It's been a hard year | From the archive

colin-watts-Btc0gK1Z5qo-unsplash.jpg

I wrote this piece in June of last year, when it felt a bit like I was trying to put the pieces of my life back together. It’s just an example of the type of personal writing I share on Patreon, where the paywall makes me feel safer than I did when I was throwing random musings into the abyss. If you’d consider supporting me – with anything from $1 a month – I would really appreciate it. patreon.com/rosemarymaccabe

I've tried to write this a couple of times. I start, I stop, I go back to the start. I erase. 

I find it hard to figure out where the beginning is – what the story is. It's a story about how I fell down and picked myself up and fell down again. It's a story about how I coped, until I didn't. 

I am a writer. I have always been a writer. When I was younger, I would write stories about girls in boarding schools, longing for a less provincial life. My influences were clear: on the one side, Enid Blyton; on the other, Walt Disney. My heroines played lacrosse and knew that, some day, their princes would come. 

All is that to say, if this were an X Factor back story, I would talk about how I'd been writing since before I could walk. (Perhaps more figuratively than literally.) I have always been a writer. 

At some point in the last three years or so, I became... popular. I became the kind of internet-famous where girls would approach me in the supermarket and ask me for selfies, where brands would offer me €500-odd to buy things in their shops and tell my followers about it. I was asked to be brand ambassador for a supermarket's healthy living campaign; I appeared on stage at an event aimed at selling feminine hygiene products. I shared my life on various platforms. Candid chats were for Snapchat; carefully posed or arranged photographs, for Instagram; semi-controversial op-ed think pieces went on my blog; short, concise witticisms were reserved for Twitter.

I started to make a living by performing my life. If I could have been accused of selling out, it's important to note that the thing I was selling was myself.

***

As a journalist, I was accustomed to having my work criticised - not only by my editors, who would ask for "less Rosemary" or "more concrete evidence" – but also by readers, who would send handwritten letters, deriding my latest feature. I remember, once, when I wrote about fashion, receiving a highly critical letter from a woman who objected to my suggesting that, over the age of 60, "it doesn't matter what anyone thinks of what you're wearing." I was being hopeful – I wanted to think that, when I was 60, I would no longer care about the opinions of others. I hadn't thought enough about the invisibility of age; I hadn't yet realised how women diminish as they grow older, how they stop being seen.

As a blogger, or social influencer, I was not immune to criticism – "if you put yourself out there..." they'd say, implying that having any kind of public profile made you fair game for public critique. (Who were they? How would they feel if this was their friend, their daughter, their sister, being destroyed online?) I was not surprised when people criticised my work. As a writer, I was used to it. 

What I hadn't realised was, when you are the sole subject of your creative output – when everything you write and post and do is about you - any and all criticism becomes personal. We are all entitled to criticise a photograph – but when that photograph is a selfie, of someone's face, close-up... How does that make them feel? 

I'll tell you: it makes them feel shit. It makes them feel small, and less than, and vulnerable. It makes them feel exposed. 

It seems naive, in hindsight – or wilfully ignorant (perhaps more the latter) – but it hadn't occurred to me, that making myself the subject of my work, that becoming a full-time blogger, a full-time influencer, a full-time shill, would be so personal. 

Nothing was private. I used to joke about it. "I've always been an oversharer!" I'd say chirpily, but the pressure was immense. I had to be online, 24/7. I had to share what I was doing. I had to take photographs of my lunch before I ate it. I wore makeup because I had been sent it and felt obliged to review it; I took photographs of my outfits, not because I liked them or because I wanted to, but because I need something to share. Everything is copy

I put pressure on myself to get more eyes on my stories, to get more people reading my blog. The articles that did the "best" – at least in terms of numbers – were the ones where I opined, where I offended someone, where I pissed someone off. (That's how you know you're doing something right, right?) I wrote a piece about why I wasn't going to an Irish awards ceremony; on the night, I was booed. (I watched them boo me on my phone.) I suggested that people should be wary of oversharing their children on social media; Facebook pages filled with posts about what a pathetic shit stirrer I was. I read every single one. I binged on their vitriol.

By the time someone pinned balloons to my door, with my name scrawled on them in permanent marker, a grotesque juxtaposition of childhood and menace (it didn't help that I was reading Stephen King's It at the time, and no coincidence, I think, that it took me months to finish), I was already pulling back from the world. I'd stopped going to events; I felt as if I'd walk in and everyone would be talking about me, about how much they hated me. (I understand the narcissism in all of this; my anxiety had made me even more self-obsessed than usual.)

When it finally got too much for me, it was too late. It was too late to roll back. It was too late to share less. It was too late to sell less. I felt as though my choices were entirely black and white: suck it up, do it, keep doing it – or stop. Be a writer, or be something else. I didn't know what that "something else" was. If I wasn't a writer, what was I? I had always been a writer.

It felt like the price I was paying – for writing, for sharing, for doing what I had always wanted to do, and somehow making a living from it – was suddenly too high. My mental health was suffering too much; I couldn't play the part of Rosemary Mac Cabe any more. I needed to do something else.

***

In the midst of all this – or, rather, before, during and after – I had "discovered" weightlifting. Of course, I wasn't the Christopher Columbus of resistance training – but I had discovered a form of physical exercise that I enjoyed. (The first of my life.) I discovered a gym I didn't hate, a trainer I wasn't afraid of, a way of feeling good about my body that was entirely unrelated to what it looked like. It was a new feeling.

In the course of racking my brains trying to figure out what I could do as a career now that I couldn't write any more – could I be a teacher? a lecturer? a dog walker, like Toni Collette in that movie where she has the misfortune to be Cameron Diaz's sister – I started to think about personal training, about finding a way to help women feel the way I felt (strong, capable) when previously they had felt the way I, too, used to feel (inept, ashamed). 

I researched personal training courses. I talked to my trainer about it. I talked to my boyfriend. I imagined a life "empowering" women (I know, LOL at the flagrant misuse of that term, but it's what I imagined). I imagined a life of health and strength and transformation. My life would be like a Hollywood movie; I would become a force for good. (See? So far, so Disney.)

I read posts about myself, on forums about bloggers, where women I didn't know speculated about how long this would last. I had tried to become a vegetarian for a while and given up after three months (being vegetarian is really difficult, or it was for me), and, you know what they say: once a quitter... I read posts about myself, people saying that they'd never go to a personal trainer who looked like me, because "you want a personal trainer who's in shape". I read posts about myself, taking bets on how long it would last. "She'll quit before Christmas," they wrote. "I'd be surprised if she even lasts until then," they replied.

I lasted until March. I taught classes – groups of men and women, lifting weights in a syncopated rhythm, to 80s music (my choice). I trained a handful of one-on-one clients. I loved having a life offline. I loved talking to people about their lives and their hopes and their training. I won't lie; I loved wearing leggings to work and not feeling bad about it. I loved going makeup-free. I loved having so much free time, between clients and classes, to walk my dog and read my book and drink black coffee in my favourite cafes.

But. There's always a but. They said it would never last. (They were right.) 

I missed journalism. I missed the media. I missed being clued in, talking to other journalists, working in an office where people chatted about culture and current affairs and things other than anatomy and physiology and ketogenic diets. I missed writing. It was all I had ever wanted to do, or be – and without it, I didn't feel like myself. I felt like I was pretending, like I was acting a part in someone else's life. Rosemary Mac Cabe is a personal trainer. It didn't feel real. 

For someone who loves quitting so very much (so they say), I found it really difficult. It took me weeks to come to terms with the fact that this wasn't for me – that I had failed at something else. I worried that this was the end of the road; I had exhausted all avenues. I know that not everyone loves their jobs – and that I was, for a time, lucky enough to love mine – but I felt as though, if I didn't love my job, I at least wanted it not to start at 6am, and to pay more than €1,000 per month. (Personal training, I realise now, has to be a vocation – because you need to be willing to work through the early mornings and the late nights and the low pay, for months, maybe years, until it pays off and you have a steady client base willing to pay top-dollar for your time and expertise and passion. I just didn't have it in me.)

***

This is the most I've written about this period. I've spoken about it a little, here and there. I've alluded to how difficult I've found it. I've shared with my followers what changes I'm making, and why – but I somehow have never sat down and written it all out. I think it's because it's missing a narrative structure. Maybe it's the Disney fan in me, but I need a beginning, a middle and an end. I don't feel like this story has any of the above.

I don't know what's next.

I'm working, four days a week, in content, in a field unrelated to media. I'm writing – here, and there, about this, and that. I'm working on my podcast, which I love (interviews have always been my favourite aspect of journalism, even though I still, even now, hate that moment of picking up the phone and dialling the number). I'm pitching feature ideas to magazines and newspapers and trying not to take it personally when my emails go unanswered. I'm trying not to cause trouble. I'm trying not to "put myself out there" too much. 

I've set up Patreon, in a hope that people who enjoy reading what I'm writing, or listening to what I'm recording, will feel like supporting me, with $1 or $2 or $3, for a month or two, or more. I'm working on a series of personal essays that I feel could be turned into a good book. Maybe it would be about failing, over and over again, but without that happy ending that most books about failure seem to have. Maybe it would be about learning to look after yourself. Maybe it would be about the danger of selling yourself on social media. (Maybe it would be about all of those things.) I'm working on a book of fiction, inspired by the life I've been told my mother grew up in, in my grandparents' house in Kimmage. I'm not sure it will ever be published, but I like writing it down. It feels like a time when I can be myself. 

I'm working through my depression and my anxiety, in good and bad ways – I take medication and I see a therapist but I also eat too much, often to the point of nausea, and I started smoking again, sporadically, and I occasionally drink gin because I want to feel nothing and fall asleep into a dreamless slumber (my medication gives me vivid dreams such that, five nights a week, I am racing through an action movie in my sleep, and I awake exhausted and confused).

I'm trying to live an honest life. I need to feel like I'm doing good work and being a good friend and a good girlfriend and a good sister and a good human. (I am, after all, learning how to be sound.)

I still find it difficult to go to events and to be around people in this industry I ran away from. I find it difficult to think about where (and if) I fit in there. I'm clearly finding it difficult to know where to end this stream-of-consciousness piece of writing, which I started because I thought it was time I got it out but now, as with so many things, it all feels heavier and more raw than it has in some time. It's like therapy; you don't know something's important until you start to unpack it, one thread at a time.

I feel as though the past year has aged me. For the first time in my life, I feel my age. I no longer feel like a teenager, waiting to grow up; I feel like a 33-year-old, who thought that, perhaps, being 33 would look different. (Better.) I feel like a 33-year-old who's made mistakes and tried new things and changed her mind. I feel as if maybe I broke, and it's only now that I've started putting the pieces back together again.