The Prelude

My self-identity has been constructed around my work ethic – I’m the one who works too hard; the one who has to consult my work calendar before planning social events; the accomplished one; the ambitious one. My name is Lou and I’m a recovering workaholic. It’s been eight months since I last worked. Actually – that’s a lie. I’ve done two days of consultancy and responsibly undertaking my duties as a Trustee.

What have I been doing in all that time? Honestly – there’s been a whole lot of Skyrim, a tonne of Magic: The Gathering, learning to paint miniatures, and a lot of podcasts. There’s also been a lot of tears, numbness, negative spirals, trips to the doctors and panic attacks. So many panic attacks! After six months of not checking in with myself, my old, old friend, the Black Dog, returned and this time, like every time, it felt like it was going to stay.

From a young age, I suffered from depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. From an even younger age, I was a dreamer, an adventurer and ambitious. I was bought up on stories of mythical proportions, of legendary superheroes and of life- and galaxy-changing events.

I was a rebel girl, ready to take on the world.

I didn’t want to be a princess when I asked what I wanted to do when I grow up – I wanted to work in a city, maybe in advertising (it was the 90s ok!) It wasn’t until I was an adult that I had the shocking realisation that I was ill-equipped to take on the world, with all its baddies and villains around every corner.

I didn’t pay enough attention to the parts of the stories where I had a partner, sidekick or an ensemble to help me on the journey; or why it was so important to risk everything to find that vital weapon, equipment or artefact; or where there’s was respite, a chance for the hero to rest and recuperate. My heroic journey looked a lot like the Hulk, bare-fist fighting through life – except it’s not the Hulk with his gamma-ray based superpowers, it’s Bruce Banner, his human alter-ego.

Unsurprisingly, it left me battered and bruised at times. Surprisingly, I managed to defeat a few bosses through sheer will and, later, accepted some help along the way. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university. I was accepted onto a postgraduate research degree straight from my undergraduate. I was a Director by the time I was 32 and a Trustee at 33. As I turned 34, I was tired: burnt out and exhausted. At 34! Despite working with 16- to 22-year olds most of my life, I know that’s not old. I know I shouldn’t feel like I’m ready to retire at 34!

So, in the past eight months, I’ve taken a career break and recovering from ill mental health. I’ve been thinking about my journey and talking to others about their own. Above is what it looked like from the outside. On the inside, it was every bit the epic challenge akin to the heroic stories I grew up with. It was messy, visceral, glorious and rewarding. And it’s not over yet – but more about that later. Within that time, this has been brewing in the background: a blog for me to commit to my recovery and well-being. From different conversations I have had, I know that I’m not the only who struggles to be both ambitious and anxious – or ambitious to overcome my anxiety. I’m publishing my musings in case it can help someone else who’s facing off against their own super-boss.

Like the ancient, magical tome adventurers discover deep in dark, damp caves, I hope that has some useful insight that can help you with your own  quest.

Lou

Heart and Mind Therapy

Overcoming anxiety and depression is hard work, particularly if you have an aversion and cynicism to therapy like I did. I had a traumatic experience as a child, which took me well over a decade and some convincing from work to get over. When things got bad a few years back, I tried whatever therapy I could, mostly because I wanted to avoid medication. I worked with a counsellor and I was also introduced to a therapy, commonly known as the heart and mind method.

The Rosen Method, it’s official name, was one of the strangest experiences of my life.

You get undressed so that you’re in your pants/briefs/knickers/boxers/etc – like you would do for a massage. The therapist then touches you lightly as you go through talk therapy. What happens next is weird – but not in a safeguarding kind of way. Despite practising yoga on and off for years, it was the first time that I really understood that my body’s been trying to tell me about my feelings.

In my first session, the therapist was able to tell that I had a long history of being burdened with responsibility – just from looking at my shoulders. As I laid on my back, she asked me a bit about that, and as I spoke, she put her hand on my chest above my heart and observed how much emotion I kept locked up, in my chest. Well, that did it. The dam opened and I cried like never before.

It was ugly, snotty and completely unhindered.  

And so embarrassing. Luckily, she’s seen it all before and reassured me that people react very differently to different things during therapy. Some cried like I had; others laughed uncontrollably. Throughout the course of my programme, I discovered my armour – the things my body did to protect me. For example, it helped me understand why I would make myself as small as possible during a panic attack, balled up and clutching my chest. It helped me to realise how much moving, having my feet on the floor and dropping my shoulders would help me fend off an incoming anxiety attack.

It helped me understand that whilst my depression and anxiety felt like it was all in my head, my body was trying to help, and it would suffer too during a panic attack. I frequently had knots in my neck and shoulders, particularly after I’ve managed to unbunch myself after a panic attack. It’s why my therapist was able to see that I had a history of ill mental health – my broader shoulders indicated the number of panic attacks and stress I carried. That’s not to say that if you’re broad shouldered that you should get help, but it was interesting to see. My frame isn’t naturally so, and my therapist’s experience could see that.

After every session, my body felt heavy, grounded. For those who practices/d yoga, it was the same feeling as coming out of a yoga session. Just with some damp tissues and runny nose (in my case anyway). My mind felt less cloudy and my heart felt lighter. It didn’t fix everything straight away. I saw my therapist for eight months. There are days where I feel I should probably go back. It did, however, give me some insight and tools that I only really forget when I’m having an incredibly bad day.

I’m not saying it will work for you, but I am saying that if you have panic attacks and/or some really old stuff hidden in there, maybe give it try. What’s there to lose? For me, it was some of my insecurities and ignorance to how much I really do beat myself up. And a couple of quid each time. But do you know what, I’m worth that investment. And I have sneaking suspicion that so are you.

Whatever you do next, I’m wishing you the best of luck, with the biggest set of poms-poms and a glitter cannon.

Lou

“I’m bad at maths” – and other lies I tell

Let’s get something straight – I’m objectively OK at maths. I got a B at GCSE. I enjoy research data. I can get by in life. It’s such a simple thing so why am I exploring this? A friend gifted me a copy of Rachel Hollis’ book ‘Girl Wash Your Face’. The premise of this book is addressing the lies we tell ourselves (chapters named as such): “I should be further along by now”, “I’m a terrible writer” and “I need a hero”. This was just after a week-long work cult looking at personal effectiveness and power, where we explored the relationship between thoughts, feelings and external experiences. It wasn’t until I was applying for CEO jobs that my own lie of “I’m bad at maths” started to really resonate with me – and hammered home my understanding of what Rachel and my course were trying to outline.

In the height of my anxiety, I was applying for ambitious roles – because it was the most natural step for a go-getter, right? My tribe and fellow professionals were supportive and, on paper, I was a good candidate. I had experience, a vision and the drive. It was logical. So that’s what I did.

And it was horrible. Not the interview, or the panel, or the structure of the process. In fact, it was one of the most positive recruitment experiences I had had! So, what went wrong? My narrative that I was bad at maths was stumped up against psychometric testing required at that level. This combined with my crippling anxiety meant that I couldn’t get past just doing what I needed to do. This lie that I had been telling myself had formed into a belief; I believed that I was bad at maths. I believed that I couldn’t demonstrate my ability to work out percentages, analyse stats and budget forecasts.

Objectively, I’ve set and managed multi-departmental annual budgets worth over £1 million. I worked on recruitment and student data throughout my career. I happily completed project bids and evaluation projects. But this lie, this belief, combined with my ill mental health, made me less than rational. It consumed my self-confidence, leaving me feeling completely unprepared to something that I really wanted to do.

I bombed it – full blown apocalyptic decimation. Half an hour before my panel interview. Even after a pep talk from my people, I couldn’t shake it off. So, for the first time in a very long time, I bombed the interview too. This then reinforced other lies I told myself – “I’m not good enough” and “they found out you’re a fraud”. For those of you who have experienced anxiety, you’ll recognise that I went into a spiral. Hard.

A very honest but tough conversation with my partner helped me realise the most harmful result of my lie about my mathematical abilities was that it hid some hard-hitting truths from me.

I just wasn’t ready

I wasn’t ready to get back to work. I wasn’t ready to take on the world. I wasn’t well enough. Yet. And that hurt. It was frustrating.  To the point where I’m still reeling from it. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt like I let people down. I felt like I lost a huge part of my identity.

It was then that the very first seed of this blog was sown. I wanted to focus on getting better, to feeling more like my authentic self. Don’t get me wrong, this is difficult when depression kicks in too! It’s been six months from that point to finally getting around to writing my first post, but I’ve been taking each day as it comes since. And will continue to do so each day after.

Where-ever you are on your own story, I hope you can outshine some of the lies that are holding you back.

Lou

#HobbyGoals

If you’re like me, you love and hate lists in equal measure. It feels great when you’ve got 30 minutes to sort through your workload and get it all down. It feels even better when you can get lots of stuff crossed off! On the other hand, you may also have been paralysed by the sheer amount ahead of you. I can’t be the only who feels like for each thing I cross off, like the heads of the Lernaean Hydra, two more grew to replace it. Emails, meetings, and “have you got five minutes” chats were a very real Sisyphean struggle.

It wasn’t just the actual work, but also the mental load. If you’re unfamiliar with this, an anonymous French illustrator, known simply as Emma, has gone viral over the last couple of years with her comic demonstrating what the domestic mental load looks like. In a previous role, being the only female senior manager and as a people-centred leader, lots of this mental load fell onto me. This meant that outside of the 50+ hours I did in the office, this invaded into my spare time – running to the supermarket to pick up the birthday/leaving/well done treats; looking up local specialist contacts for staff I couldn’t help on my own; and keeping a note of who was struggling with what and triggering issues.

After checking in with my closest people, I decided to be more disciplined with my time and energy. It reminded me that I stopped doing the exercise that my former counsellor shared with me – to protect my boundaries. In a bid to get some of my life back, I pointed out to my line manager that I was the only senior manager that the crying people came to. This was having a negative impact on my well-being and my workload. We then implemented a staff well-being and resilience programme. My other tactic is the main one and one of the few habits I’ve managed to maintain longer term.

I started to set goals for my hobbies. Yes – just like I did at work. I wanted to finally learn to paint miniatures for this game that I invested heavily in; I wanted to finally reduce the ridiculous amount of open missions on Skyrim; and I wanted to be good at Magic: The Gathering again. This retrained my brain in a significant way – if it wasn’t on my list, I wouldn’t get around to doing it. If it’s not on the list, it’s not important. Take a deep breath and listen carefully…

Doing the things that bring you joy and space is so damn important!

Got that? If you replied yes, then you got it much quicker than I did. But let’s talk about how helpful (or not!) guilt can be another time. Ultimately, setting hobby goals gave me a chance to work out why I enjoyed the things I did and want I wanted to get out of it. Having goals and an action plan gave me a weapon to bat off things that tried to leech off my free time. It gave me time to rest and recuperate. Unlike lots of aspect of my job at the time, which involved long term projects and cultural changes, my hobby goals gave me that instant hit of achievement in a shorter space of time. It made me save some time and energy aside to spend with people who nurtured other aspects of my personality – not just Work Lou.

Whatever your hobby, interest, or side hustle is – do more of it. You won’t regret it! If it’s important to you, it is important.

Lou