Sometimes we have no choice but to let go of perfection
Niamh Towey: Things had been getting on top of me over the last few months. I wasn’t fully in control
‘I hadn’t envisaged spending the evening crying down the phone to some poor woman in the clamping office.’ Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
It was a Thursday evening and I had booked a long weekend off work. I was spent from a busy week at work and looking forward to clocking out, exhausted but satisfied at the prospect of a few days’ headspace.
I thought about how I might spend the evening, maybe a run in the park, or a pizza and beer in the village. There was also a book I needed to finish. What I hadn’t envisaged was spending the evening crying down the phone to some poor woman in the clamping office.
Stepping off the train at Navan Road Parkway, a bolt of panic ran through my chest. I had parked there in the morning, and used the Apcoa app to pay the day’s fee. I did it in a rush, and never looked back to check it was all in order.
And now here I was, looking at the big yellow triangle on the tyre, the flyer stuck to my window, and the rest, really, was a blur. I remember blubbering down the phone, explaining how I didn’t have the money, how I couldn’t afford the fine – like they hadn’t heard that one before.
It turned out I had paid for the parking, but I had put it onto my boyfriend’s car rather than my own, and so I found myself with a €125 fine, which felt very unfair given the circumstances.
I went home and quickly drank two bottles of beer, just about resisting the temptation to smash one in the sink. I threw my handbag into the bin, because I had let my lunch leak in it. I cried again when I realised I had lost – or more likely thrown away – a birthday card that was full of cash. Frustration was boiling up inside me.
What the clamping company didn’t realise, however, was that a few things had been getting on top of me over the last few months, and I felt I wasn’t fully in control of what I was doing.
A break-in at my house, when I was there on my own, shook me more than I could have ever prepared for. Those few minutes I spent stiff as a board, chest tight with fear, had a lasting effect.
I spent weeks looking over my shoulder in the stairwell, checking the back seats of my car when it was dark. I shrieked with automatic panic when woken by someone going to the bathroom, and lost my breath when my housemate arrived home earlier than normal.
It was exhausting and frustrating being so afraid all of the time. I had little control over it. Having taken all practical steps I could to make myself feel safe, I realised the physical feeling of fear would only subside with time. That made me feel weak; drained of all autonomy and resigned to let things play out.
It coincided with a particularly busy and important period at work, one which was exciting and fulfilling and exhausting all at once. I was (and still am) investigating defective properties built during the Celtic tiger, whose owners are now left in limbo with no insurance, no builder to compensate them, and a statute of limitations which means they have run out of time to sue.
It started with one apartment block in Dublin 8, but the emails multiplied with every story I wrote. People rang the office to tell me about being trapped in mould-ridden apartments while their children had cystic fibrosis. One woman cried into her coffee while explaining how she couldn’t nurse her sick mother at home, because she had been reduced to living in one room of her €500,000 flat.
Expose the wrongdoing
Dozens more people told me stories like these. I felt a duty to do right by them, to expose the wrongdoing and the real and lasting impact it had on their lives.
The pressure felt immense.
I was just about keeping my head above water, and I was a little bit ashamed of that. I looked around at colleagues with new babies who managed to make work life look like a breeze; families and friends who were grappling with devastating illness and grief; and the homeowners in negative equity who were facing huge bills for defects which were not their fault.
And here I was, crying down the phone to the Apcoa lady because a clamping fine was my last straw.
These past few months have taught me how to prioritise; sometimes we have no choice but to let go of perfection and simply dig through what is most important first.
I’m happy to report that the fear has left me, and I once again feel safe in my surroundings. That has had a ripple effect, increasing my ability to concentrate at work, and reducing my culpability for parking fines and spilled lunches. I found the birthday card I thought had ended up in the bin, and I have submitted an appeal on my fine.
The moral of the story though is that you should never, ever . . . park at Navan Road station.