Two years ago, I had the privilege of attending a talk about stress by Andrew Millar, the Head of Web Services at the University of Dundee.
In the first minute, he captures everyone’s attention with an unforgettable line:
I remember very clearly… the night I nearly died.
As a first-time presenter that year, I had been watching clips from the previous years and particularly liked Andrew’s style. I wanted to emulate it. And this presentation has stuck long in my memory.
The thing about stories of this kind is that you don’t really expect them to happen to you. They’re meant as lessons to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.
But late last year, that’s exactly what did happen.
Achievements out of spite
I’m a high-octane individual. I get involved in a lot of stuff. I get through a lot of stuff.
My teams or departments (sometimes just me) never have the capacity to meet demand, so I have to offer a level of productivity to compensate. Otherwise, it’s usually extra hours.
That alone is not a problem. It’s been my way of surviving imposter syndrome these past few years. Anyone could do my job, but could they do as much?
But in the early autumn, for the first time, I thought I had been landed something that would defeat me. I was left in no doubt about the consequences of failure. I worked 15 days straight to make sure it didn’t happen, and I don’t remember many evenings to myself over a six-week period.
It’s like some sadomasochistic instinct takes over. When something feels impossible and all normal motivations are lost, I want to achieve it just to spite the circumstances.
Two weeks later, I haemorrhaged from two ulcers and was passing blood like it wasn’t going to stop. I remember just trying to prevent myself from fainting, which could have meant hours unattended on the floor.
Even as I get to hospital, I’m thinking to myself, ‘it’s a waste of time, but perhaps they’ll understand why I thought I had to get checked out’. Next thing, they’re cauterizing a batch of ulcers with adrenalin and I’m hooked to a drip for nearly a week.
I thought a lot about Andrew’s talk during my time in hospital. Because I, too, have misunderstood stress. Worse than that, I’ve openly ignored it.
I’ve had what’s assumed to be IBS of some description for a decade, though it doesn’t fit any sort of clear diagnosis. It’s affected me for long spells then disappeared again. It’s been like a private battle I wage with my body for six months of every year.
It could well have been ulcers all this time.
Like Andrew suggests, it’s easy to think of stress as something that affects other people – lazy people – and not you. Then a life-threatening symptom incident comes along and shatters the bubble. It’s proof that you can’t ignore any longer.
“You’ve been a lucky boy,” says our occupational therapist. A couple of decades ago, I would have had as much chance of dying from a haemorrhage like that. Thankfully, modern medicine is more than a match for my attempts to blow my wiring.
Reading into the reasons why people like me behave as they do, I encountered a handy article that defines the different types of imposter syndrome.
I recognise two of these as very prominent character flaws of mine – perfectionism and the Superman complex. I always have to do more, and it always has to be perfect.
The problem is that Higher Education is an awful breeding ground for this exact combination.
HE is generally poor at web-friendly writing, which drives a perfectionist mad. Unless something goes into print, it can be written by practically anybody to any standard. I’m always wanting to intervene, and it drives me mad where I can’t.
The second is the most dangerous, especially at Greenwich. The more work we do, the more we need to maintain. Our business-as-usual (I term it ‘the CPU’) ticks up by about a percent every month.
My small team must get more efficient all the time to accommodate this. That’s unsustainable, and something has to give – either the quality or the output – or it will just keep growing for me.
As last autumn proved, when something comes up and I’m told that failure is not an option, it triggered the Superman complex. No matter what the improbability, cost or consequence, I feel destined to find a way.
It seems privately heroic, until this happens.
Only then do I realise how inwardly selfish it is. It’s not malicious – more like obliviousness to the consequences for those around you. Your partner trawling to the hospital each day. Your parents 200 miles away worrying. They don’t blame me, but it is humbling.
Three months on a careful and alcohol-free diet seems a very small price to pay for a recovery.
Curbing the excess
Some people aren’t suited to particular roles – even if it’s because you need to be stronger at saying ‘no’. I’ve thought about resigning and taking a step back.
But I don’t think the specific job matters, to a large degree. High-octane folks wired like me will find a way to turn any job into a Formula One circuit.
What this episode reminds me is that it’s not just drink and drugs that foster destructive behaviours. There are other challenges – other fixations, other addictions – that can be equally destructive.
Now I’ve lost a couple of my nine lives – and what good did it really do? It’s a regret that I was blind to the obvious messages in Andrew’s talk and avoided following the sort of experience that he hoped to prevent in others.
I’m not going to have that platform anytime soon, but please watch Andrew’s talk and be stronger where I was not. Nine lives is not enough to risk.