more at home to ‘relax’ and find I can’t sleep without alcohol. I’m having trouble eating properly, and almost everything makes me physically sick. My memory is going, I can’t concentrate, and the only time I go out is to go to work.
Finally, in August, we have a meeting at work during which it becomes apparent I’ve forgotten to tell someone at work something which seems tremendously important to my boss but which I don’t care about, and I’m being scalded by both him and the other member of staff. I totally lose all feeling in the left side of my body, and I’m only staying upright because I’m leaning against a table. My vision is blurred, and it’s like they’re both shouting at me from far away.
That’s when I decide the only way out is to kill myself. It’s not that I want to do it, it’s just that at that point it seems to be literally the only option. It’s irrational, it’s ridiculous, but I can only see that now. At the time it seemed literally the only choice.
Obviously I didn’t go through with it. I’d have been really pissed off with my younger self if I had. Instead, I went to see my friends, came home and told my husband, and went to the doctor. I’d seen doctors before, but none of them had ever said I was depressed. I’d been diagnosed with hypoglycaemia, sinusitis, tonsillitis, ‘nervy tummy’, migraines, exhaustion, stress…but this was the first doctor to say ‘you have major clinical depression’.
Chloe, end 2008
During the rest of 2008, I have a really shit time – my meds are being swapped and changed, because I react badly to certain anti depressants (SSRIs) so they put me on SNRIs which seem to work, but only if I have extended release ones. I behave like an awkward cow, because I do research to see if I’m really depressed, and find lots of stuff about bipolar disorder and think I might have that because my moods cycle. I bully the doctors into letting me see a psychiatrist, and she confirms I don’t have bipolar disorder, it’s just my personality.
As a sidenote – Even now, I’m still not sure why my moods cycle, but they definitely do. If I ever bring it up in any appointments, I can see eyes rolling as if I’m trying to have something more interesting than depression. There’s a lot around online about bipolar disorder being a kind of rock star disease that people feel glamorous having, and having read a lot of what people say about their own bipolar I don’t feel like I have it any more. There’s definitely something up and down about me, but I don’t really know what, and maybe it doesn’t matter. My meds seem to work, so lets stick with it.
Let’s go back to 2009 – I’m painting, all day, every day. The house is full of paintings which I haven’t given to friends as they all have them. Someone suggests a craft fair, so I book one in Morley. It’s terrifying – I have to take Ian with me, I have a panic attack on the way, and another one setting up (because I’m late due to the first one). However, I sell three paintings, and get in the local paper. I keep in touch with the organiser, and start doing more craft fairs. People often comment that they would buy my paintings on greeting cards, so I produce some, and they do buy them.
I start to feel so much better, I think about my future. I decide that because art has helped my mental health so much, and I had so much trouble finding an art therapist, that I will become one. I do research, and find out I need an art degree, which is a pain as I have a psychology degree. After talking to Ian, my friend Claudia who works in the library of an art college, and the only helpful person I’ve ever met in a job centre, I find out I can do an access to higher education course for free; this is comparable to a foundation degree in art, which will then allow me to do an art degree.
Chloe reading to Isabel and Tilly, 2009
I do pretty badly at the interview, in my eyes anyway, as I cry the whole way through it because I’m out of the house, and he’s judging my drawing. Somehow I get on the course, and it’s great. I’m drawing and giggling again, and most of the other students are pretty cool. I get on particularly well with two; Kim who eventually opens a tattoo studio which I work at, and AM who eventually becomes a photographer who does my photo shoots.
During the college year, I become really interested in sculpture, especially recycling toys, and making my own tiny versions of things, which end up being made into jewellery, and I start selling these on my market stalls. Almost all of my college work is coming in handy for my growing business, so making and selling things is becoming a full time job.
Chloe and Madeleine, 2010
I have another crumble when I talk to my tutor and she says that if I do an art degree I’ll need to pay fees, and it’s thousands of pounds, and the masters degree to be a therapist will also cost thousands. I go home and tell Ian, and he lets me in in the secret that he’s been putting money to one side every month to pay for a degree – this is one of the many reasons Ian is amazing.
Anyway, I go back to college the next day, and talk to a different tutor. He asks me what I want to do in the future, and I start crying again because I can’t imagine doing anything other than paint for a career. He talks me through it, and it becomes clear that I don’t really need an art degree to do what I want to do, because I’m already selling my art, and it’s possible I could make this into a career.
Ian and Chloe, 2010
So I go home again, and I tell Ian I don’t need an art degree, so let’s use that money to set up a shop selling my artwork as well as other people’s – I clearly remember going to a shop like this with my mum when I was little, and a few similar ones whilst growing up, and it seems a shame there isn’t one in Leeds. I find myself a business link advisor, and in my first conversation with him, he tells me someone called Michelle is actually setting up one of these shops in Leeds, so I should get in touch with her first.
Summer 2010 – I move into Bird’s Yard. If you want to read about this, go here to the guest post I did for Leeds Inspired.
We’re back up to date, almost; It’s the start of 2013. December has been a fairly good month in the shop, and I’m geared up for the same January routine I’ve followed for the last two years; spending a month learning new skills, tidying and recycling things from my study, and making stuff ready for February.
I get tremendously sidetracked by making things and experimenting, I’m enjoying myself too much. I feel more happy than I have in a while, painting things, sticking things to other things, cutting plastic things in half, and folding more origami paper than you can shake a stick at. I start trying to get other people I know to see that what I’m doing isn’t unusual but should be a part of everyone’s daily routine. Encouraging playfulness becomes more important to me than encouraging people to buy things.
Winning ‘Best Vintage’ 2012
I feel ‘the fear’. This seems to be becoming a hobby again, instead of a career, as I’m no longer making money. I keep buying craft supplies not related to jewellery by finding ways to justify it as a business expense.
So I decide it’s because jewellery doesn’t excite me any more – I start buying craft supplies in bulk to make things with, and selling the remainder, so it makes sense to rebrand as a stationery shop. I wrote a blog post, where you can see my thoughts about this, and my justification for it.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is that since Christmas, as well as being more ‘experimental’ and ‘creative’ I’ve also been drinking too much. I’m finding sleeping difficult without alcohol, my memory is going, and I’m finding it hard to keep food down. I start to hate the people I work with, and don’t leave the house unless I’m going to the shop. The shop is no longer enjoyable, but I know how much Bird’s Yard is struggling, and I worry that if I leave, the whole shop will have to close down.
It may be too long since I wrote a similar paragraph above, but you may have noticed a pattern. I hadn’t, literally until last week when I was so hungover last Sunday that I slept all day Monday as well. I was feeling exactly like I did when I was trying to leave my old job and didn’t feel like I could hand in my notice. I was carrying on doing something I didn’t enjoy, and eventually began to hate, because I was worried they couldn’t cope without me.
I notice the pattern – and I decide I don’t want to have a shop any more. This time I know that I can simply say ‘I want to close my shop’ and the world won’t end. Yes, it’ll be upsetting for people I work with, for my customers, and it’ll be a shock. It’ll be hard work at home getting used to not going to work, and lots of preparation will have to go into making sure I do stuff instead of staying in bed all day. What I don’t do is decide ‘I’m going to make myself dead’ in order to get out of what’s happening to me.
I’m so amazingly proud of myself for this, I can’t even tell you.
Chloe, May 2013
So I’ve handed in my notice to Bird. She’s gutted, but she understands. She hasn’t told me she hates me, like I thought she might, and even the threat of someone hating me didn’t stop me doing what I know I needed to do. I know in my heart that I put my heart and soul into making my own shop work, as well as doing my part in making Bird’s Yard work.
My shop has been a success – I haven’t made a fortune, but I’ve helped people to find presents and cards, the right piece of jewellery for an event or outfit, supported other jewellery makers and artists to get into business themselves. I’ve learnt a lot of lessons about retail, business and working with other people, and at the end of the day, I’m not cut out for retail. It’s a cut throat business, where profit margins are more important than helping people.
So what am I going to do? I’m going to carry on selling online, I’m going to be a travelling salesperson of a sort (that’s a story for another day) and I’ve already started researching becoming an art therapist again – apparently you can get onto the course with a Psychology degree now, so maybe having a shop for three years was a good way to wait.
Near Fab Cafe, 2007
What I definitely want to do is start encouraging adults to be more playful. Looking over this post, I’ve done a lot of carework, as well as playing, and I want to bring those two needs together and make sure other people can find their own playfulness. Maybe it won’t mean becoming an art therapist…all I really know for sure is that I want to work in a way which makes other people happy, as those jobs where I’ve helped other people have coincided with the happiest times, as well as all the drawing and giggling.