When Portsmouth resident Charis Webster became a professional journalist she thought she’d found her dream job. However, the stresses and pressures soon took their toll. University of Portsmouth Creative Writing student, Elizabeth Palmer, reports.
Charis was a child when she set her sights on being a writer. ‘I loved [finding out about] how everything worked and I loved challenging it all. I had so many unanswered questions. As a creative outlet I used to write and draw – I could have done it forever,’ she said.
After studying journalism at Bournemouth University she went on to win awards for her work in radio, television, newspapers and magazines.
However, in part, Charis was driven to succeed by others’ prejudices towards her. ‘When I was learning to be a journalist, everyone around me thought “this young, scruffy female can’t work on a national newspaper.” I wanted to prove everyone wrong and I did. There were grown men ten years older than me doing a job that I had just got.’
Her workload as a journalist was heavy, but the rewards were immense. She felt an extraordinary sense of achievement when she was given her first byline and felt proud that her work was appearing on news-stands across the world. ‘These are all accomplishments that could never be re-created. I strove at the job and learned from the role. Sometimes I miss a huge part of that life.’
Unfortunately, Charis found that her job was becoming the core of her existence, to the exclusion of all else. Suddenly she had no life outside of her work. ‘I loved it, don’t get me wrong, but working sixteen-hour days, six days a week takes its toll. As a newspaper journalist you’re also “on-call”, and you can’t really have a planned weekend if at any moment your boss calls you to go and cover a major incident on your patch.’
Charis recalls enjoying a meal with her family at the weekend – ‘a rare occasion’ – when she was interrupted by ‘a call about one of the Red Arrows pilots having been in a crash. I had to travel straight to the town centre, get hands-on and get photographs.’
This constant stress led her into a ‘very dark place. When you can’t switch off, every deadline, every word, every clock ticking plays louder in your mind. Everything gets faster, everything gets harder to deal with.’ However, it’s easy, Charis says, for these ‘mental side effects to go unnoticed’ by friends and family. ‘I shut them out because work had taken priority, but it was at this time I needed them the most. It became a vicious circle.’
The damage Charis sustained was not only mental. She was consuming a lot of takeaway food and caffeine tablets, and ‘back then you had to physically battle your way through to get the first picture, the first story, the first witness.’ She started passing out at home and in public spaces. On some of those occasions she fell down flights of stairs and had to be rushed to A & E. Her doctor diagnosed her with a heart condition, but she refused to change her lifestyle.
Charis then suffered a heart attack. She was 28.
‘My doctor told me I had to stop working so much, lay off caffeine and calm it down fast. When you’ve got heart problems, when you should be young and healthy, you start to think, why am I doing this? I’m doing this for a company who could replace me with another writer. I achieved everything that I thought I could but it wasn’t worth my health.’
She knew it was time to embark on a new career path and had something of an epiphany: ‘If I put my heart and soul into an employer for a capped salary, then why couldn’t I do that for myself?’ After ten years Charis decided that her time in the media was over.
‘I wanted to do something for me, I wanted to work for myself and I saw an opportunity in the vape industry, which was at its peak then. I’d achieved a lot for my age, I’d already hit a few of my targets. But the biggest goal for me was to be happy, achieve a good work/life balance.’ Charis’ experience in journalism had made her daring and dauntless, so she was well-equipped to start up a vape shop from scratch.
‘I sold my car and saved every penny I could for a long time. I moved back in with my folks – the hardest bit of all – until I had saved and learned enough. When I found the right premises, I stuck a mattress on the floor of the stock cupboard, and that was it. It was only then that it all hit home. There were moments I thought to myself “what on Earth have you just done?” And there were nights I cried myself to sleep. I’d gone from working solidly in the only industry I really knew, to having sold everything I had in an industry I knew nothing about.’
Charis has been successfully running her shop, The Vapour Room, for the last three years and is proud of her achievements. Being self-employed gives her more freedom to choose when and how much she works, and when it is time to put herself first.
So what advice would Charis offer to someone looking to get into the media industry that she was forced to quit?
‘It’s great but it isn’t for everyone. It is important to learn and achieve what you need to, and either go further or move on from having learnt the best career skills an industry can give you.’
A version of this article was originally posted on The Eldon Review, the University of Portsmouth’s Creative Writing Course blog.