Back in the “good old days”, as my husband and I now refer to any time pre-dating the arrival of our first child, I used to call 4am the witching hour. For some unfathomable reason, it was always at this time that a great night came to a close, in whichever form that took. It was a magical hour, a mystical moment hanging between night and dawn, when time and reality were seemingly suspended. Not so on this wintry night. There was nothing magical about waking in a hot sweat with a jolt. There was nothing esoteric in the waves of panic and disembodiment from my physical being that I was experiencing. Who am I? Where am I? How did I get here?
All were perfectly valid questions, in light of the events leading up to this moment.
So how exactly had this moment arrived?
My twenties could probably be best summed up as a decade of spectacular under-achievement. I graduated, full of promise and then proceeded to coast from one job to another, while simultaneously possessing a rare talent for picking exactly the wrong boyfriend at the wrong time (too young, too old-for-his years, too non-committal, too not-right-now…..and not forgetting my romantic career highlight, the one I can in hindsight call a functioning alcoholic). In fairness, there was no shortage of Bridget Jones inspired Chardonnay along the way (indeed, it seemed I was doomed to be her less glamorous, provincial poor relation) and plenty of fun times. I cemented lifelong friendships during this era and yet…….inevitably, my friends’ lives moved on, while mine was becoming fossilised into a parody of my student self, except with a bit more spare cash. House purchases, engagements, weddings, pregnancies and foreign adventures were all on the agenda, except for me. The harsh truth of it hit me and if ever there was a “do or die” moment, this was it. My spiritual life, not to mention my real life, required immediate resuscitation. But how?
The short-term answer was to visit one of my oldest friends, who was having the time of her life in Bondi Beach. I wanted some of that too, thank you. We basked in the Australian sun together, drank more Chardonnay and I embarked on yet another ill-advised and inappropriate affair with a young man whose code-name became “Whippersnapper”. This speaks for itself; although still only 31 (he was 24), I had the notion that I was akin to one of “those” scary middle-aged women that goes to Tunisia and hooks up with a firm-bodied, hot local youth. I returned home, resolute in my desire to turn around my life and so it came to be. I had experienced what I prefer to call an epiphany, whereas my doubters (principally my father) called it a moment of utter madness. And I suppose it was.
The “madness” was quitting my secure but monotonous job, selling my car, cashing in my savings and renting out my flat, in order to return to Australia and do a CELTA course. I hadn’t flexed my intellect in what felt like years and loved every minute of it. I passed and in due course returned to British shores in possession of a teaching certificate and a realisation that, as I’d turned my life upside-down, I’d better actually follow through my “plans” to their natural conclusion.
Oh. I hadn’t properly considered where I wanted to teach, although I’d often fantasised about tripping through a continental square (with brown legs and glamorous sandals) on my way to enjoying savoury snacks and a glass of something cold and delicious, perhaps by the sea. Spain seemed like a good idea.
Because I’m basically quite a lazy person, my job search consisted of perusing The Guardian’s Education Supplement and finding that the jobs I might consider applying for were located in either Japan, Poland or Portugal. The answer was obvious: Portugal’s close to Spain, so I’d stand an equally high chance of attaining brown legs there. I applied, was accepted and found myself on a plane bound for Lisbon in September 2004.
It was here that I experienced a thunderbolt moment: I was struck by the sudden understanding that I’d met someone who would play an important part in my future – as well as fancying him rotten. He was a colleague at the language school I’d started to teach at and despite a slow-burning prelude, we finally got it together and it was bliss. Heaven. We called the summer of 2005 The Summer of Love. We needed nothing and no one else. By June I was living with him. By September we’d bought an apartment. The following summer was christened The Second Summer of Love. And yes, we (eventually) got married.
So, how was it that several years later I was experiencing such a strong feeling of dislocation in the middle of the night? Put simply, I’d had two babies and was working a zig-zag timetable which meant that I never really got a good night’s sleep. I was ill a lot because my little cherubs were harbouring every crèche and nursery bug circulating in central Lisbon and my immune system was non-existent. I was exhausted.
“This too shall pass” is a mantra I like to repeat to myself when the going gets really tough. It usually does and so did this. My kids got bigger. We were ill less. I coped better with being a working mum. I regained the ability to sleep again and began to feel less like a zombie dragging myself through an endless round of work, childcare and household chores. I rediscovered the person formally known as “me”. We all moved on. And in a bid to reclaim my inner Bridget Jones, who in fact I’m rather fond of, I now occasionally stay up until 4am, without an existential crisis to speak of. In the words of a film I’d never have seen without young children in attendance: “I know the way! I know who I am. I am Bifana!”