Changing Course - From Burnout to Balance

Full disclosure, this story is from my husband Mark. When I decided to set up The Alternative he said that he wanted to talk about a period in his life when he struggled to find some kind of work / life balance and ultimately this affected his mental health.

Originally building his career in TV, Mark started to realise that he was equally as passionate about photography. As one of those lucky people who truly enjoys his day job, Mark started to build his photography business as a weekend hobby whilst being fully committed to his full time main employer. This was all pretty good until a move to a completely new part of the UK tested his mental health and forced him to rethink the balance in his life.

Can you tell us about your life before the move?

This isn’t necessarily a story of extremes and life going from bad to good. I was living in Hitchin (Hertfordshire) which is a lovely market town where my wife and I have family and great friends. I was 5 years into commuter life with all the cliches that you can imagine when living in the surburbs and working in the capital. On the same time train every day, leaving the house at 7, home after 8pm and constantly knackered. Mixing it up by getting on a different train carriage really didn’t provide that much excitement!

With the routine I started to feel a lack of enthusiasm about the way I was living and working, I knew something needed shaking up. I was trying to build a photography business in addition to my weekday TV job and shooting weddings and portraits at weekends which took up time and energy. I loved it but felt exhausted and something had to give.

Why did you decide to move to a new location?

In all honestly I felt like I needed to force my arm in some way and by extension, that of my wife and I as a couple. Moving to Norwich (Norfolk) was quite a random act based on the fact we visited there in Summer 2015 and really liked the city. It had an artistic and independent feel to it. It was bigger than Hitchin, felt a bit like Belgium (which I loved and still do love Belgium!) and I could envisage a future life there in some way.

It would force me to think long term about how I worked and how I could achieve balance by implementing changes to my working daily life. I knew I couldn’t commute to London from Norwich on a daily basis and that was the ‘arm force’ bit.

Did you consider how you would make your work life ‘work’ in this new location?

I did to a certain extent but not totally. Maybe this was slightly reckless but at the time I didn’t particularly care. I wanted a change and whatever happened would happen.

I actually got lucky as my employer was very flexible and my boss was amazingly understanding. I made changes to my working week and was able to work remotely from home some of the week. It really made me appreciate my role and the company more.

Once you moved, how did you feel at this time - mentally and physically? 

First of all it was exciting. We’d moved to a new city that we knew very little about. Even the morning after moving day when I was on the train to London at 5:30am it felt exciting and I was energised. Then came the bedding in and exploring. It was a positive feeling, one of adventure almost. We made great new friends and were very lucky to settle in so quickly. The home part of my life was all good but as the months ticked past I was feeling a bit burned out. I was still spending 3 nights a week away from home in London. Don’t get me wrong I was, and still am, eternally grateful for friends and family putting me up but I was starting to feel exhausted. I do realise this was all self-inflicted though and so felt a tad stupid; like I had only myself to blame for how I was feeling. I thought I could manage 3 nights away from home every week but I couldn’t. I needed to address this and make a change to my work / life balance.

Did you speak to anyone about how you felt?

I internalise stuff quite a lot and didn’t really think I needed to let things out. I have a tendency to just work most things through, especially if the circumstances are of my own making.

In February 2017 about 13 months after we’d moved I’d reached breaking point and felt shattered, pulled in various directions emotionally and that I was a f*cking idiot for inflicting this on myself. I let everything out to my wife one morning before work (a 39 year old man crying outside Tesco’s on the phone isn’t very cool) and she helped talk me round and gain clarity on the situation.

How did you decide to change your situation and what steps did you take?

I approached my manager and explained the situation, that I wasn’t managing and luckily there was a role I could go for in the team that was a job share. It would mean I would be working for only 3 days a week, plus one of those days would be from home. This was a brilliant scenario. There was the reduction in salary to consider but as I was building my photography business I felt it was a perfect opportunity to jump at. It would give me the impetus to push myself and go after what I wanted to achieve too. That wasn’t easy for me though as I’ve always struggled with a lack of confidence in my ability and had a tendency to sit back and take an easier road than push myself. I knew it was an opportunity I wanted to take and I felt I was good enough to keep learning my craft as a photographer. Again, that ‘arm forcing’ was there to go for! I do appreciate that I was lucky to have this part time situation presented to me but you have to try to make it happen. To look for these opportunities.

How would you describe your life and your outlook now?

I feel positive about the direction I’ve taken and am really glad I embraced the chance to work and live in a more flexible way. It’s helped me gain perspective on a lot of areas of my life. I realise how much I love working for my current company even though its’s part time and feel massively fortunate to do this. I’m stimulated in my role, love spending time in London with all the benefits of being in a creative, forward thinking company with great work mates. I also stay over one or sometimes two nights a week and get to spend valuable time with friends and family too. The balance is right now!

Just as importantly, I’ve had time and opportunity to grow my photography. I’ve built a portfolio of work I’m proud of and I’m enjoying building on my skills and taking my work forward. It really does take time to find what you love doing and you have to put the hours in. I have more time to dedicate myself to that! Freelancing has improved the ability to organise myself too.

Looking back at my old self before, I was in hindsight too relaxed and to be honest pretty rubbish at getting myself in order. That was always a big issue and source of frustration to me and my wife. Being brutally honest it caused me feelings of self-loathing, guilt, anger and stress. I’m more driven now and happier. It’s not all smooth sailing and there are still moments of doubt and worry, especially financially. Sometimes the fog of self-doubt rolls in but I feel I can gain control of the fear easier and quicker now, evaluate and be rational and plan my way out of it with a good outlook.

With the gift of hindsight, is there anything that you would do differently?

I wish I’d have gone to Reading 92 and seen Nirvana! No seriously though this is the million dollar question and only helpful, I think, if you can act on hindsight to improve what you’re doing now.

I wonder if I should have been a photographers assistant maybe at 18 but I really wasn’t even aware of what I wanted to do at that age. I do think I should have thought about how I wanted to be working at 40 when I was in my 20’s or early 30’s even.

At 30 I was working at ITV Granada doing script clearances for drama programmes such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Doc Martin. I loved it and was taking stills on Coronation Street and programmes like Granada Soccer Night under the guidance of the pictures team and a great photographer called Neil Marland. There was a job opportunity there for a stills photographer on Emmerdale and I wish I’d have gone for it instead of leaving Manchester to head back to London. But I wouldn’t have had valuable experiences I’ve had, worked with some fantastic people over the last 10 years and arrived where I am now. I’m now shooting TV stills, have a great network of friends and family and genuinely love what I do. I never did see Nirvana though.

You can find out more about Mark’s photography at: Portrait of Mark taken by: Beth Moseley

Giving up booze and gaining happiness

Kate is a Reiki teacher, Kundalini Yoga teacher, writer and founder of the Connection Experiment which is an online course to tell the truth, gain happiness and form community and belonging. After living in Amsterdam for 8 years, she moved back to the UK and settled in North Manchester. She kindly agreed to tell The Alternative her story of giving up drinking and how it has changed her life.

Give us a little insight into your life before you gave up alcohol.

I had a bit of a delayed reaction to drinking - not doing the usual 16 year old drinking cider in the park and trying to hide it from parents. I started at 18 (Taboo and lemonade) but didn’t really enjoy it and suppose I was always a bit scared of getting paralytic, so would sneak in secret colas on a night out so I would always be in control. But I liked the confidence it gave me and enjoyed the dancing and laughing of a night out, so it was generally quite a positive experience.

I would say that my relationship with booze changed in my late 20’s and the run up to my 30th birthday where I was using it more as a numbing tool. I was unhappily single, having panic attacks, was in debt and working in corporate jobs that I detested with a lot of blokes who I would try and match pint for pint to join in with their banter; to get some sort of inkling of belonging. They were never ‘my people’ and I was doing it to fit in. It was a very sad time for me but the binge drinking on a Friday night would help me forget how unhappy I was. It would start out as a good laugh during the first few drinks but the drunker I got during the evening the more I spiralled out of control. I took stupid risks, had one night stands and usually ended up as Drunk Crying Girl in the toilets. Those nights would always end badly resulting in horrible hangovers and the fear from memory loss of what I’d done the night before, with real self-loathing increasing the unhappiness even more.

It was only when I moved to Amsterdam, where the drinking culture was nothing like the UK that I cut down to a couple of glasses of wine a month (if that) and didn’t miss it one bit. Over there, most people will have a couple of beers then stop, so during that time the only occasions I would get drunk was when I was back the UK for weddings or Christmas which would again end in tears or arguments. Overall it was very rare that I would drink and I found that the more I investigated the Spritual side of me, practising self love and acceptance and trying not to be so mean to myself, the more I also didn’t want to ‘poison’ my body. Rather ridiculously, on my return back to the UK 8 years later, despite not having missed drinking in any way it started to creep back in again.

How would you describe your social life at this time?

Back in the UK I didn’t really know many people and was hanging around with new friends who were big drinkers. I was still hardly drinking and spending a lot of evenings on my own but about once a month I would have a blow out and stay up partying with colleagues - mostly people younger than me for whom a good night out was getting so drunk you couldn’t remember what had happened the night before… and I would join in just because I was secretly lonely. It was a mixed time as I was genuinely also much happier with myself, but had just resigned myself to never being in a relationship again (I was 42 and never been married/had kids) so I would just have sex with unavailable men every now and then to get some male attention and connection, albeit fake. Taking the crumbs if you like and using booze to justify my ‘bad’ behaviour.

Was there ever any any correlation between alcohol and your mental, physical or financial health?

God yeh. In my earlier days I would always be first to the bar after work (buying love/people pleasing/wanting to be seen as generous) despite having huge debts and working with people who were on triple my salary. My physical and mental wellbeing were probably affected the most in the hangovers. I developed the term ‘Suicide Tuesday’ which was the worst day emotionally when I would feel so depleted from the booze and late nights of the weekend and would also be beating myself up about my behaviour. I was very sad, lonely and lost. Plus I would often feel disgusted with myself from ending up with short term connections with men who didn't care about me, so all the self development work I was doing on loving myself would be pointless and I would be back to the drawing board.

Was there a pivotal moment that made you say 'Right, I'm going to stop now'?

Yes. New Year’s Eve/Day 2017. I was happily together for about a year with my current partner but whenever we drank together, anything past the 3 drink mark would end up in a huge row. I guess there’s a reason its called the ‘demon drink’ as I would often feel possessed and would be screaming like a banshee in rage during arguments. On that particular New Year’s Eve we’d had a great night out dancing together then around about 11.30 as the booze kicked in, old insecurities surfaced and it ended in a big row. We were so separate and disconnected at midnight as the fireworks went off that I decided in the morning to give up mainly to just avoid the conflict and shame after these bouts of anger, frustration and shouting.  It was initially just for the year but I am so much happier that I have extended it and doubt I will ever drink again.

Were you met with any resistance from those closest to you?

A bit. If we were out at a function where I would be offered a drink and would refuse by explaining ‘I’d given up for a year’. People would then try and persuade me to have one drink or tell me I was boring. So after a few months I started to tell people ‘I don’t drink’ and people tend not to be so bothered, although they do like to tell me how ‘good’ I am and that they could never do it!

What benefits have you experienced?

I feel happier in myself and my relationship is much stronger despite us not being able to do some things together, like go to the pub! My fella sometimes drinks but we agree to stay away from each other on those nights so there’s no conflict. Generally it has been positive and I have organised a sober dance event or some movement meditation evenings so I can still get my dancing fix. A lot of people in my new circle of friends don’t drink anyway so it hasn’t been difficult on the whole.

Have there been any negatives?

It can be lonely if you’re out with people drinking. Around about 10pm when the booze is kicking in for them, there’s a real disconnect and I feel out of the gang but its very rare that I would even be around people drinking these days anyway. I also miss a lovely crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc with my bezzie on a Sunday afternoon in the summer but that was so rare that its not a biggie. The other downside is my other numbing tactics were ramped up so after a sober night out I would binge eat on toast or sugar or crisps.

Have you learnt anything about yourself or others during this change?

That I’m really judgemental of drinkers! Now I hate the smell of booze, I judge their shoutiness, their brash confidence and I wince if I hear a drunken argument. I just see a lot of sadness in drunk people. I may be totally projecting as that’s how I felt so it’s probably just painful to see how I also used to be when I was pissed. I’ve also learned that I like the simple life and stay in a lot more. I am also less insecure, paranoid and find it easier to be happy now.

Has this encouraged you to make other life changes?

I’ve given up sugar and meat this year, initially as New Years resolutions but more to try and avoid the numbing I used to do through emotional eating.  To be honest giving up chocolate has been ten times more difficult than the booze, as sugar was always my drug of choice. The meat doesn’t bother me as I would hardly eat it anyway.

Would you do anything differently?

No. I could say I wish I’d given up earlier but I really believe in timing for these things. I’m so grateful to all of the lessons and experiences (especially the negative ones) I had with the booze as it has helped me forgive all of my self destruction and tactics to block love for myself. It highlighted the unlovable bits in me that I try to bring compassion to now.

Do you have any advice for someone reading this who is thinking about doing the same?

I would never give advice as its different for everyone. Perhaps booze just makes you a bit giddy and only enhances your night out. But I suppose if like me, you recognise yourself in the same destructive cycle of ‘I’m unhappy with myself so I’ll have a drink to numb these feelings, which makes me do/feel/say things that make me MORE unhappy with myself which leads me back to escape in drinking’ then I would encourage anyone to take an honest look at their relationship with booze.  But it shouldn’t be about giving up alcohol - its about giving up numbing your feelings and stopping being mean to yourself in whatever form you choose to do that.

As humans we are programmed to be fearful of happiness because we want to protect ourselves from it ending. We are so uncomfortable feeling fear, sadness, loneliness, unhappiness, frustration, anger etc; so we choose a ‘lazy’ tactic to avoid feeling those things. Or try to replace them with a temporary hit of happiness which sometimes works if its ‘just a couple’ but often ends up amplifying the initial stuffed down emotion when your guard is down.

We have so many ways to do that and I guess the booze/sugar/sex/shopping/working (insert your particular numbing strategy) is always going to be the easier distraction to avoid being kind to ourselves. Why is it so hard to be nice to ourselves? So my advice, rather than necessarily going teetotal (although it helps!) would be to try to hold off and just sit for a minute longer...just one minute and work out what you’re ACTUALLY feeling in that moment just before you reach for the drink/piece of cake/social media. Like really sit with the reasons why you’re trying to distract or escape or hide and see what’s there and just be a bit more gentle to the boredom or the loneliness or the self doubt or the sadness and sit with it. And give it some attention rather than continuing to look for love in the wrong places or at the bottom of a bottle.

Kate’s first book ‘What Love Told Me’ will be available from Amazon on 22nd April. Find out more about Kate here: Katey Roberts Holistic

Leaping from the London rat race to rural France

Becky, Tom and Hete currently live in the Dordogne, France. Their home is a stunning 16th century mill that needs renovation, plus they plan to adapt certain areas of the grounds for their new eco-friendly business.

You might be thinking that this is all very ‘Escape to the Chateau’ but their journey from London to France (via Spain) was extremely testing and pushed them to the limit. In her own words, Becky tells us about the process of making this huge life change. What’s the saying, no pain no gain - right?

Tom, Becky & Hete

Tom, Becky & Hete

Tell us about your UK life and what an average day was like for the both of you?

Tom was up at 6am and out by 6.30 as he had his own business in London refurbishing properties, and he normally wouldn't be back home till 8pm. Me, I was up at 6am getting our daughter, Hete, ready for nursery and a 7.30 drop off. I would then catch the train into London where I worked for 12 years at Channel 4. 

Do you remember the moment when you both decided that something had to change?

We were at home exhausted, fed up of hardly seeing our daughter, money was tight and Tom was stressed out (to the brink of a breakdown) running his own company.  We had watched something on TV about leaving everything behind and this got us thinking. That night we discussed where.

I wanted to go further afield to Canada, a little ambitious maybe. We both agreed on France and straight away looked at properties online. We very quickly figured that if we sold the house in Orpington we could buy out a house in France - no mortgage! F**k it lets do it! - they were our actual words. 

What did you hope to gain from the change in lifestyle?

Healthy living, growing our own vegetables, no mortgage, time to spend with our daughter and for her to learn a new language. Tom speaks to her in Hungarian and I speak to her in English but she is now learning French at school. We wanted a better life for her. We both had an adventurous upbringing, playing outside for hours and we felt that Hete wouldn't get that in London. It was important for us that she experienced this.

Also being in the country was something we loved. We would often spend weekends outside of London on country walks, and of course we had a huge interest in treehouses and living off grid. But we are not hippies we are normal working class people... hmm maybe a bit hipster rather than hippy ;) 

So once the decision was made, what steps did you take to devise a plan?

We put our house up for sale, Tom liquidated his company and I handed in my notice as soon as we had an offer on the house. We bought an Airstream caravan as an asset as we didn't want to just buy a standard caravan, we wanted to use something slightly different that would give us other opportunities perhaps. We also needed this caravan to travel around France to discover where we wanted to live.

When did you start telling people what you decided to do and how did they react?

More or less straight away as soon as we made the decision. Some were very excited and envious others (family) were worried and nervous for us. Then the rest thought we were MAD!

Did you ever consider changing the plan? 

Not really. We always stayed on the same path, although there were times when we couldn't find the place that we felt was right, we'd discuss other countries and opportunities. 

Did you have any fear about the decision? If you did, how did you handle it?

Of course. Big fears all the time. How did we handle it? Well Tom was much better than myself because he's done a big move before so he had adapted before. I was and still am in fear but you can't make a huge decision like this and expect it to be easy... it comes with the decision.

There were many what if's such as finding the right place, are we going to be too isolated, learning the language, how to set up a business, permissions, Hete adjusting, so on and so on. You have no choice but to deal with the fear and I have to really work hard on this, otherwise you just lose the excitement of making such a huge change. You have to enjoy it too, this is very important. 

Were there any occasions when you were ready to pack it in?

Ha yep, many times I have thought what the hell are we doing here with such an old building and so much to do. We were in the Airstream for the first 6 months living here whilst Tom and some volunteers put a new roof on the house. I remember the rain, non stop rain for 10 days, water levels so high it flooded the downstairs rooms. Thankfully the living space was on the first floor. The neighbours were so concerned they offered us a bed but we stayed and stuck it out in the caravan. I'll never forget hearing the water gush down the river thinking what the hell have we done!

What benefits have you experienced since living your new life?

We’re definitely healthier. All of us are eating fresher food, walking more, swimming in the river. Another benefit is the culture. Learning how the French live and learning a new language. Summer was glorious here with loads of outdoor activities. Hete is learning a new language and settling into a new school. And of course we have new friends both French and English.  

You’ve experienced a few challenging situations to get you to where you are today. When you look back, what have you learnt about yourselves throughout this?

If anything we have become tougher and less materialistic. We are so appreciative of family and are stronger together as husband and wife, even though at times it was very testing. You have different challenges than what you would normally have in London, some harder, some better. There will always be a part of London in my heart forever and I’m grateful for this. If things don't work out we can always go back.

If someone is reading this and wondering how to take the first step towards changing their life, what would your advice be?

Its not as easy as you think. You need to be a certain type of character to be able to cope with it. It will test you in ways that you never would expect but it gives you bountiful rewards and joys that you would ever expect. But whats the point in wondering... just f**k it and do it!!

Personally, I think that it is quite easy but you have to be very decisive. Look at your current commitments/situation and what you could gain in life. You make up your mind and go for it no hesitating, no what ifs… just take the leap, if you start questioning things or analysing situations you won’t do it!

Has it been worth it?

Ask me in 5 years (joke). Yes it was worth it. I don't want go through life asking ‘what if I did that’ or ‘should I have done this’. You only live once you have to give everything your best shot. That's what life’s about right?! 

Becky, Tom & Hete x

You can follow Becky on Instagram: Becky Allin