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Reflecting on 2020 – annus horribilis

Quite understandably, the general tone of the nation, and likely the world, is one of looking forwards, not backwards. Most couldn’t wait to see the back of 2020, which certainly towards the end has been like living in an actual apocalyptic film.

For most of 2020 I was of the same opinion; head down, get on with it and plough forwards to light at the end of the tunnel. But the tunnel kept getting longer, and the list at the end not only further away but very often, dwindled to a mere flicker of hope.

I’m sharing my very personal reflection of 2020 for only one reason. I’m normally quite a private person and throughout my life I’ve kept much to myself. I guess that’s how I was raised. It’s only in 2020 that I’ve learned, along with so many other important life lessons, that keeping things shut away is not only toxic, but destructive. When I began to share with my social media followers, with great trepidation and uncertainty that I may well be over sharing, a few insights into how difficult the past 12 months had been for me, I was overwhelmed with the responses. Message after message came through, followed by emails and even letters sent to the farm telling me how much people resonated with what I’d been through; that reading about my struggles had helped them with their own, and thanking me for being so open and honest in a world of so much falseness and filter. So, this reflection is not really for me – I certainly don’t need to go through it all again; I was there! But I hope, it helps you.

As you’ll read, I’ve been through a tsunami of pain and challenge in 2020, yet, on reflection, every single thing I’ve pushed through in the last 12 months has made me a better person in one way or another. The sacrifices to say that have been monumental, and painful. But while many seem focused on the future and distant horizon, this reflection begins with suggesting that perhaps there’s more we can all gleam from taking a moment to reflect, before moving on.

I’m not going to go into gritty details here; it’s not an unremunerated therapy session, but I will pick up on a few details, which have been key to my own reflection and the lessons and strength I’ve drawn from each. As you read this, be aware that I’m leaving some of the incidents out – this is, if you like, a cherry picked version of what 2020 brought my way.

Following the separation from my wife in 2019 and working through the various challenges and changes that brings with it physically, practically and emotionally, including rebuilding our relationship as the very strongest of friends, I entered 2020 lonelier, and with regular therapy to work through an existential crisis that came from the end of our marriage. At the time, it’s exhausting, and horrific, largely because it blows all of your comfort zones and boundaries clean apart. Rebuilding identity and a new life is, in time, liberating. It’s not something I’d choose to do again, but we chose kindness as a way to navigate the end of our marriage and only afterwards did we realise quite how special – and unique – that was.

At the very start of 2020 my family said goodbye to a close family friend, and the father of a family I practically grew up with. Close neighbours, we spent a lot of time together (almost every Sunday and Christmas for years). His death from cancer was a real shock, and would set the tone for the remainder of the year. It made me appreciate just how short life really is. At the click of a finger, everything can change and so, every day, should be appreciated. We read that on those naff hanging signs, and on memes, but few really live their life by it. I  decided I would be more present and not hold back: every day would be important. Little did I know when I pledged that in February 2020 just how meaningful it would become.

By this time I had already come out as gay to those closest to me and was navigating that change. It wasn’t a new concept but was a new identity and one that later in the year I felt compelled to make public, for the first time in my life. We are here but once and each of us is human. The very thing that connects us all through creed, colour, religion and any other imposed or willing segregation, separation, or divide, is humanity. We are the same and we’ve all the power to make our own choices in life. It is this that makes life so beautiful: a rich tapestry of differences that when brought together make for something truly special. When I wrote the post about being gay in June 2020, I had already lost so much in 2020 that I felt no need to hide anything about being me. And you shouldn’t about you either.

Then, before Covid-19 was even a thing; before it was being widely reported in the press, the events and conference industry took a nose dive as one of the very first casualties of the coronavirus. In just 7 days I lost 90% of my annual income. The several television projects I was due to be involved in were put on hold and we began the journey through covid that we are all now aware of: having to lay off staff; reduce expenses; claim Government aid, and entirely redesign a business in order to continue to survive. There were a couple of successes but, like it has been for most small businesses who have managed – just – to survive, it was an utterly exhausting time comprising a lot of effort to make very little return. Constantly reinventing the wheel is not easy and not without a lot of emotional and physical exertion. The result of that five months was that I lost a lot of weight, which at the time I assumed was due to the stress I was under. A cancer scare would put that theory into question, and a second cancer scare would cast further doubt on the underlying reason for my weight loss, but I dropped from a 32″ waist to a 30″ waist – so, already slim, my clothes now literally hung off me. Getting dressed every morning and being reminded of your situation only fast tracked my depression that I fought back.

My team and I had identified that the business had entered Covid-19 like an overweight Labrador, and were fast coming out like a lean Whippet, so it had its benefits. You learn what you can live without, and those things that are truly necessary. We became adept at reducing expenses and inventing new products to suit a virtually-connected world.

During this time I was dating in order to attempt to move forward and let me tell you dating is not what it was when I last dated some 13 years prior! If you’re single, or dating as you read this, you have my sympathy there. It’s exhausting and time consuming and a scene full of time-wasters. Apps like Tinder focus almost entirely on looks and make it much more difficult to gauge the real person. It was so exhausting and uneventful that I made one last swipe, vowing to delete the app as I did so. To my absolute surprise, having swiped punching way above my league, it was a match. Dating is not something I enjoy. Until you meet the person you believe is the one. Which is what happened to me. Not at all like the other people I’d dated or had relationships with in the past, I fell hard and fast. We both did. At the time it was the only positive thing happening in my life. The person wouldn’t know at the time, but they caused me a lot of anxiety, which somewhat ironically given that some of that anxiety was around being self conscious about my weight loss, caused yet more weight loss!

I’ve never written about this before, but many years ago now I was sexually assaulted by someone I dated, who I had also fallen really hard for. Similar feelings of anxiety surfaced with this new relationship, sparked by an innocent enough lie on their part – but a lie nonetheless – as I struggled to fight not to lose this one positive aspect of my life who I believed was “the one”, yet simultaneously manage the suppressed feelings that my own demons were throwing into the air. I realise now, with bitter hindsight and difficulty, that being open and honest with yourself is the important foundation of a successful relationship. Being open and honest with the other person is the next most important. You can’t hide from the things you’re running away from. Not forever. One day they’re going to tackle you to the floor, pin you down and make you address them. So do it now, willingly. It won’t ever happen at the right time.

Around this time my eldest dog, Zeus; my wingman of 13 years, was dying. His wonderful vet, Mark, had helped manage his monthly, then weekly deterioration, but now it was a daily count down. We said goodbye in the most beautiful way, and I wrote about just how powerful and emotional that was for all of us. Zeus was incredibly special. I mourned – and still do – for his loss. But we spent a lot of time reflecting on just how special he was. Everyone who met Zeus, including my family and team, all shed a tear when he went. His passing taught me that everything living brings something to our lives but that death is an inevitable part of living. From the day we are born, we are on a journey to death. It’s not morbid – it’s true. Yet, we shy away from that fact. We hide from it and pretend it isn’t so. Then that when it, inevitably, happens we are taken aback by grief. Zeus taught me just how important it is to love and live every single day. I’ve become much more emotionally connected, and, I dare say reflective and pensive, since losing him. There’s much more that’s important in life than replying to an email after hours, or scheduling a call at the last minute because someone has poor time management.

All throughout this time the personal challenges were continuing and work was a matter of literal survival. At one point, had it not been for the Government loan, the business would have been bankrupt. Income was – only just, and only occasionally – paying the bills. I was grateful of course that I had any income at all, but the changes meant losses for many of our suppliers and my team, who for almost all of them, had to find new jobs. We continued to try to create new services and products, and seek alternative ways to run the business. A lot of work went into making the experience days and workshops socially distance-compliant, only for the restrictions and lockdowns to put an end to those through the summer with only two of them running. But positivity and learning lessons was the flag we were flying. The world was a strange enough place as it was, without more negativity and focusing on the bad things, so we chose instead to seek something positive and in the absence of that, to learn a lesson – which in turn, became a positive.

A few more weeks of the whirlwind romance, the end came as quickly as it began in an utterly traumatic and emotional end. Bereft and with searing heartbreak and grief, and desperate for answers, I began intensive therapy to address things that needed to have been addressed many years before. It was too late for the relationship, and my heart still aches. Adapting to life alone once again, Marley was impacted, too, as he went from adapting to losing Zeus, to then adapting to losing a new playmate. For about two weeks he just wasn’t himself, and for most of the day simply laid on his bed. I often wonder why we have the gift of hindsight; I’d rather have foresight and not make the mistakes in the first place. Perhaps that is a life skill we all could work on more: to reflect on our past, learn from it, build on it, and use it to strengthen our own foresight. Not entirely practical, but a positive thing to aim towards. I’m a better person for the relationship I lost – not because of losing it, but for the things I learnt; how much I grew and developed as a person, and the way the person positively challenged me. I’ve got a lot to thank them for.

My heart was broken into what felt like two million pieces and while picking them up, I had begun working with a personal trainer to gain both weight and muscle tone. Eating differently, regular workouts and pushing my body required energy from within that I simply didn’t have. It took a lot to move forwards. But every single day for the following 7 weeks I did just that: drank calorie and protein shakes; ate more food, and worked out. Life change number… in fact, I’d lost count by now of the changes and losses in my life in 2020. But they kept coming.

The way the breakup was handled wasn’t ideal. I won’t go into details but needless to say I was left with a lot of questions and having to manage a sudden distance. Finally I saw in an incredibly hurtful way, that we can’t make people see things from our point of view; we can’t change them without them wanting to change; and that people will, despite evidence to the contrary, create their own version of events and stories to suit them. Silky Khoucasian put it so brilliantly: “Sometimes we have to say goodbye not because the other person doesn’t want to give us what we need, but simply because they can’t. That is probably one of the hardest goodbyes to make.”

Shortly after, the second cancer scare came in a different form and would result in surgery. Thankfully benign, for the next few weeks I was sore and unable to do much while I recovered. By this point I was almost entirely emotionally numb. Anything could happen to me now and it simply wouldn’t phase me. The roof started leaking and I had to take the people who nailed a cable across the roof causing it to leak to court. The constant barrage of challenges was launching at me in waves and in the bleakest of moments, of which there were many, when nothing really seemed to have any meaning any more without all the things I’d lost and loved: my job, my dog, people, passion – purpose… the one thing that kept me going were my friends. 2020 has been the year that showed me unequivocally what truly remarkable friends I have and how important connections are to us. Terry and Nicky turned up out of the blue having driven almost two hours to be with me. Richard drove up for London “for a chat”; my best friend Kate got in her car and drove two hours to stay with me for the weekend; Caroline gently as always sending poignant and sage wisdom and comfort; Richard and Andy almost daily check in with me – these people, and more, offering love and support. We’ve all got these people in our lives if we let them in. At times it has felt as though I’m stood in the middle of an empty wooden shack; the doors and windows burst open and a mighty gale blowing through as I try to hold on. They came in those winds, and mightily closed the doors and windows offering relief.

My hand forced, I put up for sale the honeybee business to give me time to physically, and emotionally, recover. This year has certainly been about resilience, and it’s been tested to extremes. It might not read like that because I’m still here and I’ve saved the gory details, which often take days and weeks to play out.

But I wanted to share what I could in the hope that as the challenges of the pandemic continue into 2021, and as our lives and the way we want to live them, or expected to live them, are challenged further, you find resilience and comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. There’s one fundamentally important lesson in all of this, which I hope I can share without it sounding like I’m telling you how to live your life…

I am human. And for that, I can only be authentic, and by my very appreciation of my species, vulnerable. 2020 has shown us all, just how vulnerable we are – and we should embrace it, not shy away from it or pretend otherwise. We are many things, but to be human is our greatest strength, too.

One Comment

Most people don’t experience all of this in a 5-10yr frame, let alone in a year 🙁

You have shown true strength and a pragmatic way to make headway in the chaos, despite the pain. I’m so glad people drove to see you and comfort you. Know that if I wasn’t 6hrs/350 miles away, I’d have defied restrictions and driven to you, even to do outdoor jobs for you to ease a tiny bit of burden.

I know many of us relate to you for being exactly that, human. Honest, open and whilst vulnerable, take solace in sharing experiences. Silky Khoucasian’s phrase sums it up perfectly. We can only control our actions and reactions to scenarios despite how much we wish we can influence someone else’s change.

I hope the new year sees a turn of fortunes and pressures start easing. You are a good man with a warm heart and a suitable new man would be lucky to have you 🙂 just be the best version of you, every day 🙂

Donna Henderson

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