When I entered the corporate workplace in my mid-20s, I enjoyed the comfortable lifestyle it brought with it. It was gratifying to be able to buy nice clothes and shoes and handbags; to be able to park a nice car in the company car park.
I was working in project management in Herefordshire and found myself quickly gaining more and more responsibility at a relatively young age. But the demands of the job brought with them an increasing amount of stress. I had become quite ambitious, but more because I felt that was how I ought to be than because it made me happy.
Looking back, I can see that I wasn’t happy at all; I was really beginning to struggle. I had no balance in my life as it had become all about work. The corporate culture I found myself in was one in which if you weren’t working until late at night, then you weren’t working enough. There was an expectation you would put in 12-hour days and when there was a deadline looming I effectively had no choice but to stay at my desk until late into the evening. It was what everyone did.
To deal with the stress of the job, I started using cocaine. At first only it was only occasional, to wind down when I got home. But after a while I was doing it every day.
Because I was using it each evening to let off steam after work, when I woke the next day I didn’t feel great, so I started to take cocaine in the morning as well. Eventually I was even sneaking off to the bathroom at work and doing cocaine in there.
By the time I turned 30, I was a functioning addict, though most of my colleagues remained completely unaware. A couple of them knew and would cover for me, sending me home when they could tell I wasn’t fit to be in the office and making excuses for me.
I was losing my grip on reality, taking about three grams of cocaine each night on my own at home and another gram at work just to get me through the day. I lived alone and was single, so after work I’d pull the curtains closed and was left to my own devices. To help me sleep, I used alcohol, too.
I carried on like this for about five years and was growing increasingly unhealthy. I was starting to suffer from digestive problems, my skin was terrible and mentally I felt edgy and paranoid and found it hard to socialise.
I finally managed to come off the drugs in 2011, after moving to Nottingham and taking a job in a smaller software development company. By now I realised I simply didn’t fit into a corporate environment. But instead of dropping out of it altogether, as I should have done, I decided to go freelance as a contractor. My work was well-paid and respected and I’d been doing it for years. Stupidly, I worried about what others would say if I walked away and did something entirely different.
Things improved a little after this, but without the drugs in my life I felt I needed a new identity. So I decided to try and become as healthy as possible. I joined a CrossFit gym and hired a personal trainer, who got me involved in a clean eating challenge.
Suddenly I had a new goal and a new set of friends through the gym. It was a revelation to me that I didn’t need drink or drugs to socialise with them.
But I didn’t pursue this new interest healthily. Instead, I swapped one addiction for another, becoming so obsessive about health and fitness, I was pushing myself far too hard. In my mid-30s I was training every day, sometimes two or three times a day. On a Saturday I’d do personal training, interval training and a workout. Friends told me I should take a couple of rest days during the week to give my body time to recover, but I didn’t see any problem with what I was doing. I was getting fit and healthy and wasn’t that meant to be a good thing?
Things finally came to a head in June 2014. I was doing some heavy deadlifts when I felt something odd in my glute muscle. I ignored it and continued, but realised I couldn’t do my sprints without limping.
When I woke up the next morning I struggled to move. I could barely get out of bed. One of my friends was a chiropractor, so I somehow dragged myself to my car and drove across the city to consult them, despite the severe pain. I knew I’d done something serious but remained in denial. I couldn’t bear to think that anything could come between me and my exercise fix.
My friend did an X-ray and discovered I had fractured my spine. I was in total shock. But that wasn’t all: when I went to the hospital, I discovered I in fact had a spinal condition called spondylolisthesis. An MRI scan of my back revealed more than 20 historical fractures. I could hardly believe it. All this time I’d been carrying on, making it worse and worse.
There followed four months of bed rest while I waited for surgery, and that was a miserable time. I panicked that the new identity I’d built for myself that kept me fit and well was quickly fizzling away. I lost all my contracts at work because I couldn’t do my job.
And yet, it was breaking my back that ultimately saved me. On the cusp of turning 40, I was forced to do something else with my life altogether – so I set up my own business from my sickbed. Called Food Ninja – the nickname my CrossFit friends gave me – the idea was to help others with their nutrition plans and coach them in how to eat well. I had already taken some qualifications in nutrition and health because of my interest in it, so now I was able to use everything I had learned.
At 46, I have finally found balance in my life. My business has shifted over the years to focus on helping other entrepreneurs with their health plans. Because if you don’t have your own act together, no-one’s going to entrust you with their business. And even if they did, what good would business success be if you’ve neglected your health?
It took me a long time to realise this, but I’m so glad I got there in the end. I still have back pain every day, but it serves as a permanent reminder of why I need to be more balanced. After being single for a decade, I’ve now got a boyfriend and am about to move to Bournemouth to be with him.
I’m done with the toxic culture of hustle and grind. Burnout should not be worn as a badge of honour. True success is about equilibrium in every part of your life.
As told to Rosa Silverman