The day I had a physical breakdown

physical breakdown

On the evening of December 26th 2010, Christmas festivities were over. I lay back on the couch to watch a movie but soon fell asleep, only to wake up hours later in some of the most agonising pain I’d ever experienced. I literally could not sleep other than propped up on the sofa for nearly a month from that point on!

Having not been to the GP since, well, pretty much “ever”, I called our GP (a family friend) and they had me come in the next day for blood tests. When the tests came back, they sat me down and told me that one of the blood markers was 24 times over the normal level and that this meant a diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis. As someone who had been an athlete almost all my adult life, this was devastating.

To cut a long story short, luckily, after over two months of enforced rest (and many more medical tests), I was fine. It turned out that I was simply stressed and had been overdoing it, and overdoing it massively.

I’m writing this post as a recent email by Whitney Johnson struck a chord with me, where she said:

I love my work. In fact, that might be an understatement. Because I love it and love the people I work with, I get even more opportunities to work. Imagine my surprise then, when one day a few months ago, I realized, “I am really stressed. Why do I feel this way? I’m not supposed to be stressed. I love my work.”

So, let me tell you why my body literally broke down on Boxing Day 2010.

Awareness is the greatest agent for change

That phrase is one that my dear friend and mentor Suki Smith uses to sign off every email. She taught me so much about coaching, which is after all, all about awareness.

So, this take of how my body broke down is all about awareness, or the lack of it! I hope my story may be of value to some of you reading this in your own awareness around stress, whether physical or mental.

Stress does not have to be related to the negatives in life

Up until my physical breakdown, I had always associated stress with feeling negative about work, but at that time I had just come off the most fun time I had ever had in my career!

When my body shut down I was literally just lying down to relax for the holidays after an intensive four months. Oh, and I did I mention how much FUN it all had been?!

In the period leading up to Christmas, I was coming to the end of my first year running my own business and it had gone really well, I was supporting lots of clients and projects and, yup, loving every minute.

On top of that, in September I had received a phone call from the owner of one of the Tour de France pro cycling teams asking if I could pull together a team camp in Cayman in a little over two months, in early December.

Oh, and the original idea I had pitched to him of a relaxed end of season camp for about fifteen riders had changed. They had, the day before the call, announced a merger with another pro team and so they needed a real team bonding camp, with over 70 people flying in from over 30 countries, including key sponsors and team owners.

cycling physical breakdown
Thor Hushovd, World Champion, riding in Cayman 2010.
Oh, and a blog I wrote with lessons from it

Oh, and this was a voluntary gig to do on top of my “day job”. Luckily I got amazing support from a fellow cyclist and cycling fan in Cayman, plus the COO of the team, Louise Donald, turned out to be simply the most brilliant Operations manager I’ve ever worked with. I feel blessed to call Louise a friend these nine years later. Oh, and if you want a world-class COO, look no further!

It was an incredible time, with very little sleep in the run up to the camp. By the time it started, I was literally hobbling from my car to the team base, and so badly that Louise diverted me to the team medics to work on me to give me “running repairs” on my legs and back. Yes, I STILL didn’t connect the dots to having over-stressed myself. Such lack of awareness from someone who then started to train as a coach a few months later. Ha!

Proactive Resilience

As it turned out, the day I got the “all clear” from the specialist in Miami, I then flew that evening to the UK to join that coaching business and the first thing I did was attend an internal coaches conference, where one of the speakers was Alex Davids of the business that has now morphed into Next Evolution Performance, led by Vanessa Bennett with Alex as a partner. Alex’ focus was and is on human performance for leaders.

Ever since that time in 2010 I have been vigilant about managing my own mental and physical state, including using what I call “proactive resilience“, hence why on this site you will see frequent posts around physical, mental and spiritual tools for leaders around their own awareness and performance.

So, that is the story of the day I had a physical breakdown.

Oh, and having mentioned Alex and Vanessa, it had special resonance for me to mentor Vanessa as she established Next Evolution Performance, and, by extension, play a tiny part in supporting the human performance of their clients. In reading my story, I am sure you can understand why I feel that way.

Also published on Medium.