Mak­ing A U-turn Why one woman said good­bye to the high life

Sophia Stu­art led a busy, glam­orous, and suc­cess­ful life but re­alised at a piv­otal mo­ment that it didn’t re­ally mean much. Here, she ex­plains why she gave her high-oc­tane ex­is­tence the flick.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Contents -

Ijust walked away from a big job in Man­hat­tan and I’m start­ing all over again in Los Angeles at the age of 44. It’s ter­ri­fy­ing yet ex­hil­a­rat­ing and most of my friends think I’m crazy. Au­thor F. Scott Fitzger­ald once said, “There are no sec­ond acts in Amer­i­can lives.” I in­tended to prove him wrong. And any­way, I was born and bred in Eng­land.

For seven years I had a dream job in New York, with an of­fice on the 42nd floor and a PA who booked my busi­ness travel to places like China and In­dia. I had worked hard to be­come head of dig­i­tal for a mag­a­zine com­pany’s in­ter­na­tional op­er­a­tions. It was glam­orous, but I de­vel­oped a ner­vous twitch from ex­haus­tion, put on 27 kilo­grams and con­stantly mon­i­tored the red light on my Black­Berry. I had a gor­geous apart­ment with rooftop views, but ev­ery­thing in the bath­room was travel-sized and my bags were al­ways packed for the next trip. A concierge ser­vice han­dled my gro­cery shop­ping, but I never cooked, so it was all rather pa­thetic: pots of yo­ghurt, bot­tled wa­ter, and in­di­vid­u­ally wrapped cheese por­tions.

Then, two years ago, dur­ing a rou­tine med­i­cal check, doc­tors found a growth in my throat near my thy­roid. Within a year, one tu­mour be­came three. A sur­geon told me I needed ma­jor surgery to re­move them, and that I had a 30 per­cent chance of cancer. I put on my big dark glasses, took a cab to Park Av­enue, slipped into the Wal­dorf As­to­ria, or­dered cake, and sobbed. It wasn’t that I thought I was go­ing to die, it’s that I for­got­ten how I wanted to live. My in­tense com­pet­i­tive drive had forced me into the wrong life. I was

ut­terly lost. I was also alone.

Man­hat­tan is full of highly mo­ti­vated, suc­cess­ful ca­reer women, and I play for the other team, where re­la­tion­ships among the Sap­phic set are like some­thing out of a movie, full of week­ends in the Hamp­tons and match­ing charge cards at Bar­neys. I had dab­bled in this world and re­treated. When I got my surgery date, I’d been alone for a while.

There’s noth­ing like ill­ness to give you a wake-up call. Af­ter one of those very long, dark nights of the soul, I re­alised I needed to start again. I had gone so far into a life I didn’t want that I knew if I didn’t make a plan now, I would never do so. (Af­ter a very painful surgery, it turned out I didn’t have cancer, af­ter all. But the pos­si­bil­ity was there.)

I de­cided I wanted a sim­pler life. I wanted to be cre­ative again. I looked long­ingly at my Nigel Slater cook­books and dreamed of farm­ers’ mar­kets and sun­shine and peace. I be­gan to dread the con­stant wail of po­lice sirens and loud par­ties in the glam restaurants on the street be­low. I was done with this life. I looked at my neck in the bath­room mir­ror and won­dered how bad the scar would be and how long I would be sick af­ter­wards. And then I wrote a list, be­cause I’m good at lists and goals and de­ter­mi­na­tion. It’s how I got so far in the first place. It was shock­ing how many people tried to dis­suade me from my life swap. Friends said I needed to get be­yond the surgery and try to put it all be­hind me, to carry on as if noth­ing had hap­pened. A few hip­pie Cal­i­for­nia friends mut­tered about the tu­mours be­ing in my throat chakra, and that I’d blocked my com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels. I rolled my eyes but knew they had a point. I’d al­ways wanted a cre­ative life. But, like many, opted for a job with a reg­u­lar salary, the trap­pings of suc­cess, and the il­lu­sion of se­cu­rity.

De­spite a long ca­reer in dig­i­tal me­dia, I never had my own web­site. It would’ve been awk­ward un­der my own name, due to the high-pro­file job. But I needed some­where to talk to oth­ers who would un­der­stand how ter­ri­fied I was by the surgery. So I started a site called Team­glo­ (all the glo­ri­ous people, places, and things that kept me sane) and wrote anony­mously. I spilled my guts onto the screen – the pain, the oper­a­tion, the re­cov­ery, my fears, and then, slowly, how I wanted to walk away and start again.

What was so in­cred­i­ble was the sup­port I got from com­plete strangers. No­body who read my web­site knew who I was in real life. I was free to be just an­other hu­man be­ing shar­ing her words and im­ages on­line. I forged deep vir­tual friend­ships and these people cheered me on. I was of­ten moved to tears late at night read­ing their com­ments. This was how I got the strength to start again.

Even­tu­ally, I came to an ar­range­ment with my em­ployer to leave and then I be­gan to down­size. I gave away ev­ery­thing I didn’t want in my new life – awards-cer­e­mony out­fits, chic win­ter coats, a Prada hand­bag. I flew to Cal­i­for­nia and stayed in a friend’s spare room for a week, mostly star­ing at the wall, won­der­ing what the hell I’d just done. LA’s a lot mel­lower (and cheaper) than Man­hat­tan. And for some­one who grew up in Eng­land, the per­pet­ual sun­shine is de­li­cious. But it wasn’t what I’d ex­pected. The pa­per­work alone in start­ing again in a new city felt overwhelming – find­ing some­where to live, get­ting the elec­tric­ity turned on and home phone num­ber set up, ap­ply­ing for a new driver’s li­cence. I was in a low-level panic for weeks sort­ing ev­ery­thing out.

And I felt like a teenager find­ing my way in my new ca­reer. Un­like NYC, it’s nor­mal to earn your liv­ing do­ing sev­eral things in LA. No one blinks when they ask what I do and I re­ply with a triple hy­phen­ate: writer-pho­tog­ra­pher-dig­i­tal con­sul­tant. But get­ting to that de­scrip­tion took a lot of

soul-search­ing and hard work. It was hum­bling. I was very lucky I had enough sav­ings to last for a year. But I had no idea how to build an en­tirely new life. My whole sense of iden­tity was stripped away. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to write and take pho­to­graphs ev­ery day and to use my skills in dig­i­tal me­dia to help people. But I hadn’t worked as a writer or pho­tog­ra­pher since my mid-twen­ties.

The world of pho­tog­ra­phy is very dif­fer­ent to­day, so, at 44, I be­came an in­tern. Two pho­tog­ra­phers let me work for them, for free, as an as­sis­tant and I learnt re­touch­ing, light­ing for dig­i­tal, Pho­to­shop, and the busi­ness side. I also swal­lowed my pride and did all the things an as­sis­tant does – took the boss’s dog for a walk, cleaned up the stu­dio, built up my own port­fo­lio on the side. It paid off; re­cently, I had my first solo ex­hi­bi­tion and couldn’t stop grin­ning.

My jour­nal­ism cut­tings were more than 15 years old. I needed to rein­vent my­self and so I asked for help. I asked (much younger) ed­i­tors to tea and pitched col­umn ideas to give my­self a new plat­form. The dig­i­tal con­sult­ing I’m do­ing feels mean­ing­ful, too. Most of my clients are Hol­ly­wood women who felt clue­less about dig­i­tal – and now they don’t.

Start­ing again has been truly scary. There are days when I won­der what I’ve done. But it also feels so right. I’m cre­at­ing a life based on what makes my heart sing. I now do my own gro­cery shop­ping and my Nigel Slater cook­books are nicely bro­ken in. I take care of my­self now (in­stead of pay­ing other people to do it) and I have no idea where I’m go­ing. I can still see the scar on my throat, but I’m happy. Do I miss the reg­u­lar pay cheque? Yes. Would I ex­change it for my bub­bling ex­cite­ment while driv­ing along Cal­i­for­nia’s scenic Pa­cific Coast High­way belt­ing out cheesy pop songs with un­lim­ited pos­si­bil­i­ties ahead? Hell, no. How To Stay Sane In A Crazy World by Sophia Stu­art (Hay House) is out now at How­tostaysaneinacrazy­world. com and ma­jor book­stores.

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