Not your typical mental health story: How a highly functional leader learned to ask for help

What you probably know about me is that I’m a former engineer turned successful coach and leadership consultant. I’m a high performer, I’m successful and I always achieve what I put my mind to. I’m cool in a crisis and I build deep and trusting relationships with my clients. I’m playful, I’m a great listener, a great coach and I am always there for others, supporting and serving them through difficult times. Those of you who know some of my history might also know me as strong and resilient – always bouncing back from setbacks.

What you don’t know about me is that for the past twenty years I have been living with serious mental health issues. Post-natal depression, PTSD, clinical depression and binge eating disorder. However, this isn’t your typical mental health story. This isn’t the standing on the edge of the cliff thinking about jumping type, or the working so hard that your body gives up with burnout, or the day to day lethargy and inability to do everyday activities. 

You see I live with severe mental health issues AND I am extremely high functioning. Unless I’ve chosen to let you in, you would have no idea that I was anything other than a successful, high performing individual who has it all together. The reality is very different. In fact, it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve even been able to admit that to myself. 

You see, my world has been built on a need to be perfect (The story behind that is a long and winding one that I won’t go into here). And, of course, in that world, where I’m always trying to achieve perfection, mental health issues don’t fit…they are seen as failure. So, it’s been hard enough admitting to myself that I needed help, let alone talking to other people about it. And the fact that others don’t see it can make it even more difficult to ask for help.

At different times, different elements of my mental health have impacted me in different ways, but the underlying themes have been similar:

  • An almost constant critical inner voice of shame and guilt.
  • Setting near impossible goals for myself and then beating myself up when I don’t achieve them.
  • Putting on a “brave face” when the reality is that I just want to hide away.
  • Putting everyone else first at the expense of myself.
  • Never feeling good enough. Not a good enough mum, not a good enough friend, not a good enough businessperson, not a good enough partner…
  • A belief that I should be grateful for everything I have and therefore it’s wrong of me to feel anything but happy.
  • Pushing myself harder and harder even though I know need to rest (this is still a big challenge).
  • A need to be in control.

This last one is especially difficult, because my binge eating disorder, which I’ve only recently admitted to and has been with me since my early 20’s, makes me feel out of control a lot of the time.  It has been characterised (like the rest of my mental health challenges) by secrecy, shame and guilt.

  • Planning binges, eating in secret, hiding the evidence often once or twice a week.
  • Complete disassociation with my body when I binge. Often not realising how much, or what I’ve eaten until afterwards.
  • Wanting to stop eating but not being able to.
  • Immense shame and guilt afterwards.

I always just thought that I didn’t have any willpower when it came to food. It was only through working with a counsellor on some of my other issues that I came to realise that it is something much more serious. Binge eating disorder, (like all eating disorders) is a serious mental health condition. But one that I can recover from. Admitting that I have an eating disorder has been one of the most difficult things for me, but it has also been a turning point. 

So, what have I learnt? Facing into my mental health challenges has been hugely difficult but it’s also been the best thing I could have done. As highly functioning, I might have been able to go years without facing into it, and with no-one else being any the wiser. I’m sure I would have completely broken at some point. 

In part it has been my mental health journey that has brought me to where I am now. Having taken the time to go deep, I have so much more self-awareness. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a work in progress. I suppose I always will be. But I am recognising and healing some of the trauma that has led to where I am. I am making Geraldine (the name I have for the voice in my head) my best friend. I am connecting with my intuition more. I am taking time for self-care. And, perhaps most importantly, I am talking about it. 

The more secrecy that we have around our challenges, the bigger and harder they become to deal with. So as hard as it might feel, let’s start a conversation. If you are reading this and it resonates, but you’ve not talked to anyone about it yet, maybe not even admitted it to yourself, then know you are not alone. If you want to take that first step, but don’t have anyone you feel able to to talk to then please reach out to me. Talking about mental health is becoming less taboo, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult to take that first step.

I’ve thought hard about publishing this article and I’ll be honest, as I type this, pressing the “publish” button scares the sh*t out of me. And that’s why I know it’s what I need to do. 

Vulnerability is a key trait of heart-centred leaders and so I would not be being authentic if I didn’t walk the talk. 

What happens when we get vulnerable is that we find our tribe. There will be some of you who might disagree with me publishing this. And that’s ok…that just means that you’re not my people. But by speaking MY truth I know that those of you that it does resonate for will feel it. And YOU are my people…

…welcome to my tribe!


If you’re interested in finding out more about the new membership community for heart-centred leaders that David Wynn and I are creating visit www.heartcentredleaders.co

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