Change your life 2005

The new year stretches before us, offering all kinds of possibilities: for self-improvement, adventure, even a radical new lifestyle. But turning good intentions into action is never easy. In this special issue, we meet people who were brave and determined enough to do exactly that. Prepare to be inspired...
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The Independent Online

Get fit

Get fit

Finlay Young, 31, London

I always hated exercise at school, and over the years I did less and less. I'm 6ft 1in, had a 46-inch waist and weighed 18 stone - and it was all fat. It was having a negative impact on who I was. I thought people just saw a fat person, not me. I was a successful management consultant, but I'm sure it was having a negative effect on my career, too - no respect for your own body implies no respect for other things.

So, one day back in May 2001, I decided I'd train for the New York Marathon, out of the blue. I needed a goal. I joined a small, local gym, and hired a personal trainer, because I felt too conspicuous being there on my own. I was training five times a week, watching what I ate. It's amazing how quickly it all happened. In the first three months I lost two and a half stone. And that November, I did the marathon.

That was a huge step for me. My confidence levels were high, though I was still hiding under baggy clothes. In May 2002, I changed gyms, and went to The Third Space in Soho. The trainer there changed my perception about what I was doing - it's not just about weight, he said, it's about changing your body shape. So, I started doing strength work. Later that year, I did a five-day, 100-mile race across the Himalayas. By now it was all about real fitness for me, and this is known as one of the hardest events in the world, you need strength and to know about nutrition. I finished the course without even a blister.

In summer 2003 came a setback - I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I had a radiotherapy course and a major operation. But I'd decided I wanted to run the Chicago Marathon in the October. All my motivation came from that. And two weeks after that final operation, I did it, in three hours, 43 minutes. Not bad, considering.

Now I thought that nothing would stop me, so to celebrate a year of being clear of cancer, I did four half marathons in a 24-hour period - one in Ireland, the Great North Run, one in Wales, and one in my home town, Castle Douglas, in Scotland. My old games teacher started that one - I don't think he could believe it. It was an incredibly emotional day.

My body-fat percentage has come down from 42 to 18. I used to be incapable of running for five minutes; now I do sub-five-minute miles. My confidence levels and self esteem are incredibly high - I'm doing a talk for Cancer Research at Laurence Dallaglio's testimonial dinner.

I've got a plan that's about two years off which I can't talk about yet, but I've started training now. It's going to make everything else look like small fry. And I'm still single, but I'm happy. As happy as you can be being single. * Christian Broughton

The Third Space, tel: 020 7439 6333

Come out

Dr Asem Salam, 36, Birmingham

I grew up a practising Muslim. Anything outside God's plan was from the devil. As a teenager I became more religious than my parents. That was a compensation to suppress something - being gay in Islamic society is considered emasculating. There's obligation: you return your parents' care in the form of grandchildren who strengthen the family. You don't waste energy on something else.

There are punishments in Islamic law for being gay: exile, being thrown from the highest point, beheading or being stoned to death. Take your pick. I buckled down to religion and, at 24, I decided I should get married; you're only considered half a Muslim until you're married. During my year's engagement, I discovered a group of people who met in gay pubs. I joined in. It was a hidden battle: I wanted to satisfy desires but once I did I'd fear God and over-compensate to atone. The invitations to my wedding were out, everyone was flying over, thousands of pounds spent. I believed marriage was my only salvation.

As a new doctor I moved to a different hospital every six months, and always found secret places to meet; so I wasn't paying attention to my wife and two children. My wife wanted a counsellor, but after five years of marriage, I wanted divorce. I couldn't tell her why, but she found out later. There was something of a fatwa when the community found out. My children are under 16 and still don't know their father is gay.

In the beginning I was naïve. I tried to make up for lost time - even being Mr Leather UK for a while - but now things are in proportion. I'm in a relationship, but I'm also a father and politically aware. I still believe in God. If you steer every situation to benefit others and fight injustice; that drive is God. If he doesn't breathe through you, what good is he? Or she?

It was worth it. If I hadn't explored ways out it would have been a hateful existence, although many would rather do that than face up to the frightening idea that they're gay. People have to look at themselves in the mirror, identify with their urges, and respect themselves. The reason we're here is to explore and learn, to move forward in order to experience life better. Do you live for other people, in fear of their retaliation, or do you look to your inner truth above all else? * Clare Dwyer Hogg

London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, tel: 020 7837 7324; Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists, www.gladd.org.uk

Downshift

Carolyn Ekins, 38, Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, Canada

Several years ago we had a Mercedes, a Lancia and an MG in our drive. My husband David worked in London and returned to Norfolk at weekends to catch up with family life: we had a nice home and a large mortgage, but we wanted something more fulfilling. In 1999, to get the space we craved, we moved to a farm in Wales, taking on an even larger mortgage. There was space, but we were still tied to the treadmill. Then David fell ill. Work pressures had become too much.

Hastily re-evaluating our lives, we decided to make a new start in rural Canada. In 2004, we sold the farm, cleared the mortgage and bought a modest house over the internet. We were able to buy a home, two barns and 16 acres of pasture and woodland for £58,000; for the first time in our lives we're mortgage free.

We have little money now but are happy, and intend to be as self-sufficient as possible from our organic vegetable garden. My husband, burnt out from the computer industry, is retraining as a marine-diesel-engine mechanic and doing so well that the college has employed him to teach students from local schools every Friday. That's how we earn our regular guaranteed income of £60 a week.

Our children (aged seven, 11 and 15) adapted incredibly quickly to Canadian schools. The teachers are friendly and approachable and the communication with parents is excellent. We also have the added benefit of a school bus service, which picks them up from the front door and brings them straight back home after school. My daily two-hour school runs are now a thing of the past.

We've been here for six months and have yet to come across any negative points.The hardest thing was saying goodbye to our parents, knowing we may not see them for a year or two. To compensate for this, we do plenty of waving at each other via our PC webcams.

The summers are hot, the wildlife is fantastic, the people are friendly, the air is clean and the autumn's stunning. My husband's health continues to improve and we are happy. * CDH

Visit www.acountrylife.com for downshifting advice from the Ekins family

Get a dog

Sue Hadingham, 42, Camberley, Surrey

It was quite tricky to find the right dog for our family. My youngest son William is autistic - he's 13, but his mental age is about three or four. He doesn't really communicate with people or play with toys or watch TV, but he loves animals. I suppose that was the main reason why we wanted to get a dog. But William's quite boisterous too. And on top of that, we decided we wanted a rescue dog.

My eldest daughter Samantha, who's 16 now, started looking around on the internet and found the Dog Rescue pages. It's a listing of rescue centres around the country. On the more obvious websites, such as Battersea, they tend to advertise the difficult dogs. But at Dog Pages you can e-mail in your requirements and they contact you; it's a more bespoke service. And that's how we found Monty.

Monty was 18-months-old, a stray from Ireland who had been brought to a centre in Wales where they find the dogs temporary foster homes, rather than putting them in cages. That way, when the dogs find a family to live with permanently, they're used to a domestic set up. Monty's a bearded-collie/rough-collie cross, and he met our needs perfectly. He's very loving, intelligent and tolerant. He's energetic and plays with William all the time; William doesn't just wander around the garden any more.

We've had Monty for more than a year now and it's not just William's life he's changed. I work and I'm a single parent so everyone has to help with him. And Samantha has taken him to training classes and even entered him into Scruffts, the national show for cross breeds, where he won the category of Most Handsome Crossbreed (aged six months to five years). But there are ways in which all dogs change their owners' lives. A dog is company, and gets you out of the house. Even in the middle of winter you go for long walks, often with other family members, so you get fresh air and you meet people. If people ask if Monty's special, of course I say yes. But then everyone says that about their dog. * CB

For more information, go to www.dogpages.org.uk

Write a book

George Courtauld, 40, Kelvedon, Essex

I was on my way back from work, in the West End of London,on Christmas Eve 2003. I got on the train at Liverpool Street, and there were some kids singing carols. One of the kids had his arm in a sling, so a woman gave him her seat and said, "Would little Lord Nelson like a seat?" Now, they were nice kids, about 13 years old, but he'd never heard of Nelson.

I found this incredible and told my family about it when I got home. So we started - as a sort of Christmas game - compiling a list of quotations from history, which ended up on the wall in our bathroom.

By the time I got back to work, people who had come round over Christmas were asking for photocopies of it. Then more people were asking, about 100 in total, so I started doing more lists, lugging huge books to work with me. I'm an expensively educated guy, but I'm no historian, so I was reading these huge books to check my facts.

Before long, I was thinking about a book. I called some friends who set up meetings with publishers, but most were appalled. A number of them thought it was offensive. One problem was the title: I wanted to call it the Pocket Book of Patriotism, but one publisher said patriots don't buy books, they buy flags.

A friend of mine publishes legal books, so I thought, right, I'll get him to print the books and I'll pay for it myself. He told me to get 500 done, but I said no, I'll have 10,000. We had the launch party last November - 250 people came, and we sold 1,000 books. We were selling only through one bookshop, but the website was getting so many hits that I decided to order another 40,000 copies.

I won't get into how much it cost me, but I think I pretty much broke even after two weeks. It's been an incredible experience. There's a huge relief from people who still treasure the values of Britain. It's really not about seeing my name in print. But, of course, if the publishers hadn't been so rude, I'm not sure I'd have ever done it. CB

www.pocketbookofpatriotism.com, £6.99, plus £1 p&p; 'The Writers' Handbook 2005', edited by Barry Turner, is published by Macmillan, priced £13.99

Move abroad

Ben Moyle, 32, Mongolia

I first came to Mongolia in 1999 on a cycling holiday with my father. It was just emerging from under the Soviet shadow and I could see there were lots of business opportunities. For me there were two motivations for living abroad: to immerse myself in another culture and to achieve things that wouldn't be possible in somewhere as overdeveloped as the UK.

To be honest, Mongolia can be a bit grey. I don't live here because it is so beautiful to look at, but rather because there is something fascinating about introducing new ideas in an under- developed country and watching how people take them up. So, on the television station I set up, we ran the first Pop Idol-style programme ever here. It got 85 per cent audiences. No one had ever tried telephone voting before in Mongolia and there were queues outside the office where the one phone was kept in the rural villages. Breaking new ground is such an amazing thing to experience.

I also like the sensation of being slightly removed from the culture around me. I suffer severely from dyslexia and so have not totally mastered Mongolian. When I come back to the UK I always notice how odd it feels to be able to understand everything being said around me. And then I realise people talk about what was on TV last night or what they had for dinner, and I get bored. Here, I can stand apart from all the small-talk.

The things I miss are the usual ones - a pint, the variations in climate. Here, it is freezing in winter and boiling in summer. But, next to the excitement and all the possibilities, that's nothing. I don't think I could ever go back. * Peter Stanford

www.direct.gov.uk is a government website offering advice to Britons settling abroad

Get a life coach

Tracey Watterson, 44, Sheffield

I was working at the Home Office as a regional manager on drugs strategy and I felt I had reached a crossroads in my career, but wasn't sure where to go next. Through work I was allocated some funding for personal development and I opted to sign up with a life coach, Sandra Henson.

That was in December 2003 and the next six months were the hardest work I've ever done. I'd no idea what I was getting into. There was a lot of thinking and asking tough questions and written preparation for our sessions. She got me to identify my objectives in life, and assess where I was at with each one in terms of fulfilment and potential.

We worked by a mixture of telephone coaching and face-to-face meetings to examine my beliefs and values - which were helpful, which were not. With me, it was especially things like not wanting to risk failure and not following through. I don't think I'm unusual in that, but now I've learnt that I am the one who limits my own potential. I sat down and went though the messages I was giving myself and how they often reinforced negative beliefs about myself and held me back.

Having a life coach has given me much more confidence. I applied for a job that I would never have dared go for before and got it. I'm now UK director of operations for a government-funded agency tackling training and development in the justice system. It came with a much higher salary and a smart new car. It's a new agency and a lot of it is flying by the seat of your pants. I would never have had the self-belief to do that before, but now I know I can and, moreover, that I am good at it. I don't say that arrogantly, but simply in recognition of what I have achieved so far.

I've also changed my personal life. I'd just come out of a long-term relationship when I started with Sandra, and had got into another that wasn't working. I'm in a much happier partnership now. I see working with a life coach as the watershed in my life. It has changed everything. * PS

'Weekend Life Coach: How to Get the Life You Want in 48 Hours', by Lynda Field, is published by Vermilion, priced £7.99

Quit smoking

Sarah Thorold, 31, Leicester

It all goes back to a lesson I was taking. I teach art and design at a secondary school, but this lesson was in personal health and education, and we were talking about how bad smoking is. So what did I do afterwards? I went for a cigarette. I was off the school grounds, but not far enough and a group of the children saw me. Can you imagine how that felt? I won't repeat what they said, but they were goading me. And they were right. I felt guilty, I was embarrassed.

That was in June 2003. I didn't stop straight away - I had my sister's wedding coming up and I knew I'd end up smoking that night - so I fixed my quitting date as the day afterwards, 18 August 2003. I haven't had a single drag since.

By the time August came, I had already cut down to about 10 a day - I'd been smoking 15 to 20 a day for 13 years, 40 at stressful times. I even used to walk out of films for a quick fag. So, in the first week of cold-turkey, I felt awful. Patches and gum made me feel dizzy, so I didn't use them, though I did use a phone counselling service called Quit, which is amazing. Still, I was irritable, snappy, frustrated. I didn't go out much, I had to stay in. But there was a buzz of satisfaction ticking off the days. And the benefits arrive pretty soon too, within the first week or two, and that's all the motivation you could want. Then I'd think of the money I was saving.

I can run now and I don't get chest infections, whereas before I'd had X-rays showing areas of my lungs that were full of junk. My concentration's improved too - I'm not always thinking of when I can get my next fix. And you're free, not a slave to the opening hours of the nearest corner shop. I'm too busy to be dashing off to buy cigarettes all the time. I sing too, and my voice is so much smoother now.

At around four or six weeks you get your senses of smell and taste back, so you're more likely to eat more healthily. Also, you can sit anywhere you like in a restaurant. It's true that you put on weight (half a stone in my case), but you can deal with that later.

People don't expect me to be like this - what with my dreadlocks, piercing and tattoos - but I'm totally in favour of anti-smoking laws. I only started because of the social thing, hanging out with mates. Then it's a ritual. But I don't miss a thing about it now. I'd never go back. As a teacher, your word is everything. The kids have been great. I wouldn't let them down, or me. * CB

To contact Quit, tel: 0800 002 200 or go to www.quit.org.uk

Transform your look

Kerry Fender, 36, Staffordshire

It was the beginning of 2003 and my youngest daughter was going off to school. I was 35, off work, my childbearing years were behind me and I thought, "What am I going to do with myself?" Then, on Valentine's Day, I was reading a magazine when I spotted an advert asking for people to apply for a makeover show. After a chat with my husband that evening, I went off and e-mailed them. A few days later I was in London filming for the Channel 4 show 10 Years Younger. It was an absolutely tremendous experience.

I went into the show with an open mind, and I'm surprised by how much it has changed me. I'm happy with the way I look now. I wear less make-up, there are more colours in my clothes and I wear things to fit, rather than things I think should fit me.

I've started an evening class in writing and publishing and an Open University course in fiction writing. I wouldn't have had the confidence before but now I don't care what other people think.

I don't think you should be afraid to say, "I'm not happy about the way I look." It is worth doing because if it's bringing you down it has a knock-on effect in all areas of your life. What I would say is that you should only do it if you're doing it for you; never do it for someone else's benefit. * Dan Poole

'10 Years Younger' starts 12 January. If you are interested in changing your look, tel: 020 8785 2867 or go to www.tramp2vamp.com

Adopt a child

Laura Andrews, 47, London

Because I'm single, people ask me why I didn't just get pregnant, but that wasn't right for me - I didn't want to be bringing a little bundle home from the hospital on my own. People say to me, "Shouldn't a child have a father?" I reply that some don't have the choice - either institutions and foster care until they're 18 or the love of one mummy.

Four years ago, I saw a National Adoption Campaign and sent off for a beginner's pack. At the time I was doing up properties, so I needed to settle at one address first. That took three years, and then I started ringing around the agencies. Once the assessment process approved me, I started looking at publications with children up for adoption. One day I saw Joe and thought he was cute. At that minute, my social worker called and said she and her colleagues had spotted a little boy on page 63 who they thought would be perfect - it was Joe. His profile said he was controlling but loving.

Within two weeks I was being interviewed by Joe's social worker and the manager of his adoption unit - I was nervous, but they were too: we were interviewing each other. They told me he'd wear me down, and then sent me a video of him. I watched it with my friends and we were all collapsing because he was so gorgeous.

I said I'd go for it, and went to meet him in February 2004. He was waiting for me and when I arrived he said, "Hello, you're late". We still laugh about that. He called me mummy from the word go, which was weird for me, but he'd seen his younger brother adopted and desperately wanted his own mummy.

He was as bright as a penny and totally hyper. I just had to accept it and wait for him to settle. It was exhausting: he had bad nightmares at the start and was waking up every two hours.

I've had him for nearly a year now and it's brilliant. He's a different boy; we sat and made Christmas cards together recently - it was our first Christmas together. I think it might be his last one of innocence - he still believes in Santa Claus. * CDH

The British Association for Adoption & Fostering, tel: 020 7593 2000, www.baaf.org.uk

Switch career

Morag Cleland, 41, Umbria

I was in my mid-thirties and although I liked my work as a psychotherapist with social services in Guildford, I had a strong sense that if me and my partner, Kevin, were going to make a change it was now or never. Callum, our son, was four and about to start school - after that it would only have got harder. What I wanted was a different style of life, more freedom, and a career where I could be nearer to my children and at home at the same time as making a living.

We'd had the idea of setting up an informal, family-friendly hotel for a while; Kevin had initially trained as a chef. We had been looking in the south-west of England but there was the indifferent weather and the cost of property. If you are going to change your life, I'd advise people against over-stretching themselves financially in embarking on a new career. It is stressful enough without that added burden.

And then, out of the blue one day, a colleague told me about a property, an 18th-century farmhouse she had but didn't use in Umbria, Italy. The whole thing just took off; it felt like a roller-coaster. There was hardly time to stop and think about what we were taking on, but it all came together.

One strength, I think, was that, although it may not be immediately obvious, there was a real connection between my new career and what I had been doing before. I had worked for a while at a school in Surrey for children with special educational needs, and had been part of the rebuilding committee there after it had burnt down. All the ideas we came up with back then were about getting rid of formality and de-institutionalising the place to create a more conducive environment. Now, these are the very ideas that we have put into good effect here at Villa Pia.

Changing career is not the same as just running away from life and seeing what happens. We had a vision of how we wanted things to be from the outset: both for the guests and for us as a family. So our children (our third, Patrick, was born out here) are around us all day. We share a life as a family that doesn't involve us going off to offices. We have time for the children when they get in from school; to sit and talk during the day, and to pick them up when they fall over. * PS

'The Career Change Handbook', by Graham Green, is published by How To Books, priced £12.99

Find God

Sraddhagita, 40, London

My conversion was a gradual, organic process. I didn't just change overnight. I was brought up Catholic. As a teenager we were allowed to decide how we felt about religion and I gave it up. But I think I was always looking for meaning in life.

After university, I was teaching in east London in primary schools. I liked it but it was challenging and could be difficult and stressful. One holiday, I went with a friend to India. She wanted to learn yoga and we ended up on a meditation course. Had it been in London, I probably wouldn't have tried it, but in India it all seemed much easier, more natural.

It developed from there. First, I volunteered in the café attached to the temple in Bethnal Green, and then I chose to be ordained a Buddhist. You don't have to, and it doesn't mean you are celibate or have to shave your head. Sometimes I live in a Buddhist community, other times I don't. I do what is right for me.

After I was ordained, I started getting paid for my work at the café. It is a lot less than I was earning as a teacher, but I see it as a positive change. I like being part of a tightly-knit group of people, working in a place where I can be myself, concentrate on my mental state and be positive. I may have less money but I am richer inside and happier.

Life is simpler, more loving, more generous and I feel more confident. My name on my passport is Jo Quirke, but I was given the name Sraddhagita by the woman who ordained me. It means song of faith which is both something I aspire to be and a recognition of what is inside me already. * PS

For more information, visit www.lbc.org.uk

Embark on an epic journey

Helen Shelton, 32, London

In 2002, my life changed in a big way. I worked in beauty PR, and it was a glamorous life - lunch at the Ivy, attending the Baftas. For years I'd put my all into it. But more recently I'd been feeling bad about my career, like I wanted a change. Then my six-year marriage ended. I felt burnt out, even though I was 30.

That Christmas some friends invited me to Australia - you don't want to be around familiar places at times like that. It was just what I'd needed. I'd wanted to travel before I met my husband, now was my chance.

So, with money from selling the house, I booked flights and the odd organised trip, but mostly just headed off on my own with a loose agenda. I went to Vancouver then down the west coast of the US, spent my 31st birthday at the Grand Canyon, went on the Inca trail and down to Brazil. It was incredibly emotional, especially on dates like anniversaries. Then I went to New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, I lived in Sydney for nine months, went to China, Hong Kong, and I've just got back from Barcelona. Now I'm learning to teach English so I might try to use that on a trip to Mexico, who knows.

Travelling has helped me get on with my life. It sounds like a cliché but my priorities are no longer about money. I've had time to do a lot of soul searching. Without your life around you, you are stripped bare. I live for the moment and don't think of anything in terms of forever any more. It's taken a while but I realise now that I'm strong. * CB

For details on travelling, visit www.lonelyplanet.com

Work for a charity

Gilly Bloom, 48, Bushey, Herts

My neurologist calls me a curio. I started having problems with mobility 32 years ago and for the past eight years have been dependent on a wheelchair to get about - at 16 I had a neurological virus. Before I had children, I worked on the production side in theatre and television and I knew that, despite my disability, I still had a lot to offer. Even as a little girl I had this inner strength, so I'm not the sort of person to sit at home and feel sorry for myself.

Aspire, the national spinal-cord-injury charity, is based near my home and I'd heard about its work through friends. So I just went in one day, told them what I had done in my career, what I could do and it has developed from there. The charity's focus is spinal injury, which I don't have, but my condition is similar. And it works to break down barriers between able-bodied and disabled people which matters a great deal to me. I was in a shop recently and the assistant said to my carer, "Will she like this?" It was as if I didn't have a mind.

Through Aspire and being able to play an active, high-profile role in its work, I hope I am contributing in a small way to changing those prejudices in society to the benefit of everybody. They are very hard to shift but you've got to try.

There are times when I wish I didn't have this condition, of course, but becoming a volunteer at Aspire is part of what keeps me so positive. I am determined to make the most of what I have, to do everything I can, and to use my time making things better for others instead of worrying about myself.

My work at Aspire has brought an extra dimension to my life. I've realised that I'm not alone in learning to deal with my difficult situation and that I'm fortunate to have a wonderful husband and family, and a comfortable home. Some of the extraordinary people I meet through the charity have absolutely nothing. It can be humbling to see how they cope.

I work in the fundraising department alongside the paid staff, organising events, drumming up support, finding sponsors and acting as an ambassador for the charity. I take it seriously and am proud of what I've achieved, the money I've raised and the difference it has made to people's lives. * PS

If you are interested in becoming a charity volunteer, contact Volunteering England, www.volunteering.org.uk

Change your life 2005: Part 2

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