We all get it, we’ve all had it to some degree or another. Stress. Threats to ourselves or uncertainties. These are a part of our lives. We all have to cope with different types of stress almost daily. Be it getting a workload done in time for our job or when having relationship issues. Replying to an angry attack or just dealing with the daily realms of living, especially in today's circumstances with spiralling costs we are enduring for example. It enters and becomes part of our structure, our makeup, however when it gets on top of us and we struggle to cope, stress can become a terrible illness to ourselves and in extreme circumstances it can become a killer. Something I found out to my detriment back in 2004.
I was working in London as a Contracts Manager for a building company, running large projects with long hours and big money involved. I basically was the one stop-shop from client down to carpenter, running all aspects of the building contract looking after the purse, sub-contractors and scheduling everything to run on time. Some projects would run for a year at costs in excess of £5m. The pressure to deliver was intense and the workload unending. I was needed on site and in the office all at the same time and my phone would ring well into the evening with innumerable problems that constantly occur. Along with this the environment was very ‘macho’ with long lunch meetings and a drinking culture, with an expectation to be the best in the office. I’d been working flat out for two years, and the pressure was intense, although you never showed it. One summer, things started to fall apart.
My relationship with my Director and a few other managers in the office began to sour. I was being asked to do too much, and trying to juggle all these things whilst keeping a brave face on it took their toll, although I blindly ignored it. I began to have stomach pains, I wasn’t sleeping at night, but put it down to long hours and bad diet. My girlfriend and I at the time lived in a flat together in Clapham. She was a nurse. One morning she said that there was definitely something wrong with me and I needed to seek medical advice. I asked her what she meant. She told me that during the night i was tossing and turning erratically, talking in my sleep and was sweating until the pillow was sodden. She was aware of my stomach complaint as I had moaned about this previously, but as said, I thought it was my diet and lifestyle. I took her words and ignored them. However a couple of weeks later I was on the toilet, and as you do, have your trousers down, I noticed the hair on my left leg was considerably less abundant than on my right leg. I proceeded to rub and pull slightly at the hair on my left leg and it just came out. No pain, no skin resistance, just fell out. I pulled it from all over my left leg and it just fell to the floor! My right leg, normal. I couldn’t repeat this on that one. It was all there and hurt when I tried to do so. That was the moment I accepted that I may need to see a doctor.
So I told my story to the powers that be at work, asking for time off one day to attend the appointment I had booked. The response was less than sympathetic, almost more that I was vying for a day off. I attended the appointment, and they asked me back for further tests, bloods etc,and a colonoscopy which required more time off, again the response at work was that it was my lifestyle, sort yourself out and stop boozing basically. I just want to point out that I wasn’t an alcoholic, far from it, I went out at weekends and had business lunches like any mid-20’s guy might do in my position. So I attended the hospital and they did a few different tests on me and I awaited the results.
About 10 days later I got a call asking me to come into the surgery, it was urgent, could I attend the next day. Again you can imagine the response from the big-wigs, who were now seeing it as, and making office jokes about the scenario. When I attended that meeting with the doctor, he said he’d get straight to the point, and passed me over my results of the tests. As I was reading them he said the word that no one wants to hear. You have earlier stages of Colon Cancer! I had polyps in my colon that are normally benign, however mine were malignant (cancerous), and due to what I had told him in regards to my leg, of which I now hardly had any hair left on it and the sleeping/sweating issues he was sure it was caused through stress. I was shocked to say the least. He then informed me that I was at the latter part of stage 1, entering stage 2, meaning that any further development of the cancer would require Chemotherapy and thus he had booked me in for an operation on monday morning. It was Thursday. Time was of the essence. I’m not normally lost for words, but that morning I was. Suffice to say I wasn’t the only one stunned when I returned to the office with the paperwork and my own bad news.
The result of this episode was 3 months off work, and regular check ups every 5 years, which I still have. My girlfriend and I actually decided to go away to South America for 8 months after the operation, and whilst there my health dramatically improved. My hair grew back and I slept well. I felt a lot better in myself and once out of that environment it was easy to see the stress I had been under. However, the ‘boys club’ attitude and fast pace of city life doesn’t allow you to take stock, as you are seen as weak and unwilling to ‘get the job done’.
Now that part I’m sure may sound familiar to many of you. We are constantly pushed and prodded in our society to behave like rats fighting over cheese in our work environments, but this kind of pressure can be put on us in many different ways and is. Constantly. We’re not meant to ‘moan’ or listen too much to our bodies or minds as other things are more important. Be it our partner's feelings, or someone else’s issues or problems. ‘Oh that’s nothing, you should hear what I’ve had to put up with’ etc etc. Everyone has it worse than you. But not listening to your own mind and body is a dangerous exercise, and sadly, it’s become harder to speak out, and everyone is all too caught up in their own stress.
This is a practice we need to change, and I think the words of this organisation sum it up perfectly - Kind to Mind. Your mind, and others. It’s the most important part of our functioning body. Yes you need a heart to survive, but the brain runs the show. It makes us who we are and controls how we are. Through stress the brain stops running certain organs perfectly and other parts of the body correctly, it basically malfunctions. It tries to combat nerve and other damage it sees through our ability to feel the senses. Fear, anxiety, danger, anger etc. We bottle these emotions up, or let them run riot, either way sending our brain alarm signals that all is not well, and our brain over reacts trying to protect our inner self, in turn causing damage to our mind and body as we are not dealing with the constant threat.
So what to do about it? We can’t all suddenly take time out, go away to South America and leave the troubles behind. This is true, in a way. I feel you have to decide and realise that YOU are the most important thing in your life. If you are not looking after no.1 how can you be in the best place to look after your spouse, children or friends that need you? Money and jobs come and go. They were here before us and will be here long after we are gone too. Life is precious and it’s your own. You only die once but you get the chance to live everyday. Make sure you see yourself as worthy and important, so that you can be the best that you can be to live. Listen to your body, your mind, and when you need a rest, speak out about it. Talking to someone is the start of formulating a plan or change that can help you get back to where you feel comfortable. Bottling it inside is like fuelling a volcano, and eventually it will erupt. You’ve just heard about where mine was taking me. Nothing in this world is more important than your own well being, as I've mentioned. Be no.1 to yourself, then you can be a positive and good influence to all those around you that you want to care for. But it starts with realising the problem and not allowing pier pressure or others to influence your feelings. Only you know you. And what a beautiful wonderful person you are. So if you are struggling mentally with stress or feel a change in your person, talk to your doctor, or a friend or family member but please talk. It might go as far to save a life that we all should cherish.
Take care and be true unto yourself. You matter.