There’s more to living than the rat race: all it takes is a little courage and, occasionally, a nudge - as journalist and author Helen Russell discovered
Arriving at work after another moist commute on the Northern Line with a stranger’s sweat smeared on me and the grime of a city seeped into every pore, I started to wonder: ‘What am I doing here?’ As a journalist, I spent my days writing about how readers could ‘have it all’: a healthy work-life balance, success, sanity, sobriety - all whilst sporting a radiant glow and dry-clean-only clothes.
In reality, I was still paying off student loans, relying on industrial quantities of caffeine to get through the day, and self-medicating with Sauvignon Blanc in the evenings.
I worked in a team of bright, brilliant people - all on their A-game and apparently thriving on London life. But I wasn’t. And I felt like a fraud.
I had a job I’d worked hard for, in an industry I’d toiled in for more than a decade, but once I’d got where I thought I’d wanted, I wasn’t any happier - just busier. Sundays became characterised by a familiar tightening in my chest at the prospect of the week ahead, and what I aspired to had become a moving target.
The list of things I thought I wanted or needed, or should be doing, was inexhaustible. I, on the other hand, was permanently exhausted.
My husband and I both worked long hours and never seemed to have time to see each other much – other than encountering the other as a warm body in bed at night. We went out a lot (because: ‘London’) but regularly had to bribe ourselves to get through the days, with online shopping or fancy stationery purchases. We’d both had colds on and off for six months, as well as tonsillitis. But that was normal, right? We were ‘living the dream’.
I was 33 years old and we’d also been trying for a baby for as long as either of us could remember, with hormone injections and hospital visits for the past two years. But we were always so stressed that it never quite happened. Which, when you work in an all-female office and colleagues around you are going off on maternity leave every week or cooing over Baby Gap romper suits, is hard. I resigned myself to a future of IVF appointments fitted in around work, then working more in what spare time I had to make sure I didn’t fall behind.
Only another 35 years, then I can retire…I told myself, on loop.
Then one Wednesday my husband came home and told me he’d been offered his dream job, out of the blue…in rural Denmark. I had no plans to leave London, but my husband begged me to consider the idea, so we visited one weekend.
We laughed at how slowly everyone drove and spluttered at how much a simple sandwich cost (because: ‘Denmark’). But while we were there, we caught a glimpse of a different way of life. People walked more slowly. They took their time, stopping, sometimes, to take in their surroundings. Or just…breathe. They looked relaxed.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been relaxed. Properly relaxed, without the aid of over-the-counter sleeping tablets or alcohol.
If we left London, I couldn’t help thinking, we might get better at this ‘not being so stressed all the time’ thing. We wouldn’t have to take the tube anymore. There wouldn’t even be a tube where we’d be moving to… This other-life possibility had been dangled in front of us and we were faced with a choice: stick with what we knew, or take action, before life became etched on our foreheads. If we were ever going to try to lead a more fulfilling existence, we had to start doing things differently. Now.
So I heard myself saying in a very small voice: “Okay...let’s do it.”
From a vague idea that seemed unreal, or at least a long way off, things started happening. We told friends our plan and while some were supportive, many looked baffled. One quoted Samuel Johnson, saying that if I was tired of London I must be tired of life. When I resigned from my job, I faced a similarly mixed response. “Are you mad?” “Have you been fired?” and “Are you going to be a lady of leisure?” were the three most common questions.
“Possibly”, “no” and “certainly not”, were my replies. I explained that I would freelance and a few colleagues confessed they’d been thinking of taking the plunge themselves. Others told me I was “very brave” (I’m really not) and one used the term “career suicide”.
“Oh god, what have I done?” I wailed down the phone to my husband after this gem: “What if it doesn’t work out?”
“If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out,” was his pragmatic response. He made it sound simple - as though we’d be fools not to give it a go. What was the worst that could happen? London would still be there if we wanted to come back. So, after welling-up on my last day, I packed all our worldly possessions into 132 boxes to be shipped from NW6 to Sticksville-on-Sea, Denmark.
On the way to the airport, I wanted to linger longer, to take in every detail of the city and memorise each twinkling light along the river. Passing bars, restaurants, galleries and landmarks that had been the backdrop to my entire adult life, I wanted to Have A Moment. But our cab driver wasn’t the sentimental type. Instead he unwrapped a Magic Tree air freshener, slammed his foot on the accelerator and we screeched out of town.
Over the next few weeks I worried – often - that I’d made The Biggest Mistake Of My Life.
But I hadn’t.
Because that was January 2013 and we’ve been living Danishly ever since.
My career has taken a curvier path than I’d intended, but I’ve learned that it’s perfectly possible to achieve success outside London (radical, I know…). I have a life, these days, too. And half way through our first year, I found out I was pregnant *air punches all around*. Now, we have our very own mini-Viking who I can’t help feeling would never have existed had we stayed in London.
It’s not always easy to forget my old ways. There was the day I found out that two of my contemporaries back in ‘Media Land’ had bagged big, spanking new jobs. Roles that, for years, I’d thought I wanted and felt I should be aiming for.
At the time, I felt unreasonably agitated, did some aggressive dishwasher loading and then howled at the moon: “Whhhhhhyyyyyy?” But then I realised that I wasn’t in that race right now. I was writing books and looking after a toddler and seeing friends. When a former team member was promoted to the level above me, I felt I was falling behind. But then I remembered: I could now sleep at night.
I haven't got all the answers. I haven't even got all the questions. But I do know that I haven’t got a stress knot in my stomach anymore and I can’t remember the last time I felt a sense of dread about ‘Monday’. I can hear myself think and I can finally walk in my own shoes.
I still feel the lure of London - a tug at my heart of the gloriously chaotic, adrenaline-fuelled city I called home for more than a decade, like a dangerously charismatic ex. But it isn’t good for me, not right now. Because the streets aren’t paved with gold. And there’s a whole world out there. Just waiting, for all of us.
Helen Russell is the author of The Year of Living Danishly – Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country (Icon, £8.99). She tweets @MsHelenRussell #livingDanishly
Images: Getty, iStock