Thursday, July 12, 2007

But what do you actually dooooo?

As I've mentioned earlier, my working life has no clear pattern - any two days are usually utterly different. But Mondays and Thursdays have something in common - on both I write and submit agony columns. Today, it's my column for That's Life, a woman's weekly for whom I've written for over a decade now.

My postbag always moves me. A few sentences on lined paper torn from a notebook and hand-scribbled in a guy's coffee break. Several paragraphs inside a pink card with kittens on the front carefully printed by a fourteen-year-old, probably during a maths lesson. Fourteen pages of stream of consciousness, almost certainly written at the dead of night and downstairs, while the hated and feared spouse sleeps on upstairs.

How do I respond? Always from the gut. Yes of course I research around the problems presented, of course I refer on to an appropriate organisation. But the core of my answer is always instinctive, a reaching out to the letter writer, to make them feel understood and to give them a way forward.

I haven't got the answers. But what I can do - what my expertise and experience enables me to do - is to help my readers see their problems differently. The guy writing in his coffee break needs to realise that ending his affair will be hard but not impossible. The schoolgirl writing at her desk needs to realise that she doesn't need to sleep with the boy in order to get the love she craves. The spouse writing in the dead of night needs to realise that leaving the violent partner is the best thing for everyone.

Of course, I'm not just addressing those people. Yes, I originally write person-to-peson, but I'm published to an audience of millions, who buy the magazines and websites that run my columns. What I say needs to help them too see their problems differently - needs to give them permission to stay, to leave, to say yes, to say no.

Above all, my agony aunt columns need to give people the message that when times get tough, they're not alone - and that they deserve not to be alone. If not from friends and family, then from advisors, counsellors, therapists - and from agony aunts - people should feel able to reach out and get the help and support they need.