On a cold February morning in 2011, my husband and I were delighted to (finally!) welcome our third daughter, Lauren, into the world. We called my parents to let them know the good news, but within hours Dad phoned to say they couldn’t come to see Lauren. My Mum was being taken to a psychiatric unit at the local hospital. While my Mum had being behaving strangely, it was nonetheless a shock to hear this news, especially at what was otherwise a happy time.
My Mum was diagnosed with psychotic depression and remained in hospital for over three years, then spent the last four years of her life in a nursing home, as she needed 24 hour care. During her time in hospital, she received very intensive treatment, including 12 rounds of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). However, even this did not help.
Visits to Mum were almost always challenging. She had extreme psychotic delusions which were very dark and frightened her. She would talk about them for the entire visit. Alternatively, she would completely withdraw and it was common for her to say nothing during a visit. This was heartbreaking after coming from a warm and loving home with lots of humour. Mum would also refuse food and lost weight to the point of being clinically underweight, causing her to fall frequently and break bones on three separate occasions while in hospital.
When Mum’s illness began, my three girls were all under five. When I returned to work as an ICT specialist after maternity leave, I worked two days a week, but often saw the same number of clients as my full time colleagues. There was only time to get the essentials of the job done, and I did, but it was very fast paced and with everything going on in the background, work became stressful too.
I kept going for a few years: two days working, three days at home with the girls and seeing Mum at the weekend. Then in early 2015, I started to get panic attacks. I’d had them years before, so they weren’t that scary this time. I knew they would pass. However, they left me absolutely exhausted. My general energy was getting worse. In work, it was harder to concentrate and jump between tasks, as was required in my role. At home, I was having to lie down after taking the girls to school, and simple things like making meals took a lot of cognitive effort. My mood was also cranky and I felt constantly on edge at home. Not a great environment for everyone to live in.
Living with chronic fatigue
I decided to see my doctor, and she diagnosed me with chronic fatigue, which I have had for most of my adult life, but this was a major flare-up. I was signed off work and was off for two years.
I hated being off work, being the one holding the team back. I also hated the trips to the doctor for yet another sick note, yet knowing that I needed it, as my health was not progressing from one three-month period to the next.
I realised that something in my life had to change. I couldn’t change Mum’s illness. Years had passed and she wasn’t getting better. I couldn’t change the pressures of raising a young family, but I could change my job. But how could I work? I wasn’t fit enough. I was desperate to feel useful and have something to do.
Chronic fatigue can give you brain fog, making concentration difficult, and at that time I was managing about an hour a day of online reading before I needed to sleep. I wanted to work with that hour. I thought about my strengths, weaknesses and interests. I’d become passionate about great mental health. You don’t watch a family member go through mental illness without it changing your perspective on life. I wanted to help people improve their mental health and to improve mine by working. I think if you are helping people to build confidence, raise self-esteem and set and achieve goals that they are passionate about, you help steer them away from the negative moods that ultimately took my Mum’s life.
So I retrained as a life coach. I found an Advanced Diploma in Life Coaching that was five to seven hours a week of study, and realised I could use my hour a day for that.
After that, I set up my business. I worked at home and gradually built up my stamina to a couple of hours a day. I now do three. Yes, I still have chronic fatigue, so I manage my energy by napping after lunch. In the afternoon, I get my girls from school and do homework etc. Life works this way. I get to work in a peaceful environment, which is great for my energy and stress levels, and I help people along the way. While I support clients to pursue goals, there are always obstacles to them achieving these: stress, anxiety and depression. I help them to learn ways to overcome those challenges, by learning to challenge the negative thought patterns that hinder their progress in life. My interest is in supporting employees that are experiencing stress at work, but I’ve helped with career development, coping with grief, improving communication with others, agoraphobia and social anxiety. I love the variety.
Lessons from burning out
This experience was pivotal in me finding what I love to do in life. Do I still experience stress? Yes, absolutely. I’m self-employed, and that requires me to keep on my toes and constantly challenge what I think I can do. If you’re not taking new risks, you’re not growing as a person, and part of my journey is learning to overcome that. However, I’ve learned important lessons from burning out a few years ago:
Burnout was a red flag that life had to change, and that’s positive. Being signed off work put my life on hold and forced me to reflect on my situation. Ongoing stress is terrible for the body, and linked to many major health issues such as heart attacks, cancer and diabetes. Take stock of where you are and identify what’s draining your energy in life.
Change what you can change. The decision I made to change my career immediately improved my stress levels, because I didn’t have the worry any more about how I was going to work and run a family while recovering. Many experience angst over big decisions, and taking the time to research your options and come to a conclusion is powerful. I always encourage my clients to take action. When you don’t take action, you feel stuck and that can stress and depress you.
Treat yourself well. The worry about being off work did nothing to help me recover. Think about it this way: if your friend was off work ill for a long period of time, you wouldn’t tell them “You’re not contributing anything and you really need to get better and return to work.” That would be ridiculous. But that negative self-talk was running in my head, and that is the norm for many people. However, I felt passionately that I do not, ever, want my children to see me go through what my Mum experienced. That starts with how I treat myself, and so it is with you. Practise speaking to yourself as you would a friend, with encouragement and support.
Build your self-efficacy. When I chose to start my coaching course, each module that I passed gave me confidence to keep going and reinforced my belief that I had a valuable contribution to make. Building self-efficacy can be achieved by embracing challenges, finding good role models that inspire you, genuinely accepting compliments and reminding yourself of times you’ve overcome hurdles.
While this experience was very testing over a long period of time, I knew there would ultimately be a purpose to it. It was what kept me going when I felt stress, frustrated and low. My Mum’s experience taught me that life can change very quickly. If you’re experiencing stress, anxiety or depression yourself, there is a lot of support out there for you and it’s essential that you make use of it.
Susanne McCabe is a life coach, podcaster, mum and singer with a passion for positive mental health.
w: www.lifeswitchcoaching.com, with podcast, Working Well, on positive mental health at work