I have met many people with anxiety and even though I have in more recent years learned that there are many different ways to deal with anxiety, I can completely understand those feelings.
I have suffered two breakdowns in my life. One in my early twenties; the other in my early forties. Not many people go through life without being affected by a mental upset; be it minor or major. Those who have never brushed with feelings of despair are either not admitting it or extremely lucky and in the minority.
This is the story of my breakdown in my twenties…..
When I was around 21 I got my dream job. I had always dreamt of running someone’s company, simple as that. The owner of a smaller but rapidly growing print business met up with me and asked me to come on board. He said his company needed organising. My brief was to ‘sort it’ and I was over the moon. The job I had always wanted since leaving school, to actually turn someone’s company around. I knew I could do it. I had always had the passion to succeed in whatever I turned my hand to. This was going to be the making of me, and the business.
After spending months learning about all the departments and developing systems for each one in turn, I would just keep moving from one department to another. I must have driven everyone mad with my constantly changing processes. I never lost heart; if it didn’t work I would try something new. The goal was always in mind, to make the company run like clockwork and maximise efficiency.
I would move out into sales and sometimes accounts. Whatever role I was in, there was still production to be mindful of, making sure that the cogs were turning well. I was even doing efficiency calculations of downtime etc. on all the machinery, all by hand, and submitting them weekly.
I moved from home and got myself a lovely little flat and a car; I was so happy. I had everything; my own place, my own car and a challenging career that I loved.
As time moved on my responsibilities grew. And grew. And grew. They grew to a point that I would arrive at work at 7am and leave at midnight sometimes.
Back in the day, there were no Excel spreadsheets or computerised forms. All day was spent bettering the processes, monitoring progress and output and troubleshooting. Only when everyone had gone home at about 7pm at night would I start on preparing for the next day and working out all the orders and writing all the job lists for each department and machine. All that, and making sure that they all connected well with each other and in a timely fashion.
Now, it is important to mention here that no one was cracking the whip. This was all about self-expectation and having to be the best at what I did. My MD had high expectations but none more than he demonstrated himself. I respected him for that but also for the many life lessons he taught me over the years.
Every day got more and more difficult. I just couldn’t keep up. I was exhausted but had to keep going or no one would know what to do next. More to the point, I would look like a complete idiot who had no clue. I remember one particular night, everybody shouted good bye as they left and as the door shut I put my head down on my arms and sobbed.
Days and weeks went by and the worry grew and grew. I still had to do the daily slog. Day in, day out, day in, day out. The fear of failure took the place of a job well done and I started to exist in the job. How could I say I couldn’t do it? I was the best at this stuff! Something had to give. It was looking like it was going to be me.
My significant memory is sitting behind the door of my flat, my arms wrapped around my knees and just saying to myself. I can’t go…..I can’t go……I can’t go…..I can’t go in, until it became like a mantra and I felt like I was going mad. If I didn’t go in though, what would happen? The departments were ok today but they wouldn’t know what to do tomorrow and then everyone would know I was a failure and although they may initially feel sorry for me, that was bound to give way to them thinking I was useless.
I remember my mum and dad coming over to the flat, wrapping me up in a blanket and taking me home to their house for a whole lot of TLC. My dad took me for a long walk in Irlam and put me right. “Walk away and come home”, he said. Great dads are like that. I’ll never forget that moment with him. Sometimes, just to know you have a way out can mean everything.
What I did eventually decide was that I HAD TO ADMIT FAILURE. I had to say ‘I failed’. I had to say ‘I can’t do it’. I had no choice but to say that. I had no choice but to say that, in order to preserve my sanity. I had gone beyond the fear of failure. I had to just LET GO. The relief was HUGE. Have you ever had that feeling when you have held on to something so tight and when you let go it’s such a relief? What I didn’t realise at the time though letting go proved to be just what I needed to do in order to get clarity and start seeing the situation for what it really was. It was not a conscious decision to look at it clearly; it was just a decision to fail. (I think that’s why I have such a positive relationship with the word ‘fail’ now as it’s always a lesson and it teaches us to do things differently) It was only when I relinquished responsibility and allowed myself to fail that the relief was massive and I mean, massive.
I knew I only had this week to get through as I had decided I would hand my notice in on Friday.
I put on a brave face and went back to work. I got others to help with the demands of the production control. I delegated the work that was just too much for me to do. I didn’t care now if people thought that I was getting others to help instead of doing it myself. It didn’t matter if they thought me incapable of leading this ship because I was leaving and nothing would matter after Friday because I would never see these people again anyway.
In reality, what happened was that Friday never came. I had seen myself as a failure because I couldn’t perform ten jobs at once. Once the fear of failure dwindled, I then had the capacity and clarity to do the job effectively. Having the fear subside and being resigned to leaving gave me the space to think clearly and therefore manage rather than perform each role. When my brief had been to ‘sort it’, I had misunderstood activity for accomplishment. My job was to make it happen, not do it all myself.
Sometimes the lessons that we learn in life are difficult ones. Sometimes, the harder we fall the better the lesson we learn, which in turn teaches us what we need to know, enabling us to make so much more of ourselves.
The Friday, when I was due to leave, never did arrive and in working with that company and those people, I had one of the best learning experiences and fun times of my life which lasted for the next 10 years.
This may seem like an obvious solution to many, although most solutions are obvious in hind sight but make no mistake, no matter how trivial it may seem to some, it was life changing for me. Just because at certain times in our life events prove too much to handle doesn’t mean we are less than perfectly capable. More than that, it can mean that we have built resilience to withstand much more than others.
Needless to say, this particular scenario never happened again. However, the next time this feeling did occur would prove to be much harder, with much bigger consequences!! And I will write about that sometime in another blog.
Take care and always take a second look at events, they may not be what you first thought.