Adversity, and what I have learned from it

On this day, seven years ago, my friend Danny took his life. This traumatic event changed my life forever. He was the second friend of mine to take his life and I was closely involved in the discovery and reporting of both him and my friend Kai.

This blog is a reflective account of my personal experiences of adversity in general, including bereavement through suicide and how this has led to major changes in my life. These, in turn have rippled out to others. It’s not about the subject of suicide but I have included some useful UK-based links for support below.

While much of my personal development has been self-directed, I would like to highlight that I am a Mental Health First Aider with some personal tools and strategies but I also accessed suicide bereavement counselling at the start of my journey. Do get professional help if you are struggling.

Here’s my timeline of the last seven years.

2012

When Danny died, I was working as an Associate for a equality accreditation broker, after having become self-employed a year previously. Before that, I’d had a well-paid senior role as the regional Director of a business network, part of the National Employment Panel. It was a great job which took me around the UK and abroad, speaking about the employment, skills and diversity programs that I helped organisations to set up. 

The CEO of the equality accreditation broker was a former business friend whom I liked and respected but the Chairman was a drunk and a bully. The CEO often had to act as a buffer between him, me and the other Associates. 

His behaviour had always been extreme and erratic but when I realised that he was using my vulnerability relating to my friend’s suicide to bully me even more in the fortnight following Danny’s death, I knew what I had to do. I told him that I was ending our contract. It was a risky move because I had to forgo a retainer that made up the bulk of my monthly income – and I only had one tender in the pipeline.  

 Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. 

I own property which I bought by myself with no help from a partner or parents. As you can imagine, this uncertainty about how I was going to cover my bills was so stressful.

Do make overpayments on your mortgage to accrue mortgage holidays or put money aside as a buffer when you can.

Luckily, I won that tender and a week later secured a great contract that continued for several years. With the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, it built on my expertise in business-led employment and skills programmes and practices. I knew it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do but it paid the bills while I was figuring things out.

From my time with the equality standard broker, I knew that my work had to be more holistic. I wanted to consider wider social impact over and above diversity and inclusion, where my niche expertise lies. I feel that too many organisations play around the edges, undertaking a few ad hoc employee initiatives or unsustainable Corporate Social Responsibility schemes. Painting fences is nice and all but it doesn’t contribute to real, lasting change within communities.

2013

My ensuing journey of self-discovery was brought about by a comment from my bereavement counsellor. He identified that the reason I was struggling with both Danny and Kai’s deaths was because they were situations out of my control. I have always been organised but back then it is fair to say that I was pretty regimented. 

I needed to learn about ease and flow and left the therapy room on a mission to read. This period led me discover many great writers and thinkers and also to the Japanese model, Ikigai. This model helped me to understand that my purpose in life is to help women and girls speak up, and to advocate on their behalf when they don’t have a voice. 

Don’t overthink your Ikigai and know that it will evolve over time.

I also resolved to become more active and more courageous, and undertook challenges such as a skydive, an abseil, climbing Ben Nevis and the Yorkshire Three Peaks. Exercise has such a positive impact on mental wellbeing and hiking has become part of my routine now.

2014

Shortly after this, in January 2014, I set up a company called People Help People. It was with the former CEO of the equality broker, who by now had become brave enough to leave too. Our other partners were social impact speciality Bernadette Speight and Dr Jean Garrod, who came out of retirement to join us.

In the same month, I launched a global legal and media campaign based on asylum seeker Afusat Saliu and her two daughters on the grounds of the risk of female genital mutilation if they were deported. That campaign gathered 126,500 supporters and the interest of MPs and other personalities. It was raised in Prime Minister’s Questions and had extensive media coverage.

After the dust settled following the campaign, I was back 100% in the business and quickly saw that People Help People wasn’t working out for me. I had somehow ended up doing the major roles of finance, social media marketing and business development, on top of delivery.

In part, this was down to the others’ lack of skill or confidence in those areas but it still wasn’t fair. Fairness is one of my core values and helps me to set boundaries and make sound  decisions based on principles of fairness.

Since there were four of us, we had different language styles and differing visions. That’s confusing for potential clients, and even if your team have great skills, clients won’t buy if they’re confused. 

If you decide to go into business with anyone, agree to roles and responsibilities well in advance, keep reviewing that you’re on track and ensure that your visions are aligned.

2015

I was in such a quandry. I cared for my business partners but at the same time knew that I had to go it alone. I figured that if I had to wear so many hats, I might as well do it for myself. Also, during the campaign period, my passion for supporting women and girls had deepened and so had my influence and contacts. I truly had found my ikigai (reason for being). 

If there’s something you think about about changing in the world as soon as you wake and last thing before you go to sleep, chances are, you’re close to your Ikigai.

The skills I had learned whilst dealing with the global media and leading such a high profile campaign had built on my previous experience of advising on campaigns for the Department for Work and Pensions such as EmployAbility and Backing Young Britain.

I knew that I genuinely wanted to give other women the contacts and the skills to implement change at the scale that I was able to – if they so choose. For those who are not ready, I wanted to enable them to join in, contribute to or support others’ campaigns. That’s where the idea of Inspiring Women Changemakers came from.

By now, I had lost four more loved ones within one month, two to cancer, and Bernadette had been undergoing treatment for breast cancer too.

2016

We agreed to close People Help People in 2016.  We had put a lot of work into social impact reporting and developing a framework to help them identify, build on and measure their social value for themselves but Bernadette and Jean were both tired.

At the end of 2016, it was now or never. I’d been putting in the work and launched Inspiring Women Changemakers in the October. I had Bernadette and Jean’s blessing to do so (the third partner had since disappeared abroad – another traumatic experience that I don’t wish to dwell on).

Quitting doesn’t mean you’re giving up. Consider the lessons you have learned and reflect on how you will do things differently next time.

2017

Jean had decided to go back to retirement and Bernadette’s cancer had now reached Stage 4. She died in September 2017. I broke my ankle and the blood thinner I was prescribed whilst in a cast caused internal bleeding, which in turn resulted in low ferritin levels which caused weight gain and severe alopecia.

This was a different kind of test for a public speaker like me, not just financial but in terms of body image too. My family and close friends and my beautiful garden were a blessing during this time.

Somehow though, I found the strength to launch the Igniting Inspiration awards and named the young changemaker category of my Igniting Inspiration Awards after her. Partners and sponsors were invited to my home for meetings while I was laid up on the sofa in a leg cast!

2018

During 2018, I carried on testing and building Inspiring Women Changemakers. Highlights included launching my residentials in the Dales, being featured in Grant Thornton’s 100 Faces of a Vibrant Economy campaign and being interviewed as one of the 200 featured global changemakers in visual storybook, Generation Share.

2019

As I complete a seven-year cycle which coincides with the anniversary of Danny’s suicide and two years since Bernadette died, I have been tying up loose ends, completing the Building Social Value framework and updating it using my own language and expertise.

Now in their third year, the Igniting Inspiration awards are my legacy but I feel like her legacy is being fulfilled through my social impact work.

I’ve shared this story to show that you can grow and learn from adversity, even if the life events were unwelcomed. You can use your lessons and experiences to create something good, not just in your own life but in other people’s lives too. I miss Danny so badly on days like this but I hope he’s somewhere, watching and proud of the changes he indirectly brought about.

Time for the next seven-year cycle…

If you’re struggling, CALM (for men) and The Samaritans have helplines, or for female suicide awareness, follow NINA. Additionally, a group of bereaved friends have set up Mike’s Mates, which is a central hub of information on mental health resources.

Inspiring Women Changemakers is a dynamic, women-led movement for positive social change: in business, in society, and in the world. We help our members to powerfully communicate, connect and campaign. Join us!