Hoxby’s Finance Director reveals all about her painful journey from stress to anxiety to post-natal depression into the depths of darkness and how she found the light on the other side.
16th May 2018
Yesterday Hoxby co-founder Alex Hirst revealed how stress had left him disengaged from the world and his family around him. Alex broke his cycle at a blessedly early stage but for some, the underlying mental health problems run much deeper and stress is nothing but an early precursor to more serious debilitating problems.
Helen Barnes, Hoxby’s Finance Director, is one such person. She has suffered enough to know how important it is to open up about her mental health. “Psychologically sometimes I don’t want to talk but I’m never unhappy to share and for my story to be out there. It’s taken me so long to get to the point where I’m able to do that. I want to share it so that other people will feel like they can share it a lot earlier.”
To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation think tank has published a wide-reaching report into stress and where it can lead. Women emerged as the worst affected. While 74% of adults said they had felt so stressed at some point during the last year that they were left overwhelmed or unable to cope.
The survey results are significant because of the large number of participants – 4,619 adults – and the fact they were representative of the UK population as a whole.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said in response to the report: “That a third of people have felt suicidal as a result of stress in the last year is staggering. More must be done to support people at the earliest possible stage so that stress does not spiral into an overwhelming and damaging situation.”
Helen knows all too well about that overwhelming spiral, where it begins and where it can end, “My coping mechanism started when I graduated and went to work in London for Accenture. At the same time my dad got very sick and I was working what felt like 24 hours a day, every day, every week of the year, flying all over Europe.”
When faced with a similar all-consuming workload, Alex said he “couldn’t switch off…couldn’t find relaxation…couldn’t find emotion, either positive or negative….couldn’t find joy.”
Helen’s response echoes that with a haunting familiarity,
“I just shut down completely and utterly mentally and just got on with it. I blocked out my parents, I blocked out my friends at times. I don’t remember consciously doing that at the time, it was just the way I coped with the way my life was.”
Helen’s shutdown could not last indefinitely; with cruel irony it was her life moving into a place of contentment that turned the shutdown into a breakdown. “I was happy, I had left Accenture after seven years, I was about to get married to a wonderful man and that’s when it all hit me, that’s when I started to struggle with anxiety and huge amounts of guilt.
“I was really struggling, loads of stuff was coming out that I had forgotten. I was in a contented place and was excited about the wedding and because I was in that place it gave space for all the other stuff to come out. And it did just all start coming out and it was horrific.”
If untreated or undiagnosed mental health problems so often become progressive as Helen was soon to experience with debilitating and devastating effects.
Her anxiety escalated into darkness at the point her and her husband began trying for a baby.
“I had six miscarriages, and no one ever knew apart from me and Jim, we just didn’t talk about it to anyone. Eventually we went to see a specialist and I was diagnosed with this thing called [Killer Cells Syndrome], it just means that my body tries to kill any pregnancy.”
Then Helen got another positive test at four weeks. Her pregnancy became heavily medicalised. “I had to go in to hospital every week and be scanned. By the time I went for the normal 12-week scan there was no excitement and due to the side effects of the steroids I just went numb and no longer felt anything.
“I just didn’t believe that the pregnancy would stay. I didn’t bond with my unborn child, I didn’t accept it. In no way did I connect with any of what was happening.”
Jack was born two weeks late following a “horrific” induced labour. “I was in a waiting ward and went into full-blown labour really quickly. They had to just shove me in a wheelchair. I was half-naked being wheeled down the ward into a delivery suite and I gave birth 20 minutes later.
“The next thing I remember is being stitched up and just feeling as if I was not in my body at all. I felt no connection to anything around me. I just remember being terrified.”
A recurring theme in tales of mental health battles is not opening up. Stress, anxiety, depression, PND, they all feed off silence. It was no different in Helen’s case.
“I started to struggle within a week. I never talked about it and I never told anyone that I was terrified of being alone with Jack. I never had any hurtful feelings but I just wanted to run away, that was the best thing for him and Jim, that I just run away and never come back.”
In the natural chaos and sleeplessness and challenges of novice parenthood, combined with depression’s distortion of the mind, it can be hard to self-identify what is going wrong. Thankfully for Helen, help was closer than she thought.
“One of my friends was diagnosed with PND a year after having her son and she spotted a few tell-tale signs in me. One day she said, ‘I’m taking you to the doctors.’ She did and I just broke down.”
However, things got worse for Helen before they got better. “They sent me straight to a psychiatrist who put me on medication which just numbed me completely.”
Helen did what she had done before in this situation; she shut down and buried herself in her work. “I just sort of carried on. I went back to work four days a week but then I couldn’t handle having Jack on that one day so I made up excuses to be at work all the time. The drugs made me so numb that I just couldn’t express anything and I couldn’t talk about anything because I just didn’t feel anything.
“So I just took myself off them, which was a really bad idea and I had a really bad week as a result. And then I felt okay and it felt like my problems had been down to circumstance rather than my mental health. So when Jack was about 18 months old we decided that we would move to New York.”
The difficulty with mental health issues is that they follow you wherever you go; you cannot leave your mind behind. “The first few years in New York were hell on earth. It’s really only in the last 12 months that I’ve been able to talk about it like this.
“It took about a week of being in America to realise that I had made a massive mistake. It was horrific and I was stuck in this one-bedroom flat with Jack all day every day, just going insane.”
The tipping point came on Boxing Day at the end of Helen’s first year across the Atlantic. “I soldiered on for about 12 months, but that Christmas Day I let it all out and was just so nasty to Jim all day. The next day he turned around to me and said, ‘you have to go get help, you have to talk about this, you are so angry and so upset and so not with us all the time.’
“At that point I crashed completely. I went to the doctors and again they just put me on every medication. I just knew that I had to do something more as Jack was now two. I spent five months finding the right therapist and the first thing she did was send me to a clinical psychologist nurse who specialised in managing medication for people in my condition.
“Her and my therapist concluded that my depression was anxiety driven, which meant I didn’t need to be on depression-specific medication. I changed tablets and haven’t looked back since. I now take anti-anxiety medication and something to counteract that because it apparently makes you really hungry!”
With Helen’s anxiety and post-natal depression under a degree of control it was now time to find a path to a sustainable career and a chance for Helen to “rediscover my own sense of being.” Cue The Hoxby Collective and Karen Andrews in particular.
Karen and Helen have been friends since their teenage years and Karen knew all about Helen’s mental health problems. She arranged Helen a call with Lizzie Penny and Alex Hirst, Hoxby’s co-founders.
“I thought I was chatting to Alex and Lizzie about just coming to work for Hoxby. I had no idea it was an interview to be Hoxby’s Finance Director – and this is why I fell in love with them: instantly they clocked that I had no idea. I said, ‘can you just give me one minute’. I turned the camera off and gave myself a very rushed pep talk, ‘pull yourself together, pull yourself together, you can do this…’ We had a fantastic conversation and they offered me the opportunity the next day.”
That was two years ago and life for Helen and her mental health has altered dramatically. “The benefit of my working life within Hoxby, the benefit of my therapist and the benefit of my medication has all got me to the point where I can see crashes coming. And this is the key, I can cope with them.
“I need to work but I need to work in an environment where I can do the things I want and need to do. For example, I’ve got an art event on Friday morning and I can just go and not have to tell anyone; I see my therapist every Wednesday and I don’t have to make excuses or factor that into office life; I don’t have to go for a job interview and say, ‘oh, by the way I never work on Wednesday mornings because I see my therapist.’”
Not only does Hoxby allow Helen to build her working life around her mental health, it has also provided a network of support that functions through honesty and respect for the individual.
“Alex and Lizzie have been incredible. I opened up to them first because they noticed a change in me. I was just really honest with them. At the time I was in a bad patch and they were just fantastic at talking about it. They encouraged me to share it and just be really honest.
“I’ve not had a bad patch for quite a while now but I did before Christmas. I was in bed for days and I just had to let it happen because it’s the only way I have learnt to come out the other side, I just have to let the emotions come and give in to them.
“I was sat in bed and didn’t have to talk to anyone, didn’t have to tell anyone but I did. I told my team. I said, ‘Guys I’m having a rough couple of days, only contact in emergencies.’ And they were all just great about it and made my life so much easier.”
“There are still huge areas that I have to work on. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully get over my post-natal depression because there is so much residual guilt. No matter how many times people tell me that Jack’s really healthy and happy and that you have a great relationship with him and you’re a great mum, it’s still there and I don’t think it will ever go away. I still don’t remember the first year of his life at all. And the fact that I have used any excuse on the planet at times to not be around him because I was just so scared of him. The guilt of that will never go away.”
The guilt may linger – depression always leaves a footprint – but Helen’s life now is unrecognisable. Jack is six and Helen is masterminding a stress-free move back to England, where she will carry on life as a Hoxby.
“The shift in my emotions and my progress has changed dramatically in the last 12 months. I see my therapist every week and I can say, ‘I feel good, I’ve had a really good week and nothing’s happened and I’m happy’. It has taken me a really long time to accept that I can feel like that.
“A lot of my depression now is anxiety driven. I’m out of the post-natal depression and now it’s more about managing my anxiety over everything. I’ve been in therapy for three years now and it’s taken that long to realise that the anxiety was always there. It was just compounded horrifically by the post-natal depression. But I have now accepted that I can feel good and now I just have to accept that that’s okay and that the world is not going to fall apart. Well, not necessarily.”