Corporate to creative: adventures in anxiety and coming out the other side

Photo by Anna Batchelor from my house tour with  MADE

Photo by Anna Batchelor from my house tour with MADE

I promised a while back to write a post about my experience of leaving a corporate career in the City to set up my own business and what I learned along the way. It’s probably not the journey you’re expecting and it hasn’t been easy to write. Because the truth is: anxiety made me do it.

I moved to London at 23 and signed up with some temp agencies to get some cashflow coming in until I found a ‘proper job’. You know, something creative. Something interesting. Something awesome

I worked on the switchboard at a major newspaper one day (most of which was spent standing outside after someone phoned in a hoax bomb threat), and on the cloakroom at a renowned auction house the next, swallowing my pride and screaming on the inside ‘I have a goddamn degree!’ after being scolded for not hanging a woman’s giant fur coat the correct way on the rail.

I took a gig working in a corporate events team at a major bank. It was a permanent role, but at 23 permanent really means for a year or two anyway. Except 9 years later I looked up and found that I was, somewhat inexplicably, still there. Unlikely outcome for a ripped-jeans-wearing, Neutral-Milk-Hotel-listening former art student but it paid the bills and there’s really no scoffing at that.

I went for promotions and (mostly) got them. I learned how to negotiate. Write contracts. Speak in front of a crowd of strangers. How to walk into a room alone and ‘network’ without feeling like a total knob. I learned about business strategy and the art of half-listening during conference calls you don’t really need to be on so you can, you know, actually get some work done.

By 30 I was at managerial level and making good money. Buying smart shift dresses. Setting aside a healthy 15% of my salary in a pension. Like, totally adulting.

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But the truth is most mornings I felt like I had to step into my corporate alter-ego’s clothes and pretend that this was the right job for me. Pretend that I didn’t find the unrelenting competitiveness of the corporate environment oppressive. That all the Orwellian office-speak (I could honestly write a book), bullying and constant battling to scale the career ladder didn’t make me want to stab my earballs out. Don’t get me wrong, I had some really lovely colleagues too, and for a little while at least, one of the best bosses of my life. But mostly I felt like an alien in an alien world, and that my strengths were a total mismatch for the way I was being asked to work.

And in retrospect there were so many signs of problems creeping in. I had a panic attack in the office one day. I collapsed at my desk, couldn’t catch my breathe and was pretty sure I was dying. Mascara-smeared tears running down my face in front of my entire team as the office first-aider told me to put my head between my knees. #winning.

On doctor’s orders I took a few days off and then back to work I trundled, arms tingling and carrying a heavy sense of dread about who knows what in particular. I told myself that I’d get my diet in check, drink more water, maybe make yoga a regular part of my routine. And then I’d be fine.

And the months and years just kept ticking along, as they do.

I had near-constant eye aches and neck pain, the sort of thing you can live with but takes your quality of life down a good few notches. On the worst days the headaches were so bad I crawled into bed straight from the front door. I saw ophthalmologists who just racked it up to eye strain from staring at a screen all day. I felt pretty consistently a little bit dreadful.

Then a creeping loss of concentration. Indecision. Sitting on a task for days, weeks, because I doubted myself and catastrophised all of the possible consequences if I made the wrong decision, worded an email imperfectly, said the wrong thing on a call.

So I told myself I just need to try harder to take regular breaks at work. Go for a walk at lunch to clear my head. Take on board all the suggestions for ‘managing workplace stress’ from the HR posters hung on the walls around the office, with their stock photos and their relinquishing of all responsibility for, I don’t know, not fostering a more human-compatible workplace environment in the first place?

Meanwhile, 2014 kicked off a series of events that happen to a lot of us at one time or another, but that in combination felt…unrelenting.

My wonderful granny passed away after a fall and a year later my grandad joined her, a few days after celebrating his 90th birthday. It felt like the end of an era for our family. I got scammed by the courier I’d hired to collect sentimental items from the estate and after a marathon all-night drive to Ayrshire and back in a hired van I was £400 out of pocket.

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Back at home, my cat had become a little unsteady on her feet. I figured it was just the old girl getting on in years. Maybe she needed a prescription diet. Or some medication?

 ‘Kidney failure. In a cat this age you’ll want to consider euthanasia’, said the recipient of the Least Compassionate Veterinarian Ever award. She declined rapidly and 2 weeks later I held her in my lap, all skin and bones, as she was put to sleep. I adopted her from a shelter when she was 7 weeks old and had her for 13 years. I was heartbroken.

I woke up most days feeling pit-of-my-stomach dread. I was clammy and on edge. Like I was always trying to just catch up. In meetings my voice would shake when I spoke. Simple tasks seemed like mountains to climb. I was exhausted Every. Single. Day. I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t sleep through the night. I was paralysed by indecision and this cloud of paranoia that everyone thought I was…I don’t know, terrible at my job? At life? A failure? And who really needs evidence when you have that clever little voice in your head telling you what really must be the truth.

My husband and I had been talking about it for years. I HAD to leave my job. I was miserable, miserable to be around, and I wasn’t looking after myself. I could barely function.

We went away on holiday for a week and when I got back to work on the Monday morning I felt worse than I had the day I left. I told my boss I was leaving the next day. We were planning our wedding and about to embark on the last (and biggest) phase of our renovations and I thought, hey, won’t it be great for me to be at home to project manage, handle all the designing, ordering, chasing, supervising that goes along with a big project. I could use the house as the beginnings of an interior design portfolio and the time off work might give me a chance to breath. To figure out what I really want to do with my life.

This guy <3

This guy <3

Instead, I spent the next 3 months trying to clear my name and debts after having my identity stolen in the States. Some brazen yobs went on a spree opening credit card, bank and store accounts in my name with fake IDs and a whole lotta nerve. It took an emergency flight to Chicago, a police report and many, many hours of form-filling and international phone calls to resolve. But more than anything it really knocked my sense security…there’s nothing quite like identify theft to leave you feeling exposed.

I was so low that I didn’t recognise myself anymore. I couldn’t square up the old me – ambitious, worked so hard to get a degree, moved overseas on my own, climbed the career ladder – with the new me. Jobless. Directionless. I dreaded meeting new people because what would I say? I didn’t DO anything…who even was I?

It was around this time that my mom was diagnosed with Lynch syndrome, a serious genetic cancer syndrome. The average person’s risk of getting bowel cancer in a lifetime is about 5% – if you have the Lynch mutation that runs in my family it’s up to 80% and the cancer usually develops much earlier than usual, in the 30’s, 40’s or even younger. And it brings with it an increased risk of a host of other cancers too. The diagnosis meant that me, my brother and his brand new baby had a 50/50 chance of having Lynch Syndrome as well.

The time from my mom’s diagnosis to getting my own genetic test results was about 5 months and for most of that time I was in a state of permanent danger mode. Everything startled me – a noise outside, the doorbell, even my husband speaking when we were sitting quietly in a room. Heart-thumping, fight or flight panic at the smallest little thing, all day, every day.  Taking a shower felt like a major achievement.

I spent that time painting our newly renovated house, stair spindle after spindle, primer, undercoat, top coat, top coat. Trying to keep busy, trying to get to grips with what my future and my family’s future might hold.

And when the results came back - I don’t have Lynch Syndrome and neither does my brother - I cried tears of relief in the consultant’s office, went home and decided that life is way too short to spend it being miserable. You’re never guaranteed a tomorrow and I’d better get on with things if I wanted to feel like SOMEONE again.

I went on antidepressants for 6 months and saw a really great therapist to try to get a handle on the anxiety. I wasn’t hopeful and I didn’t see the progress I was making until it had already happened. But happen it did.

MADE.com approached me about doing a tour of my home for their website - the push I needed to get the house finished. And I set up this here website to try and kickstart some traffic for my new business, something I’d been mulling over for years without having the confidence to ever actually start.

I did some market research and wrote a plan for what design services I did and didn’t want to offer. I registered as self-employed. I just jumped in. I said yes to opportunities – creating interior designs for friends, contributing to guest blog posts for brands who’s products I had in my home. I said yes to everything that came my way, went to events on my own, met like-minded people and did a lot of work for free. Anything I could to get my name out there. And I won’t say it wasn’t all a bit scary because OH YES it definitely was.

Photo by Anna Batchelor from my house tour with  MADE

Photo by Anna Batchelor from my house tour with MADE

I also won’t underestimate how fortunate I was to have money in the bank that allowed me to take a career/sanity break, an amazing GP who supported me every step of the way and an absolute saintly rock of a husband. I mean the guy has a literal halo above his head. But no matter your circumstances, it IS possible to make a change. Yes it will be terrifying, it may well be terrifying for a while, and being terrified all the time sure is unpleasant. I guess for me it was about trying to accept that the uncertainty and fear were unavoidable and just part of the process.

And if mental health issues are holding you back, I can only speak from my own experience when I say this, but it CAN get better. Maybe not overnight, maybe not in a week or even a month. But it can get better, and when you’re pretty sure it can’t get any worse, what do you have to lose?

So. What’s the first thing you need to do to get where you want to be? You probably already know the answer. DO THAT THING. Focus on the first step and then the second, not the what ifs or the next weeks or the but-how-will-I’s. Tell the mean little anxiety-gremlin on your shoulder to do one.

A year and half on my little business is happily ticking along. I have autonomy and I reap all the rewards of the work I put in. I can choose the projects I take on, say no to things that aren’t the right fit, push harder to ramp it up or slow it right down if I’m feeling under pressure.

I can say no to anything that involves travelling on the Central Line at rush hour (and believe me I do). I control my own time and I have what I sought out to build – a fulfilling job that can evolve with me. I’ll probably never earn what I did in banking but that’s a compromise I was able and happy to make, and one that’s been 100% right for me. Leaving the City was the best decision I was ever forced to make and apart from the odd wobble, anxiety doesn’t hold me back.

My momma is doing great too. She’s getting all the regular screening she needs and is beating all the Lynch Syndrome odds. Like a boss. She constantly amazes me with her ability to think positively and take each day as it comes. Probably because that’s something I’ve always been a bit rubbish at….wonder if it’s possible to have a mutation in your optimism gene?

And one last (very important) thing: If you have a strong family history of bowel cancer please do speak to your GP. Don’t wait. Around 1 in 300 people are believed to have Lynch Syndrome, but only 5% of them know about it. Left undiscovered it can devastate generations of families but screening and preventative surgery are proven to save lives. Knowledge really is power. You can visit Lynch Syndrome UK to learn more.