We are making great progress through the exhibition and there are just a few more pictures to show you. There will be some very precious things to share, but first I need to reflect with you on a darker time. When the light dims, and it will for all of us at some time, whatever we may feel we have become we are never less than we were before. Then, when the light returns, and it will, we will make our difference again, but this time with a depth of insight and understanding about being human that surpasses whatever we have understood before.
It is the year 2000, and my role at United Assurance is now sadly over. The business could not be revived and has now been sold to Royal London, and I have left the office for the last time having said my goodbyes to a team I had begun to love, but from whom I had not had a chance to learn as much as I hoped.
It was not an overly emotional time to be honest, and there was quite a lot of relief in walking away from what has been a difficult role to fill. With events turning so fast, there was no time to make a lasting difference and no achievement to call my own. I was walking away from a relentless and overwhelming feeling of being part of a giant fire-fighting Whack-A-Mole theme park. The abiding feeling on my last drive home was of exhaustion, not of sadness or loss.
Exhaustion, however, I discovered can be a corrosive state. I was still only 38 years old and had just finished my second General Counsel role. I had also been Chair of the Law Society Commerce & Industry Group and had become a member of the Law Society’s governing Council. I think friends and former colleagues expected me to quickly find a new General Counsel adventure, moving on in leaps and bounds through my ever upwards and onwards career journey. We all know however that what we believe about ourselves and hide inside, can be vastly different to what others believe they see on the outside. My bathroom mirror observed me more closely than anything else, and it would have told a very different story.
For most mornings after I had left United, for what seemed like weeks on end, I would look in that mirror each morning to shave and my darkened, tired eyes would fill with quiet tears. I was a bit lost.
How I felt is hard to describe, but I was empty, and at this time I didn’t want to be a General Counsel anymore. My inner critic, after years of moulding, had finally crafted the perfect imposter. On the outside I was plausible, likeable and successful, but on the inside I was hollowed out by self-doubt and now I was almost ashamed to even apply for new roles, so unconvinced I was of my credentials. It was like living a real-life anxiety dream, but instead of waking from the nightmare into a plausible reality, this one followed me around even when I wasn’t asleep. I had been found out and I couldn’t see anyone wanting to employ me ever again.
When exhaustion is like this, it is an acid that seeps into every vulnerability, and it left me feeling weakened and in pain. Nothing had prepared me for believing that my career as a lawyer might be over and I didn’t have the words to use to ask for help or to seek reassurance. So, I said nothing to anyone, not even my family. It might pass after all, and then I would look even more foolish than I already felt.
Looking back, I now know what was happening to me. I know the patterns and the shapes and the feelings, and it doesn’t scare me like it did back then. My exhaustion had become a mental health concern.
In the space of eighteen months, I had left the security and familiarity of C&G where I knew the people, the politics, the hidden pathways and how to make it work; and now at United Assurance I had to ask how to use the staff canteen, and claim expenses, and everyone’s name at least three times. I was commuting from Gloucestershire to the North West, living out of overnight bags and on takeaway food, while disrupting family life and being dislocated from friends and that precious feeling of simply belonging. Then I found that my new company was failing fast, and so I continued to commute because there was no point in relocating. Soon I was involved in the sale of United, the biggest deal I had ever done, and I was struggling to be useful for my Board and to the wider business that was an employer of thousands of people all of whom were now anxious for their own uncertain futures. Everyone it seemed was sad and fed up and unable to be their best, but the deal still had to be done.
And then suddenly it was over, and I drove away with a box of personal papers in the boot of my car.
I was not just exhausted, I was almost certainly depressed. I had a low mood, a loss of confidence, a sense of things closing in and I wanted to hide away even from those who loved me. However, in 2000 I didn’t know that this was depression and I didn’t go to my doctor. In my head, this was my fault and it was mine to endure. In my head I was simply a self-diagnosed failure and the punishment was to be me.
While I was profoundly sad, weakened and alone, I have never regretted this time. It was a gift that opened my eyes to how we are all capable of being amazing and at the same time being crushingly vulnerable as well. It was a gift that changed my life. We must not hide that which might undermine us; but accept that our vulnerability is part of our story, and it is what makes our success so much more precious and real. We are not avatars. Our stories are kaleidoscopes of experiences and feelings and far richer that anyone knows; and when our stories are shared the world around us shines in colours and opportunities we had never appreciated before.
What followed for me, now holding this gift as tightly as I could, was an opportunity I would never have thought possible for someone like me, and it became the greatest adventure of my life. The darkness was indeed just before the dawn.
Take care. Paul xx
To be continued