A moment that changed me: I was crippled by negative thoughts – then I bought a silver bracelet

My self-esteem was at rock bottom, but on a break from my academic job I found myself in Paris. As I wandered through the city, an impulse buy gave me hope I could value myself again

A couple of years ago, after a bad academic year, I’d thought things would get better over the summer. They didn’t. I kept walking out of shops without buying what I’d gone in for, because it felt wrong to be taking up space and expecting attention. I couldn’t buy train tickets, even at the machine, because other people deserved to go first and, as soon as there was someone behind me, I gave up mid-transaction. I wasn’t eating much – food was for other people – but at the same time I was travelling and appearing at literary events and festivals, confident on stage as I’d been confident in the classroom all year. It seemed to me that my low estimation of myself off stage was correct and so I didn’t think to seek help any more than I’d seek help for believing that rain is wet.

One day in September (kids at school, students still on summer vacation, a time when work can be done from a train or hotel), I was in Paris, changing trains, really, but still with enough sense to know that a person arriving at night and leaving the next day might as well leave late the next day and give herself a day in Paris. I wasn’t sure it would work, knew myself perfectly capable of walking the streets hour after hour telling myself that any competent person would be enjoying museums and shops and cafes and what kind of privileged neurotic steals a day from her work and her family and then doesn’t even have the guts to buy a croissant, days off are wasted on me and I don’t deserve … I knew the city, a bit, from teenaged (mis)adventures, and I set off into the Marais, hungry from missed meals the day before and carrying a backpack too heavy with books. Sunlight through plane trees, the streets still quiet. Old stone, balconies, geraniums, city squares with those perfectly geometric arrangements of trees and municipal planting that we don’t do in England.

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