It is easy now looking back to spot trends and patterns of behaviour. Overworking, overachieving and pushing to the absolute limit every single day.
Thinking I was invincible.
Thinking it was all mind over matter.
Thinking it was ‘normal.’
The scariest thing is that I did not see it coming. Life was pretty perfect – I had gone from my undergraduate degree in Equine Science to my Masters degree in Management and Corporate Governance, achieving first class honours and top of my year in both. I qualified as top law student, top accounting student and top overall student in my Company Secretarial qualification.
I then joined the ranks of EY a company that I really really loved working for and from there I realised that I was just one in a mass of talented people. So to stand out I pushed hard.
I went on to do my professional accountancy exams in EY London and qualified first in Ireland in two of my final papers. In hindsight I had no desire to ever to an accountant – I just saw it as a challenge. I worked travelled and studied like a lunatic, whilst training most days and flying back to Northern Ireland at the weekends to go racing.
The competitive streak I suppose was in me from childhood where I came from a very talented family, where every sport under the sun was played and when I won the Ulster cross country championships when I was 12, I got the ‘bug’ for what winning felt like. I was probably just an average person but I pushed so hard I think I started to win things that I probably shouldn’t have won. The one that topped my stupidity was winning a 25km off road race in Belfast in 2013, which I was only about 60% fit for. I had a head cold but I started the race and I just kept pushing. Not enough training, but mind over matter.
I moved from EY back to Belfast to an accounting firm, where I soon rose through the ranks to Assistant Director and ran a team of almost 50 people. I worked like I had never worked before, but it was sheer passion for the job that made me do it. I loved it, I loved being able to work hard, loved being able to smash things out of the park. I loved being productive.
I guess my love of working hard was exacerbated when after a fall in a point to point (like steeplechase racing for amateur riders) left me smashed up in 2006. I was pretty badly hurt and despised the feeling of not being able to do things, to work, to ride, to race, all of the things I loved most of all. I promised myself then, that if I ever got better I would take advantage over every single moment of life.
So on I went, pushing and pushing, rising through the ranks probably quicker than I should have. I loved the job and loved the company I worked for. I loved the speed they moved at and how quickly decisions were made. I thrived on the pressure.
But it all came crashing down one day. I was swimming laps with my friend as we did most mornings before work, and I didn’t feel so well. So I stopped swimming and headed home. I had caught a virus that seemed like flu.
Four years later I rejoined the workplace.
It was an impossibly difficult time but when people asked how do you get through it, the answer was always ‘must do is a good master’. Had no choice but to fight it. Initially I kept pushing and pushing, I remember doing conference calls from bed, against my bosses persistent requests to stop working. Only when he said I would be fired if he caught me working did I stop.
A few months later I was back working part time and was out for a walk one day and I remember being so angry that all I could do was walk 5k. I used to run 10k in the morning before work with my eyes closed! What on earth was happening to me?
The plug came out. I literally didn’t know how I was going to take one more stride, never mind walk home. Like every drop of energy left me. In to bed I got and there I stayed. I bobbed up and down between weeks in bed and when I was doing well, weeks on the sofa. I got worse and worse and worse. I couldn’t stand for the length of time it took to have a shower. I eventually had to buy an electric wheelchair to get me around the inside of the house. It was a soul destroying time. For someone who ran long distance races it was mind boggling how I didn’t have the energy to sit up in bed. I had to lie completely flat.
I remember to this day the pleasure of feeling the breeze in my face when I finally swallowed my pride and got the wheelchair – and went around the garden in it. It actually went pretty fast (or it felt that way when you hadn’t moved for so many months) – the air hitting my face was magic.
The first couple of years were bearable as I kept assuming I would be better in no time. But by year 3 we started to have the dawning realisation that maybe this was it. It couldn’t be, this was not what our life was supposed to look like. My partner and now husband and I had bought a small horse farm – we got the keys 6 weeks before I fell sick. We had so many plans and hopes and dreams for all of the things we were going to do.
I bottomed out in 2016, where things had gotten so bad, there were times I didn’t have the strength to brush my hair, so Paul did it for me. My family and Paul’s mum and dad and our friends all mucked in to help us out. We wouldn’t have gotten through without their support.
I tried every ‘treatment’ under the sun, spending thousands of pounds trying to get well. But it just wouldn’t go away. Then a combination of time, treatments and tablets and things began to slowly, slowly turn. I was able to get out of the wheelchair. I was able to make a cup of tea. I was able to walk a lap of the house.
Suddenly things seemed possible again. We got engaged and were actually able to think about planing our wedding. We started making plans again. I started to dream again. I was getting another chance. Recovery was not a straight line but overall the trajectory was right. We were going to win.
I started getting excited about returning to work and I think everyone I know was nervous that I was going to go back in and be the old Maeve again. But something in my core had changed. I was never ever going to do that to myself or my loved ones again. I know it wasn’t my fault I got a virus and ended up with severe ME, but I didn’t help it with how I treated my body. I thought I was invincible.
I begged my doctor to let me back to work for 6 months before she did, wisely she knew I wasn’t as far on as I thought I was. She is the most amazing GP in the world. She supported me every step of the way and I know from chatting to others who have the same condition, that their doctors are nothing short of cruel, so I appreciate her so much. Eventually she let me back to work from home with a day in the office. Reality soon hit, I wasn’t managing the as far on as I thought I was.
So after 8 months of trying very hard I left. I walked away from it all. I just knew it wasn’t working.
It was the bravest thing I have ever done.
I retrained, I set up a new life and new business and I now do things on my terms. I work for myself, and I will always have to be careful that I don’t do a ‘Maeve’ on it and do too much. That monkey is on my shoulder for life.
I am a qualified Executive Coach and I help women to create their signature online business, so they can live life on their own terms.
Does this story sound familiar? Do you feel that you are running the risk of falling down the same rabbit hole?
Being a senior person in an organisation can make you think that ‘people like you’ don’t show weakness. I am sure you are a lot more senior than I was. But, I can assure you, the weakness is not respecting yourself enough to make the change now, when you still can.
You have one life. Please choose wisely.