10th October 2018 was my 27th birthday. And it was also World Mental Health Day. So whilst I was sipping prosecco in my office, I was also reflecting on the last seven or so years of my life and thinking about the rest of it.
Not many people know this, but I have lived with anxiety since I was about 20 or 21 and also suffered many periods of depression over the last seven years. As I said, no-one really knows and I don’t talk about it ever. I just get on with my life and cope the best I can.
It started in the middle of university, probably triggered by a number of things, but I think it’s important to point out that ‘stress’ was not part of it. It was one of the least stressful times of my life: absolutely no responsibilities, free money landing in your bank account numerous times a year, 5 nights out a week, a couple of lectures here and a few pieces of coursework there. Oh, and some exams at the end of it all. I found uni relatively easy and managed to get decent marks with average effort levels – much like my entire educational experience. So ‘uni stress’ wasn’t a thing for me.
But for many other reasons, I started struggling to get any enjoyment from anything at all. The bright colours of summer became grey, and I had barely any emotion or feelings inside of me. I can’t really describe it any other way but it made it really hard to maintain relationships and friendships and I therefore isolated myself.
Things got worse when I was burgled and anxiety showed up in full force. I had panic attacks, constant sickness and headaches, shakes, and trouble breathing evenly. On top of this, my eating habits became terrible (something which I’d struggled with anyway) and I couldn’t sleep properly.
The doctors and staff at Cardiff University were actually very supportive and I was able to sit my exams separately with extra time and other necessary arrangements. I was also prescribed medication but after not very long I decided therapy and practical solutions would be more beneficial long term for me.
It sounds stupid but the first thing I did to get better was to book a hair appointment. I changed my hair colour and style to help me ‘act’ out the new person I wanted to be. I then enrolled in adult gymnastics classes again so that I’d not only be exercising regularly, but also doing something I love and could find enjoyment in. I started a gratitude journal and I completely overhauled my diet. And I started CBT. During this time, I sort of felt like a ghost gliding through life but with no real purpose, or like I was in a dream. Or even like a plant: alive but with no ‘soul’ or feelings. But I was trying my absolute hardest to ‘act’ my way out of it.
I don’t think there was a point where I remember thinking “Wow I’m fine now”, but over the years I managed to cope. When I was pregnant I was worried I would suffer with PND but I couldn’t have had a better experience of pregnancy, the fourth trimester, and motherhood in general.
But what started triggered everything for me again was starting my business.
It’s funny because I started my business to be able to spend more time at home with Luna and have the flexibility I needed as a new mum.
It started off really well, brilliantly in fact. But I enjoyed the success and pushed myself to grow the business without having an actual plan. I was running a 7 day a week business with 2 days a week childcare and let’s just say the support I expected wasn’t quite there.
The feelings I had spent years keeping at bay were fighting their way back into my life. I slept about 4 hours a night and drifted through my daily life with barely any emotion. I faked my way through building up my business and somehow managed to sign clients and win work, and I did a decent job on the projects. But my business growth was at the expense of my health and I would cry and cry and cry all night for reasons I don’t even know.
I also experienced periods of extreme elation where I’d literally think I was untouchable and unstoppable in life. I started two more businesses (parked for now but still have plans to grow them), had a million more ideas for businesses, went on shopping trips, went wild at the gym, spoke at a million miles an hour, and generally felt incredible. I’m not self-diagnosing ‘mania’ but I don’t think it’s completely normal.
In January 2018 I was really poorly and it lasted about 2 months. I was just generally run down so I slowed down my work and decided to think about my business properly. Because it started as a few freelance jobs and had grown to something I didn’t mean it to, there had never been time to stop and plan. It was my only source of income and I had a mortgage to pay and a baby to look after so I never had the luxury of ‘planning’.
Anyway, over the course of the next few months I made some big decisions. I decided not to let anyone bully me in business and I stood up for myself and demanded respect from bullying clients. I decided not to take on work if my gut feeling wasn’t positive. I raised my prices by almost 4 times, so that I could work less, have a better reputation, and actually have the time to do the job that my clients deserved, and I got rid of clients that I didn’t want to work with. I booked public speaking gigs and ran workshops to help with my confidence. It felt amazing being in such control of everything and my mindset and outlook was completely different and refreshed.
But it didn’t stop the ‘dementors’ returning. After recently deciding I’m better off single, I created a lot of consequences and problems for myself. Financially I now need to earn double what I did before and although I never relied on my partner for money each month, it was slightly comforting knowing that he earned enough to cover me if my invoices were late being paid. That never happened but the comfort blanket was there. I also created the problem that separating, being bought out, and buying a new house is extremely time consuming. Solicitors, mortgage advisors, estate agents etc all take up time and whilst running your own business gives off the illusion of flexibility, the reality couldn’t be more different. Ok, I’ve been able to attend these appointments easily but it’s meant catching up and working doubly hard which has definitely affected me.
For me, my business is like my second baby. I put everything into it and there is no off button. I often talk about finding a work-life balance but there will always be something to feel guilty about, something to over-worry about. Whilst I sometimes think about going back to a 9-5 and shutting my laptop for the weekend, I then remember the boredom I felt and the constant itchiness I had to start my business. But I didn’t expect starting my business would also be a trigger for my issues. (Although it’s actually so common and completely makes sense looking back).
I currently sleep 3-4 hours a night.
I don’t eat properly.
I suffer from regular anxiety attacks.
I am often short of breath.
My head is full of damaging thoughts.
And I’m often sick and dizzy.
But my natural personality is positive, confident, gregarious, chatty, friendly, approachable, smiley, and fun(ny) I think. So it makes it difficult to talk to anyone about it because it’s the opposite of what anyone would expect and so people brush it off like “we all get stressed’ or “you’re just really busy” or “you have a lot on” or “keep your head up”. Completely different issues to me!
Sometimes I worry about the effect that it might have on my business, but then I remember I’ve managed to get through new business meetings and win work during my worst days, as well as keeping the business going every single month for over 18 months.
Sometimes I worry whether I’ll ever be able to maintain a relationship or whether people will fall for my charm and then realise I’m actually hugely insecure and not much fun and I’m basically only happy if I’m eating chocolate buttons and strawberries whilst wrapped up in a duvet watching Harry Potter, but then I remember I’d only be interested in someone who loves my craziness as well as my exterior.
And sometimes I worry whether I’m a good enough mum to Luna or whether my priorities are wrong as I’m so business focused, but then I remember what a kind, caring, funny and generally perfect little girl I’ve somehow managed to create. (She saw I was sad today and offered me her ‘boobies’ and a cuddle).
So what have I learned after reflecting on it all? I’ve learnt to recognise my triggers and to recognise when my behaviour and feelings aren’t right. I’ve learnt how to then keep myself steady with the right diet, exercise and tools. And I’ve learnt to talk. It’s incredible how many other small business owners have experienced the same issues as me and how they’ve come back when they started their business. And it’s incredible how many very, very close friends have suffered with anxiety or depression in the past, probably at the same time as me, but have never spoken about it until now.
Despite everything, I’m actually extremely happy in life right now and have the best people around me in my business, family, friendship and personal lives.
Talking is the first step to getting help and it’s easier than you think.