Changes: Dolly Alderton
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:06] Hello and welcome to Changes. It is Annie Macmanus here with a really wonderful episode for you. Today's guest has been described by Lena Dunham as 'the bard of modern love'. She is an award winning author and journalist. Her books have all become Sunday Times bestsellers. Maybe you fell in love with her memoir, Everything I Know About Love, or you watched the TV series of that last year. Her other books include her first novel Ghosts, and Dear Dolly, a collection of some of her phenomenally popular agony aunt columns in the Sunday Times Style. And now she is back with a brand new novel, Good Material, which is out on the 9th of November. We're going to talk about that and lots more in this week's episode of Changes. Delighted to welcome Dolly Alderton!
Dolly [00:00:49] I'm so delighted to be here. Thank you for having me, Annie.
Annie [00:00:52] It's really nice to have you here. First of all, how are you?
Dolly [00:00:58] I am a month out of publication, which is normally when I'm my sort of lowest quality self. Like, all the worst parts of me come to the surface. You know if I'm normally kind of like, 80% batshit crazy, I think I'm like 20% batshit crazy this time.
Annie [00:01:16] Well isn't that amazing! That's growth.
Dolly [00:01:16] She's real progress, yeah.
Annie [00:01:18] What's changed?
Dolly [00:01:20] I think the acquisition of experience and knowing that basically, there's always afterwards going to be good times ahead and bad times ahead. It's not going to protect you from failure in the future and it's not going to guarantee success forever. I know that I will write again Annie *Annie laughs*, whereas before every book that I published I was like 'well, that's it, that's it for my publishing career'.
Annie [00:01:43] It's kind of like the stakes are lower in a way, in that you are calmer about everything and your career is- you've already proved your worth as a writer. You know, it is a career, it's a living, and it's not going to go away. Tell me about this book then, so Good Material, it is rooted around a story of heartbreak. Why did you want to write, I suppose, about heartbreak?
Dolly [00:02:03] I've always found heartbreak just a really fascinating, altered state for people to be in. I think it's the closest to like an animal state that I've ever been in, when it's just about survival and protection and defensiveness and trying to work out how I make sure that that never happens again. And I think to be totally honest, Annie, my thirties have been really coloured by heartbreak so far. I don't mean that in a self-pitying way, I actually feel quite grateful for it in terms of what I've learnt from it. It just felt like it was this landscape that I just kept accidentally returning to and it would be in different circumstances, but it always felt the same. And what was weird is it felt the same at 33, 34, that it felt when I was 15 when it happened for the first time. It doesn't get easier.
Annie [00:03:02] I mean, I heard you talking to the amazing Elizabeth Day on her podcast about you as a child and something that struck me was, you were saying that it seemed that you had a hypersensitivity. You were so empathetic about the world that you would be so deeply affected by stuff that you deemed as painful or sad or unjust. And it made me think about that in the prism of heartbreak. When someone is that permeable in terms of their feelings, how heartbreak must affect them. I mean, I presume it affects everybody differently.
Dolly [00:03:33] I mean, it does and it doesn't. I found a diary entry that I wrote after my last break-up, which was last year, found a diary entry the other day- I've got into this like very adolescent habit of kind of keeping a diary.
Annie [00:03:44] Journaling, I love it.
Dolly [00:03:44] Yeah, and it was like a couple of days after we'd broken up and I said, 'it feels the same now as it did when I was 15, I wonder whether I'm ever going to love someone like that again, whether anyone's going to love me like that again and I wonder if I'll ever get my Smiths t-shirt back' *both laugh*. It's like preoccupation with the petty, you know, as like a distraction and as a way of staying connected to that person in your life together, is sort of fussing over the bills or the things that you've left at their flat or whatever. And then it's this childlike abandonment of, am I going to- is that- am I going to feel safe again? How much of it is about the absence of a person and how much of it is about the deepest wounds we have from when we were children of- every time someone in your life has said, I don't like you, like you're not good enough, and they've made you feel rejected. How much of heartbreak brings that up?
Annie [00:04:37] I mean, the book is naturally gorgeously written. It's also so, I mean, so well-observed to the point where it's difficult to read at times with regards to heartbreak *Dolly laughs*, like it's... So cringe, it's so relatable, you know, when you're going through that. The kind of humour that is kind of woven into all of these situations. You know, life never stops being funny.
Dolly [00:04:56] Exactly.
Annie [00:04:57] Why, I suppose, did you want to write from a man's perspective?
Dolly [00:05:01] When I had the idea for the book which came from the first page, which is a list that Andy my protagonist makes of all the reasons why it's good he didn't end up with his girlfriend, and I had that idea, when I was going through a break-up I had dinner with a friend who was going through a break-up and we had both been advised by separate therapists *laughs* that this is a good exercise.
Annie [00:05:21] To write the list?
Dolly [00:05:22] Yeah. And I now advise anyone to do it who's going through heartbreak. You've got to write down everything about them that wasn't compatible with you and then you read it every day for a month. And it really helps you untangle the kind of nostalgia and the romance and the mythology of a person and actually the reality of what you were together. So that's where the idea came from. And that night I sort of was cooking up an idea of someone losing their mind and becoming a stranger to themselves in the sort of hellscape of heartbreak and unrequited love. And then I was just, I didn't want to write about a heartbroken woman again. It just felt too depressing. I suppose in the past I have been quite honest about the chasm that I feel between, you know, how confusing and mysterious and exciting I find men. And I thought it would be not only for me as a writer, but for me as a woman and a human being, I thought it would be, in very divided times it would be like an act of humanity, an act of compassion for me to just like, try and understand men for a year and really get under the skin of that. And that may sound absurd to some people but I did learn a lot, and it was a big investigation for me.
Annie [00:06:35] I mean, you are a journalist. To me that makes complete sense. You know, you're being investigative. And what else did you do then in terms of feeling good and confident about being able to write a male perspective?
Dolly [00:06:45] I interviewed about 14, 15 men. Asked them about heartbreak and sex and dating and romance and marriage and masturbation, everything I wanted everyone to know. Friendship, male friendship, crying, I learnt a huge amount.
[00:07:00] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:07:10] Can I ask, what were you like as a kid?
Dolly [00:07:13] Very sensitive. I don't know what that was.
Annie [00:07:17] Isn't it- you have an artistic temperament, I would say.
Dolly [00:07:19] Yeah, maybe it's that. I always thought that I was a total product of my parenting, but increasingly as I see my friends have children, I'm understanding more and more that I think that there are- your soul sort of comes mostly fully formed *laughs* and that it's-
Annie [00:07:36] I would agree with that, yeah.
Dolly [00:07:37] Do you think so? And I just think that parents are sort of match made with the right souls and then they usher these souls onto the, onto the earth and-
Annie [00:07:45] That's such a gorgeous way of looking at it!
Dolly [00:07:48] *Laughs* yeah mum says that to me as well, that if she could predict who I was at four, she would have predicted the woman I am at 35.
Annie [00:07:55] Wow, really?
Dolly [00:07:56] Yeah. The thing that was amazing about my parents is also the thing that probably became difficult to navigate, which is they were really, really loving. She just- it was really important for her for me to know that whatever was happening in the world, that there was just two people on earth who just thought I was perfect. And I still think that now. There are two people on earth who think I never need to change anything about myself *laughs*. And that's kind of an amazing, it's kind of a part of gold to walk out into the world with. It also then becomes quite confusing when you get into the real world and surprisingly, not everyone thinks that *both laugh*.
Annie [00:08:33] *Laughs* 'I'm sorry, what? You don't love me unconditionally? Poor me'. Tell me about your childhood change then because that might lead in nicely from that. You talked about puberty.
Dolly [00:08:43] Yeah. I was a really happy kid. I remember being really, really happy. I was an extremely positive person. I was very uninhibited. I was always performing and singing and writing little plays, and I was very creative. And then it all went really wrong when I got to about 12, 13, and then I was just so miserable until I was about 17.
Annie [00:09:09] Wow. So that's a big chunk of time.
Dolly [00:09:11] Really long time. When I- I mean I still think of it. Kind of feels like prehistoric that section of my life when I think back, it feels like the land before time *laughs*. Feels like when I was a dinosaur or something, it feels like so long and like adulthood, all of adulthood still feels like a fraction of what that period was, which is of course, how the brain processes time, you know, depressingly. But I also think it was because of the, just the misery of those years.
Annie [00:09:40] And how did that manifest, that misery?
Dolly [00:09:44] I totally cut myself off from my parents. Had almost no intimate or emotional relationship with them. It sort of took it into my mid-twenties to repair. I drank a lot, drank on my own, started smoking quite young, just like destructive, not happy. I mean, the thing that really saved me other than my amazing parents is I've had the same best friend since I was 11, and she, you know, she has been a similar source of great joy and love and security for me. And we talk about that time now sometimes because she was not like that as a teenager. And she will talk to me about what she remembers of me during that time and how frustrated I was and how sad I was. I mean, two fundamental things that I think can't be overlooked is I hated school. I really, really hated school.
Annie [00:10:36] Oh no way?
Dolly [00:10:36] Yeah and I was in a bad school. I was in a school that really didn't suit me. And I should have- my parents really regret not taking me out, but I wasn't opening up to them, so they didn't really know the extent of it and-
Annie [00:10:48] And what was going on at school?
Dolly [00:10:49] I felt really bullied by the teachers.
Annie [00:10:51] Okay.
Dolly [00:10:51] There were a few things that happened that have like- I really had to unpack in therapy of how much they have affected me and my self-esteem. Like, I remember there was- I was kind of a scatty, always the scatty kid. I'm a scatty person. And I remember that- so my real name is Hannah, Dolly was a nickname I got in my late teens... There was an award at my school called the Hannah Alderton Award for Disorganisation that was presented every year in front of --- that was named after me.
Annie [00:11:21] Wow!
Dolly [00:11:21] And the girl was presented with a black bin bag. The prize was she would have to go around the school and pick up where all she had left her, like exercise books and whatever, and it was just this like big in-joke with the whole school *laughs*.
Annie [00:11:33] Wow! Of all the girls, you were singled out? I mean, that's remarkable, but also cruel.
Dolly [00:11:39] Yeah.
Annie [00:11:40] And I don't think it would be done these days because thats-
Dolly [00:11:42] No, of course not!
Annie [00:11:43] People would look at that as being neurodiverse or something, you know what I mean, there'd be something that you could attribute it to, you would not be able to just single that out and slag someone off really, in front of everyone!
Dolly [00:11:52] There was never any conversation of like, this is a person who is struggling with this period of their life and the pressures of this like academic school and, you know, I'm not an academic person, I was incredibly young for my year, how do we like, help her find this easier? I was just stressed every day. I was just like- I didn't get on with my teachers. I was always late. I couldn't keep thoughts in my head. I felt like I couldn't perform properly. I felt like- it was just a mess! And I felt like there was no strategy to support me. But also the other thing that I think can't be overlooked is the hormonal change that I was going through, and I think that had, I think well, that has a profound effect on young people in a way that we still- like I just remember being- I'm the most like placid person, it was the only time in my life where I was just rageful. I was just angry all the time. I was angry and sad and yeah, frustrated. I would just like want to kick down doors. I remember like teenage hormones being talked about in a way that was unbearable to me, like patronising and anonymizing, but not like at all really examined.
Annie [00:13:07] And how was your relationship with your self worth, I suppose? You know, having had that gorgeous, very safe early childhood where you were love, love, loved and showing love, being able to reciprocate that love, I suppose do you feel like these years eclipsed that somehow?
Dolly [00:13:24] Yes, I do.
Annie [00:13:24] And changed how you felt about who you were?
Dolly [00:13:27] Yeah, also boys were particularly nasty to me. I was really bullied by some boys, and I think that had a real affect. My experience is not unique to me. Arguably, I think that when someone dumps us out of the blue or we get fired from a job or we're humiliated in a social setting, I think that every single one of us at that point feels the twinge of an old wound of someone being nasty to us when we were 13 or 14. I just think that's how humans are made. I think that so much of self-esteem and identity is built by your, how you're parented and then I just think what's even more important of what's built is how kids are with you and how teachers are with you at school. And I think that has an enormous part to play in it. You know, also didn't help I was six foot when I was 13. Err yeah, I totally hated myself.
Annie [00:14:25] And what about your body? What was your relationship with your body?
Dolly [00:14:28] Bad, errr. Bad eating stuff. Not good.
Annie [00:14:32] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Dolly [00:14:34] But again, as well, it was erm- not to normalise it, I think I was at an all girls school in the early noughties and it just, it was so an accepted part of all girls school culture. Everyone had an eating problem. There was self-harm everywhere. It was just, it was like this real- and no one was really talking about it in a way that I see now. Like, of course, teenagers, you know, something my therapist always says to me is- which is very pertinent to this podcast, that the moment when a human is in transition is when they are at their most vulnerable.
Annie [00:15:06] Yeah.
Dolly [00:15:06] So that is why teenagers- one of the reasons why teenagers are so vulnerable. And that expresses itself in all different kinds of ways. I don't think that like, those things aren't going on in schools now but I just think we have a language for it, in a way that we didn't when I was growing up.
Annie [00:15:21] Did you have a story that you told yourself about what your life was going to be like?
Dolly [00:15:27] Yes, I did. It was so like, me thinking I was in a Bruce Springsteen song. When I was living in like, a very nice North London suburb, in my head I was like 'I'm going to get out of this dead beat town!' *Annie laughs loudly*. That was the story I told myself every day of like, wait till you see me. Like, I'm going to get out of this town and I'm going to become a famous writer and I'm going to make it and you're all going to feel sorry for how you treat me. Just that classic, like, pathetic teenage thing. But that was- it really charged me up. And the one thing I did think then that I knew I was right about, and I remain right to this day, I absolutely knew that I was going to be a great adult *Annie laughing*. I knew I was. I knew I was a shit teenager and that teachers didn't like me and that boys thought I was disgusting and girls found me odd. And I knew that when I grew up, boys would fancy me and people would want to work with me and I would have friends. I just, I knew it! And I was right. I just knew that I would make-
Annie [00:16:31] Just look at her now! Drop the mic! Love it.
Dolly [00:16:33] I just didn't make sense as a teenager, and I made sense as an adult.
Annie [00:16:39] But isn't that something, though? That you, you know, you had this conviction somewhere in there even though- so the love, everything that came before did, it was in there buried deep.
Dolly [00:16:49] Totally.
Annie [00:16:50] Where you knew that you were going to be okay at some point.
Dolly [00:16:53] Yeah, exactly. And actually I was talking to a journalist friend of mine, Sophie Haywood, about this. We were talking about, how much do you love a child? How much do you validate them? How much do you build them up? How much of that is like, coddling them too much from the realities of the world? And how much of that is a necessity of parenthood? And she said someone had told her, it's like if you knew that your child was about to be sent into a famine, would you feed them up as much as you could or would you go, no, I'm actually, I'm going to get you used to not eating *laughs* it's like-
Annie [00:17:29] Eugh, stark, but yeah.
Dolly [00:17:29] Yeah, it's like, why don't you fill up this child with a sense of itself and a sense of love and security, and then it's got this overdraft that it can dip into. You know, because life is going to- is not going to be like that, whoever you are. For me, it happened in my teenage life. Life's been pretty steady and great since then. For other people, it happens at other points. Unexpected things, nasty things, disappointing things, things that make you question who you are and your value and your sense of self, that is going to happen. So why don't you get the savings of love in so you've got that overdraft to dip into when you're older?
[00:18:06] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:18:17] Talking about like, stories that you tell yourself about how your life will be, yours was kind of, quite accurate, actually, you know, you had this urge, you had this ambition to get up and get out and, you know, be successful as a writer, of which you've done all of those things. But what about that through the prism of society and society's expectations of women? How did you feel your life as a woman was going to look like?
Dolly [00:18:40] I'm thinking about that question so much at the moment, Annie. I think that, the question of my life as a woman, what's that meant to be? What was that going to be? Am I doing it right? When you get to 35, that is so a question you're thinking about all the time. Something that is sort of not typical with the rest of my character is, I've always had very, very rigid ideas and goals about work. So I plan everything. Nothing happens by accident. I always know, right, I'm going to do this until then, and then I'm going to try this and then I'm going to leave reality TV and then try and go into scripted and then I'm going to make a short film and then I'm going to try and get an agent or I'm going to write a memoir and then I'm going to try and slowly move to journalism, and then I'll write a novel. It's always- and I've got ten of those ahead in terms of, I don't know if I'll fulfil them, but in terms of like these very rigid goals that I like to move towards. I don't have that so much in my personal life. I think I did when I was younger. That was probably an inherited thing. Culturally- I'll tell you something that's really given me pause for thought, I am now the exact age, this year when I turned 35 was the exact age my mum was when she had me. You know that amazing Fleet Foxes song? 'So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter, what does that say about me? I just keep thinking about that lyric. It's strange. I just. I somehow- deep inside me, without realising, I had set that as a goalpost for myself.
Annie [00:20:23] Of course.
Dolly [00:20:24] You know, if I have kids I'll now be an older mother than my mother was. Strange. It's really weird how you absorb those expectations without even realising you have.
Annie [00:20:34] And I suppose now that you're here, how does it feel? Is there a feeling that you should be feeling something about it, the way that society tells you to feel about these things? And what is the real feeling?
Dolly [00:20:47] Annie I mean, that is, that is the million dollar question *Annie laughs* that I just think every, every woman needs to ask herself at every turn really. Is this something I want or is this something that someone else wants for me? Have I just accidentally inherited this desire? That if I really engage with myself, do I really want it? I'm a very nostalgic person, but I also feel so lucky to be a woman in the age that I am now. When I think back to the fact that my mum when I was growing up would always talk about herself as having left it quite late and being an older mother and you know, she was 35 when she had her first child, and there is definitely still a residue of that. I mean, it is everywhere. I was going back through my diary entries last week and someone every day made a comment to me about children. So I went out for dinner with someone who's much older, she's in her seventies and she had assumed I didn't want to have children. And I said, oh, I'm still quite open to the idea, I will. And she said, oh, you better get on with it then.
Annie [00:21:53] Oh, fuck off!
Dolly [00:21:54] And then in the town-
Annie [00:21:55] Move to Cairns ---, Dolly. 35 is nothing here *Dolly laughing*, everyone's well old having kids.
Dolly [00:22:00] Yeah, but then in the taxi on the way home, the cabbie said to me, 'you're married?' I was like no, 'got kids?' and I was like no, he was like 'd'you want kids?' I was like err, I don't know. And then he was like, 'oh, I had a girl in the back of my cab the other day who's 37, and she decided she wanted to have kids but she didn't have a boyfriend, so she's doing this buying sperm stuff. I mean, I'm more old fashioned me, more boy meets girl-' and I was just like, God there's no fucking escape from this thing. There is no escape. And I just, that's difficult because I want to have compassion for people for whom that is just like, it's in the air, it's in the atmosphere of like, the facts of life. And one of the facts is most women should have children and most women should have children by the time they're 35. But equally, I need to engage with the reality of where I am right now and the reality of what women's lives are like now and the length of our lives and the nuances of biology and all that stuff. And when I really engage with the reality of that, I feel totally fucking fine. One too many dinners and cabbies like that, I don't feel fine. But as long as I keep engaged with my own stable inner voice, I feel completely fine.
Annie [00:23:19] Yeah. And I wonder again, if that kind of very safe, loving upbringing that you had has helped you be a person that's comfortable enough in yourself to defy expectations and not settle for someone just because you can't be seen to be single and then end up in a relationship where you are unhappy.
Dolly [00:23:39] Yeah, totally. That real need for partnership, I've never, I've never reallllly had. I've needed attention and I've needed excitement and romance and sex but- and love, but I haven't had that craving like so many people I know have had. I think it's a very natural craving. I think it's been a blessing and a curse. I think sometimes I feel like it's a bit of a super power. So many people I know, the worst thing that they could be is on their own and that is really not a bad life option for me. I would so love to be in love, but I'm not frightened of being alone.
Annie [00:24:16] And you can really hear that and read that in, you know, what you put out in the world. It's a kind of constant, underlying, very gentle thing that you put across-
Dolly [00:24:26] Thank you.
Annie [00:24:26] This idea of, you know, being alone does not have to mean being lonely. Being alone can be empowering, it can be beautiful, it can be so fulfilling. Is that something that's conscious, I suppose, or is that just something that comes through because of, you know, who you are, I suppose?
Dolly [00:24:44] Thank you for saying that. I, I didn't realise that that was such a recurring part of my work, and actually my exec of my TV show said it to me, she was like- that your message of your work, that I didn't even realise I was putting across is that it's, it's okay to have an unconventional life and that it's actually, it's kind of brave to do it. It's kind of cool. And I think, you know, I get so many girls writing into me, understandab-, I totally understand why, in for my Dear Dolly column, and they're just so scared about what being alone, what that says about them and what that, what that means. Because it's so easy to be wobbled by society and by what the packs doing. And so much I understand as I get older, if you're feeling like you have fucked up or you have made decisions that don't make you a normal woman or normal adult, look around at your friends because the likelihood is you just happen to be in a friendship group who have all decided to have quite conventional lives and do things at the same time. And there's a whole other friendship group you could have where they're all living on canal boats and in camper vans and there *Annie laughing*, you know, doing fire poi or-
Annie [00:26:01] *Laughing loudly*.
Dolly [00:26:02] --- Maybe not that extreme, but there's a whole other world that you could be in where you're with people who aren't having a traditional route and then you would feel the odd one out if you were doing something kind of unconventional and, something that I always try to remind them when I reply to those letters is to reframe it so that it's not something that's happened to you. Most people who are single for a long time, whether they know it or not, they have chosen to be on their own. And there's something intrepid about that. And I remember a friend saying to me when I was having a wobble and I was in my twenties, she was like- she's been in relationships her whole life, she said 'I'm so admiring of you, I think of you as having this little backpack on in life and just sort of trudging around from place to place and taking the notes and having fun and learning things and making mistakes and moving on and setting up camp somewhere else' and I remember feeling like prou- really, I liked myself when she said that was her idea of me. I didn't feel in that moment like I was some sort of chaotic person who hadn't had their shit together who a man hadn't chosen. I felt I felt like an adventurer.
Annie [00:27:06] I mean, you do such a service for women in terms of being that person. There's a real- a courage, I suppose, lifting the stones on your insecurities and really exposing all the kind of dark shadows of how you feel about living in the world and the pain and the heartbreak that you go through. Do you think that is a reason why you are so wildly popular with a generation of young women?
Dolly [00:27:35] You know, I try not to think about that too much because I think it's so difficult to create stuff and for it to land. It's hard not to think, well what was it? *Laughs* how do I recapture that? I think you're in danger when you do that so I try not to think about it too much. I think people appreciate the truth, and I think-
Annie [00:27:55] It's so simple.
Dolly [00:27:56] Yeah, I think I've always- I was asked to write a piece for The Guardian yesterday about, like, the book that made me want to be a writer and I really was thinking about it and I was like, I think it was High Fidelity because it was the funniest book I'd ever read, and it was the most truthful book I'd ever read about love and men and women and sex. And that's all I've ever wanted to be. I've just wanted to be funny and truthful. And I think if I can continue to do that, sometimes it will land and sometimes it doesn't but that's always my mission.
[00:28:25] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:28:35] What would you say is the biggest change you've gone through as an adult?
Dolly [00:28:38] I was so nervous about saying this as my answer because, first of all, well the answer is going into therapy. I think I'm very aware that sometimes the way we can talk about therapy and people seeking out therapy is like it's an act of bravery. And it is, but it's also an act of financial stability. You know, like, I just want to preface everything I'm about to say with the fact that I'm very lucky that I was able to pay £75 a week when I was 27 to do this and I think it is a travesty that that is not an option for lots of people because it really has changed me enormously. I'd never really considered doing it. I think I had one friend who had started seeing a therapist and the change that I saw in her was just so extraordinary. And I was in a not great place in my late twenties, I just, I was in some bad patterns, probably that reflected my adolescence, actually. And she err, yeah she kind of forced me to go *laughs*, and I'm so grateful to her. So I did that for- I was with that therapist for two years, maybe even a bit less. And then the huge mistake that I made was I stopped therapy the month before my memoir came out.
Annie [00:29:56] Oh, and was there a reason for that specifically?
Dolly [00:29:59] We did such an intensive period of analysis. I'd totally reconnected with my family and become very, very close with them. I had quit my job. I had written a book and sold a book. I'd moved out of a house share, I was living on my own. I'd completely, I'd stopped you know, being destructive with alcohol and drugs in the way that I had been in my twenties. I was celibate. I chose to have a year off sex and dating. So just so much had changed so fast. I would have a session and it would feel like a sort of coffee morning *laughs*, like I had to sort of run out of stuff to talk about. And that is when you think, oh, okay, I'm fixed! And actually you should never- you shouldn't- you should- I should have just waited it out a little bit longer.
Annie [00:30:53] So what happened next, I suppose, in stopping it and then Everything I Know About Love coming out and suddenly your whole life, your friendships, your heartbreak, your pain- everything is out there in the world. How did you cope?
Dolly [00:31:04] It was totally great for the first year. It was probably like the happiest year of my life, the first year Everything I Know About Love came out. Everything I wanted had happened. I was feeling so strong from therapy. I was living on my own, which I'd always wanted and I never thought I'd be able to do. I was not dating at all. For the first time in adult life, I was- I just felt free and I was so happy. And then I think there was a lag and I think I didn't realise how much my career and my life had changed, irreversibly. In terms of how many people had read that book. Being in a small degree, a public person, being an idea to a lot of people rather than a person, the weight of that suddenly hit me and I- that was when the paperback came out. I totally crumbled and that's when I went into cognitive behavioural therapy with an amazing woman who I've been with ever since. And I would say 80% of our conversations is about my job *laughs*.
Annie [00:32:07] So weirdly, it's kind of life coaching in a way. I suppose it can take on so many forms, can't it?
Dolly [00:32:13] Yeah, and I mean it's just, it's all connected. Like something she said to me recently that was SUCH a light bulb moment, and the fact that we can be five years in talking every week and she can say something where she will relate something back to something that happened to me in 2001 and I'm like, well this is the best investment of my time and money I can spend because this woman has this like historical archive on me. And she can connect things in a way that I can't as someone who's in the midst of it. And she said this thing that I cannot stop thinking about. By the way, before I say this, I must say I love my job and I love everything that it's brought me. And on the whole, I have a very, very nice time. There just some complicated things that you sometimes have to navigate, and she helps you navigate it. Just don't want to sound like I'm whining. She was talking to me about something, some stuff was going on that I was finding very painful around my work, so something had upset me and I was talking to her about it and she said, you know, being in the position that you're in, you're six years into doing this, there are things that you know that this comes with. You're going to have people who don't like you. You're going to have people spreading lies about you. Not everyone's going to like your work and they're not going to think about you as a person when they're writing about that work, they're going to think about you as a sort of avatar. You know, yeah, it's annoying, but we know that that's what that is, so what is it about, you know, people commenting on the way that you look, people writing about your weight loss or gain on Instagram- we know that this is an undeniable fact of what it is to be a woman in the public eye. To have a public presence or whatever. So what is it about this that sometimes becomes so painful for you, it's unbearable? She's like, I think I know. It reminds you of being a teenager. And I have this light bulb moment, I was like, everything that is bad about success and fame feels like being in the common room. And if you're someone who the common room caused you a deep, deep amount of pain, then all of it is going to feel like that and it's going to be really difficult.
Annie [00:34:18] Wow.
Dolly [00:34:19] *Laughs* isn't that quite amazing?
Annie [00:34:20] And I wonder, does that work the other way round as well in that, the way that you felt in the common room, that kind of wanting to be seen, wanting to be understood, you know, wanting people to, you know, accept you for who you were, does it go that way as well? In terms of what you're putting out as an adult.
Dolly [00:34:37] That's exactly what I was thinking. What is the flipside of that energy? What it is is, you know, that is 10% of what my job is. Well, a huge amount of it is just sitting at my desk with my cat bumping up against my legs, trying to get a thousand words out. And then there is this other part of it that is like being head girl at school or prize giving or being the star of the school play or whatever. So all of it relates back to that time for me. I mean, I would argue that for most people a lot of life relates back to that time. And if that was a time that was particularly painful or particularly brilliant, I think it can also work the other way. I think people who have the best time of their life in the common room struggle with adulthood. So they're just making those connections. Doing that therapy doesn't mean that I don't have that old pain and panic, that panic that I get where it just makes me feel frightened. Doesn't eradicate that but what it does is it makes me- it makes you go, okay, this is a bit of a shit thing. It's a part of my job. Why am I having this outsized reaction to it? Oh, I know why I'm having that outsized reaction to it, because it's remindig me of that thing that happened in 1999 *laughs*, and that is when therapy has just been so helpful for me.
Annie [00:35:57] Can I ask, I mean, the agony aunt role is fascinating and you're so good at it and I wondered, I mean, you must have learned so much in the process of doing that, you know, let's say in the last ten years to give you a parameter of time, how has your perception of romantic relationships, and I suppose a successful romantic relationship changed?
Dolly [00:36:19] Really good question. You know, I think, it's so clichéd what I'm about to say, but like all cliché, there's a reason why they're said so much. I think what I've realised is the importance of being with someone who is really kind and whose company you really love. Most recently a friend of mine was going through something very, very difficult and she has a newborn and I went round to see her and her partner was there who is this incredibly reliable, very funny, very jolly, very sweet, kind, good, good, capable man. And she was so someone who could have *laughs* married the sort of person I could have married, maybe still will, which is like someone exciting and flaky and-
Annie [00:37:09] Yeah.
Dolly [00:37:09] Who the connection is about shared interests rather than shared values or, you know. And in that moment, I just looked at him and I was like, thank fuck you married that guy. Thank fuck. Because this is what the stuff of life is, these moments of challenge and you've got to have someone by your side who is loyal and decent and reliable and capable and responsible, as well as just being a great, great friend. And I really understand the importance of that now. So boring, isn't it? But it's true.
Annie [00:37:44] Do you feel like you have any limitations when it comes to being an agony aunt? Is there bits that you're just like, nah I can't feel like I can answer that?
Dolly [00:37:50] Yeah. Every week I'll get letters from people that just feel like... it would be so irresponsible for me to try to tackle it. But then what that does is- because I'm now four years into doing this, three and a half, basically, there are seven problems in life *laughs*.
Annie [00:38:09] *Laughing* okay.
Dolly [00:38:09] And there are variations of it, but this is what I've really realised. Doesn't matter our age-
Annie [00:38:14] Like notes on a piano, isn't it?
Dolly [00:38:19] It is notes on a piano, it's like, how many ways can we arrange this? There's something I find depressing about that sometimes, but also just so comforting. It doesn't matter what age someone is, what their background is, what their gender is, the big things are, I can't get over someone I was in love with, that's the number one. I desperately want to fall in love, can't find anyone. I'm worried I'm never going to have a family. My mum's driving me mad. I want to have a friendship break up. I feel like I'm lost in my career. I feel like I'm not making the most of life or I'm not having fun. That's it. That's what all the problems are, basically. So it's tricky to get the- keep the content fresh every week *laughing*. It's really tricky, which is why I always jump for joy when like, the other day I got a letter and actually the Sunday Times said it was too esoteric and I couldn't reply to it, but I was like, please I need something like this! It was a man writing into me and his 'problem', in inverted commas, is that he wanted to find it- he wanted to find love, and not only did- he was in his sixties, not only did he want to find love with a nudist, he wanted to find love with a nudist who had an enormous amount of body hair. And he wanted to know where he could find this woman. And I was like, let me at it. You know what I mean? Like *both laughing*. Let's go.
Annie [00:39:41] Let's go.
Dolly [00:39:42] It means I can just think of something to say that's not a platitude about time being a healer or whatever *laughs*.
Annie [00:39:49] That is The Sunday Times loss *Dolly laughs*, I have to say. I really would have, I really would have liked to read the answer to that.
[00:40:01] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:40:01] Okay, last question Dolly. What change would you still like to make in your life moving forwards?
Dolly [00:40:05] A great question. I think the change that I want to make is I want to be more present in the day to day of my life. I think there were personality traits that I have that I'm grateful for, but they sort of catapult me into the wrong timezone. So like, I'm a very nostalgic person, which means I'm kind of always slightly obsessing about the past. I'm an imaginative person as a part of my job, that's an important component of my job but it means I'm often living above in fantasy land. And then I'm an anxious person and I'm an ambitious person, which means I'm in the future. So actually being right here is a bit of a challenge for me, and it's the only place where I'm really happy. And I think that's why my favourite things to do in life, sometimes in the past to an extremity, are the things that just keep me here. So alcohol, cold water swimming, hot yoga, very loud music, sex, you know, all the stuff that just keeps you totally dancing. Stuff that just keeps you totally, totally here. I just want to find a way of cultivating that with just the power of me *laughs*, just-
Annie [00:41:15] Is writing that?
Dolly [00:41:15] Yes, writing is that but there's this erm- writing *in unisen* you're also somewhere else. Yeah, it's interesting that, isn't it? It's like you are so present and yet you're so dislocated from reality.
Annie [00:41:29] Dolly, thank you so much. That was such an enjoyable conversation. I really appreciate you coming on. And if you are listening, I do urge you to go and get your hands on Good Material, it's such a good read and I really wish you the best for it as well. I hope that you're happy with how it comes out into the world and I hope it does everything that you kind of want it to do.
Dolly [00:41:48] Thanks Annie. I just love this podcast and I love you and I've had a great conversation and I'm amazed at how much I've told you, which means if I'm looking for a third therapist, I think it might have to be you *both laugh*.
Annie [00:42:03] Do please rate, review and subscribe to Changes. It is so appreciated and if you fancy sharing it on social media too, that would be amazing. The more people we can get listening to these episodes the better, we want to tell our stories far and wide. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN Productions, and I'll be back next week with more! See you then.