I can track the decline in my health back to the financial crash of 2007. I’d been self-employed for four years and I’d been very successful. I loved my work and there was lots of scope for creativity. I had wonderful clients and the feeling that I was doing something worthwhile. I had a good income and although working long hours I still had a reasonable work/life balance. I had plenty of friends and I could afford meals out, cinema and theatre trips and wonderful holidays. I had a cleaner and a guy who did any odd jobs when they were needed. I had a beautiful home, a family who were fit and healthy and very few real worries. I had an amazing life. With everything going so well in my business, I felt optimistic enough to buy a sweet little cottage in the countryside. After a year there, my life changed dramatically.
I was writing training materials for the head office of a well-known UK supermarket. I’d been working for them for about 18 months, five days a week when without warning my contract ended. As a freelancer, they weren’t required to give me any notice so I went from working flat out for them to a completely empty diary. With a big mortgage, this was simply terrifying!
Where this supermarket led, other clients followed. No one was using freelancers anymore and if they were using freelancers, it tended to be for work that no one inside the organisation wanted to do. I gradually found work but it was more stressful at a third of the day rate I’d been used to. Organisations seemed more pushed too, with clients demanding more for their money and tighter deadlines.
Over the next few years, I managed to scrape enough money together to keep up the mortgage payments on my new home. However there was no money to spare for anything apart from life’s essentials. I worked incredibly long hours and I struggled to find time for even basic household tasks such as washing, cleaning and cooking healthy meals. I am ashamed to say that I survived on a diet consisting of toast, peanut butter and cheap ready meals. I started work at 5.00 most mornings and pumped myself up with numerous coffees to get going. I finished late at night when I tried to bring myself down again with large glasses of wine. I worked most weekends, got no exercise and my body felt in an almost constant state of flight or fight. I cried a lot and berated myself that I’d not foreseen the financial crash and put more money aside for a rainy day.
Over the next few years work was up and down. Not all of the work was awful but there were often unforeseen problems, challenging people, last minute changes and always tight deadlines. I could never commit to any social engagements and if I did, I’d often cancel at the last minute. Work had to come first and I let down friends and family as I struggled to keep up.
When I look back now at photos of myself at that time, I can see the unhappiness and stress in my face. I was bloated and overweight, I had trouble falling and staying asleep and often awoke short of breath with my heart racing. Life wasn’t all awful though, I reconnected with my now husband during this time and despite all the stresses, we began seeing each other. He was also on a tight budget but we still managed to have some lovely, inexpensive holidays and support each other through long hours and difficult work contracts.
This time of stress lasted about 10 years and over that time I experienced an ever increasing range of health problems. Firstly I began to feel tired all the time and developed lesions on my face. After many tests, I was finally diagnosed with lupus. Then a few years later, due to a weakened immune system as a result of lupus, a simple throat infection led to the start of rheumatoid arthritis in my hands, shoulders, elbows and knees.
During these years, my health and well-being were always prioritised below my relentless work schedule. I postponed exercise and healthy eating for just one more day whilst I got something finished. This postponement went on for weeks, months and years until I got the ultimate wakeup call – agonising joint pain all over my body. I was immobilised as my joints locked up. I needed help getting out of bed and moving around. A huge dose of steroids got things under control but I knew my body was in trouble.
Arthritis was my too late wakeup call that stress and overwork were damaging me. I wish that I’d picked up the warning signs that I was in trouble earlier on but I was just too overstretched to see it.
These days, I have little choice but to put my health first. After years of ignoring my health and well-being, my body now demands to be listened to. My health shot up to the top of my priorities. I eat well, try to exercise, get enough sleep and walk each day but I swallow a range of dangerous medications to keep my lupus, arthritus and the associated chronic fatigue in check.
I’ve realised too late that health and well-being are cumulative. You’re either improving your health and well-being or eroding it, there’s no standing still. My stress about work and mortgage payments has been replaced with a much bigger worry– the stress of a body that no longer works properly. When you don’t like a job, you can change it but I’ve only got one body and now mine is in trouble.
I often think about what I could have done differently. Downshifting would have been difficult as I’d bought a house at the height of the housing boom which two years later was worth less than I’d bought it for. I’d have been in a negative equity situation at the point of sale.
I also think by my nature I’m a perfectionist and being self-employed, it feels pretty important to do a great job for my clients. Testimonials and my future reputation depended upon it. I regret though that I didn’t take more rigorous exercise to release some of the stress that I felt and I also regret not eating sensibly for quite a few years.
I have to learn to forgive myself for past mistakes including complacency about my finances and overstretching myself by buying a more expensive home. I have to learn to accept the health challenges I now have but also find ways to improve on this.
It feels as if quite a lot of my health issues are outside my control these days but I want to control the things that I can. In the next blog post, I will explain how I am being proactive in managing my health and what a signifcant difference this can make.