I got the eviction notice on my thirty-first birthday. I remember sitting at my table, a ridiculously big and stupid table I'd had since Lancaster days, and hearing the car engine down below. I remember that my windows overlooked the postboxes to the building, and I remember how, on that day, I maybe had a sense something was up.
I saw a woman deliver the mail through the slot, having driven up in a car with letting agent decals. How official. I was two floors up and I didn't want to go downstairs; I already had a hate–hate relationship with the post. Then there it was, an oddly puffy A5 envelope with a summons to court.
One year after I left my last contract, and I was being made homeless.
This would be, in story terms, the perfect opener for a tale of redemption. Or maybe it's the midpoint break, where shit really does get real.
Or it's hitting the grand finale before the story resolves. This is rock bottom, this is where the protagonist really has to reach deep inside of themselves and make the change the story demands.
Except this is real life, and were it any of those things (beginning, midpoint, crisis), then I sincerely failed in my job as a protagonist. No grand montage played out, I didn't find redemption or learn an important lesson and the story didn't wrap up. Humans process reality as story—at least according to Will Storr and Lisa Cron and the like—but reality takes a rockier road.
I'm not writing this for sympathy, empathy, and please to god, no pity. I don't think I deserve it, really. I made so many colossal mistakes, all the way through those years and then after, from the early 2000s and through the 2010s, I was about two decades of human error.
I was also an undiagnosed autistic, with depression, cPTSD, ex-anorexic. Mental health professionals I interacted with thought I had a lot of "insight into my condition", but honestly, "my condition" was opaque. I had no language to frame what I was experiencing in the adult world, why I couldn't handle lights or sounds or open-plan offices.
I couldn't put into words the exhaustion, the constant sudden mistakes that go along with being autistic and somehow not operating on the same psychological system as everybody else.
I couldn't talk about "lacking executive function", either, or explain why I could have a degree and a PhD and somehow still not be able to navigate adult life at all.
And all around me, the world was on a kind of social and cultural fire. I'd been working in financial services for three years, and this was 2009. The financial world fell apart as I left a high-paying contract and then couldn't find anything else. People queued up at Northern Rock, we watched staff leave Lehman Brothers.
So it's not just me, but it is partly me. I wasn't able to keep jobs. When I had jobs I found the basic "being in a job" bit exhausting and I couldn't explain why. I thought it was depression, because I'd been diagnosed as that when I was nineteen, and it went hand in hand with being diagnosed as anorexic.
There's a lot to this story, and it's been difficult to figure out where to start. The eviction is a fulcrum point between one type of life I tried to live and another. At least, that's how it is in my head. Maybe it is rock bottom after all. The only way is up, right?
I didn't entirely keep falling, but I didn't exactly find my way back out for years.
If this were a well-planned story, we'd use a loop narrative to show me, on the other side, having fought my way free. It'd be my birthday again, and I'd be celebrating in some way. I'd have overcome my proclivity for silence and solitude, somehow, or something like that. The problem is, it opened a door onto a dark and awful world that I've never quite been able to leave behind since.
Now, though, we have to tell the story of how I got to be served that eviction notice. This is wall to wall shame and humiliation, dreams crashing to the ground, and a series of terrible decisions, if not unfortunate events.
Let's skip back to 2003. I have to start somewhere in terms of telling this story and I don't want to go back too far, this is where the hard road to 2009 really begins.
I was in the middle of doing my first PhD when I met another PhD candidate who got interested in my writing. There, in a sentence, I sum up one of the most important relationships in my life. A relationship that changed my life, too, in critical ways that could fill a book of their own.
But I feel reluctant to describe that relationship in too much detail because I'm no longer in contact with them, and they probably have their own story to tell. They are not in any way to blame for me and my behaviour and what I did. It's all on me. It was that relationship that brought me back into touch with writing fiction, my one true love.
I fell in love with it, with the childhood dream of being a published author. I left university, planning to get a stable job In The Real World so I could support myself while I wrote.
I sit here now on a Friday evening in soft light, under a weighted blanket with a cat demanding my attention, and it looks sensible enough. Yet I hadn't coped very well in any other environment outside university before. I'd forgotten what it was like out there, just how hard I found it when I was anywhere else.
The very short, rushed version of this section we can gloss over in a few sentences. I left everything I knew and moved to another city because I thought it'd be easier to get work there. Because I knew people there. Kind of.
I got a minimum wage job doing temp work at a local hospital. With very little money in the beginning, I walked to and from work every day, rain or shine. In my head, this period of working full-time and then coming home and working on my PhD thesis and fiction all night, every day, goes on much longer than it did.
The truth is more like this: I struggled. Every single day. I learnt to mask and mask harder than I'd ever masked before. I shifted jobs after doing my viva, but I still had to fight another year through that PhD. Still, I was writing fiction. Got the entire series done just before I submitted my thesis a final time and got that doctorate at last.
But then everything... well, everything went wrong.
That friend I'd made left.
I was raped.
In something like that order. I hadn't kept that hospital job, by the way. I'd left under a horrible cloud. The truth was I couldn't keep working and studying and writing. I had savings from selling up in Lancaster to live on.
What followed, from 2006, was loneliness and confusion. I'd left the one place I felt like I could be understood, and it turned out I couldn't stand office culture, or the lighting, or the hours, or any of it, really. Short-term contract, long-term contract, short-term contract.
After one, I had a breakdown. A sign of things to come. I still couldn't put into words why I couldn't cope with offices even when I didn't have a thesis to write.
But I'm sure you've had enough of this. You want to know what happened to the books. Did I start editing and revising? Did I start querying agents?
No, I didn't. In all the time I struggled in and out of work, I didn't. In my longest contract, some people* helped me put out a podcast of the first book. That was running from 2007 to 2009. It stopped because I stopped. Because everything stopped.
I would work, save money, then stop working and live on the savings. I did have somebody I know was and is a friend support me financially after the breakdown. Then it was 2008 and as banks in the States saw their employees standing about on pavements holding cardboard boxes of possessions, I got my last contract.
I'd been living on borrowed time. I had a very brief relationship and he'd helped me. You'll see, my story features a great many compassionate people who've tried to hold me up while I keep making mistake after mistake. The idea is that I don't do that any more, of course.
I got the contract and stepped from penury into a lucrative job for three months of data analysis. The cycle began again, and I was determined that this time, I'd be careful. I saved harder and I made the solid effort to put money away for any future crisis. I thought I'd learned from my mistakes.
After I left that contract, I took a short break to recover and started to hunt for work at the end of the year. I didn't have a TV, so I didn't really watch the news. As I write this, I wonder why I didn't see it coming, didn't realise there would just be no jobs left. Anywhere.
So early 2009 is where it began. Running out of money. Then running out of money I'd saved to pay taxes. Of course, I thought, all I need is another contract and I can start saving again.
But there were no contracts. There was nothing. Nothing at all.
By the middle of 2009, I was in serious, serious trouble. I spent all day on the phone trying to find jobs. All evening panicking and pretending to myself and the rest of the world that I wasn't panicking.
I also tried other things. I tried setting up as an independent writing coach. This didn't go well. Nobody knew who I was, and if I was struggling for money, so was everybody else. I will say this, for the two people I knew who did take me up on that, it was awesome of you for trusting me, and especially for Jenny for sticking with me then and coming back when I brought myself back a few years ago.
None of these things worked. I put off going to the Job Centre as long as I could. I'd had to claim benefits twice before, but only actually gone through with a full claim once, and the experience had scarred me.
A woman peered at me over one of those fake-wood desks and asked if I had any qualifications. This was in late 2006, between contracts. "I have a PhD," I said.
"What's that?" she asked. "Do you have any GCSEs?"
It was not fun.
There was an added problem involved in claiming benefits, however. I had set up as a limited company, and that meant that I had to fill out additional paperwork, including sending in detailed accounts, to prove that I was eligible to claim.
I remember all these items as points on a timeline. The memories are distant flashes. Before we get to the eviction, I travelled to a series of waiting rooms and most of what I remember from them is the carpets. Carpets and uncomfortable plastic chairs. The type of carpets designed to tolerate decades of harsh wear, scratchy and in a set of colours that Pantone probably have never heard of.
I don't remember movement. I don't remember emotions. I don't remember crying, not ever. I don't remember sleeping, either. The string of slides in my head are all that's left, and it's hard to even think about them. I keep them locked away in a dark corner of my head I don't want to have to explore.
Yet, here we are.
This is a prologue, I suppose. We have to leave me, for this week, sitting at the same table where I sat when the eviction notice was pushed through my postbox, accepting every phone call and speaking to every recruiter and not crying, not moving. And most importantly, not feeling.
[To be continued...]
* Do I call them friends? This is a particular issue I have as an autistic person, I struggle to know when this is a friendship and when it's an acquaintance and when it's nothing. I'm sorry, if you're one of those people, and I've misrepresented you.