Vanessa survived an upbringing blighted by violence and abuse to become a business high-flier. But burnout made her look again at the direction of her life, and to make a fresh start helping others
What do you see when you look at my picture? A confident, professional, female executive, right? You can probably guess it was not always the case. The truth is, I am a survivor of domestic violence and sexual abuse. And these soul-destroying behaviours are more common than we might think. The more I tell my story, the more I hear: “Yes, I have been through that, too.”
It saddens me, but I understand why it’s not often talked about. It is a heavy topic, and most people don’t know how to react. Some respond with disbelief or denial.
Until I was about 21, it seemed I was living on an iceberg. At the top, life appeared fine, and I was known for being a smiley, positive person. But underneath, I was trying to keep it all together by suppressing my emotions, and trying to fit in with the rest of society. Behind smiles, there can be pain.
I was an academic child, and also creative, so I often daydreamed – usually about being somewhere that was fantastical and magical.
The school I attended was strict, and you had no choice but to behave. If I ever stepped out of line, I would be punished at home as well as school, so I learned to be obedient and not to ask too many questions.
I did well academically, and teachers praised me for never being late or absent. But they never questioned why that was the case. Everything was working fine on the surface of the iceberg – so it appeared there was nothing wrong underneath.
But I felt I was dying inside, and there was nothing I could do to escape, as everyone else was pretending everything was fine. I became an expert at making everything appear as if nothing was wrong.
Home was not a safe place. Fear puts you in fight-or-flight mode, as it feels like life-or-death when you do not know how an abusive parent is going to react. Over time, your intuition is fine-tuned, and you almost learn how to predict the abuser’s behaviour. You are always thinking of ways to calm a situation, even before it happens.
Most days I would witness my mother being beaten by my father, and some form of abuse towards my sisters. I received some beatings, but not to the same extent, as I was the ‘academic’ one, and was mostly left alone.
From a young age, I thought beating people up was normal behaviour. For example, my mother would be hit just for not cleaning the kitchen to a high enough standard. I don’t know how she survived all this. My father treated her like she was his slave. There was absolutely no respect, and no apology for his appalling behaviour.
In 2000, during my second year at university, my mother fled to a neighbour’s house after my father tried to kill her. I contacted the police and my father was arrested, but my mother was so scared that she decided not to press charges.
While we waited for the domestic violence unit to arrive at the police station, my mother made the decision to leave my father.
I said to her: “If you do not leave now, I will not speak to you again.” This, of course, wasn’t true, but I knew it would prompt her to leave. She and my sister had to come to live with me at my university student accommodation.
Deep down I knew this was my calling, that I had to give back to society
It was surreal. We packed all of their belongings in 10 minutes, so arrived at my digs feeling distraught and exhausted. My housemates were surprised, as they had absolutely no idea that this was going on in my life. But luckily, they understood, and allowed them to stay as long as they needed.
I had no way to express myself, and sometimes, when I told people, they did not believe me. This lack of expression and validation from others turned into anger towards toxic masculinity. Whenever a male got aggressive with me, I would just go into a shell. Some of my bosses had absolutely no idea this happened, or the effect it would have on me at work.
I turned to alternative therapies for help. I felt conventional medicine had let me down, as no issues could be found despite test after test.
Deep down, I knew something wasn’t right, especially as I was in-tune with my body. All the tablets I took never made me feel better, but the meditation, sound healing, crystal healing, Reiki, emotional freedom technique, kinesiology, acupuncture, hypnotherapy, and spiritual counselling, really and truly helped me – so I am grateful to all the ‘healers’ I encountered.
I don’t regret embarking on a corporate career. I’ve had the privilege of working for the top technology companies in the world. I’ve learned how to be professional, manage several projects at once, how to deal with conflict, build strong relationships, and also to utilise complex IT systems.
One of my main roles was as a customer relationship manager for large corporations dealing with multi-million-dollar accounts, so there was a pressure to perform well, attend site meetings, and take clients out to high profile social events.
I now use these transferable skills today in my coaching, and my professional history gives me credibility that my clients can trust.
In 2013, I left the world of IT, and my body literally shut itself down like a computer overloaded with viruses. I had to sleep for four days to recover, and then knew I had to make a change, as my lifestyle was unsustainable.
I cleaned up my diet, took courses in nutrition, and started to meditate and exercise more. I felt I had a shot at a more authentic life and to be genuinely happy, so I took the opportunity to start again. I learned that it is never too late.
I enrolled at a business school to study for a professional certificate in executive coaching, graduated in 2014, and started my own business. Deep down I knew this was my calling, that I had to give back to society in some way, and that the trauma I had been through had prepared me for this.
My work as a coach means that by helping others, I am also helping myself. Growing up in a toxic environment means you can easily take on negative thought patterns, but it takes a true willingness to change to break that cycle. Even though I had anxiety and depression, there was a part of my soul that still wanted to grow and break free from what I perceived as a mental prison.
This type of abuse can make you feel as if you are not worthy of great achievements. I try to communicate to others that they are worthy, and that success is defined by you, not others. You are not alone in this journey, even though it may feel like that at times.
At almost 40, I’m running a professional coaching business (called Bluebell Coaching, as bluebells represent new beginnings) and hope to continue helping others with their challenges. You can always start again, no matter how hard life gets. I feel that if I can succeed through all this chaos then others, with the right support, can too.
Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr, says:
Vanessa’s story is one of transformation and renewal. The incongruence she felt between her inner and outer self is something many of us will recognise. Having to deal with such complex situations meant she went into survival mode, striving to break free of the world she was trapped in. When this happens, it is hard for our brain to process our experiences.
As Vanessa grew in her self-knowledge, she realised she had a different life ahead. We all have this ability to change and to create a future that fits with who we really are – both inside and out.