The lowest point of my life is the best thing that ever happened to me
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Vulnerability is currently a buzzword in business, and especially in coaching, because vulnerability is what we increasingly demand in our leaders. It’s the way we show courage, the way we forge connections with each other, the way we break down walls and grow. Starting small and saying “I don’t know the answer” is a good easy first step, and where many people feel that they can leave it. But if you’re a coach then I think you have to go further than that. So here is the bravest thing I have ever written. It’s about how the lowest point of my life became the best thing that ever happened to me.
About eighteen months ago, I couldn’t get out of bed. That’s not a turn of phrase, it’s a literal statement. I remember all too clearly the morning where I thought, I can’t make myself get up. I just can’t do it.
This is not a post about how to treat depression, and any way I would not pretend to have the answer as far as that goes. This is a post about the lessons that I learned that are COINCIDENTALLY what having a coach can do for you: the liberation that comes with having the courage to be vulnerable, the power of coming up with your own answers, and how the world transforms when you reframe your reality.
First, some context. Over one agonizing year, I lost a number of personal relationships, including the deaths of two family members. My indestructible, all-knowing, always-singing-the words-wrong dad, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was living on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean from my family and my oldest friends, a distance that had always seemed so inconsequential but now seemed like, well, an ocean, because being on the wait list for a Green Card means you can’t travel so you’re available to be interviewed at an undefined amount of notice about whether you intend to make a living in the US as a prostitute. Oh, it also means that you have to stay at the employer that’s sponsoring you or you have to leave the US instantly. Speaking of which…
At work, the organisation I had relocated to the US to build and had spent 5 years helping to create, was torn down around my ears. My former boss left the business and I had to swallow my anger every day as I heard him blamed for what felt like every problem in a company full of problems. And worst of all, the team I had grown from 1 to over 100 people had chunks ripped out of it before my eyes. Actually, had it happened before my eyes, that would have been a lot easier. I was the one given the axe, on three separate occasions, to satisfy three different cost-saving agendas, and told to swing it at the limb of my choice to amputate. If that seems like an excessively dramatic rendering of events, I promise you in my heart it wasn’t. I am a business woman, I am a strategist, I am a former accountant, I can make tough decisions without balking. But this team was almost a family, people I had recruited personally, made promises to, delighted in their every success, given tough feedback, seen grow, developed, promoted. But as the business deteriorated around me, I lost all ability to protect them from the latest whims of whoever was cutting costs now. The toll on the individuals was constantly on my mind, the fact that anyone had to go home and tell their family they’d be laid off kept me awake at night. For me personally, I don’t know what took more of a toll: sitting in a room with someone I was responsible for taking them through their COBRA benefits while they put on their best brave face, or repeatedly standing in front of shell-shocked survivors, the people who had escaped the cut, dragging every ounce of motivation, care, empathy and reassurance from my soul, because if I were them it’s what I would want from a leader. Until one day it became too much to do any more and I realized I had nothing left.
I felt like I was in a cage and there was no way out, wherever I looked there were things that I had lost, had taken away from me, been a victim of. But I had had enough of this feeling. I went to a doctor who listened to me talk and snuffle for ten minutes, nodded kindly, and gave me a prescription for antidepressants and a list of therapists.
I am descended from two lines of tough Northern English and Irish women. I learned from the three formidable generations of women above me the values of strength, resilience, self-reliance, and most of all taking no shit off anyone. I am the friend you call when you’re down and you need someone to listen and tell you wise things. I am ambitious and successful and I own expensive handbags (even if they are second hand). Having depression does not happen to a person like me. Being on medication does not happen to a person like me. Feeling weak and lost does not happen to a person like me. And admitting all of those feelings, that sure as hell doesn’t happen to a person like me…and as for writing about it on a website… where people could judge me or, even worse, pity me… are you kidding me?!
I came to a realization that terrified me. I didn’t know who I was. I had lost the identity that my job had given me, the nurturing and caring role I had tried to play for my team. And I had lost the identity of the person I always believed myself to intrinsically be, because if I was frail and lost instead of strong and driven, then who the hell was I?
Finding my own answers and reframing my reality in this instance came hand in hand. I took the medication and started therapy, and within four weeks I started to see glimpses of a version of me that I vaguely remembered. A person who, for a start, could smile. Until you’ve lost that ability, you don’t know how important it is. I read books about psychology and neurology, learned about how evolution has left humans as natural pessimists because it’s the ones who avoided pain who survived, about the power of dopamine and serotonin and entrenched neural pathways, because I thought if I could understand why my mind and my brain had turned against me, it would help me to get them back on side. I also learned to meditate at a Buddhist center: if the meditation was like blowing away the grey clouds that had plagued me, then Buddhist philosophy felt like the blue sky on the other side of the storm.
And so it was not from a podcast or a coaching webinar or an influencer’s Instagram page but from Buddha, the world famous executive coach, that I learned that none of us exist the way we think we do, which is actually great news, because it means that being the person that you want to be is really very simple. You decide who you want to be and then act the way that person would, and then... that's who you are. And it was a life changing revelation.
I started to see that while the process had felt like having blows rained down on me from every side, life had given me a gift. It was the gift of choosing who I would be instead of continuing by default to be who I had been so far. Not that I wanted to throw everything out of the window, there are some things about me that I liked just fine. But there were plenty of things I wanted to be that were new, especially things that I had felt helpless to do anything about before.
I wanted to help people who felt like they were lost and alone because I knew how that felt. So I trained as a crisis counsellor with Crisis Textline and spoke with people who made me feel not only grateful for my own life, but gave me heart squeezes of joy every time they told me that I had done anything to make their day better. I wanted to show people who were also at the wrong end of the US immigration process that immigrants were welcome and valued, so I volunteered at the IRC working with refugees, and had the most fun and humbling experience of my life that deserves its own TV show, never mind blog post.
And most of all I wanted to find a way to share all of the things that I had learned, and especially Buddha’s excellent coaching advice, with other people. Which is really how I came to be a coach and writing this post that I congratulate you if you got this far reading.
I do not think I am an extraordinary person who has overcome exceptionally difficult circumstances. I think I’m a person who has come out of the other side of an experience they found hard and decided to be a survivor and not a victim. And whose dearest wish is to use that experience to make the world a little happier one person at a time. If I met an executive coach with that on their business card, I’d think they were worth a shot. Wouldn’t you?
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