2020 into 2021

I’ve written some form of annual summary most years since 2011, and every year I read them back. They act as a reminder of the good and bad, and help me see the threads in my life. 2020’s a tough one to write, and has turned out to be a bit of a monster post.

Looking back, 2020 has been the hardest year of my life, and may well have been even without a pandemic. The start to the year was tough. The summer was good, I was off work and I made the most of it. I knew the autumn and winter would be hard, but then some other curveballs got added into the mix as the cherry on top.

At work I learnt the concepts of “two way doors”; decisions you can walk back from if needed. This year’s had a hell of a lot of one-way doors, and some of them have led to places that have been really, really hard.

As things stand my mental health is probably worse than it’s ever been, and whilst I know things will get easier, I’m finding myself lost in a swirling sea of worries, doubts, and regrets a lot. I’m working on it.

At both Monzo and Farewill I’ve been very open about mental health - I spoke on a panel during Mental Health Awareness Week earlier this year, and I’ve deliberately talked very openly right from my first week at Farewill. Similarly, I’m primarily writing this for myself as always, but by sharing I’m also hoping to break down a bit of stigma, and add a dose of reality into the highlight reel.

Let’s dive in, kicking off with the unavoidable topic… life in a pandemic.

🦠 COVID-19

After spending last year basically tied to my home for 7 months due to a niche, highly contagious disease, the last thing that I wanted this year was to be stuck at home for longer than that due to another niche, highly contagious disease. Amazing.

This time around it was easier on some fronts, and harder on others. There was some solace in doing this with the rest of the world, and for others actually understanding how utterly exhausting and tough it is to be trapped by something out of your control. I felt I had a head start with some coping mechanisms, I tried to share my learnings, and I knew the warning signs for when it was getting to me.

We lost a family member in the first spike, who died without being able to see anyone. I’m generally ok with the concept of death, but attending the funeral online turned out to be much harder than I thought - watching on a crappy webcam, seeing 6 people you care about getting upset, but being socially distanced from each other and unable to comfort each other felt incredibly voyeuristic and yet unreal. The stream cut off abruptly at the end. I’ve reflected a lot on whether that event contributed to me subsequently joining the death industry.

I was very ill back in March after flying, with a high fever that I couldn’t shift for a while. I never had a new cough though, and I never had other symptoms, but I’d have liked to have known if it was COVID.

My brother however did likely have it back in the early days. Friends have had it. I’m grateful there were no other deaths in my circles.

In 2019, aside from an initial quarantine period I was able to go to work as long as I left immediately to come home for the daily drug ritual. This year I became a total recluse. My last day of “normal” life was the 2nd March - I was in London for work, I had dinner with the Ops Prod Fincrime leadership team, and the next day I came down with the afore mentioned illness. After that everything changed - I’m team “haven’t eaten inside a restaurant”, I think I’ve been to the supermarket twice all year (which was weirdly exciting, like when you go to supermarkets abroad), I treated myself to a drive through Starbucks iced tea maybe twice, and I can count on my fingers the number of in-person social interactions I’ve had. But it’s taken a toll.

At the back of my mind my sci-fi loving brain guiltily and secretly thinks it’s kind of cool to have experienced something so fundamentally world altering as this. But to be honest, I think we all would have probably enjoyed discovering our space ships had become sentient, or meeting a friendly alien race a whole lot more.

✈️ Travel

Travel’s normally a large part of my year, and not being able to spend a night away from home until late 2019 was hard, but it gave me a taste of what was to come. Post-COVID I managed a single night away over the summer, staying over with my support-bubbled mum after a lovely evening of a Thai takeaway (genuinely incredibly exciting) and prosecco. I personally didn’t feel safe enough, or feel that it was responsible to stay anywhere else this year.

I’m very grateful that we went on a ski trip to Lech, Austria in February right as everything started to unravel on this side of the world. We left with COVID vaguely on our radar, but returned feeling distinctly uneasy about what was unfolding. With hindsight I’d have made an effort to appreciate the beautiful environment even more. I miss mountains a lot. It was a good trip on the whole, with some weird parts - getting trapped by an un-forecast whiteout, meeting some nice folks in an isolated bar, getting worried that everything was shut (including the direct road back to the resort), and ending up getting ‘extracted’ with a 2.5hour lift back to our hotel by the same nice folks after they turned out to be British Army soldiers there on training who called in a van from the base a couple of hours away.

Groomed ski tracks in the foreground, sun behind mountains in the background
Pausing for a minute to enjoy the view on a long run down into Zürs
A dark interior of a van with shadows, with snow outside
Travelling back through the storm in the Army van

Less dramatically, I’d had my car (a pretty tired VW Polo covered in algae) since 2011. It’s been gradually needing more work, and before going skiing I went for a test drive to start thinking about switching it. On coming back from holiday I decided to pause, feeling like it wasn’t a good time to be making big financial commitments without knowing what the year held. Come October that changed. With the only adventures for the foreseeable future all being car-based I decided to bite the bullet, and bought a MINI. It’s really fun to drive. One of my biggest small joys this winter has been taking solace in driving around alone in the dark, listening to punk pop and emo like I’d do to escape the house in my teenage years. But nowadays with added mood lighting! I’ve blown the speakers of every car I’ve ever owned, so my first 2021 resolution is to try to break that streak…

🏡 Home life

Some of the biggest challenges this year have come at home. 2019 was a rough time for my relationship, but with hindsight we didn’t address that how we should have. 2020 obviously came with more challenges, including my husband moving to work part time (at the business he runs). Pandemic aside, another factor was that he was also diagnosed with ADHD in the summer, which was a lot for us both to process.

One of the “one way doors” I mentioned at the start was that generally in life, it’s been important to me to try to have kids. This has been a complicated topic for various reasons, and one I haven’t talked about openly with many people, but it’s been a pivotal factor in some incredibly hard decisions I’ve made this year.

Unfortunately, just making the decision isn’t enough. I was lucky enough to fall pregnant at one point, but then subsequently miscarried. I was grateful to not have needed hospitalisation, but despite that it was still a horrible, redefining experience that I’m even now still affected by. This was my first big trigger to go back to therapy, and I did a focused short term set of it which helped me immeasurably. I didn’t have the words to talk about this for a long time, but I’m very grateful to everyone that provided me with a lot of support at darker points. If I dropped the ball on things, or generally went a bit odd with you this year, that’s probably why.

A big relationship learning for me from everything that’s happened this year (including learning some things the hard way) has been the importance of really understanding myself, taking action, and having the tough conversations when life feels like it’s going in the wrong direction. There are things I want from life that I haven’t gone after. It is possible to wait too long. I’m not very good at this, both on the self-understanding and action fronts, but I’m trying to get better for everyone’s sake.

Despite everything I’m mostly incredibly highly functioning day to day, which I’m grateful for as it’s given me things to focus on, and helps pull me forwards. However in 2021 I know mental health will probably continue to be my biggest challenge, and as such it’s something I really need to focus on as my main priority, and not over compensate with work.

On a lighter note, I tried to find solace in the little things at home this year

I was once again grateful for the garden and we spent a lot of time there, including doing the ‘non-traditional bbq challenge’ (cooking things like paella, monjayaki, izakaya food and more), and building an area with sleepers and paving. This was my happy place, a little retreat, and genuinely meant a lot to me. However in a classic 2020 dick move, it was almost completely destroyed in two huge December floods that were unlike anything that’s happened before. Come spring, I guess we rebuild. I also found what I’m 99.9% certain is wild garlic, and maybe in 2021 I’ll be brave enough to try cooking with it without being worried that the 0.1% would kill me 🤷🏻‍♀️

Speaking of food, a lot of places started delivering nice food nationwide, which was particularly exciting to discover. I get a lot of pleasure from eating more ‘special’ things, but living in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere means an occasional Chinese or Indian takeaway is as good as it gets. Finding out that it’s possible to get sashimi grade fish here was a real highlight. That said, I did also manage the perfect my own personal (I know they do kits, that’s not the point) version of the Dishoom bacon naan, which I’m pretty proud of.

A bacon and egg-filled naan sits on a glazed plate
My version of my beloved Dishoom bacon and egg naan

👩🏻‍💻 Work

This was a year of change at work, and with hindsight this has been another point where I’ve realised that I need to be more deliberate with my life choices.

Deciding to take voluntary redundancy was the right decision. I’ve written a bit about changing jobs, and out of respect for my former employer I won’t go into it any more than what I’ve already said, but the truth is that when I left I was burnt out, and very glad to have some proper time to refocus on myself. The redundancy money let me have several months off to recharge, and I already feel like I have a much healthier perspective with my new role.

However. I’ve realised I don’t like how much work has become part of my identity, and how much it’s been tied into shaping my life. I’m incredibly privileged to be paid well, to do something that I mostly enjoy, and which I generally have a lot of choice in. But work is what I do, not who I am. I want to be much more deliberate with those choices, and to make sure it’s my life goals driving work, and not the other way round.

But even with all this privilege and awareness, it’s hard to do in practice. In particular, I’ve had my eyes opened to the challenges people face at work if they’re thinking about or trying to have a child, let alone what happens if you miscarry, and trying to balance that with your career plans, trajectory, maternity pay, and still on the whole really not being able to talk about it this topic at all at work (although my current work know everything). Maybe one day I’ll write about it. Not today.

Anyway, some things that I’m proud of work-wise (because they’re still worth celebrating)

  • Investing in understanding and embracing my leadership style and strengths after spending a lot of time feeling like I needed to be different.
  • Learning a lot about progression frameworks, and leading on getting two (and a half) done.
  • Learning a lot and doing a lot of work to advocate for operational resilience.
  • Furlough and redundancy planning under incredibly short timescales and high pressure.
  • Building up a great team of managers within my area at Monzo.
  • I was chosen as one of the Standout 35 Women in Fintech Powerlist.
  • I ran some free mentoring/coaching sessions over the summer for folks from groups underrepresented in tech.
  • I did some online conferences and podcasts, and only cringed at myself moderately.
  • I don’t have analytics on this site so can’t tell you what my post popular post was, but anecdotally they seem to have helped quite a lot of people.
  • Onboarding remotely, aside from on my third day when I drove to London to meet my boss and have an outside lunch with a few of the team.
  • Since starting at Farewill in October as Head of Engineering I’ve created a massive long list roadmap for engineering, worked on the 2021 budget/headcount plan, finished the engineer progression framework and levelled everyone, created Eng Manager role definitions to set expectations, designed and implemented an Eng Manager hiring process from scratch, help start a new team who’re running a major architectural overhaul, hired 5 people, done some early benchmarking, made some small process improvements…. and most importantly got name pronunciation, semantic emoji usage, and a ton of custom emoji on Slack.

As I spent so much time in my home office I made some improvements this year, specifically a bookcase, reading chair away from my screen, a footrest, and a heated electric shoulder massager. This year has solidified that I like going to London/somewhere every now and again, but I far prefer remote working with the option to see people if I want. I’ve not missed coming home exhausted after long days, sitting or standing on trains full of sick people, or getting stuck in the middle of nowhere after trains break down. I’m currently planning some other office changes centred around a small walking treadmill that I’ve ordered. If I’m going to be on Zoom all day I may as well do it on the go.

🎮 Hobbies

Because walking’s actually pretty great, I’ve decided. Historically I’ve done walking more as a by-product. When in Japan I tend to walk for hours and hours, but this year it’s been a huge release for me, and something I’ve set out to do specifically. I spent some very restorative days, most of them done alone, exploring mostly water-based walks around East Anglia, taking photos, and catching Pokemon (which I got heavily back into).

A screenshot of my instagram page, showing 9 squares of houses, beaches, swans, rocks, drains, and boats
A selection of some of the walk photos that made it into my Instagram feed

If you want more walk pictures and place locations I’ve captured my sets here and here. Happy to share routes if anyone wants.

I also went through a phase of watching the Rambalac youtube channel, which are longer form videos of a person filming from first person perspective, walking around different parts of Japan without speaking. I’ve found them way more engaging than I expected.

My summer months were spent working on reclaiming a bit of sense of self. I consider myself very fortunate to have had so much time off. I read a lot (both fiction and business books) with some highlights being Turn the Ship Around! (very grateful for this recommendation even if I took a while to read it), The Culture Code, The Wayfarers Series, and Normal People.

I dabbled in other hobbies too - gardening, digging out my old Arduino and making pointless emoji-based printer things, playing with epoxy resin, and making LEGO. I enjoyed the physical aspects of these (all my books are physical too). I did do some screen-based things though, completing a Go course and using it to build a little prototype, plus refreshing my React knowledge. Over Christmas I’ve picked up Eleventy to build out a side project (which I’m now stuck on how ugly it looks, typical), which has been a delight to use.

During my time off I did two months of having Japanese classes twice a week, which I loved. I’m keen to work out a way to do this more. I’ve generally kept up my studies pretty well, even though my brain’s struggled at times and routine has flagged at points. With exams being cancelled I’ve had fewer checkpoints, and without trips (my main motivation) in sight it’s been easier to slack. Weekend lessons have been a highlight though. I’ve looked back at how far I’ve come over the year, and as always I’m very proud of myself.

More unhealthily, I’ve used video games as a big escape (side quest dopamine ftw). In amazing timing the weekend before lockdown I drove to a service station off the M25 for a socially distanced carpark exchange of a Nintendo Switch that an internet person was selling. After that I spent a lot of time on Animal Crossing, and really appreciated the wholesome and giving Monzo AC community.

Other games that I really enjoyed this year:

  • Borderlands 3 and DLCs.
  • Control.
  • Finished Red Dead Redemption 2, then roamed for ages finishing mundane challenges.
  • Went back to Overwatch for a bit.
  • Outer Worlds.
  • Untitled Goose Game.
  • “Played” Celeste (I turned on all of the assistance elements (invincibility, unlimited jumps etc) and played it as a really mindless story-driven easy platform which is entirely against the spirit of it, but was utterly gentle and lovely).
  • Finished collecting all the agility and hidden orbs on Crackdown 3.
  • Ring Fit Adventure.
  • Got much more back into Pokemon Go.

I’m currently playing Cyberpunk 2077, which is…. fine. The endless side missions are repetitive yet giving me some structure at a time when I feel that’s lacking. However, as with RDR2, I’ve actually really enjoyed roaming around the world as some escapism. “Visiting” a hotel, a park, markets, or a temple has actually given me some little moments of joy. My favourite feature though, was that I could choose my nail polish on my V 💅🏻

A screenshot of the game Control, with a red-headed player looking at a room entirely covered in yellow post-its
My favourite discovery in Control

👩‍👧‍👦 Family and friends

As part of my reflections I looked back through my photos for this year, and fondly remembered a fancy family meal my brother and I treated mum to in January. We had an incredible custom Japanese tasting menu coupled with a sake pairing, and the latter contributed to me feeling like it was a fantastic idea to write the chef a thank you letter in Japanese. He very graciously came out to hand me a hand-written reply and chat, and whilst I cringe hugely at picturing my drunken self and what I must have said, it’s still a warm and fuzzy memory.

As I mentioned, we support bubbled with Mum, who’s on her own. I’m really proud of how she’s done - she’s the kind of person who was meant to be coming to us for Christmas, but when Tier 4 was announced for Kent she decided that “it wasn’t the right thing to do” even if it was still allowed. She’s stayed safe, which I’m very thankful of, and I’ve seen her a couple of times throughout the year. My favourite memory was probably the walk where we stumbled across a boat graveyard together. I also had one visit from my brother and his fiancee. We had an elaborate bbq in the garden, which was lovely. He had his wedding cancelled this year, but I’m hoping to be able to celebrate with him in 2021 hopefully.

We did the usual family Zoom chats with the three of us, and a couple of wider family chats with cousins and aunts/uncles. There were also assorted friend chats scattered throughout the year, but this is a part of life I’ve really missed. I miss friends, I miss pubs, I don’t miss being squished into rooms with people in other settings but I miss gigs. Part of the loss I’ve felt this year is from missing having a particularly close friendship, a best friend, which I’ve reflected on endlessly.

This was also the year that I decided to stop procrastinating and send off my childhood camcorder videos, which I’ve had in a tatty box in the garage(s) since leaving home. Part of my reluctance to get them digitised was a fear of disappointment - like many things I feared I’d taken too long and they’d be lost to time and poor storage - but to my delight they’ve all converted wonderfully. I’ve spent a ton of hours going back through them all, from the 40odd minutes of footage of Anak Krakatoa erupting whilst my parents drink with friends in the background utterly unconcerned, to the quaint visits back to the UK to see family, early birthdays, holidays, and this gem… Christmas Eve 1990 at home in Jakarta, where my dad films me egging on my 2 year old brother to smash open nuts on the marble floor with a full sized hammer.

Small Sally is looking at the camera, with her brothre in the background
A mischievous small Sally

💪🏻 Health

As you’re gathering, my mental health hasn’t been great, but one of the things that I particularly haven’t enjoyed is how angry I’ve felt. I’m angry at our government for their handling of all of this and their lack of support for people who most need it, I’m angry at Brexit, I’m angry at Trump and everything that’s happened in the US this year, particularly around the treatment of Black people, and I’m angry at everyone being selfish and thinking they’re the exception. I’m angry at friends and family that travelled, saw family, and partied over the festive area, of course with reasons.

I’m sad at how noticeably unfit I’ve become from staying indoors so much. I don’t enjoy exercise for the sake of exercise, and I really missed activities like bouldering, which I’d really got into the year before. The walks, plus indoor exercise was basically it for me.

It’s also been interesting to use myself as a science study - my underactive thyroid meds have been bang on and my levels have been ok this year. However it’s been interesting that despite that, and despite my lack of contact with any germ vectors, it’s highlighted how much I still suffer from my as-yet-officially-undiagnosed-but-it’s-ME/CFS issues. The general fatigue is hard to pin down as there’s overlap with depression for sure, but the flu-like symptoms and aches and pains I get just can’t be explained by external factors.

💙 Looking after myself, and assorted personal reflections

Speaking of anger, one of my more concrete personal reflections this year has been that the UK is less and less somewhere I identify with or enjoy living. I’ve started to be honest with my husband that I don’t see myself living here forever, at least not in the way that things stand. I think this will tie heavily into my future plans.

It’s something I’ve not really admitted to myself to date, or articulated its importance to me to others, but yet it’s also something I know I’ve struggled with throughout my life. Growing up on the other side of the world, for a long time I didn’t see England as home. It’s been heightened again this year, especially with having family and friends in places like Singapore, China, Japan, and seeing their lives. Nowhere’s perfect (I grew up with an awareness of Dictatorship from an early age!), but some environments can give you more of what you need than others.

It’s why travel has become so important to me, and why it sucks when we can’t. Specifically my environment is important to me, and I find I have a real need to be in energising and inspiring surroundings, and I miss it a lot when it’s gone.

What else do I miss? I miss shoes. I haven’t really worn shoes this year. What I have done though, is be much more deliberate about my clothes, to stop myself from falling into pyjamas all day every day. My fashion staples have been stretchy pencil skirts, band t-shirts (if I like you and you can’t tour send me your stuff, I will buy your shirts and hoods), and jumpers and jumper dresses from my new favourite, Sugarhill. I’ve bought a huge amount from these folks, but they seem like good people and also… SPACE AND DINOSAURS, YES.

This may be a bit of recency bias to some extent, but I’m proud of myself for starting to really think about the life that I want, reflecting on who I am as a person, and what’s important to me. I want to keep investing in this in 2021, and I’m starting new, long term therapy this week to explore some more fundamental aspects of who I am, plus my past, as well as having a space to work through some more immediate issues.

I’m proud for asking for help when I need it. I’ve been pretty bloody resilient, and whilst last year I don’t think it was entirely healthy, this year it was just necessary. I’ve faced a lot of hard things, but I feel like I’m in control to a large extent, and with a plan to move forward even if I’m not fully ok right now.

And finally, I’m proud of mostly being kind to myself when I’ve needed it.

🔮 The year ahead

I’m not naive, I used the end of the year to say a big “fuck you” to 2020, but I know life won’t be changing substantially any time soon.

Over my break I did yearcompass.com, and have again made a personal list of things I want to do this year, spanning all aspects of my life.

But as I said above, my main goal will be to continue to work on understanding and supporting myself, and to make sure I’m really living the life that I want to.

Outside of that I’m currently not making any plans. But please, please, if I could pass the year without having to spend a third year at home that would be really bloody great.