I was born and raised in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England. I had a fairly turbulent start. I don’t remember my parents divorce but I do remember removing my brother from increasingly violent, dangerous arguments between my mum and stepdad. Over the years we fled to a woman’s refuge in Norwich, another in Hatfield. We even fled to Ireland once where all mum’s family live. I settled in school and felt completely devastated when we came back. Mum always went back for more. I grew up thinking she was a victim until I was old enough to see how their crazy, toxic relationship took two to tango.
One dismal day, whilst living in a woman’s refuge, the headteacher of my brother’s new school rang mum in bits. My brother’s dad had turned up at the school and taken him out of class. His clever solicitor knew about “interim residency orders”, a term I will never forget because it meant we couldn’t get my brother back.
Looking back on it, mum didnt have tools or skills for calmness. She went to the house and put her fist through the front door! An injunction was taken out against her and she could not go within three miles of the house. The times we managed to get a visit from my brother were the hardest times of my life. He sobbed his heart out not wanting to go back to his dad. He begged us to let him stay with us. Mum’s mental health declined more after each visit. I tried everything I could to keep her together but she never came back from that. She lost custody of her son and her kind and loving heart was obliterated into pieces. She drank her emotions into rage and eventually insanity. Many sections, arrests and things I will never tell a soul kept happening for years more.
Due to moving around so much I went to four secondary schools. I was passed around some distant family and did lots of sofa surfing at friend’s parents houses. For a while I lived with a foster family in Hemel Hempstead, until social services found me another family in St. Albans. I hadn’t seen mum for ages. I had no idea where she was until one day, walking down London Rd with a friend, we saw her about to drive past. She took us to the men’s only(!) hostel she was staying at. I was about to turn 16 and be allowed to get my own flat but I couldn’t get her out of my mind that night. The next day I told my foster parents that I was moving in to mum’s room at the hostel. We had some fun times there. Mum knew how to make any room feel cosy and homely. We eventually got a council flat together and things seemed to be getting a little bit better. I had hope.
When I was eighteen, I moved out to live in Luton with my boyfriend. I was working as a croupier in a casino. One evening, just after I arrived for a shift, my phone rang. The man wouldn’t tell me what had happened but my gut knew. Mum had lost the will to live many times before. A few hours later, a coroner showed me into a small room in a psychiatric ward where I identified her body. She hadn’t told me she had sectioned herself the day before. My mum took her own life and I took on my brother for seven years, until he was nineteen years old. After leaving the room with the coroner the only thing I could think about was him. I went straight from there to knock at my stepdad’s front door and broke the news that mum was dead. I promised my brother he could live with me no matter what.
Partying & Pregnancy
Mum was buried in Ireland the day before my 19th birthday. Much inside me shifted and a few days later sitting alone by her grave I formed my first life motto:
Life can be hell and short so I am going to enjoy mineLife motto number one!
I monetized my love of partying the night away through dancing, DJ’ing and event stewarding. I flitted between many part-time jobs to fund the fun and to holiday abroad. It wasn’t the healthiest version of fun. Those years would seem wild by most people’s standards but I don’t regret any of it. I felt set for life, chasing work I enjoyed.
Then something I never thought would happen, happened. I was never promiscuous but I made my best mistake yet when I slept with an ex and became pregnant at twenty three. Pregnant and alone. I had no stable role models in my life, in England, little reason and less example to trust myself. I wanted more than anything to be a solid and consistent mum.
Everything shifted again. I asked myself if my fun life measure was how I wanted to be seen in the eyes of my child? Would he be proud of me? Would I be proud of myself? Was it enough? Was I enough? My answers were painful but clear – NO, NO, NO, NO and NO! Is this when I began being too hard on myself? At the time it felt like “getting a grip”.
I promised myself I would never leave my child in this world to deal with the pains and distortions I have, but questioned how I would stay happy and well and keep my promise. I thought about the things that might have led mum to feeling so hopeless about her life and future. I decided her most dangerous behaviours of all were:
- not finding a career she loved (or at least not continuing with the hobbies she loved).
- having only one friend that was good for her but who lived across the country meaning she rarely saw her (Marianne are you still out there somewhere?).
- her taste in men.
I therefore decided:
- I would find meaningful work I love so much that when my son leaves home I will be happily busy.
- I needed friends to be my family so I would keep collecting my favourite people and treat them well.
- to remain a lone parent unless I met someone like my Irish grandad.
So an equation in my heart was:
Meaningful work + good friends + no toxic romance = NOT CRACKING UP!
Of course I felt guilty about having moved two towns away to start my own life. I had always worried about mum. I wished I had stayed or rang her a few times a day. I should have done more. It took lots of therapy to forgive myself and then to forgive her for leaving me and my brother.
Volunteering, Support work, College, University & Research
I had no idea what to do next so I dedicated more time to volunteering. I tried different support roles which became an abundance of paid roles and a shift from helping everyone for free to training, learning, forming some boundaries and being more careful of who I let into my life.
Some worried I was trying to save mum “on some mother Teresa quest”! I felt insulted and misunderstood. I can see now they cared enough to worry about me, but I was a long way off from worrying about myself.
I positioned myself in work that fed my fascination about peoples minds and behaviours. Some snap never to return, others can blossom through hardship and experience “adversarial growth”. I thought I had dealt with my pain and was committed to adversarial growth, some how, some way…
Whilst working and raising my son, I completed a “year zero” of Sciences to get accepted onto my Psychology degree. I made sacrifices and felt they paid off when I got mostly A’s. It must have been there at North Herts College, that I formed an addiction to learning, achieving and progress. I forgot about fun and changed my life motto to:
Always take the hardest path, it leads to the most reward
Can you already sense where this mindset would inevitably take me?!
My degree was life changing. It opened doors to new paths and friendships. I studied full time as a single mum, whilst working up to four part-time jobs plus extra courses and workshops. It was a lot but with my will to make up for lost time and establish a solid and professional career, I achieved a first class honours plus an award for outstanding achievement.
I was rewarded. I met my hero not long after I graduated. The man who is like my grandad.
The love I felt from him and his family (something I had missed for so long- real, consistent family love) made me want to give/bring them a child. Our daughter.
After a few months, I wasn’t handling “feeling stuck” at home so we swapped roles for a year until nursery. I went back to work and my hero left his job. I was grateful but far from happy. I couldnt win.
Mum guilt was breaking me but so was my inability to stay still, let alone relax.
I refused to calm down!
PhD, Multiple Health Issues, Burnouts & Forced Breaks
I juggled support and voluntary work with research assistant posts at the University of Hertfordshire for a total of 7 years. I worked on a variety of projects which satisfied my need to learn new things. I had a slight jealousy of scientists like Einstein who identified their big question early in life. In academia, it seemed like a good idea to become an expert of something. So I choose suicide as the topic to narrow down on.
Can anyone claim such a topic to be their joy or resonance?
I had drifted far from mine but I was interested enough and I felt useful in my prevention work. I wanted to keep working with Professor Claire Goodman, who had given me lots of interesting work about dementia and end-of-life care. One day she called me into her office to tell me I was top of the pay band for research assistant so I could not progress further without a PhD. I didn’t really know what one was so I explored some options and chose to write a proposal to research “Suicidal Behaviour in People with Dementia”. We got the funding to carry it out and I chose a second supervisor Professor Julia Jones and an advisor, John Corkery who has worked with coroners.
A few months into the first year of the PhD, the soft tissue in one of my neck discs bulged out and pressed on other nerves causing me much pain and distress. I couldnt use my right arm properly. It was scary and I was in agony but I refused to stop anything I was engaged in. I was studying full-time, a social prescriber at Parkbury House, a Samaritan’s listening volunteer and doing pole fitness training.
Did I say I had kids? In my heart they came first, but in my schedule last. It must have looked like I wanted to be anywhere apart from at home, resting with them. My mum guilt was getting heavier but It was all “meaningful work”. Many called me super woman or asked how I managed it all. I would joke that I didnt sleep much but it was far from a joke.
I did not value rest so I didnt ever rest, let alone sleep well. Tiredness was a huge inconvenience to my schedule. So I ignored and resented it. I averaged 5 hour sleeps (no really just 5 hours most nights!) So I was increasingly exhausted and I burnt out over and over again.
I did whatever it took (i.e. Physio, using Dragon software, more counselling etc) to not take too much time off. I struggled on and finished my systematic review, slowly losing more and more connection with myself, nature and others including my two beautiful children. My immune system broke and let in an onslaught of bugs. I lost weight.
I was too busy, over-ambitious and intense, doing too many things. So I rushed around between roles, moving too fast until I paid a price…
A few months into the second year of doctoral study I fell at home and broke my wrist (right hand dominant zzz). My arm was literally like a zig zag. No ambulance could come for many hours so I rang the only person that I knew was in the area, a friend (bless you Marta). She came straight away and took me to A&E.
I broke it “badly” they all said as they pulled it back to straightness. I marvelled at the effectiveness of the nerve block. The consultant said “This is the worst break I have seen in anyone under 80. What on earth were you doing?!” I was only putting clean clothes away but I rushed and put a foot in a bed draw that I didnt know was open. I flew threw the air at such a force it was obvious it was going to hurt. I landed on a tool box that shouldn’t have been in my bedroom.
I hadnt noticed how much “stuff” I had accumulated in both my mind and home.
I had to wait a few days before I was put to sleep for the operation.
I had deluded myself with the idea that having studied depression for half my life in books and people and having helped so many through it, that I had immunity. I “understood” how we can create thought disorder and I was certain I would never do the same. I was aware of too many approaches and activities for wellness not to give to myself if necessary. I had masses of meaningful work, good friends and hobbies, and no toxic romance. I wouldnt ever let myself cry for more than an hour! I knew I had to focus on whats good and not ruminate about loss.
Surely I was immune right?!
Nah! Not being able to drive meant pulling out of Samaritans shifts. I felt like a let down. It burned to stop pole fitness classes too. I felt defeated. Losing mobility and functioning was my greatest enemy. Specifically, being “stuck at home” but not able to pick up or properly hug my daughter, write, drive, chop vegetables or wash my own hair.
I didnt handle it. I became so stressed, then sad and hopeless. Focussing on what I couldn’t do sent me over the edge fast. I cried and cried and fell apart at the seams. I shut everyone out. I tried to be brave and sit with it – my inability to stay still. By not focussing on others or denying my pain for once. I began to see myself. I was a mess. I hated myself. “I am a s*** mum”, inner voice ran wild! “I used to be fun”
I had become so serious. I cared about too many things. My mind was over-active, analysing or trying too hard. It was cluttered and fragmented into many pieces.
I was all over the place, exhausted, never still but arriving nowhere. I was grafting hard but without any action towards fulfilment in the NOW. My desires and goals felt endless and unattainable. I had no clarity or vision of my best life.
My responses to stress were awful. Crying like a child or losing my temper when I couldnt handle disappointment or frustration.
I had lost my way in excessive behaviours that had once been moderate and good for me. GO! GO! GO! like a robot. Advance at any cost, no retreat skills. Zero time for rest.
I used up all my time accumulating “meaningful work”, always asking myself “Is this a good use of my time”?
For fourteen years I used different methods of support to help vulnerable people of all ages and complex needs through their darkest times. I have worked in range of services including primary (GP) and secondary (hospital) care, charities, young peoples hostels, mother & baby units and woman’s refuges. I absorbed peoples worst stories. Stories about worries, guilt, fear, unresolved pain, cruelty, dependency, domestic violence, depression, psychotic episodes, downward spirals, suicidal feelings and plans. I feel useful in situations that scare most people. I couldn’t stand to see emotional pain in others. Instead of avoiding it I increasingly immersed myself in other peoples crisis points. Every counsellor ive opened up to over the years, challenged my feelings of responsibility over everyone else’s wellbeing.
I couldnt let go yet. I didnt have the tools that work for me.
Of course, I went back to work as soon as I began to feel better. I needed to finish my progress report and I had some new will power to declutter my mind and home. I set up extra support i.e. weekly face-to-face offloading with the wonderful Brian Littlechild and weekly telephone counselling through UH staff support service Validium. The Validium counsellor (thank you Ruth) asked “Why do you run yourself into the ground?“. Another time she asked “Why do you treat others with so much compassion and patience but not yourself?” Her questions stood firm in my mind.
I somehow passed my progression phase and began the final year of the PhD. I was still excited for my interview study with coroners but was now a shell of myself. My grandad died and despite my deep exhaustion and expired passport I found a way to get there (a flight to Belfast and a series of coaches and trains down the whole length of the country to Cork and back). My family just laughed at me as none of them have ever been further north than Dublin. At the wake an Uncle randomly hugged me tight and kept repeating in my ear “feel your own pain girl”. I tried to laugh it off and pull away but then I broke down in his arms. He had gotten through some wall I didn’t know I had.
I tried to focus on my work but I was increasingly feeling my own pain and failing to hide it. I lost more weight rapidly and worried my supervisors. They kept saying take a break but I just didnt see it as an option. I had already lost too much time and my write up was going to take everything. Julia asked “Cant you just read good house-keeping or something?”
Hahaha! I do now. I was on a different planet at the time, and didnt get it and
Now I can never get enough time decorating, decluttering and improving the functionality of our home.
Then something infuriating happened. My 30-hours childcare funding ran out! I wasnt aware that it could. There was nine months until my daughter would be starting school. WTF?! I had railed against excruciating pain two years in a row to complete the PhD. Was it really going to be financial limitations to force me to stop? HELL NO!
Then I lost my staff car parking permit. £3 per day in the student car park was just not possibile. I would burn through all my savings fast if I continued to study. That was one of my final straws. My savings were a psychological crux. They allowed me to sleep those five measly hours I gave myself. Still, my “hardest path” motto was my framework for life so I tried to find ways to complete. I parked a few miles away from campus and walked. I tried to find childcare from friends and family and work from home as much as possible. It was even less sustainable. Then the other final straw – a new health scare. When was life going to cut me a break?!
I sought supervision in despair. Claire didnt ask again, she told me I HAD to take a break and that it would be ok. She told me about a baroness who took a break to do bar work and said it was the best decision she ever made. I went home feeling angry because I had tried so hard to continue and finish despite all the challenges. I felt under-valued and resented this strange idea that seemed so simple for others to say “just take a break, suspend your studies, get another job”.
I hadnt been wise enough to review my own happiness and choose a break for myself. I had yet to value, learn and practice the powerful skills of accepting and letting go.
Synchronistic signs and messages that echoed my uncle’s words began bombarding me, for example:
I felt like Mark Manson‘s bright orange book was stalking me but I refused to read it. At that time, I thought that most people needed to care MORE not less! I believed at least one hour of voluntary work a week should be mandatory from eighteen years old because selfishness was ruining the world. It was a negative narrative that had me running myself into the ground. It was actually my excessive selflessness that was ruining MY own world. I was “In constant motion but arriving nowhere” (Manson, pg xx) giving way too much thought and energy to everyone and everything else. Plenty of people cared enough about me to notice and encourage me to do less – care less – try less – BUT I didnt agree so I didn’t listen, especially about caring less about others. (I actually believe in self-determination. The two ideas were in conflict. People should do more vs everyone gets to do what they want).
Figuring out how to align belief, desire and action is just one of many ways to save energy and increase calmness and clarity. Easier said than done!
It’s not your job to make others happy, gel the family or to feel like it will crumble down if you put a foot wrong. Go with the flow (The Secret)
“Operate from a position of scarcity, in a world where refusals are commonplace in your mind and experience, and you meter everything you give. Operate from a position where you have what you want and your generosity isn’t sacrificial, its effortless” (Rubin, pg 139).
Invest in yourself first (Kiyosaki)
“Scale up yourself before you scale up activity” (Sadghuru)
I’m glad I made some notes about them. They seemed so timely and direct.
Something inside was shifting again…..
Continue reading here:
- Manson, M. (2016). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: a counterintuitive approach to living a good life
- Byrne, R. (2006). The Secret (DVD version)
- Rubin, H. (1997). The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women
- Kiyosaki, R. (2017). Rich Dad Poor Dad
- Sadhguru (?) One of his YouTube videos!