Last Christmas Eve I found myself laying down on one of the corridors of Heathrow airport and crying. I was looking at spending my Christmas on a 12 hours flight to Tokyo so I could attend a major event on the 26th. At home, my husband and my two children would spend Christmas without me for the second year in a row. The year before I spent almost every day in December working 12 to 16 hours a day to finalise an important merger. I started to shake and to struggle to catch a breath. I realised that I was experiencing my first panic attack. The first of many ought to come. I did not seek any help. Instead I headed for the bar. Gin and tonic. And it seemed to make it go away. So I remembered the “cure”.
Looking back now, I realise that when I joined my organisation in a senior management role, I almost immediately had to go on diazepam to cope with the work environment. I remember going to my boss, the VP of finance, one morning, in the first week, and saying “I got four hours of sleep last night”. He replied with “I got three”. It was never like “You should take a day off or something”. So I started to push myself to the limit. And to expect the same from my staff. Over the last five years I relied on psychotherapy, a career coach, occasional weekends away, a supportive spouse and endless massages among other things to help me handle a workplace in which the demands from my various bosses, long working hours and the threat of being fired at any moment for any performance slip-up or political miscue were omnipresent.
But even so, I never seem to have much control over my job and my life. Many months pregnant with my first child, I learned on Thursday that I needed to miss a social engagement on that Saturday so I could be on a flight to Paris to arrive Sunday for a Monday meeting. A couple of months later, whilst on maternity leave, I felt increasingly pressured to return to work in just under two weeks after giving birth to my beautiful daughter so I could present a keynote speech at a major sales event. Naturally enough, the request to come back into work was posed as a compliment: “You have this big role at this important, high-visibility meeting, so you should be flattered to be invited and certainly not miss the opportunity to shine.” The not-so-implicit message that I have not seen then: What’s wrong with you that your job does not come before even your new-born?”
These are only a few of the many examples of an ever-changing schedule and job demands that left me feeling powerless, not in control of my environment. But somehow, I failed to pay attention to them. I pushed through. I was on the peak of my career. I was buying from Prada and staying at the Ritz. I was somebody. I was ready to give away my health, my family and maybe even my life for an organisation that I knew that does not give a crap about me. (side note: Interestingly, a recent Gallup research shows that 88% of the people in UK feel they work for an organisation that does not care about them, but they will gladly sacrifice their well-being for their organisation profit). I ignorantly and arrogantly thought that depression did not happen to people who were “successful”, with a good job, house in the suburbs, station wagon and so on.
Confronting almost impossible work demands that required frequent all-nighters, I began taking stimulants, moved on to the exceedingly available cocaine, and numbed the constant workplace stress and abusive supervision with alcohol and Xanax. Now, I am here in front of you, again crying on a Christmas Eve, when for the third year in a row, my family will spend Christmas without me, because mommy is on a 28-days alcohol and benzo detox. And I say, fuck this - never again.
This is a snippet of a life story told by one of my clients, let’s call her Helen, in a group session at the rehab I have worked with for the last 4 years. She had a senior finance role working in a rapidly growing medical services provider. Her (ultimately successful) detox process from workplace-induced alcohol and drug addiction required an enormous amount of psychological and financial resources – and, of course, leaving her toxic place of employment.
Possibly the saddest part of the tale is that her experience is scarcely unique. So many of us seem willing to sacrifice our health and well-being for a paycheck or for achieving and maintaining a certain social status. So many of us choose to stay in a toxic workplace environment in which the culture permits, if not even encourages, practices that are more damaging to our health than secondhand smoking. In a busy and chaotic environment stopping and taking time for ourselves, taking time for reflection will put us face to face with our true selves and with the consequences of our life decisions. So, like Helen, many of us choose not to stop. Until we break down. Until we burn out. Until our body will make that decision for us. So, I am making a plea to you - take a moment and ask yourself: where do you want to be this Christmas?