We out.

At the end of February, I received my first-ever paycheque for writing something.  In the then-twelve years I had been trying to make a go of being a critic/writer, I had never actually been paid for my efforts before that point.  Twelve years of putting my heart and soul into my work and not actually getting any tangible returns for it.  Admittedly, much of that was self-inflicted since I almost never tried to pitch anywhere due to my crippling anxiety and lack of knowledge as to how, but still.  Prior to that BFI Critics Mentorship programme I lucked into in 2021, I had pretty much resigned myself to writing being a hobby I use as an excuse to not get a job rather than something which could become a career.  Hell, even after my time on the programme, I was still fairly certain that writing would just be a thing which occupies my time cos my brain is crap at everything else, since my efforts to capitalise on the momentum from that year’s London Film Festival by pitching around were running headfirst into brick walls.

And then, there it was in bank account: £75.00 from the BFI for writing up an interview feature on CJ Hunt’s The Neutral Ground at LFF.  It took a long while, plus some wrangling to split my initial paycheque in half so that co-author (cos she spiked every ball thrown her way in our joint interview) Kelechi Ehenulo also got paid, but there it was.  Money exchanged for services rendered.  I had invoices and everything!  To me, somebody whose income has always been limited money from parents or (in recent years) government benefits, it actually felt like too much.  It’s obviously not, my brain has just been wired for so long to believe that any income provided for my work is the result of some kind of accounting error.

At last, I had made it.  Years of chasing the dream, proof was there in my bank account, and no-one could take it away from me.  I immediately went over to a ticketing website and bought myself two tickets to HAIM that Summer.

Duchess (left) and Cheshire’s (right) debut album will be releasing in the autumn.

I kinda don’t want to do one of these pieces this year.  I inadvertently bought myself an out since the usual New Year’s Eve slot ended up being hogged by the conclusion of a Year in Gigs rank series which got majorly out of hand.  Yet, here I am anyway, slave to tradition.  The reason why I feel more non-committal than usual to the exercise of getting my mental messes all down on digital paper to work through – besides being pretty tired after accidentally writing 20,000 words in just under a fortnight – is because I feel like, objectively, I actually had a pretty good year overall.  Which is not to say that I subscribe to some toxic idea that only suffering and whining makes for worthwhile writing, or that a constant state of self-loathing is a totally healthy way to have your default mind-state be; absolutely not.  It’s actually cos I get very melancholic and/or just-plain down over New Year’s which I feel has a tendency to tinge more than a few of my personal retrospectives with a negative lens.  Blame loneliness, exhaustion, existential terror from the mass public airing of everyone else’s own lives and unfairly holding mine up for comparison; any of them count, honestly.

Despite how that sounds, and at the acknowledged risk of cursing things to go to shit by saying this (cos that is something which worryingly tends to happen when I say positive stuff), I feel like I’m a lot more mentally and emotionally stable coming out of 2022 than at any other point I can recall for a long time.  Big news and the last-minute cancellation of things which I had been looking forward to absolutely still have the power to knock me on my arse for a day or so, but I’m better now at not falling into a weeks-long depressive funk from them.  If I’m down-down, I’m less likely to cut myself off from the stuff which cheers me up or helps me process, like music or video games.  I’m even trying to keep some kind of daily routine not related to my diabetes, although that’s at the constant mercy of my garbage sleep schedule and isn’t close to a proper work period.

Photos taken hours before disaster.
(l to r) Darryl Griffiths, Kelechi Ehenulo, Katie Smith-Wong, LaToya Ferguson, Sofia Smith-Londoño, Chris Connor, Theo Smith, Martin Richmond, Cheyenne Bunsie

Perhaps my emotional growth this year can be best summed-up by its biggest event.  On my birthday, October 15th, as karaoke was coming to an end, my stone-sober self was in the middle of performing “Song 2” by Blur when, on a bone-dry floor, I lazily stuck my left leg out, lost all semblance of balance and did a full-on alchy splat on my left hip, breaking it.  (Don’t worry if you laughed whilst reading that, it’s objectively funny and literally everyone involved, including myself, were laughing from the moment I fell.)  After emergency surgery and almost a week in a London hospital, I was sent home on crutches and told not to put any weight on the left side for six weeks.  Since my balance is for shit at the best of times, our home is on a random corner of a not very exciting town far away from the actual town, and I wasn’t allowed to drive during those six weeks, I was landlocked to home the entire time.

Ordinarily, this’d be the perfect cocktail to absolutely destroy my mental and leave me a truly miserable husk for several weeks.  Hell, the constant throbbing post-op pain for most of that time should’ve taken care of that by itself.  In practice, though, I didn’t actually get all that down until the first half of the final week.  My brain adamantly refused to get hung up on the negatives – missed gigs, losing cinema, not being able to see friends – and instead, after just enjoying being back in my own bed again following five nights in a hospital bed, focussed on the little things.  The daily physio exercises, the temporary changes I’d need to make, and the small but gradual and tangible improvements I was making day-on-day.  Whether it was being able to sit on a chair for longer than an hour without it becoming painfully uncomfortable, getting faster and more stable in manoeuvring on crutches, or managing to take a shower without having to use a shower-chair, these increments all added up.

My bestie grew and birthed a human this year! Which also means she’s way too exhausted to object to my using this photo of her.

Undoubtedly, this positivity-focussed approach was aided by having my Dad around to point out and explain the growth, plus Desert Bus for Hope arriving just in time to provide respite from mid-November blues.  But there’s only so much that outside sources can affect your own mind, otherwise I’d actually believe it when my friends insist I’m great instead of calling them bullshit artists.  It wasn’t until my condition seemed like it was going to keep Katie from seeing Florence + The Machine – a show I’d bought us both tickets for and was gonna be the transport to since she can’t drive – that I started getting stuck in my head.  (Thank heavens for Florence’s chronic inability to not break her foot on-tour!)  The six-week check-up where my fracture specialist informed me that I had to remain on both crutches for another six weeks to do partial weightbearing, rather than dropping down to one, similarly threatened to crash me out badly.  But, in both cases, my brain took a day to be in its feels, then started being practical about the realities and pushed forward looking for workable solutions.

In other words, that’s why I was down in London again six weeks after breaking my hip on one crutch to attend a gig and also hang out with those same bday friends who could now see me leave buildings under my own power.  I’ve been clinically diagnosed with depression for six years now, though I feel like I’ve had the condition for close to a decade in retrospect, and any other year this most likely would not have happened.  I would’ve been mental self-harming levels of miserable and not even have gotten dressed for almost a month longer than I actually did – and that, for the record, was a month which only happened because it was too early in the recovery process to get properly dressed without causing massive pain in my hip.  So, again, not to say that I haven’t had notable depression periods this year, but I really do think I am the most emotionally stable, and consistently so at that, I have been in a very long time.  Who needs therapy, eh?  (Well, I do, but it’s still another three years before I’m due my first appointment with Porterbrook Gender Identity Clinic; thanks, TERF Island!)

This is not to say that I don’t have issues I need to work on.  In particular, I can still be way too hard on myself regarding being traditionally, tangibly, careerist “productive.”  If a period in my getting some work done becomes too long (say, three or four days), even if there are justifiable reasons for that (the unconscionable heatwave or needing to take a few rest days to recharge), then a worsening block-based spiral still follows quickly behind.  I get really guilty and shitty if I’m not always WORKING, usually involving my brain jumping forward to the not-too-distant future where my Dad is dead and then I have to stop fucking around and enter the proper workforce despite only having the skills and stability to manage shifts at indie record stores.  I need to be way kinder to myself, in that regard.  This kind of capitalist depression is exactly how the system aims to kill off me and mine, and I gotta try and rise above it better.  Whilst I’m still in a privileged-enough position to not have to worry about that stuff on a daily basis, I shouldn’t let it get to me so much.

A boy and his carefully-arranged balls.

Although speaking of work, I kicked off this year’s indulgent vomit with the story of my first writing paycheque.  It was, somehow, not the only one!  At no point in 2022 did I ever reach a spot where I could earn a proper living from writing – not least because I have loooooong dry spells between even coming up with pitch ideas, let alone getting them accepted – but I also sold a dozen pieces this year, with two of those still waiting to be published.  One for every year I’ve been trying to make writing a career.  Again, that’s absolutely nothing to most professional writers since they probably pitch a dozen articles per week (minimum), but it’s a huge deal to me personally and this is my mental health piece so bog off.  I got to interview Chris Butler, co-director of one of my all-time favourite animated films, ParaNormanMy words about video games turned up in an actual honest-to-God magazine; the literal dream of 11-year-old Callie.  I represented Little White Lies at this year’s LFF.  And I also wrote something about the non-binary subtext of Wolfwalkers which somehow managed to resonate with readers who aren’t myself.

Outside of paid work, I’ve also done some stuff I’m legit proud of.  After much running around in circles trying to make it happen, I was able to interview The Beths, one of my favourite bands of the moment, ahead of their excellent third album.  My music reviews are starting to get much better-written than before.  (Please, somebody pay me to write about music in 2023.  I promise I won’t spend entire reviews bi-policing artists under the false pretence of “music criticism,” like some I could name.)  And whilst I have some misgivings about the whole format (as I’ll discuss in the State of the US Box Office Report this week), I do think my Box Office Reports are in the best place they have ever been; severely toning down the cheap meanspirited snark and aiming for a lot more proper industry analysis.  I may not have achieved any of the goals I laid out for myself at the end of last year’s one of these – though, I swear, this year WILL be the year We’re #2! comes back; yell at me on Twitter til it does – but I’m really happy with where things have ended up regardless.

Oh, also, Music!  Music, in both recorded and live form, was The Actual Fucking Best this year, you guys!  But I already spent literally 20,000 words explaining myself on that front and why it was so vital to me, so I’m just gonna leave that thread there.

Bet you can’t tell which of us is the more natural and comfortable one at having selfies taken.

Basically, things are pretty alright at the moment and I don’t want to get too deep in case the time of the season leads to my brain hyper-fixating on the stuff that hasn’t been so great.  The continuing shit-state of the world and this country especially, where I’m still incapable of being in the vicinity of news broadcasts otherwise I just end up yelling at the TV in anger.  I saw my friends a bunch this year, particularly so when compared to the major pandemic years (though the pandemic is not over and I guess I’ll be wearing a mask forever), but still nowhere near as much as I would’ve liked.  (Though they all have valid excuses of geography, work, money, and gestating human babies inside of their stomachs which I can’t hold against them.)  I’m still, y’know, not in active treatment for my gender dysphoria and my masculine body still eats away at me every now and again, though at least not as much as it used to.  And then there’s the aforementioned existential terror about my current position in life and how very easily it can fall apart at any time; either from my Dad’s health, a call from Universal Credit, the cost-of-living, more hacksaws being taken to the NHS, etc…

But, like I said, I don’t want to get too deep on those.  Partly cos things are pretty alright at the moment.  Partly cos I don’t want this to go 3,300+ words long like in years past.  I’m extremely grateful to all my friends for continuing to associate with me even now: Lucy (A BABY, AAAAAAAHHHHH!!!), Ciara, Katie S, Kofi, Kelechi, Moosey, Vicky, Wendy, Sofia, Lydia, Ben, Katie M (A WEDDING, AAAAAAAHHHHH!!!), and many others I have neither the time nor brain space to add here but should know are loved by me too!  (Also, there is no ranking in that list, don’t read into it; you’re co-#1s, the lot of you.)  I’m equally if not even more grateful to all the editors who put up with my shit this year and, for reasons only attributable to a total loss of sanity on this planet, published my work: Hannah Strong, Sam Wigley, Emily V. Murray, Wendy Atwell, and Dom Smith.  They’re really, really good people whom you should pitch things to!

I’m a little less but still very grateful for Twitter and, specifically, all of the friends I’ve made or are able to stay in constant close touch with on there.  Y’all do a fantastic job at not making me feel so alone or crazy when, say, this country does a completely normal one at the death of its not very remarkable (and morally-questionable) Queen.  I’m grateful for my family who continue to support me and, in times of total crisis (like a hip-breakage), come through in clutch.  I’m grateful for Mac, Duchess, and Cheshire.  And, why not, I’m also massively grateful for the NHS that keeps me alive no matter how much my body attempts to remedy that error although, I swear, if I have to keep any number of crutches for longer than the first-half of January then they are both getting rammed up somebody’s jacksie…

Whatever percentage of photos in my camera roll that aren’t of my cats are from gigs this year.

Thanks to cocking up my work-scope, this was the first year that I’ve ever penned one of these after New Year’s Eve.  That usually means these are written day-of or day-before, when the seasonal depression is starting to take proper hold but not so totally that I can’t at least try to end things on a positive note.  Even though it’s all arbitrary anyway and nothing actually changes with the crossing of a year, I do find myself getting tangibly sadder as the clock creeps closer to that all-important midnight.  I can’t help but find myself obsessing a bit on ringing in another New Year at home, with a parent, watching some shit Channel 5 list show like almost literally every other New Year I’ve ever had.  Wishing that I just once could have the experience of being out with friends, ringing in stuff together with the people who mean the most to me (no offence to my family, they hopefully get what I mean here anyway).

I found that sensation getting more and more total last night.  Was even thinking about going to bed early, ignoring the fact that my garbage sleep schedule would make an attempt moot anyway.  Instead of letting the funk take me over, I went and booted up Sayonara Wild Hearts for the first time and proceeded to lose the rest of the evening to its ultra-gorgeous, ultra-stylish, ultra-queer fusion of rhythm-action gameplay and visual album synthpop joy.  Rushing through city streets as a heartbroken young woman on a badass motorcycle whilst emotional synthwave pulsated through my television, all those melancholic thoughts of loneliness and negative lies about my life’s progress (or lack thereof) gradually receded, and smiles of contentment broke across my face.  Art is wonderful like that.

Here’s to 2023.  Let’s pop.

Callie Petch

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