Miners, sugar sandwiches and sick days: Why I am still shit at looking after myself

This is Sid.

He is currently 94 and an excellent pianist whose faded eyes still dance when he finds an opportunity to be mischievous.

He recently went to the cooked meats counter in his local supermarket and asked the server:

“Do you have chicken legs?”
“Yes, Sir” She replied
“How do you keep your socks up then?” He giggled in reply and walked away.

He is also Great Grandfather to 6 children and Grandfather to 9 (I think), one of whom is me. He also likes to drink Hooch and just told me, as I got off the phone to him, there is an “old lady” where he lives that will soon be 100. I can only presume this means that, at 94, he is yet to self-identify as old. Perhaps why he drinks Hooch.

I have always felt grateful, in an odd way, to have a surviving grandparent that served in the war. I have spent my life, especially as a child, asking him stories of what it was like, with an acute sense that it won’t be long before we are no longer awarded that opportunity.

During WW2, Sid was “down pits”. (For anyone who wasn’t raised in post-industrial Northern Britain, he was a miner). He first went down in to the black, asphyxiating bowels of the earth when he was 13. As a woman who gets nervous in the tube, I struggle to conceive how hundreds of thousands handled the claustrophobic darkness with humour and resolve. By the time war was declared over crackling wireless in 1939, he was 15. The nation needed a lot of coal and in 1941, miners were prevented from leaving. Sid resented this, as I believe he had a desire to enlist, like his Uncle had before him in WW1.

He has a story, which I recall in him telling me throughout my childhood. I no longer have the heart to ask him direct questions as his memory fades, so the details are hazy, though it goes something like this. The mines across the UK were heavily bombed because, well, they were very literally fuelling the Allied war effort. At some point, Sid was injured. The exact details of what, and how, he sustained this injury is the part of the story that is unclear. The rest however, sticks in my mind with cinematic clarity. He would talk about how, having sustained a serious injury, he was given “Two full weeks off! With half pay!” . This was his favourite part of the story, the injury and how it happened was always brushed over, but the utter pride and astonishment of being given time off work, with pay, always stuck with me. He couldn’t believe his luck! He would throw his head back and laugh mischievously that he was so lucky. I would laugh along, politely, though in my head would think “Erm Sid mate, you weren’t lucky. Not one bit. I am lucky. No mines or broken bones or bombs or rationing here.”

The closest I have ever got to rationing was that time Waitrose had ran out of papaya and I had planned to make a Thom Yum salad.

I was raised in the shadows of the post war culture of not complaining. My parents, both born in 1952, were nursed on rationing (which ended in 1954) and their childhoods spent in the headache of the long hangover of the war. My mum was poor. Like, talks about “sugar sandwiches” as if I am meant to know what they are poor. Still, she got a scholarship to grammar school, busted her ass, got a job in the NHS and grafted her way through life. Both my parents did, my Dad a secret wild-child who dreams of Motorhead and motorbikes, has been running an accountancy firm that I know makes him want to rip his eyes out, day in, day out for 40 plus years. He has never once complained, though I know if he were born in the late 80s, like me, he’d probably be living van life now.

We had childhood holidays in Florida, cello lessons, stage school and heavy credit card debt. It was your absolutely classic working class, aspirational family, two parents breaking their bones with work trying to provide an ideal that they could only occasionally, during the better years, afford. I imagine this sounds familiar to many of you.

So having absorbed throughout my formative, childhood years that getting on and doing your work, come rain or heavy artillery, was just what you did, how on earth am I meant to take a sick day when I have a cold? I mean, like, a really bad cold, but still a cold.

I run a business(es), people rely on me, my income is not guaranteed, my mum ate sugar sandwiches (seriously, wtf), my Dad stoically did a job he hates and my granddad didn’t give a shit he nearly died every day, how can I take a day off if I have a bloody cold?! Just pass me the goddam Lemsip and wheel me out! The show must go on!

I have been a little bit ill now for about 2 months.

My husband got some flu and spent a week in bed. “I am like Jane from Pride and Prejudice” he meekly called out from under the duvet. A few days later, I began to suffer the same symptoms. I, however, rather than taking some time to recover, enjoyed a potent cocktail of flu medication and travelled to London to speak at a conference.

Though, I no longer see this as a positive marker of work ethic. I always thought that my ability to haul my sweating, sliming body from bed to work was a sign that I deserved success. I was showing resolve and grit and strength. However, still being ill two months later, having suffered from extreme fatigue and low mood for a few weeks and finding myself once more at peak snot, this is a well worn mindset I am determined to break.

This morning, as my alarm went off at 5:45 to signal it was time for me to get up and catch my train to London for a pitch, a voice said:

‘Seriously?! Go bed to bed.’
‘But I have a pitch…I have to go to the pitch…You can’t postpone a pitch.’

Then something happened. I picked up my phone, emailed my apologies and went back to sleep and woke up six hours later feeling a little more human. I have not left my bed other to make myself an assortment of drinks (the power four: water, orange juice, lemsip and tea) and am writing this because writing is my favourite, most restful thing to do.

It seems so obvious in theory, that we need to take time off when we need it for our bodies and minds to recover in order to do our best work, so why is it often so hard to do in practice? Especially for those of us who are self employed. I know it’s not just me, the amount of conferences calls I have been on where Dave dials in and can hardly breath from congestion, or Janet quips that she had a minor operation last week but is ‘OK now’.

I struggle to take those days off when I am them from a fear of letting people down, for not earning my keep, my belief on what it means to be “worthy” shaped during my childhood years, by people whose pressures were very different to mine. I have spoken about my struggle to rest in the past and I have gotten significantly better at carving out time for me. But, to just, take it, when I need it, let other things slide, bloody hell, that feels like just pure bloody indulgence.

Here I am, however, with my power four, taking some time to get better. I am forcing myself to remember that for the past few weeks I have been little use to anyone, feeling unmotivated and tired, resenting every letter I press down on the keyboard. In the past, I would not take days off when sick because I would focus on what I had planned to do that day, what had been scheduled, who I would have to cancel on. So now, I am going to try and start asking myself three key questions when I am determining whether to rest or push ahead:

  1. Can you do what you had planned when you are better? (FYI, the answer is nearly always yes, events aside)
  2. Will you do a better job of this if you wait until you are recovered? (FYI, the answer is nearly always yes)
  3. Can you ask for help? (FYI, the answer is always, always yes)

We all, businesses, bosses and individuals need to try and be more chill about sick days. Most things can wait until tomorrow, or a few days later, most of us will do a much better job if we take a little time. Just don’t tell Sid.


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