In 2013, my dad was battling late stage blood cancer and recovering from a stroke. Meanwhile, I was undergoing a long, gruelling journey of fertility treatment, in the midst of working a very stressful job, negotiating possible redundancy and completing a Masters degree. In many ways, it was one of the most positive years of my life. It was the year I decided to start looking after my mind.
Growing up, we were comfortably off. Dad had a good career in senior management. A proud, jolly man, he loved to share news of his and his family’s achievements with others. When the redundancy happened, it hit him hard. As he saw it, that wasn’t meant to happen. Already in his 50s, he struggled to find another permanent role and his mental health issues peppered our home life in my teenage years. They had always been there under the surface, but when money hadn’t been a worry, they rarely raised their head.
“But this wasn’t meant to happen...”
Despite this, I was a jolly teenager, although plagued with what, I’m sure now, was the usual self-doubt for my age. When I was 18, I went off on a ‘gap yah’ to Ecuador. I came back on a high. I had, of course, “found myself”. Bursting with a new found sense of self and confidence, I hit the ground with a bump. I was back living with my parents in their new house, my childhood home having gone on the market the day I left. None of my friends were around since everyone was off living it up at university. Before too long, I grew depressed. The realisation of this led to panic at the thought that things weren’t perfect and I spiralled. Depression soon grew into intense anxiety as I became obsessed with constantly checking my mood to see if I felt better again. I didn’t. Again, this wasn’t meant to happen.
I never really shook it off. Throughout my early 20s, I rode an adrenaline wave doing interesting stuff, keeping myself busy and focussing my attention on others. No-one would have known from the outside the internal battle I was facing every day. All the while, my career was progressing well, I was earning good money for my age and was able to buy a house with my fiancé. The money wasn’t enough - much of the time, I was screaming inside.
A couple of years of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a gem of a therapist and a short dose of medication, and eventually I started to feel a bit better. I started trying to make up for the previous years of emotional detachment by being everywhere and being everything to everyone. Despite feeling better in myself, I burned myself out again.
Letting in imperfection
So by the time 2013 rolled round, I really had had enough. That year, the world threw me enough lemons to take on Schweppes. So I stuck a finger or two to the”man” or whoever, and finally started being kind to myself. My now husband and I started saying no to things. I started focusing on the present. I had to stop worrying about what I could or should have done, or what I could or should do in future. When you spend that much time with a recovering stroke victim with no short-term memory, you can’t be anywhere but the present. Life was difficult, emotionally and physically, but fighting against it made it feel worse. When I did, I just ended up feeling miserable, and measuring myself against others who were out partying, and seemingly care-free. I just accepted life was pretty tricky right then, and that just had to be ok. I started to let things not be perfect anymore.
Around this time, a dear friend introduced me to the concept of mindfulness and meditation. Everyone has a light-bulb moment at some point - this was mine. For me, it worked wonders: a few weeks into a daily ten-minute practice and I realised how much more easily I could handle the stresses in my life, how much lighter I felt. I no longer told myself off, no longer allowed guilt to set in. I was less critical of others, and I was more assured in myself. And you know what? It has lasted. So far.
Leaving a legacy
So where does inheritance come into this? Well, miraculously, our daughter popped along ten months ago. According to society, there is an expectation that we further ourselves on from our parents, and for offspring to follow suit. This is widely assumed to refer to a financial and social rise in status, to provide a legacy for your children, and for generations to come. Take the widely-lauded story of Alan Sugar, for example. Started out at 16 years old from a council estate and now one of the world’s richest businessmen. Or access candidates at Oxbridge transforming their future with a graduate scheme place at Goldman Sachs. The post-war generation in particular reacted to the austerity of their ration-led upbringing and embraced an era of materialism and relative wealth. They didn’t have jobs, they had careers. They had savings and pensions. My parents looked forward to enjoying theirs in the sumptuous delight of travelling a world opened up by their ‘gap yah’ing children.
The thing is, I see it differently...
Maybe that’s because on the day my dad retired, the doctor informed him that the persistent flu bug he had been battling was in fact multiple myeloma, with a five-year prognosis. Four months later, he suffered a debilitating brain stem stroke and mum became his full-time carer. All that saving and stress about money was for nothing. He missed out on so much by spending so many years worrying.
I am probably relatively as well off financially as my parents were at my age. No better, no worse. But I have been able to tackle my mental health issues in a way that my dad was not able to. What characterises our generation by contrast is not materialism, but mindfulness. Thanks to the social context of my adult life, I have access to a whole host of resources and social understanding to improve my mental health that my parents’ generation simply did not. My mind is now altogether healthier than my dad’s was at my age, and I am more self-aware. I feel more open to what life will bring, and more present in the every day. This awareness has brought more opportunities my way that give me fulfilment because I haven’t been focussed on what I should be doing, or what I should be earning.
By some parallel twist of fate, I have been close to redundancy whilst on maternity leave this year, and the thought did take our breath for a moment. We’d be silly not to be concerned, especially now we have a child. But it is one thing to be focused on the issue as it enters our lives, and to direct the necessary attention to finding a solution in the here and now. It is another to let our minds spiral into despair at the potential loss of income, and to imagine the awful things that might happen if I were to lose my job. That isn’t going to help anyone. So whilst I’m not a millionaire, I’d like to think I have furthered my father’s legacy.
Mum, too soon a widow, in her 70s is embarking on her own impressive journey of mindfulness and self-compassion. She goes to yoga class every week, walks the dog every morning, rain or shine, and travels the world. She is no more a millionaire than she has ever been, but, in my eyes, she has never seemed richer.
Money isn’t everything.
I know that’s a potentially dangerous thing to say in an age of austerity. Don’t get me wrong - we all need to eat and have a roof over our heads. But the excess that seems to be associated with success in the celebrity world is not, in my book, all that. In fact, there are celebrities who, despite success, have suffered with mental health difficulties. Josh Radnor of US Sitcom How I Met Your Mother admitted to an inverse relationship between his success and mental health: the more successful the sitcom became, the more depressed he grew. Made in Chelsea star Josh Patterson (perhaps as blatant a symbol of wealth as you get) opened up in February this year about his battle with depression. Money isn’t everything. Looking back, it is creating a healthy mind, not my career, that is without doubt my greatest achievement to date.
Even my husband, a dedicated NHS doctor, has reached the same conclusion. NHS general practice changed him from a calm, emotionally-constant man into one constantly stretched to his physical and emotional limit, and expected to do more and more with no more money. Not that he does it for the money. He does it for the patients. He made the difficult decision to drop some hours to get some balance back and, with some mindfulness work himself, he is much healthier. He is now able to give more to his patients, more to his family, and most importantly, more to himself. Always ones to keep an eye on the purse strings, we have learned together that a healthy wallet means nothing if the mind is sick.
What REALLY matters...
Now, of course we wish our daughter financial security and a fulfilling, successful career. Yet our prime objective has never been clearer: to raise a girl who is mindful and compassionate towards herself and others, able to cope with whatever and whoever life throws at her. If we can do that, then I consider that the very very best trust fund we can leave behind for her future.