Desperate to prove herself, Rosie threw herself into a demanding work schedule that took its toll on her, both mentally and physically, as she lost the use of her legs. Her burnout was extreme, but understanding the mind-body connection allowed her to heal – by learning the power of rest
In February 2018, I lost the ability to walk. I was 26 years old and I worked out every day. Each time the doctors asked me if I was healthy, I always answered, ‘physically, yes’ because that’s what mattered right? I had lost the use of my legs; my mental health battles were of no importance.
To rewind, during my years at university I began to experience severe depression because I was led to believe that, due to being autistic, I would never work. So, on top of being autistic and having generalised anxiety disorder, depression was added to the mix.
I graduated from university in the summer of 2017, and by August I had started an incredible job at an investment bank. I have never been short of determination or grit, and so began this job with a strong mindset of proving everyone wrong; nothing would stop me holding down a job I had only ever dreamed of having.
But by November 2017, I lost to depression again. I knew this was because the transition into work had taken a toll, so I got help. I came back stronger, more resilient, and adamant that nothing would take me down again. I felt more in control of my mental health than ever before; it felt like I had beaten depression for good this time.
For the next four months I worked up to 13-hour days, and had constant anxiety and panic attacks. I am talking daily anxiety attacks on the bus, I would have autistic meltdowns in the bathroom at work several times a week, and countless times I would walk home with panic attacks so bad I could barely breathe. But I was holding down the job. I wasn’t depressed. I was happy. I was winning.
So back to February 2018 when I couldn’t walk. I dragged my legs around as they got worse and worse, and the pains I had going up and down them were excruciating. I relied on using crutches and taxis. I was tested for everything from brain tumours to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neuron disease. I had horrible tests, and the scariest doctors’ appointments of my life. I was terrified.
In July 2018, doctors told me there were no further tests to carry out. They believed I had lost the use of my legs because the psychological connection between my brain and legs had snapped. Essentially, my brain was so desperate to slow me down that it found a way to do just that.
I left that appointment confused and angry. My first reaction was to argue that I wasn’t faking it. I was in agony, no will in the world would make my legs move as I wanted them to. The more I processed it and talked it through with my GP later, the more it all started making sense. Then I felt shame. How could I have done that to myself? All that pain, all that fear, was self-inflicted, because I repeatedly told people I did not care what holding down my job did to me. From skipping meals to sleeping 14-hour nights, I never once listened to my body’s desperate attempts to slow me down.
You should never feel guilty for taking time for yourself
I was given the OK by my doctor to drill through intense rehabilitation; to learn to walk again, to balance, to feel normal sensations in my legs. I fell, I tripped, I cried out in pain as I forced my legs to come back – to remember how to walk again. It was not a fun process, and it was pure determination that got me up again after each fall, but it worked.
My legs are not the same as they were before February – I doubt I will ever play football again. I have not tried to run. But I can walk, and for now that means everything to me.
I took a long hard look at my life and re-evaluated my priorities. You cannot have a successful career if you give absolutely everything 100% of the time like I was. It was not healthy, and I knew that, but I was proud of how hard I was pushing myself.
Listening to the advice of my GP, I looked for a different job. I cried in that doctor’s appointment because mid-rehabilitation, mid-getting my legs back, I felt gutted that I was going to ruin my career.
But I didn’t end up ruining my career. I am employed by an incredible firm that has changed my lifestyle. I don’t have to use public transport anymore, nor work the crazy hours. Instead I come home, and I write, and I listen to music, and I enjoy the right now. My career is more successful having adapted it to a lifestyle that I thrive in.
I will always be driven, and want to tackle a hundred things at the same time; I am doing multiple qualifications, and I am just starting my writing career alongside finance. But none of these are more important to me than my health. Not anymore. I come home from work and no matter how hectic I am, I eat my tea while watching a TV show. It’s my way of switching off from any deadlines and pressure, washing away the day, and being in that moment.
To the parents squeezing in chores while the kids are asleep or at school, when was the last time you enjoyed that nap with the little one? Or caught up on TV while they were at school? I know, I can imagine your arguments, but I can assure you that you will be of very little use to your children and family if you crash and burn. The same goes to anyone constantly working at their career as I did, or fighting a disability. You should never feel guilty for taking time for yourself, to press pause on deadlines and demands – it is paramount to both your mental and physical health.
The thing with mental health is people say, ‘keep fighting’ and ‘stay strong’, and I know they mean well, but if you take one thing from reading this, what I’m saying is ‘keep resting’. Mental illness is a fight; it is a fight you cannot continue unless you fight smart – and rest.
Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr, says:
Rosie’s experience was an extreme reaction to the stress she was under. Thankfully, most of us aren’t affected to the same degree, but will recognise the lengths we go to in order to ‘succeed’. In a world where we are bombarded with images of what success is meant to look like, it’s easy to forget that true success is about being happy. Not looking like we’re happy. Rosie has overcome a tremendous challenge, not only in learning to walk again, but also discovering what makes her happy.