Sunday, April 8, 2018
When nobody cares
This morning I woke up to a tweet about my blog from a Twitter follower: 'Get a grip - nobody cares.'
Reader, I blocked him. But his tweet got me thinking. You see, far fewer people care about what I write than they used to, and this is something it's taken me a while to come to terms with.
I always wanted to be famous. I grew up in an abusive family, and the only attention I ever received was critical and negative. I was bullied mercilessly throughout school and had zero friends. I wanted to be a pop star or a writer. I thought that, when I grew up, if I was adored and became famous, it would make up for all the hellish experiences I'd had as a child. I would finally feel loved.
Fast forward 20 years...
In 2008, I was achieving those dreams. The Guardian used to call me every week and ask me to write for them. (This is my favourite piece I ever wrote for them.) I'd get friendly emails from editors like 'Looking for a touch of Sherine comedy magic for the pages!' And I loved that the best newspaper in the world, the paper I'd grown up reading, wanted me to write for them.
Soon, editors at other papers read my columns and also asked me to write for them, so I started writing for the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Independent. Then the atheist bus campaign catapulted me to semi-stardom. All of a sudden I was an atheist sex symbol. I was interviewed by Joan Bakewell for The Times, the Independent did an interview with me, the Guardian put me on the front page, the Sunday Times flew me to Jamaica with Virgin Upper Class to write the cover feature for their travel supplement. I was on the phone to Richard Dawkins a lot; I socialised with AC Grayling and Ben Goldacre, and met Howard Jacobson in the Groucho Club. I joined Twitter, and every time I tweeted, I got around 50 replies.
Journalists from around the world wanted to interview me about the campaign, and it spread across the globe. I compiled and edited a book, The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, featuring contributions from celebrities including Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Derren Brown, Charlie Brooker, Simon Le Bon, David Baddiel, AC Grayling, Jenny Colgan... I received hundreds of lovely emails from atheists who loved the campaign and book, and also hate mail from Christians who hated it.
I appeared on BBC Breakfast several times, Radio 4 several times, The Alan Titchmarsh Show, where I got booed by the entire audience... I started scripting and presenting a video series for The Guardian. Then I fell in love with someone I shouldn't have fallen in love with, and my head started to go wrong. People were too interested in me. People were going to kill me. I was going to die, and it was all my fault. And I started screaming in my head, then screaming out loud. I got pregnant, but I couldn't enjoy my pregnancy, because I was going to be killed. I lay in bed and shook and shook.
I cancelled the video series, all my appearances, all my columns. I refused to go on social media. I screamed and cried and trembled. I was put on antipsychotic drugs which knocked me out and made me gain five stone. I was no longer a sex symbol; I was obese. I went on suicide forums, planned my suicide and wrote to someone who was also planning their suicide. Thankfully, we never met up.
Then I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Over the next two years, I got better, a lot better, thanks to three brilliant pharmaceutical drugs. When my daughter was 17 months old, I split up with her father, because he had fallen out of love with me due to my mental illness, and our relationship had become untenable. I found myself single, in a tiny flat with a baby who wouldn't stop screaming and crying.
I decided to restart my career, but everything was different. When I tweeted, very few people liked or commented on my tweets. When I tried to write for the Guardian again, all my editors had left, and the new editors didn't want to know. I would eventually write eight more pieces for them, over four years. I had previously written 70 pieces for them in two years.
I had no luck at the Sunday Times, or the Independent, or the Observer. No one at those papers ever commissioned me to write for them again. It felt strange, so strange, to suddenly be a non-entity once more. I watched writers I knew who hadn't had nervous breakdowns soar into the stratosphere, becoming famous and getting book deals. I sat in my room, screaming toddler in my arms, and cried.
I became depressed. I spent my daughter's third birthday upstairs in my old bedroom at my parents' house, crying as everyone celebrated downstairs, because I couldn't face the fact that I couldn't support my daughter doing what I did best, the only thing I'd ever been good at. I had no money and fell deeper and deeper into debt.
My mother saw how miserable I was, and said "Why don't you start a business? We'll support you with a loan." So I said "I've been writing these comedy songs. They're rude and funny - I'll play you one." And I played her a song. Somewhat comically, my prim and proper mother was horrified. She said, "This is disgusting! It isn't what we had in mind at all. We definitely won't be supporting this!"
I sold my beautiful tiny flat in the safe affluent area where my daughter's dad lived, and bought a horrible house in a dodgy area ten miles away. I did it up from scratch, made it pretty and rented it out to lodgers. I was still in debt, but at least I had an income.
A friend became an editor at a right-wing magazine called The Spectator, and asked me to write for them. I'm left-wing through and through, but thought, "Well, the left-wing don't want me anymore. I'll try this." They were very nice to me. I wrote controversial columns for them for eight months, including a cover story, thinking that if I became the next Katie Hopkins, at least I'd have money and a career again. I wasn't prepared for the amount of hateful comments from readers on the left and the right. My friend left the magazine, and I never wrote for them again, though I tried.
Then my daughter began to grow up. She didn't know anything about fame and success. She didn't know that her mummy was a has-been. She didn't care that I was fat and single, or that I didn't have the amount of followers on Twitter that I'd like - she didn't even know what Twitter was. But she had a kind heart, and she loved me.
She once asked me, "Is it true that there are people who have no one to love them?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Maybe we can stick up for them and love them?" she suggested.
I realised that if I'd never had a nervous breakdown, I'd never have had her. And, now almost seven years old, she is more beautiful and meaningful than any amount of fame and success. So despite it all, I am lucky, so very lucky. My daughter and I fall sleep holding each other, and tell each other that we love each other, over and over. She is my everything.
Every writer wants to be read, and every writer wants to be a success. No writer ever wants to be told that 'nobody cares' about something they've written. But there are things that are more important than success and fame and riches. There is love, and love is happiness. So as long as I have that, I'll be okay.