Rise as the Whole Damn Fire
I delivered a talk last week where I spoke more openly than I ever have before about some of the challenges I’ve faced around my hip dysplasia, body image, and depression and how they’ve played a part in shaping my business today. It was tough to share some of it, thankfully my FAB Network community are amazing, and I knew it would be a safe space. It’s mental health awareness week and despite things improving some people still feel like they can’t be open...
I tell these stories, not because I want people to feel sorry for me, but so they get an idea of who I am and why I do what I do. And it might be just what someone who is struggling needs to read.
Disability, depression and body shaming
Here's a truncated version of the talk…
Ten years ago, I was working in a prison. I can’t say that had ever been a burning ambition. My actual ambition all through school was to become a special effect make-up artist. Sadly those dreams were shattered as the reality of having a defective hip joint from birth hit hard. Imagine being told you need a total hip replacement at 19!
1966, I’m learning to walk. My grandad notices that I’m walking funny. Soon after I’m in a plaster cast from armpit to ankle, legs spread out like a frog, diagnosed with Developmental Dysplasia of the Hip.
A few years later, aged 8, the nasty purple scars from more surgery left me feeling very self conscious. That was when I first became aware of being “different” to the other kids.
Aged 13 I had experience of being body shamed when, the “pretty girl’s mum told me that she thought I’d be able to get a boyfriend like Susan if I lost a bit of weight.
Aged 19, I was back on the operating table. They need to remove the metal plate I’d had in my leg since I was 3, as it was causing problems. This surgery was aborted due to complications. It was at this point my make up artist dreams were shattered, and I was told I needed a hip replacement, but it would have to wait.
I turn my attention to the more sedentary profession of textile design; leave home, fully embrace student life and on graduating from Loughborough University, snag myself a coveted design job and, eventually a serious boyfriend. Life is good.
Until I started with bad pain again. Needing a walking stick in your late 20’s when all you want to do is dance and party is the pits. I see a consultant, that metal plate MUST come out. This time the surgery is not aborted. Instead, the heavy-handed medics accidentally broke my femur in the operating theatre.
Around the same time I secured a full-time lecturing job which had a 140-mile daily commute. It’s tiring but doable. I love the work and the pay is good so it’s worth it. I spent several hours a day on the M1. We get a mortgage, make plans to get married and start a family. I’m in my early 30’s by now, my body clock is ticking, and it feels like the right time.
A few weeks before the wedding, I’m driving home from work with another couple of motorway junctions to go when I lose control of my car. I couldn’t quite work out what was happening initially, but quickly realised I’d been hit by the lorry I was overtaking. This trauma led to me being diagnosed with clinical depression. I became a nervous wreck, anxious, jittery, and unable to make even the simplest of decisions. The wedding went ahead as planned though and eventually I went back to work. That was until, 6 months after the lorry incident, I was involved in another accident in the same spot of the motorway. This time I was the third vehicle amid a 6 car pile up. Again, I walked away physically unharmed, apart from whiplash but the toll on my mental health was to be longstanding.
With all the rubbish I’d been through you can imagine my delight as I fell pregnant. I was not so delighted to gain 5 stone during the pregnancy, having already been conscious of my weight since my early teens.
Nor was I so happy with the unreasonable boss making demands during my maternity leave. Rather than contacting my union rep I somehow made an impulsive, irrational, baby brained decision to walk away from my well-paid lecturing job before my maternity leave was over! Chief bread winner no more, a new baby to look after and then my husband gets made redundant twice in a 6-month period. What now?
I decided to join the world of party plan. I absolutely love it! I’m getting paid for playing with make-up and I’m around for every school run. I go to all the sports days and I’m there to see my son’s stage debut in his first nativity. It is the perfect job for me. I do well, win all kinds of awards and even meet Sir Richard Branson several times.
But I’m living a double life where I’m sticking my head in the sand. Relying heavily on credit cards our debts were rising as my mood was sinking lower and lower.
We make the decision that another baby would be the answer to lift my spirits. However, adding to the family was not to be. My mental health spiralled even further downwards, my business and marriage started unravelling too.
I had to keep going, for the sake of my little boy though. It was difficult to keep up the public facade, privately I felt very alone in my struggle. Depression wasn’t something you were open about in those days. There was stigma attached. Meanwhile my hip joint is steadily deteriorating, I have bone on bone pain and I’m literally limping through life.
I come to the warped conclusion that everything in my life would be better if only I could lose some weight. I start to body shame myself. And so, losing weight becomes something else to fail at and yet another stick to beat myself with. My self image and self worth hit an all time low and I can’t even bring myself to look at my own body in the mirror. I resort to a shapeless, slimming black wardrobe as dark as my mood.
It was during a 3 week visit to Spain a few years later, that I had time to take stock and gained clarity. I made a few decisions, things had to change. On our return home I looked for some teaching work, and this is where the prison comes in.
I throw my all into work to suppress the unhappiness of my failing marriage and my self hate for my body. Before long I am promoted (twice) and earning more than I’d ever earned before, with 8 weeks paid holiday a year and a fabulous pension scheme. I start to rebuild my self-worth and confidence. Things begin to look up. I finally have my hip replaced too.
New and improved version of me
Pretty soon though, the role, as prison education manager, was sucking the life out of me. It was about unattainable targets and a deeply ingrained, blame culture. My only chance of creativity is when I doodle in my notepad during the endless meetings. I was so fed up but felt trapped. I couldn’t afford to leave. I didn’t feel like I had a choice.
I am incredibly unhappy – dreading going to work, with a sick feeling in my stomach churning every night, my self-worth and confidence take a massive dip again. This job is just not me. I’m completely a square peg in a round hole.
Then, in 2013 two things happened that completely tipped me over the edge, and I plummeted deeper than ever. I was the target of a very nasty, callous witch hunt and my husband admitted he didn’t want to be with me anymore. He left. I’ve properly hit rock bottom now. A single parent without a job. For the sake of my boy I must get back up and dust myself down. I need to keep a roof over our heads, I’m not prepared to lose our home as well.
Despite these horrible, stressful circumstances I had a tiny flicker of hope still left in me. I recognised that this was my opportunity to reclaim my identity and take control of my future. To be a new and improved version of me.
I decide to dress more creatively, loving colour and leopard print and sparkly, glittery things. My weight becomes less of an issue once I feel better in my clothes.
I discovered Reiki, the law of attraction and met more spiritual people than I’d ever known. I gain more inner peace and gratitude than I can ever remember.
I realised it was important for me, moving forward, to have boundaries and protect myself. I specifically wanted rewarding work that made my heart sing and no nasty boss, so I set myself up in business. As I started to find myself, I also found my soulmate not long before my 50th birthday.
I built my self worth back up by doing voluntary work in our local Mind charity shop, styling the mannequins each week. I delivered make up classes to cancer patients through the Look Good Feel Better charity.
I rented out my spare rooms through Airbnb, delivered beginners drawing classes around my kitchen table, took on part time shop work and did anything else I could to supplement my income whilst getting my colour and style business off the ground.
I’ve been in business almost 9 years now and have established myself as a bit of a maverick, empowering women to proudly embrace their uniqueness and gain ‘comfydence’ through colour and style in their clothing and personal branding.
I have raised over £12k for cancer charities in my mum’s memory since 2017, by organising Swishes, clothes swap events that, apart from being an amazing annual community event, also keep clothing out of landfill.
I’ve been on local TV and radio, been many a podcast guest and spoken to countless groups over the past 9 years.
I became a published author in 2021, firstly in an anthology, then my own book Project FAB! later in the year. Lastly, I founded the FAB Network in 2022, when I couldn’t find the Goldilocks community I was craving. I’m delighted that it is going from strength to strength. I think we’ve got something special going on here.
It's OK to lose your spark
I reckon I’ve managed to pack quite a lot into my 50’s so far. If you’d told me, I’d have done all this 10 years ago I’d have found it hard to believe. I wonder what is next? I’ll leave you with this brilliant quote by Collette Werden – “ It’s ok if you fall down and lose your spark. Just make sure that when you get back up, you rise as the whole damn fire.”
Please don’t struggle in silence if your mental health is taking a battering. Talk to someone and make time to look after yourself. https://www.mind.org.uk/
Tagged as: Community, Love Yourself, Weight
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