When It Sounds Like Truth And Feels Like Courage

How connection is possible when we find the courage to share vulnerably.

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The blurred view from my hospital bed
The blurred view from my hospital bed

“I questioned my ability, I doubted whether I could fulfill even some routine tasks of production which I had mastered years before.  I felt under a huge amount of pressure to deliver, and my confidence was at an all-time low. I was stressed and was not sleeping well.”

The thing is, very few people who knew Sidra would ever have thought for a second that this brilliant and talented professional (she is a BAFTA award-winning television producer, director, and development producer who has delivered popular game-changing TV shows) with her incandescent smile, and contagious laughter, could ever be experiencing a crisis of confidence. 

She herself was anxious about sharing so authentically. Most people in her life related to the fun, upbeat persona she projected. How would everyone feel once they learned the truth?
The response was astounding. Hundreds of people related to her experience: 

This is such a brave post
I can totally relate
I am having such a similar experience to yours.
Our industry is also a tough place
It’s really hard work stepping back into work after a career break for any reason including kids
My saboteur seems to be alive and kicking 
I feel the struggle, particularly limiting beliefs and self-confidence in my case
I think females and mums may feel this in the workplace more
I relate to your post so much

In the social media avalanche of other people’s dream holidays, ideal relationships, perfect children, and glamorous lives, I was reminded again this week of what is possible when we find the courage to share vulnerably.

My client, Sidra Khan, was a rising star of British TV production in the naughties. She  shared on her socials this week (and has allowed me to share here) how hard it was for her to return to work after 10 years out to raise a family.

In truth, we all have issues we’re struggling with in private. The projection of a perfect life is just a shield, which alienates others and leaves us feeling more isolated and alone.

On June 4th, 2021 I woke up to discover my vision was severely impaired. Overnight my vision had gone rom almost perfect, to a blur in my left eye and near blindness in my right eye. My partner took me to Moorfields eye hospital and was to be rushed into intensive care. The problem, said the neurologists, seemed to be swelling of my optic nerves.

Alone in hospital (due to COVID even my partner was not allowed to visit) I felt scared.  My vision was not improving, If anything, it was getting worse. And the cause was uncertain. It could possibly be the first sign of Multiple Sclerosis or one of a couple of rare genetic conditions. It could be Lymes disease, syphilis, TB, or tumors.

I wanted to reach out and share honestly what was going on for me, but as a professional coach, I worried about making my disability the story.  Didn’t my clients expect me to be strong and silent?  How would I occur to them if I shared my frailty? Would they start looking for another coach if they thought I was going blind? Or dying?

While I admire others for their courage when they share vulnerably, perhaps because my ailment was physical, I saw my own vulnerability as weakness. I was reluctant to let anyone know what was going on. Yet I knew that if a client were facing this predicament I would urge them to share vulnerably.  And so I did. I took a picture of myself in my hospital bed and dictated a short post. 

“So, this is the view from my bed this morning and for the next few days. My vision yesterday was a bit blurry so I took myself to Moorfields eye hospital. The last thing I expected was to be rushed to intensive care. The problem seems to be the swelling of my optic nerves. But it’s the cause that is uncertain… So CAT scans… MRIs… Multiple blood tests are in front of me I feel I’m in very good hands and am already on a steroid drip but the downside, due to Covid, is that no visitors are allowed, not even Henryk.”

The immediate response was quite overwhelming. 362 messages of love from friends, and clients wishing me well and offering practical support, from bringing me food and an iPhone charger to the hospital door, to reading to me over the ‘phone. 

I returned home briefly. My sight was no better, and after blood tests, cat scans, a spinal tap, and two MRIs, neurologists had no idea of the cause – and therefore whether my eyesight would recover or further deteriorate.

I was recalled for a further 6-day hospital stay with intravenous steroids, and five days of plasma exchange where they take all your blood out every day, remove your plasma which contains antibodies, and replace it with synthetic plasma. The possible benefits of this debilitating procedure will not be fully known until June 2022.

For many weeks I waited for the results of tests that would show whether Multiple Sclerosis was at the root of the problem. 

But it was what happened next that I was not prepared for. People I knew -not clients but personal acquaintances and former colleagues- began revealing themselves to me, not as a coach but as a fellow sufferer.  

I have never been someone who plays strong. I had always, I thought, shared my emotional vulnerability.  I’d even written about my experience of being given a terminal diagnosis in my thirties.  However, I’d clearly not occurred as vulnerable or authentic enough — until now. There was something about my admission of my fear at my near blindness that invited those to whom I had previously occurred as “sorted” to open up.

The “perfect” wife and mother of two young children confided she had been receiving radiotherapy for cancer, although her friends and family did not know.  A colleague who others found unapproachable and cold, told me how she has been caring for her once loving grandmother whose dementia now causes her to often be aggressive. A good friend shared the ’secret’she has been hiding from for two years – that her husband was made redundant pre-pandemic and he was suffering from terrible depression. 

I had people who I thought I knew well reveal facts about their lives which proved how little I had actually known them. One friend revealed that he’d recently had to commit his partner (who I knew very well) to a mental institution after multiple attempts to take his own life, which I’d known nothing about. Another ‘friend’ spoke to me for the first time about a terminal diagnosis she’d received more than a year ago.

Another strange thing happened.  Four people who I’d always thought of as having perfect vision, confessed to having vision impairment.  One friend who I’ve known for years turns out to be completely blind in one eye.  Another friend who only wears glasses for reading shared how she can see nothing at all in dim light.  A former colleague who is a writer me that told me that not even her publisher knows she must now dictate her work due to her poor eyesight.

By August, doctors at the London Hospital of Neurology finally came back with a diagnosis for my blurred vision: “Bilateral anterior optic neuritis possibly caused by Covid vaccine.” All other possible causes, including MS, had thankfully been ruled out. And it turns out there have been a number of other similar cases, also three weeks after the vaccine. 

The best news is my vision is gradually improving,  in tests and in real life. Four months ago I couldn’t have seen the keys well enough to type this. My eyesight may never be as good as it was before, but without this challenge, I would never have experienced the warmth and closeness wrought from the sharing of our hidden truths.

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