It was the night of the Manchester Arena attack when I knew I couldn’t carry on.
I’d worked a 12-hour day and had been at home for barely an hour when the first breaking news alert came through on my phone.
Suspected terror attack at a pop concert. 22 victims dead, hundreds injured.
It was 2017 and I was working as an assistant news editor at a national newspaper. It was a job I’d worked for nearly four years to get.
My early twenties involved making 800-mile round trips to do unpaid work experience in London, while editing for the university newspaper between trips to the library (and the pub).
I fought for a place on a graduate scheme at a national news website, before working as a reporter. I was 25 when I was promoted to the news desk.
On paper, it was my ‘dream job’. I was at the centre of one of the biggest-selling newspapers in the UK, working with some of the most talented journalists on Fleet Street. I’m the first to admit that I enjoyed telling people what I did, gossiping at dinner parties about how the media really works.
But there was something wrong. The news of the Manchester Arena attack should have horrified me. Instead, I was numb.
It would end up being one of four major terror attacks I worked on in 12 months. Selfishly, I couldn’t see past the fact it would mean another week of long days and huge pressure as we raced to cover every quote and every picture.
For nearly a year, I hadn’t been able to stay asleep. I would drift off and then wake up with my heart racing, panicked that I had missed a story. I was so tired I spent my days eating as much sugar as possible in a desperate bid to get energy from somewhere.
While my friends enjoyed the freedom of their mid-twenties, I started avoiding social situations or would invite friends over only to disappear to bed halfway through the night. Some of my hair fell out, I put on weight and my self-esteem plummeted.
One day I wondered what it would be like if I broke my leg and didn’t have to go to work.
At first, I put it down to hormones. I tried to write off how I felt as ‘normal’. Then I came to the conclusion it was me; I was a failure. I told myself if I worked harder, read the news more, then things would become easier.
But looking back, it was simple. My ‘dream job’ wasn’t what I thought it would be. The very nature of the news meant I never switched off. My average day started at 5.45am.
By 6.30am I was often at my desk and wouldn’t finish until 7pm – sometimes later. I was terrified of missing an email. I lost count of the number of dinners and days off I cancelled.
Despite this, I still felt like quitting was failing. From an early age, we are encouraged to decide what we want to do. We are asked before we take GCSEs. Told we must decide as we embark on A Levels. We are expected to have an answer at university.
I had told everyone that I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t feel like my answer could change to ‘I don’t know’. I felt that giving up on a job so early would be a black mark – a signal to the world that I just couldn’t hack it.
My friends and family told me differently. But it wasn’t until a chance email from a former colleague asking how I was getting on that I started to seriously consider my position. I realised I knew what a story was and what makes journalists tick – good skills that I could use elsewhere.
Four months after the Manchester Arena attack, I handed in my notice having secured a job at a leading strategic communications firm. It was one of the most difficult moments of my career; I could barely articulate to my friends how I was feeling, let alone my boss.
I now advise businesses on media and public relations. My job is varied and interesting, from working with one of the companies providing Covid-19 tests to helping to organise coverage for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day.
For 18 months, I found it hard to articulate why I left because I still had moments where I was disappointed in myself for giving up. But with every day, I felt better.
I realised I thrive under pressure with the right network of support. I work harder now than I ever did previously, but I have found balance. Crucially, I have accepted that I didn’t fail.
Earlier this year, I wrote about my experiences for the first time for Generation Tribe, a website which aims to inspire young women to follow their dreams. I was inundated with hundreds of messages from former colleagues and people I had never met saying they felt the same. ‘I feel trapped,’ one wrote. ‘I just don’t know what else I’d do,’ another said. ‘My job defines me.’
It wasn’t just journalists. It was doctors, solicitors, civil servants. They were men, they were women. Some were old, some were young. And they all had the same story to tell as me.
We are told from school that we should decide what we want to do and who we want to be. It is easy to feel like you have failed if you cannot see your own future. But the destination can change – and so can the route.
It is not a weakness to change your plan at any stage. Instead, you should have the confidence and strength to listen to your inner voice like I did.
You will not regret it.
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