I still remember the nerves in my stomach as I sat down in the meeting room, a pint of water sweating on the table between us. What I don’t remember, one year after handing in my notice at my job in London, is what I said. I don’t remember what I told my boss or my flatmates. It’s as if my brain has hidden this information somewhere in the filing cabinet of my mind.
What I can recall are the rejection calls, the late nights spent creating PR strategy decks to present to potential employers, the tears streaming down my face as I called my mum from a bus back to Shoreditch.
The length of time it took to find a job in Leeds so that I could leave my job in London was frustrating and stressful. It made my last 8 months in London almost unbearable as I fell in and out of love with the city and constantly questioned my motivations.
Then, finally, in May 2016, I got a job.
It’s not that I didn’t like my job in London. In fact, I loved it. I loved being a digital PR consultant and I loved my team. So much so that I stayed at the same company for the entire time I lived in London. I had no reason to give it up, until, suddenly, I had to get out.
Not get out of the job – I tried to come to various solutions that would mean I could continue in that role remotely – but out of London.
Sometimes I’d walk home over Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London, past the luxury high-rise flats being built at Aldgate East and the curry houses and cafes on Brick Lane, and I’d feel settled and happy.
I’d wander around markets with my friends at the weekend, drink in little pubs in Bermondsey after work in the evening, explore parts of the city I’d never been to before on sunny Sundays with only my camera for company and feel overwhelmed with love for London. Living just off Brick Lane, I had everything I needed without having to go too far: cafes, pubs, restaurants, markets.
And it was the practical side of living in London that I loved too: four airports at my disposal, train stations that could take me to any corner of the country.
But, then, there were also the times that I felt like a stranger in my own home, a shared flat above a little shop on Bethnal Green Road. There were the times that living with other people felt claustrophobic, especially knowing that the likelihood of ever being able to afford to rent a place of my own in London was slim.
I knew I could if I continued working hard to further my career. But I also knew that working for someone else for the rest of my life wasn’t what I wanted either.
And there was something else I still struggle to put my finger on; a feeling not unlike being swallowed whole. For all the love I had, and still have, for London, it felt like I’d never be able to do the things I wanted to do if I stayed. I’d never be able to save for a mortgage alone, never be able to go freelance without someone else to help pay the rent, never move out of my parents’ house properly and set up a proper, grown-up home.
So I left.
I packed up my little room on Bethnal Green Road, packed up my desk, and said goodbye.
Leeds, thankfully, wasn’t a stranger. I’d already spent 3 years living there previously as a student so in many ways it was like coming home. I rented a flat at Leeds Dock, on my own, and started a new PR job in June 2016. A job that was so different to my previous role in so many ways that at times I wondered if I’d made the right decision.
It’s strange looking back on those first few months in Leeds. I was finally able to rent a flat and, even though the rent and bills were only a fraction less than what I was paying in London, I had the entire place to myself rather than living in a tiny room. I met up with friends from uni, with Leeds-based bloggers, and made new friends too. I’d come home from work and see the sun streaming in through the floor to ceiling windows and swell with pride, because I did it. I said I was going to leave and I did.
I hadn’t made a decision that huge since I left the UK to move to Sydney in 2010, but even then that decision wasn’t made alone. I left the UK as a couple and came home by myself.
But something wasn’t right. Naively, I thought once I’d done it – left – everything would be sorted. There’d be no more work to be done. My friends told me otherwise. They reassured me that moving to another city was a bigger deal than I thought it was, that sometimes it takes months, years even, to feel settled again, that I needed to stop beating myself up.
They were right, because it did take a while to feel settled. To feel as though I was part of the fabric of the city rather than just an outsider looking in.
Part of what helped came from making more friends and nurturing the friendships I already had. I threw a Christmas party and watched my flat fill with people I’d only met a few months before, I reached out to people I’d met online to see if they possibly, maybe, wanted to go for coffee, I said ‘yes’ to all that I could and hoped for the best.
Part of what helped was a life-change I hadn’t anticipated at all; losing my job. Suddenly unemployed with no plan, no savings, and no partner to keep me afloat financially while I decided what to do next, I took the leap into the world of freelancing.
Being totally self-reliant, and making it work, has not only helped me grow in confidence, it’s also brought even more new people into my life.
Mostly, though, what helped was just giving it time. Giving myself some time.
Because now, almost 12 months on, I finally feel settled. That word would have scared me a few years ago when I was travelling around Australia or living in New Zealand or determined to never get tied down to one place for too long. But, actually, knowing that I’ve got a flat I love to come home to when I travel makes me happy. Knowing that, amidst the uncertainty of being self-employed there is one constant – Leeds – in my life, is comforting.
I didn’t feel like that in London. Everything always felt up in the air.
Do I miss London? Yes, without a doubt. I miss it like I miss Sydney. If you live somewhere long enough you become part of it, it becomes part of you. It shapes you and changes you. That doesn’t just go away when you leave.
But, one year on, I know I made the right decision.
Portraits: Joanne Crawford Photography