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A moment that changed me: my dream job healed my excruciating pain | Life and style


When I was 26, I went to see a new GP. She scribbled down some notes and then said something that surprised me. “Do you feel like Job?” I let the silence hang and grimaced before I gave my reply. “Yes,” I said. I hadn’t dared tell anyone that I felt like the Old Testament character who loses everything, but I did.

Two years before, I had come back from a holiday with a pain in my left ankle which then spread up to my knee. Within a few days, I had such excruciating pain in both knees that I struggled to walk. I had seen doctor after doctor, but no one seemed to know what was wrong. Blood tests had been lost. A year on, a receptionist had told me over the phone that they had been found and that I had an autoimmune disease called lupus. The medical dictionary said there was no cure.

I told the new GP about the pain, the blood tests, the unemployment and the loss of hope. I even told her about the loss of faith. At 14, I had gone to a Christian youth club to meet boys, but ended up finding God. When the twisting pains hit a decade later, people at church told me that God wanted to heal me. I had tried to believe, but healing hadn’t come. A few weeks before seeing that doctor, I decided that if God wouldn’t help me, I would no longer try to serve him. I told him – literally, in black ink in my diary – to fuck off and decided that I would face the future alone.

That doctor referred me to a psychotherapist, who encouraged me to apply for work in spite of the pain. One day, I heard that I had two interviews. The first was for a role as a proofreader on Loot, an advertising listings magazine. The second was for a two-day-a-week job at the Southbank Centre to do “literary PR”. The interview at the Southbank Centre was the day before the interview for Loot.

When I look back, more than 30 years later, I see this as my Sliding Doors moment. It was a few years before the film came out, offering two different futures to a heroine played by Gwyneth Paltrow, depending on whether she caught or missed a train. In one of my two futures, I could have spent years proofreading ads for secondhand Zanussi freezers, as the twisting pains in my knees got worse.

Instead, I was interviewed by the Southbank press officer, Ros Fry, and the literature officer, Maura Dooley, who had started the literature programme at the Southbank Centre and revived Poetry International, a festival first started by Ted Hughes. When Maura called to tell me I’d got the job – a part-time freelance gig – I felt like someone clinging to an iceberg, who is thrown a lifeline by a passing ship.

I was able to drive my ancient Ford Fiesta to work, park next to the Royal Festival Hall and get a lift up to the fifth-floor office. It was still painful to walk and stand, but now I had a reason to push through the pain. Maura and her colleagues organised about 120 events a year. I went to most of them and read books by as many of the writers as I could. When my colleagues invited me to join them for a San Miguel in the bar, I felt a rush of pride. I was working with people who loved poetry, fiction, art and dance! After years of trying to fit in, in churches, Christian unions, Bible study groups and even evangelical missions, I felt I had found my tribe.

Gradually, the pain in my joints started to fade. When I wasn’t working I went with colleagues to gigs and exhibitions. On a Friday night, we’d all go to the main Festival Hall bar. Sometimes, a group of us would meet in a pub for Sunday lunch. I had always dreamed of having a mixed group of friends who were interested in art and ideas; I could hardly believe that my dream had come true.

When a colleague who worked full-time on the literature programme decided to leave, I applied for her job and got it. Now I was the one organising, or helping to organise, events, introducing writers and taking them out for dinner. In those years, I met almost every living writer I had heard of and many I hadn’t. I met Seamus Heaney, Susan Sontag, Doris Lessing, Umberto Eco, Ted Hughes and many, many others. I just wish I had written down some of the things they said.

I worked at the Southbank Centre for eight years. It healed me. I really believe that doing work I loved, with people I loved, played a huge part in helping me get better. Thank God I saw that ad. And yes, I do mean that metaphorically.

Christina Patterson’s new book, Outside, the Sky is Blue is published by Tinder Press. She also hosts the podcast The Art of Work.

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