This photo was taken in 2016 shortly after I quit my job. Anyone who saw us that day would have seen a happy family walking in the sunshine. But inside, I felt lost and empty.
I’m sharing my story because I believe that if we were all more honest about our struggles, so much of the pain of comparison and feeling inadequate next to everyone else would dissolve.
On a bitterly wintry day in January 2015, when I was snowed in and working from home, I broke. I opened my laptop and started crying. I couldn’t think a coherent thought, my brain was like mud.
As someone who spent my whole life prior to this pushing through when things got tough, I was later shocked to discover I had no control over this. None.
There was not one reason, but an accumulation. I was 35, working hard at a demanding career. I had two children aged two and five, both terrible sleepers, and little family support nearby.
The culture in the company I worked for was brutal. Endless performance reviews, backstabbing, and a musical chairs-esque merry-go-round of restructures and redundancies.
On top of this, I’d elected to work compressed hours, four days crammed into three, so I could afford childcare. Not working wasn’t an option financially, nor was downgrading to a school-hours job.
My burnout, or breakdown, or depression, or all of the above, came as a surprise to me. Of course in hindsight, the path was littered with clues.
I had six months off work, eked out one sick note at a time, desperately wanting to return to work without crumbling. I saw a CBT therapist who was incredibly helpful, although 12 sessions was not enough.
I could write for pages about what it felt like to be at rock bottom. And it’s not that I’d struggle to put it into words, or that I don’t want to relive it, or that I have any shame in sharing it. It’s just not a journey I want to take you on, it wouldn’t be fair.
But if you’ve been through anything similar, please know that I know the pain of it. The hopelessness you feel. How alone you feel, because eventually you stop leaning on those close to you for fear of bringing them down with you. And how scary it is not knowing if you’ll ever be OK.
After six months off work, I returned and was initially met with fantastic support. I think when it became clear that I wasn’t going to recover on any pre-approved timeline, that was when the support evaporated. Staying in my job eventually became untenable.
I clearly remember the day I phoned my manager to ask if redundancy would be possible. Sat on the stairs a few floors down where it was quiet, my throat was dry and my heart was thumping. I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything scarier. But I got my wish, and I was free to move on with my life.
I imagined that once I left, a weight would lift and all would be well. Sadly it didn’t work like that, and for a long time I sat in a prison cell even though the door was wide open.
My path to recovery was long, and slow, and anything but easy. For a long time, I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel but I had little choice but to put one foot in front of the other.
Nearly four years later, finally, life is much better.
Coming back to life
There are two things which made my recovery possible, and they are not what I expected.
The first was rebuilding my belief in myself. Starting my own business certainly did that.
I learned how to transcribe audio, joined an agency, and launched my own business. I built my own website, contacted people I knew and did great work, put up their testimonials, found an online network. After a year of hard work I was fully booked.
I then had to pivot, as I realised this was not an easy business to make a living from. I did some research with clients and discovered there was a service they were crying out for, and my Virtual Assistant business was born. New website, mailings, putting my prices up. Another hard year, and again I was fully booked.
Navigating all of this whilst picking myself up from the floor was not easy. In fact, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. But every time I put myself on the hook and delivered, my confidence grew and my belief in myself strengthened.
The other game-changer was learning to take care of myself.
For so long, I had viewed myself as a means to an end. I was a hard worker, a devoted mother, a (slightly less enthusiastic) cook and cleaner. My focus was always on what I needed to do next. I would never sit down, rest, do something just for the fun of it.
In fact, if I take it right back, my entire life had been built around what I could achieve, deliver, give and do. I went from academic to career to motherhood, giving my all to each. But in the words of my mum’s yoga teacher, we are human beings not human doings.
The idea of stopping, resting, taking care of myself, filling my own cup, prioritising my own wants and needs felt alien to me. I didn’t even know what I wanted or needed.
At first, self-care was a necessity, something I realised I had to do to be OK. Over time, following certain blogs and people online, my perspective broadened and eventually I understood.
Our value as people isn’t in what we achieve, deliver, give and do. That is such a hard pill to swallow, as for many of us that belief is so deeply entrenched that we don’t even see it.
We are supposed to have happiness too
That change in mindset changes everything. I am still so bad at stopping, resting, and taking care of myself. I’m a workaholic, a perfectionist, I have big dreams and I’m impatient. But even the intention of taking care of myself is a safety net.
I’m aware of when I’m pushing myself too hard. I’m aware of when I’m drained and tired, and need to recharge. Even if I sometimes choose to ignore those signs and push through, I also sometimes listen. I sometimes stop and rest.
I don’t regret anything that has happened. I have learned so much, I’ve been brave, and I’ve followed my dreams. I’ve become a better person, and I’ve left so much behind that wasn’t working for me. Sometimes you do have to break down to break through.
But that won’t be the case for everyone. This blog is for you if you’re right where I was before. Before it all became too much, before I crumbled, before I had any idea of what was to come.
If you’re stretched, overworked, overloaded, and pulled between work and family and all the other things – I have one message to share. It’s simple enough to write in one line, but yet so complex and nuanced that I have hundreds of blog posts in me to unpack it.
Take care of yourself, because you matter.