As this week is Mental Health Awareness Week I have decided to dedicate this week’s Third Team Blog to telling my story of how I’ve overcome challenges, failures & disappointments in my formative years and to discuss the impact that setting up a business has had on my mental health.
This is me as a carefree toddler, except I wasn’t. When I was three I couldn’t sit in a traffic jam without getting the overwhelming and irrational fear I’d be stuck there forever, nor could I be left alone in places with other kids my age where they were just having fun for fear that I was being abandoned.
What I’m trying to say is that I am a sufferer of (at times severe) anxiety, I always have been and I always will be. It’s a part of me but I know that a lot better now because I have invested my time into understanding myself better. I now understand why, during my school years, I woke up and vomited two or three times before ten o’clock most days, why I haven’t eaten breakfast for ten years and why my mental health causes me so much physical pain and discomfort that I had and still do have to expend so much energy dealing with it and the issues it causes me. If I didn’t I’d never achieve anything.
It can be hard when relationships with people break down because they perceive you to be weak and untrustworthy having seen your state when you go into your Lion’s den, everyone has a Lion’s den, a place where your anxiety is spiked and you can end up just freezing because you’re trying to get a lid on the cocktail of emotions inside your body, when you “survive” your time in the Lion’s den you’re tired from fighting your anxiety but you’re proud. The biggest challenge is that a place which is a Lion’s den to you could be a normal place that you’re expected to frequent as a “normal” person would and nobody can understand what your “problem” is.
To know yourself is important, when I went to university, I chose to study in Manchester. City centre living was very much different to the mixture of seeing trees and fields when I woke up but only being 10 minutes from the city, I had the best of both worlds growing up. When I moved I began to realise I was deeply unhappy, I wasn’t eating well, my body was telling me I wasn’t in a good place and mostly worryingly, from a mental health perspective, my levels of OCD had gone from normal to bordering on unstable. I would pour boiling water on plates and cutlery before meal times as I’d become obsessed with getting ill and trying to avoid that. My mind was telling me “If you’re going to be in a city where you don’t feel safe, you can’t get ill”. I realised in the moment that my behaviour was abnormal and unhealthy and when I returned to where I grew up I was able to begin putting my mental health back in order.
Out Into The Real World
You’d think that getting away from a place which caused me such mental anguish and pain would be the end of my troubles wouldn’t you? If only it were that easy! My mental heath was recovering from a beating, much like your body does when you’re recovering from a bad virus, it takes time and it aches for a while.
It took me four months before my mindset was ready to look to the future, I started volunteering at my mother’s business and begun to apply for jobs. little did I know the can of worms this would open. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but felt deflated knowing that none of what I’d learned in the previous year would be of any use to me now. I just picked a sector I thought I could work in based upon limited exposure to previous experiences and started applying for roles. At that time I was sending at least 60 applications a week out, I was lucky if I was receiving 1 or 2 responses to those.
For every week I was volunteering and sending out job applications my mood would be generally happy and upbeat for the majority of the time, however every 5 or 6 weeks I would have a whole week where even basic tasks seemed a real chore, my mood was low and I’d feel fatigued. This process went on for months and months and I became increasingly anxious about my finances amongst many other things with only my match fees from refereeing to keep me going. It is human nature to look around at our peers and when I did that all I saw was my friends either working full time and earning money or developing themselves in education whilst I felt sidelined from the conveyor belt of life with time ticking away, I felt as if they were making progress and I was not.
It was 4 months before I was invited to the first of what would be 18 interviews I attended. This begun a new pain for me, in the form of receiving a phone call later that day or in the days that followed which informed me of my lack of success in gaining employment. I feel lucky that my resilience levels are quite high and i could bounce back ready for the next interviews, the rejection only served to increase my motivation. Undoubtedly, what really did hurt being told that I was under consideration for the job as one of the final two candidates and then being unsuccessful, especially on one occasion when I knew this for 6 agonising days whilst waiting for an outcome.
Interviews came and went over the next 14 months until I had two in one week in September 2018. The old adage about waiting for a bus for a long time and then two coming along at one certainly came to fruition for me. It was wonderful to have a decision to make and gave me a great lift as I felt all of my persistence and sacrifice had paid off.
Change and entering new environments have always been something which has triggered a rise in my anxiety levels and so, understandably, beginning my first job was mentally taxing. I wanted to make a good impression but in my mind all I could think about was how to mask any physical manifestations of anxieties I may have had. The workplace was also an environment I’d not previously been in, as such I was trying to observe my colleagues with regards to how to conduct myself, which I was constantly second guessing.
After a couple of weeks I realised the culture of the organisation was very much the wrong fit for me. I quickly sensed that the department manager didn’t approve of my line manager’s decision to appoint me, it was very definitely a personal vendetta and not one based on lack of merit or ability. I was being criticised for minor details and attacked for my life choices. I, though, was inexperienced and didn’t always handle these things in the best manner, I told myself that I was not going to let anyone take my living from me and puffed my chest out and stood up to the criticism which, in hindsight, probably only served to make the department manager feel more uneasy about me. I left after a short spell and promised myself I’d never let it happen to me or allow myself to feel like that ever again.
I looked introspectively at everything which had happened in that job and I realised that my diagnosis of Autism, some six years earlier, may have had something to do with the way things had played out. I knew I had this condition but I didn’t understand it or the implications it had for me. I hadn’t thought that it had hindered my progression through life up to that point and had thought that the diagnosis purely served as a means to an end for me to get additional time in exams when I was at school.
I sought out an advocate in Autism and began sessions with him. The process was totally and utterly revelatory, for me it was like I’d begun the sessions as a series of electrical wires all tangled together and the process was one of untangling them. I learned about things about my childhood, where I was at the time of our sessions and how I could adapt to have a successful future. I’m lucky to be able to function relatively normally and not have a more severe and limiting form of Autism, although there are some things I’m unable to do. One of the key lessons from this was my education about the fluctuation in my state of mental health, my anxiety and its physical manifestations. I learned that due to being on the spectrum I am more prone to bouts of anxiety and mental ill health.
These sessions also allowed me to look towards my professional future and I was guided towards self-employment and a passion project. The day before I had left my job I was refereeing a game which had a violent assault between two players in it. The police were involved and, as the person responsible for the welfare of the 22 players, I assisted their investigation. I believe the adrenaline got me through the day of the incident but what I had seen and the goings on of that day lingered in my mind like no other incident in a game which I’d officiated in my three years as an official had, this deeply affected me in the short term.
This was one of the driving factors behind me setting up The Third Team. I have always wanted to do something which could make a positive difference and to be able to help referees to deal with issues such as mine and keep them in the game as active officials. Through nothing other than misfortune I didn’t get the support I needed at the time, my networks weren’t expanded enough and I hadn’t had the opportunity to get training on how to me more resilient and mentally tough.
I was able to access a fantastic support network due to my Autism diagnosis and this opened up the door for me to work alongside people who could give me support and guidance on the qualifications I undertook to be the best educator I can be, in addition to giving me excellent support in the logistics of setting up a business and growing it to a point where it could take on work.
I’m extremely proud of how far I have come, but as with any walks of life there are still stresses and strains along the way and occasional bad days amongst the good. I know that my business doesn’t function if I don’t so I take great pride in my own self-care. Everyone has mental health in the same way they have physical health and sometimes it just needs us to take some time out of our stress-filled daily lives and give ourselves a bit of TLC to make sure we’re happy and healthy both physically and mentally.
The mind is the most important tool we possess, we need to look after it!
“You can’t skip chapters, that’s not how life works. You have to read every line, meet every character. You won’t enjoy all of it. Hell, some chapters will make you cry for weeks. You will read things you don’t want to read, you will have moments when you don’t want the pages to end. But you have to keep going. Stories keep the world revolving. Live yours, don’t miss out.” – Courtney Peppernell
Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team
Nathan Sherratt, Referee Educator, Resilience Trainer and Managing Director of The Third Team. A Mental Toughness Practitioner based in County Durham, North East England.