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Donna McLean: 50 years of sadness and joy have taught me to cherish love above all

A winter sunset from the promenade at Prestwick in Ayrshire (Photo: Alistair MacLean/Shutterstock)
A winter sunset from the promenade at Prestwick in Ayrshire (Photo: Alistair MacLean/Shutterstock)

My first newspaper column has coincided with a BIG birthday.

Yes, the half century. Fab at 50. Fifty is the new 40, and all that jazz.

To celebrate, I booked the Caledonian Sleeper train to travel home. What a glamorous adventure, I thought. I’ll sit in the bar and write like Agatha Christie, dimmed lights and my Moleskine notebook and a single malt whisky at my side.

It was total chaos, two trainloads rolled into one because of a timetabling error, so I ended up with three children I’d never met and their large dog at my table, their father offering to buy me wine. My own teenagers scarpered back to their cabin, before any of the newcomers without beds for the night tried to commandeer it.

The next phase of our journey was the early morning train to Ayr, prompting an instant emotional response to the sweeping Ayrshire coastline on the right. I ignored the humphs and grumps of my teenagers, who had barely slept a wink because of the noisy, shoogly train, and revelled in the warm familiarity.

That view over to Arran is one of my favourites, anywhere in the world. It also signifies home, as I grew up in Prestwick and the sea was my comfort zone.

Last year, I spent my birthday in court, a litigant in a civil case against the Metropolitan Police. It wasn’t the most relaxing one I’ve ever had. The year before, 2020, I was in bed, ill with Covid.

This year, to honour this significant birthday, I was determined to celebrate, despite shoogly trains, lack of sleep and the ongoing anxiety of a child custody dispute – the most stressful thing I’ve ever experienced.

A less than quiet life

In the two years since the pandemic hit, I have had a less than quiet life, despite the long periods of isolation. There has been a lot of good and a lot of bad (luck/ fortune/ life events).

It has been hugely productive. I finished writing a memoir, about the aforementioned human rights abuses and inadvertently living with an undercover spy for two years. I met my brilliant literary agent. We found a wonderful publisher for my book.

All of this I hold in one hand like a glittering prize, amazed at how fortunate I’ve been. I started writing in my mid-40s, as a way of coping with the turmoil of discovering I had been deceived into a long-term relationship by someone who was paid to lie by the state.

Simultaneously, the last two years have been marked by pain and uncertainty. I spent the beginning of lockdown with Covid, living in an increasingly abusive situation with someone who was by then my ex-partner. Lockdown, circumstances and lack of finances all meant that I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

In the end, the teenagers and I left our home at night, at the height of the pandemic, me on crutches and with just one bag of clothes each. We left our home, our dogs, our belongings. Everything that seemed important – books, art, trinkets, files, photos – was left behind. Almost five decades’ worth of material possessions that I was attached to. I’ve not been back.

Holding the good with the bad

It feels like living two lives in parallel, holding the good with the bad. They don’t cancel each other out. There is no median point between joy and pain. So, I’ve learned to recognise that both exist equally and both shape me.

I may have lost the belongings collected over those decades, but the people are still here

This is my experience of reaching a half century, and I have had to accept what I can and can’t control (so much easier said than done).

Back to the 50th birthday celebration. It signified much more than that. Bringing together my family and closest friends – in a cosy restaurant in Ayr, with all the glitter and the banners and balloons – was about honouring the ways in which I’ve coped yet sometimes not coped.

Donna celebrated her 50th birthday surrounded by family and friends (Photo: TobinCStudio/Shutterstock)

It was about recognising the ways in which I’ve changed, yet being glad that, fundamentally, I’ve not changed at all, despite life chucking curveballs at me. It’s about showing my children that there is light, and it does shine hopefully through the cracks caused by life being dark and, at times, even violent.

My birthday brought together my best friends from primary one, from teenage waitressing days, from nursing college and from working in mental health and drug treatment services.

I may have lost the belongings collected over those decades, but the people are still here. That’s all about love. That’s what I choose to celebrate.

Donna McLean is originally from Ayrshire and is a mum of twins, writer and activist. Her memoir, Small Town Girl, about her experience of being deceived into a long-term relationship by an undercover police officer was published in February 2022

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