Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts (Winston Churchill)
On Wednesday morning I was getting ready for work and listening to Radio 5 Live news, as I always do, when a story that sent shivers through my spine and triggered dark and painful memories was aired. The presenters were discussing the ten year anniversary of the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers when it filed for bankruptcy, the largest bankruptcy filing in US history with an unimaginable debt of over $600 billion. The demise of this more than 100-year old institution gave the world the first of many financial and economic shocks in quick succession in what became the global financial crisis of 2008 followed by a crippling recession and austerity.
It also heralded the start of the most difficult period of my life from which I recently realised I had not fully recovered. I am not referring to just financial recovery here, but more significantly and importantly, emotional and mental recovery. It was a huge burden at times to work through all I needed to practically, concealing my worries whilst also maintaining my professional career, reputation and image. A burden which I now realise led to the creation of my alter ego ‘The Swan Doctor’ where I felt I could tell my story without the fear of judgement and anxiety about it being linked with my everyday professional life as ‘Dr Ruth.’ However, ‘these two are one’ and are inextricably linked as the existence and success of one is entirely related to the other.
I cannot carry this burden any longer and the two must merge together as just me, just ‘Ruth.’
‘Ruth’ – a successful professional woman who has experienced an incredible roller coaster of a life journey bringing me to this place today where I need to share my story so as to help others struggling through life’s trials and significant challenges whilst also trying to maintain the ‘front’ the world expects us to show up with day in and day out. It is exhausting to maintain this, can be detrimental to our mental health and ultimately can become an obstacle to achieving what we really want in our lives.
I blogged last week how in 2015 I had scribbled across the top of a page in my notebook that ‘good has to come out of this!’ I am more determined now than ever before that it will, but on a much bigger scale than I perhaps first imagined when I created ‘The Swan Doctor’ three years ago. This can only happen if I tell you my story and lift the weight of carrying it from my shoulders.
In 2008 I had just emerged from several years of crippling fatigue and a multitude of ailments and symptoms which were eventually diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME. This illness I believe was triggered by a number of things including unprocessed grief after the loss of my dad and my friend ‘Cheeky’, stress and burnout from a high-pressure early academic career and a realisation that I was in a relationship where I was losing all sense of control and my identity.
I was now also mum to one-year-old Sophia and I was the owner of both a large coffee shop and a property development/rental business. I spent my day working as a GP practice pharmacist and my evenings and weekends in the coffee shop determined to make it the most popular and luxurious coffee meet-up venue in a well-known and fashionable location where residents were affluent and held high expectations.
To the world I really did appear to have it all. I was the Ulster Tatler Yummy Mummy January 2008 and looking at the photos now, I see a woman not at her physical peak and struggling to maintain her outward appearance whilst her inner world was falling apart. The smile, perfect make-up, beautiful designer clothes and vibrant persona were however hiding an ever-deepening crisis in my life.
In reality, by September 2008 I was a mere shadow of the bright and bubbly successful woman I had been, and was trying to put a brave face on whilst feeling frightened and trapped in a difficult marriage littered with emotional and mental torture. This was about to be compounded by the financial crisis, demise of my business and loss of my entire worldly possessions, including the repossession of my so-called ‘forever home’ which eventually fell to a third of its original ridiculously over-estimated value of £1.2 million.
When the financial crisis hit I was in the wrong place, in the wrong relationship and involved in the wrong things at the wrong time. I had no choice but to admit and accept failure on all fronts, go into survival mode, and start again.
Starting again resulted in me moving my daughter and I back into my teenage bedroom in my mum’s house and securing a new job to help fund and create our new future.
Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success
I had lost everything, or so it seemed, but I was actually still incredibly blessed and still held the following assets which no accountant could realistically quantify as they proved to be very precious and key to my recovery and future success:
- I had my daughter. I had her love and she unquestionably had mine. She gave me reason every day to work through the grey and dense fog of my daily reality and put my feet out from under the duvet, place them firmly on the floor and deal with whatever the sun rising brought me. Whilst we cuddled up every night in my old bedroom which was now my safe haven, even my own mum had to acknowledge it wasn’t just comforting for my daughter to snuggle into her mum, it was also therapeutic for me to hold her tight and reassure myself that we would be OK.
- I had my mum. Whilst what was happening in my life was clearly my mum’s worst nightmare, and the absence of my dad’s wisdom and support was felt even more acutely as she witnessed the rug being pulled from under my feet, she never left my side. She never judged me or berated me as she realised I had always acted in good faith and would continue to do so as that was how my parents had brought me up. This was a ‘worse-case scenario’ but mum kept her belief in me and ten years on, I really do hope I have still made her proud of me. You have no idea what that means to me and I have tears welling in my eyes as I type these words.
- I had my pharmacy career. I was truly terrified to my core that I would lose this too. I had given so much to it, and when I needed it, it was
ultimately still there for me. I gained the support of my profession who realised none of what was happening to me was my fault. It was recognised I had fallen victim to a number of circumstances beyond my control, I had handled the situation in the correct manner and I had done nothing wrong. The phone call and declaration I had to make officially about what was happening was however one of the worst of my life immediately preceded and proceeded by me being physically sick.
I felt my perfect record and reputation was tarnished beyond all recognition but this only fuelled my desire to give back even more and work ever harder for the profession I was so proud to belong to. I would make them proud of me again and you know something? I believe and truly hope I have.
In reality, if these events hadn’t occurred in my life, I wouldn’t have moved to a different part of the country to a job where I have had the privilege to work with a team of talented and committed healthcare professionals whilst also being given the space to flourish, nurture my skills and go on to develop,evaluate and manage multiple award-winning pharmacy services which have spread across Northern Ireland. In many ways my entrepreneurial spirit was allowed to innovate and create within the secure and supportive environment of my employment.
- I had my friends and family. Well there is no doubt that some fair-weather friends disappeared quickly when the coffers ran dry, but the majority stayed by my side and actually overwhelmed me with their love, ability to listen for many hours, their compassion and their desire to do absolutely anything they could do to help. This catastrophic failure resulted in me realising I was more blessed with love than I had ever previously realised with friends and family who support me in times of trouble and loudly cheer my wins in times of triumph. I remember one of my close friends who spent many, many hours on the end of the phone, giving me the wake-up call I needed when I was possibly appearing to give up. She said to me, “Ruth, people are feeling sorry for you, and I know you don’t want that. That’s not you…..don’t give them reason to do so.” She was right. I did not want sympathy. I did however want, and need, advice and understanding, but not sympathy.
- Remarkably, somewhere in there, in the middle of this overwhelming quagmire, I still had the remnants of ‘me.’ When I finally summoned the courage and left my marriage and moved back home, my spirit and who I fundamentally was had been broken in every imaginable way. Emotionally, mentally, economically and eventually, yet again, physically when CFS/ME resurfaced and raised its merciless and ugly head in response to two episodes of pneumonia. I went back to what I learned to do when I was first diagnosed and aimed to achieve something, no matter how small or insignificant, every single day.
Somewhere along the way I found the ability to trust and love again. When I met my ‘Big Al’ in 2014 I was still nervous, jumpy and paralysed with fear that I would be hurt. It took patience and time for Alan to help me realise he wasn’t going to control me, to use me, shout at me or give me any reason to ever feel intimidated or scared. He adores me and he is my rock in life. Actually, I have just realised Alan has recently shown the same love and compassion again to a dog we rescued who had clearly suffered abuse. Salah, who is a Saluki, is the most loving and gentle natured animal I have ever encountered. He too has transformed from a nervous and distrusting shadow to a confident and affectionate spirit. He now bounds around our home like a rather clumsy gazelle and relishes his cuddles on the sofa curled up with us and our two other dogs Suzy and Stella, the diva bichons.
To be honest, the shame I have felt at times over the years has been devastating and torturous. On many occasions it has stopped me in my tracks and caused me to uncontrollably sob with the regret. I still find it difficult to acknowledge all I have achieved since without feeling severe pangs of guilt and even panic as I continue to strive to prove to the world these events and this adversity has not and will not define my whole lifetime. These are not reflective of me as a person and this one horrible chapter in my life story will not reflect the legacy of my time here in this world.
This particular blog post has not been just a few hours in the making as I type and collate my thoughts, but ten years! A whole decade of adversity and subsequent recovery has been poured onto a blank screen with two main purposes:
Firstly, to finally free me from my mental pain and obstacles so I can move forward with my life plans without the fear of judgement and failure. I can’t change what happened but I can control the outcome.
Failure will never overtake me if my determination to succeed is strong enough
Secondly, and much more importantly now, my aim is to help those who are trying to overcome similar adversity via vocalising and sharing my story. I am making plans to achieve this on a more formal basis; this blog post represents my first (huge) step in overcoming crippling fear and moving closer towards my desired life purpose.
The 21st century has brought with it many challenges and the pressure is on us to succeed in all areas of life, or at the very least, appear to do so (cue those social media posts where we only show the world what we want it to see). Nobody wants to ever admit to a failure be it an abusive relationship, debt, business collapse, insolvency, the stigma of mental illness, the pain of hidden illness…the list goes on.
The fact is, these things happen. Nobody is immune; they happen to people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Trying to deal with any of them internally and alone is tantamount to self-harm. I know this from my personal experience and how hard I have been on myself over the last decade; nobody will ever judge me more harshly than what I have judged myself. I firmly believe it is how we seek support and help, and respond to such events, that will define the outcome.
You change the world by being yourself (Yoko Ono)
It’s time to drop the ‘front’, remove the mask and let ‘two become one.’
Welcome to the world of ‘The Swan Doctor’ and ‘Dr Ruth’.
Let me now introduce just ‘Ruth.’
The Swan Doctor