A year ago today I was back home. My week in hospital was over – but my recovery was just beginning.
Looking back now I know that it wasn’t the pneumonia that took time to recover from – although I don’t advise you to get a dose or spend five days in hospital – it was getting out of my life-work balance mess.
A year ago I was convinced I had the balance right. I was enjoying being a new Dad. I had a challenging new job, working with one of the world’s most prestigious organisations. Despite the pressures of the job – including to create a new business – and it’s global reach, I spent only three nights away from home all year. I was home most days before 6pm – taking my daughter to bed every one of these nights. I limited the number of dinners I attended. I worked at home some days. I was being a big success at work. I was managing the multiple demands on my time. I was successfully spinning the plates. Then, the reality check. Like being hit by a bus.
One Sunday morning. Fever. Pains. Agony. Can’t move. Can’t sleep. Can’t understand it. Never had the flu and assumed this was it. Nasty. GPs made two home visits – I could only just get out of bed but not to the surgery. Eventually, I was sent to hospital. Blood tests. Concern. Admitted straight away – no time to waste. It was a very scary and emotional few days. It was my hospital inpatient debut. Agggghhh. Surrounded by very sick people, some dying. Some died. Moved several times to accommodate the overcrowded ambulances waiting in queues around the block. Attacked with a bottle by a very confused fellow patient. Security guards. Apologies. More disturbed sleep. Not a great experience. Actually, an awful experience.
Thankfully, the treatment worked. I picked up and asked could I go home. They agreed – desperate for my bed – as long as I came back over next few days and kept taking the tablets and had further tests. I was so sick they were convinced there was some even more nasty hiding somewhere. Healthy 36-year-olds don’t get this seriousness of pneumonia without there being something worse playing a role. They were right but thankfully for me it was total exhaustion not cancer, HIV or any of the other things they tested for.
The only thing worse than the pain in my chest was the pain of not seeing my amazing wife and daughter – the little one we rightly kept away completely for fear of her catching something. Not seeing her was truly terrible. Heartbreaking. The irony of me doing everything I could all year to avoid being away from them – including at times twice weekly 6:30am flights to Manchester so I could stay at home – only to have that effort cause me to be away for nearly a week lying in a hospital bed was not lost on me. It was the ultimate failure.
You get time in hospital to think. To question yourself. Lying in bed trying to work out why this happened was not pretty but I am now convinced it was the turning point for me. It wasn’t a thunderbolt moment. But the start of process of being honest with myself. A real look in the mirror. A time to stop pretending all was fine. It took me three or four weeks to get over the physical symptoms and to regain enough strength to go for a walk past the end of our road. It took me much longer to work out what was really wrong.
In the end it was simple. I was asking too much of my mind and body. I was driving myself to an unhealthy extent. To destruction. To unhappiness. I was trying to meet everyone’s demands and expectations of me – especially at work – and it put me in hospital. In the weeks I was recovering at home I realised how little I enjoyed the job. I realised how little it mattered to me when compared wth my beautiful family and my health. Something had to give and it was obvious what it was. Lots and lots of people – especially work colleagues – were surprised at two things. One, that I would walk away from the job with its status, kudos, financial rewards and the career path to Partner laid out in front of me. And two, that they didn’t realise how much under pressure and stressed I had been before I took sick. How had they missed the signs they asked. They couldn’t see that the swan was kicking furiously below the water or feel the anxieties the work and working environment had induced.
They didn’t see me getting up at 5am to catch up with my emails whilst my wife and daughter slept. They didn’t see me working most nights after my daughter went to bed. They didn’t feel the gut-wrenching, heart-sinking sensations that I did when my phone rang at all times of the day and all times of the week and weekend. They didn’t see my days off interrupted over and over again. They didn’t see how I was treated. They didn’t see the emails I received. They didn’t see my restless sleeping. They didn’t see the rash on my legs. They didn’t see me cry. They didn’t know what it was like to be in my head and my body.
I don’t completely blame them. Some of this was my fault – too much denial; too much putting on a brave face. Some of this was because I was being successful and therefore was seen not to need help and support. Some of this was their fault – not really looking; not really caring; not really knowing what to look for. Some of it was the fault of the working environment with pressure passed around like a nasty cold or virus where no-one feels they can say “stop” and behaviours no-one should have to tolerate.
As I look back now I cringe at how I was living my life. I feel sick when I think what I was doing to myself and what was being done to me. It feels like I am looking at a different person and a different country when I think back. I allowed myself to be swept along with what people thought was important and allowed myself to live by their terms and rules. I was kidding myself I was happy. I was kidding myself that I was spinning the plates perfectly. I wasn’t. I was just spinning towards a physical and emotional car crash.
Being sick was horrible but it was the best thing that could have happened to me at that time. It was my wake-up call. At last someone said ‘stop” and that someone was me as my body and mind hit the wall.
I have suffered great loss in my life; the loss of loved ones – one in particular whose name lives on in my daughter; the loss of things I have cared deeply about; the loss of 96 soulmates. This time last year in my despair I thought I was losing more but I came to realise that I was really gaining. Gaining so much. I gained time. I gained perspective. I gained my life back. I give thanks every day for that and for my amazing wife and daughter.
As Yeats said, it “all changed, changed utterly”. A year ago my life changed and I am so glad that it did.