At the crossroads – Ian’s story
In 2017, Ian was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. He left his CEO position to start his own business tackling mental health stigma in sport. With the power of music, exercise and his support system, Ian is trying to overcome his current crisis.
I’m going through a bit of a crisis at the moment, in fact one hell of a crisis if I’m honest. I have a strapline for my business, “take and give care”, which means if you don’t care take of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of others. I learnt the lesson here the hard way.
In 2017, I came to a sudden understanding that I was mentally ill and had been for some time. The shock to my system was the day our first dog arrived - Fred, a soft coated Irish Wheaten Terrier. The house was joyous, chaotic, giddy, buzzing, but I’d never felt so lonely, in my own home surrounded by my family.
I snuck out of the house and went for a bike ride for a couple of hours. When I came back, I told my wife that I was going to the doctor’s because I believed that I was mentally ill, and that I was going to leave my job – which at the time was the CEO of the British Athletes Commission (BAC), the union for 1,500 plus Olympic and Paralympic athletes in over 40 sports.
Northern men aren’t supposed to communicate their feelings, good or bad, and in times of trouble, carry the burden internally.
I was signed off work the next day, and my diagnosis was severe clinical depression, general anxiety disorder and burnout. Being signed off gave me space to breathe, start my medication and begin psychotherapy with a brilliant therapist. So, getting some space was my first lesson. It was great having Fred around too as he needed training and exercise which got me outside and moving.
Although he’ll never know it, Fred taught me to be in the moment, to be mindful. A difficult concept for a working-class lad from Lancashire, but one I have since tried to embrace. To be grateful for all that I have and not worry about what I haven’t got.
The CEO’s role at the BAC was very demanding and we had limited resource. I always had lots to do and never knew when an athlete would call to seek advice, support or guidance. It was always a challenging problem; no one ever rang to tell me they were having a great time! To address my increasing workload, I tried to work even harder using the same methodology that had got me to this crisis point. Nuts. I couldn’t see the wood from the trees as I was overwhelmed.
I was extremely vulnerable at the time because I’d lost what I thought was my sense of purpose.
Northern men aren’t supposed to communicate their feelings, good or bad, and in times of trouble, carry the burden internally. This weighs you down literally and metaphorically – my posture was poor, with tension in my shoulders. The way I learnt to ease the burden is to communicate and not withdraw.
I thought I failed as a husband, father, and son because I wasn’t good enough and had not only let them down, but the members of the BAC too. Huge pressure had to be taken away and talking was (and remains) the answer.
I talked to several other leaders in the sports sector and didn’t hide why I’d been off work. Their response was amazingly supportive and I learnt that I wasn’t the only one suffering out there.
I was extremely vulnerable at the time because I’d lost what I thought was my sense of purpose, leading the BAC. But through talking I realised that my work in sport wasn’t over. If there were other senior leaders in the sector in a similar predicament to me, then who’s looking after the people looking after the people? No-one!
To be grateful for all that I have and not worry about what I haven’t got.
So, I set up my business and redefined that sense of purpose. I vowed to never get in that state of isolation or loneliness again, whether I was a CEO of an organisation or the MD of a start-up, both of which can be very lonely.
I established a ‘personal board’ of people whose paths crossed with mine. Family, people from my world of work, Fred! Some know they are on my ‘board’, others don’t. They are all individuals I trust, where I feel safe and can be open to their advice, support and guidance.
Talking and exercise are the key strands here… and the power of music as both a distraction and an ability to change mood. This has been reinforced recently by OneTrackMinds. Their premise is that people not only tell a story about a memorable time of their lives, but link it to one track of music. I had the privilege of doing this earlier this year, and it has been a life changer.
I’m exercising a lot, talking to my 'board’ and a life coach because I need help in making some changes. My family are very supportive. Change is going to happen on a number of levels, in a number of ways that are still to play out. But I’m okay and I know I will be okay in time.
A track of music has to be anchored to this time in my life, whatever happens next. At this moment in time, when I am at the crossroads, the track is Rick Astley’s Cry for Help.
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