Part III: Six weeks later

“So 6 weeks after writing Parts I and II, I’m sitting on a plane, over the Irish Sea returning home for the weekend. I’ve been meaning to get this finished for so long. Some of it was business, or tiredness but a lot of it was actually making sure I followed the disciplines I set during COVID. 

  • Talk to your wife every night for an hour, even if its just mindless drivel. It helps
  • No matter how tired you are. Go for a walk and do your exercises
  • Journal every night
  • Eat good food
  • Take up an activity ( I chose golf and I’m failing at it, but I like it)
  • Do not let work over take your life ever again. 

How am I doing 6 weeks in? Okay. I guess. I’m not working nearly as much as I did. Flights to and from home are a big factor in determining my work week. I have managed to work one week from home in the 6 I’ve been away. I only worked one weekend and I’m generally only doing 11 hours a day. I don’t take my computer home in the evening, which forces me to do other things. Its not perfect and its certainly not the 45 hours work weeks I dream of, but its heading in the right direction.

I am a lot happier and, yes I have had some awful days when I feel worthless and hate myself and everything around me. But I tell somebody about it. 

I’m failing, I suppose we all are. But the difference now is….I don’t care if I fail, its part of growing and I won’t let the failure part of my career ever seep into the more important parts of my life, my family, my friends, my time. I suppose in that sense I’ve succeeded.

Thank you for reading. If there is one thing I have truly learnt about the last few months is. Talk and be honest with yourself. Your struggles are not personal, they seep into those around you. Pick up the phone to a friend, a family member. Talk to your significant other. Talk to a professional. But please talk. Take care and to borrow from my favourite TV Character…”Goodbye and Good Mental Health”.”

Part II: Lockdown

“I slowly learnt to love my self and to slowly fix myself. There are two pictures of me. Pre-COVID and just before I went back to work. My weight always formed part of how I felt about myself. I am not where I want to be physically, I’m certainly out of shape but I’m happy with how I look and more importantly feel

I didn’t do anything special; I didn’t join any crazy health plans; I certainly didn’t start running…seriously. Why?? I could not run bath and the phrase “running for fun” is purely oxymoronic in my opinion.

I downloaded a food app to track how much food I was eating, it also split the foods into Green (fruits veggies tea (THANK THE LORD) and whole-wheat grains), Yellow (Proteins, pasta), Red (Sugars, fats) and allowed me to adapt my food intake to suit my preferences. I also started walking and taking the occasional cycle ride, nothing too strenuous but just enough to get my heart rate up a little.

113kg to 94kg is a massive step. I wanted to be 90kg before going back to work, but here is the thing. Feeding my soul with daily walks in the sunshine and music, feeding my body with fruit and veggies, water and tea…I don’t care about not being 90kg. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved, and I know I will continue to lose weight as I continue to feed these things into my mind and body.

I’ve also learned that just sitting is important. I am an “antsy” person, I need to be doing something most of the time, but sitting out in the sun, drinking tea just listening to the world around me, even if its just for 10 minutes, is worth 10 weekends away at a health-spa.

I’ve re-learned to “Mend & make do”, that no amount of money will buy you happiness. The simple pleasure of fixing a rotten and wobbly garden shed, cooking a meal from scratch, baking home made breads, building a wood store out of an old pallet or building a complex deck with curves and angles is more satisfying than buying replacements or getting somebody to do it for you.

I’ve also learned about time. Or to be more precise, how to see time differently. I work in an industry where time is critical, decisions need to be instant and results need to be perfect. Actually, this is all nonsense. I’ve spent a good potion of my lock down, “fixing” my garden, but gardens do not respond to instant request for perfection. Cutting back bushes actually makes the garden look worse than when you started but give it time and it will look better. Digging out a flower bed looks awful after its done, but rake it over , let it settle, plant a few things and give it a couple of weeks and it starts to look better.

Our garden will never be “complete”. My dear neighbours, have been doing theirs for 50 years and they still say its not finished or perfect. Accepting imperfections and ugliness is part of the growth of the garden and ironically, I’ve learnt this is also a metaphor for my own growth.

I’m lucky, I know that, by whatever grace you believe in, my life is a lot better than about 97% of the world we live in. If you are reading this far, chances are you are the same. I’m never going to take anything for granted again. My friends who I’ve “Zoomed” with, those who we had conversations across the garden fence. The world I live in, the countryside I am so lucky to be around me. My children, who are funnier and smarter and more sarcastic than I could ever have hoped for. My friends, who, however we kept in touch, are so special to me. My parents who, when we all came down with COVID took risks to their own health to drop off food (and tea), who have never left my side for one minute of my life and I know that now. My sister, who, even being 8000 miles away, we still prove that distance is immaterial and help will always be unconditionally offered in this family, without any expectation of payback. My neighbours, who we lost one only a couple of days ago due to old age. Thank you, you have made a small part of our world perfect. And last, but no means least. My beautiful, sexy, intelligent, kind, gentle, and, most of all, tolerant wife. She has been my absolute anchor; I love her so much and we move into a another phase of our “kooky” life together. She makes me want to be a better person.

The world we are moving into will be different, must be different. We have coped without needing “That thing” whatever it is, economic growth is not reliant on the human desire for things. It can happen just the same with the human desire to help others. The challenge I am setting myself is, do I need “that” thing? Or can I cope without it. Can somebody else benefit form things I no longer need instead of throwing them away. Can somebody you know be helped by posting a little bit of money to them to help them get through the week? Change and growth comes slowly, it takes time, it may require personal sacrifice, it may indeed look ugly during the process and change is never finished.

Thank you for getting this far. Stay safe, live life oh…and always, ALWAYS eat cake…unless it takes you over your RED food daily intake then grab an apple 😊 😊 😊. The challenge will be whether I can maintain this after I re-start work..  Read Part III next week to find out. ” 

Part I: The struggle to keep succeeding

Thank you to this anonymous person who has sent in his story – it is a longish story, so we are publishing in three parts over three weeks. Today is part I.

I’ve been home, not working for a total of 11 weeks (2 weeks on Annual Leave) and it feels very odd to be going to the airport tomorrow and catching a flight.

Something I took for granted, like a lot of things, before COVID.

I think the main thing that I took for granted was myself. And, in part that means my family as well, as they are a part of me.

Before COVID, I was in the middle of a long struggle with my own mental stability. I had been working away in Ireland for 3 years. It was only supposed to be 2 years max. The whole thing was eating away at me. I work for a food company that demands excellence 100% of the time. Failure is not an option. Moving there I had such high hopes, it was a dynamic company, small enough with ambitions of growth. We achieved that, going from £400k of annual sales to over £2million within 2 years. Working away allowed me to focus 100% of my time on growing the company, what I didn’t envisage was that the company in turn would just keep piling expectation upon expectation on me. I am very proud of what I do and anything short of giving 100%, 100% of the time felt like was failing. I was working my self slowly to death, beyond stressed, beyond sad, and being unable to function as a normal human being, work colleague, husband and father.

I had promised myself  to try and fix me prior to COVID. I was on annual leave the two weeks prior to the government lockdown and I had talked openly with my wife in February about my struggles and how we could fix it. I had spoken to my CEO the day before I flew home for 2 weeks R&R. I had said the contract between us was weighted in his favour. I was always supposed to be away for three nights in any one week, I was also supposed to work from home at least one week in four. I was never supposed to be doing 70 and 80 hour work weeks. 12 and 13 day runs in a row. Cancelling annual leave at the last minute, flying back to work early after a weekend so I could get a head start to the busy week ahead.  In theory my CEO agreed, but uttered those management “failsafe” words “so much in as the business needs” A catchall phrase that basically puts the decision on you and if it goes wrong whilst you are away then its your fault. 

Starting the two weeks Annual Leave in March I spent most of it either on the sofa or in bed. I cried openly, laying on my wife’s chest when we were in bed. The stress over-flowing from me. At this point I must say, physically I was a mess. 113kg in weight. Totally physically unfit and lets not start to unpackage the metal fitness.

I honestly didn’t know how to fix myself. My beautiful wife tried, but nearly two weeks in to the break, I was starting to stress about going back to work. Also Annual leave at my company is not really annual leave. Its just you are at home instead of in the office. The phone still rings, emails come through and if you don’t answer you get called on your personal phone because “its important”. This culture is aggressively applied and boarders on toxic, not just for me, but many in my organisation feel the same way.

Whilst never at the point of doing something to harm myself or others, I did recognise I was circling a drain into the abyss. There had to be a new normal for me.

Then Lockdown hit!

And everything kind of stopped. “

Part II will be published next week.

When Failing at School is Good

Most of us grew up wanting to succeed at school. ‘Pass’ meant we had done well and ‘Fail’ poorly.

We would find what the pass mark was and, if inclined to do the bear minimum of work, seek to at least reach that level. 

We quickly learned that teachers were unhappy when we failed: that we might need to do extra work and in some bygone days, we may even have been harshly treated for ‘failure’. 

For some, fear of ‘failure’ became motivation to work hard, but this was hardly a good emotional approach and in some cases made for an unpleasant schooling experience.

The disabling nature of all this is that no one looked at ‘failure’ or ‘failing’ as in any way positive. 

No one encouraged a child that tried and failed, making them feel that they had done better than children who hadn’t even tried at all. The high jumper never makes any progress when they sail over the bar: it’s when they practise at heights where the bar is likely to be hit that they learn technique and approach that maximises their performance. The child who never attempts to paint differently or write in a new style, or read a tricky book, with longer words and more complicated sentence structure, is destined to plateau. 

I recall when moving from teaching Year 6 to Year 2, I had an extremely able child in my class, who had been doing the equivalent of sailing over the bar all her school life: mastering books, shining at arithmetic and artwork that was regularly admired. She wasn’t especially competitive and had no jealousy of others’ success. But in my year there were occasions when she tried things that didn’t work out and had tests where she was not top. Whereas for many children this had been part of the learning experience, for her this was such a new experience that she felt like she had hit a wall. It was as if this strange and new obstacle of failure had appeared in her path which she couldn’t negotiate. It took time for her to see that failure, as much as success, is a valid experience and part of us improving – providing we learn through it. Failing is OK – it can be a positive thing and not the end of the world. She soon recovered and made good progress in the year. She was perhaps learning the truth enclosed in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem with those lines: “If you can with meet triumph and disaster and treat these two imposters just the same….” Except of course she was learning that failure was not a disaster – for her, it was part of the triumph. 

The author is an experienced Primary School Teacher.