Back in 2008, seemingly out of the blue, I collapsed at work and had to be rushed to hospital in London. Overnight, the world as I knew it changed completely when I was diagnosed with a serious heart condition Atrial Fibrillation (AF), and so began the significant mental struggle with overcoming my illness; for the first time in my life, I felt completely unable to cope.
There was a time in my younger years when I played tennis at a senior level and was at peak fitness; knowing as I do now that I have probably lived with my condition since birth, undetected, it certainly explains why I used to feel so out of breath.
Beyond this, there were no specific warning signs and so I felt utterly unprepared for my AF diagnosis and the news that I needed a major operation. Luckily, my GP was fantastic and got me in to see one of Europe’s leading consultants in the field; it was reassuring to have a plan to manage my illness, but I underestimated the effect that living with such a condition would have on my day-to-day life.
Over the following months and years, I felt permanently stressed and exhausted. It became impossible to carry on as I had before. I was made to feel very uncomfortable about taking time away from my work in the public sector and felt wholly unsupported. I was under pressure to return when I was just not coping and this only served to exacerbate my suffering. Ultimately, I felt I had no option but to leave feeling victimised.
The condition I live with manifests as a constant racing heart rate and shortness of breath, which can be a terrifying reality for sufferers on a daily basis. I just couldn’t come to terms with the dramatic change of pace; I felt useless. My anxieties grew with every meeting and business trip I felt unable to attend and I felt a terrible sense of despair with each cancellation.
I developed a debilitating fear of flying, possessed by the idea that I might fall ill on the plane. Thankfully, I have now overcome this, although I am still uncomfortable with the idea of long-haul.
My personal relationships changed drastically too, as I felt others were unsure of how to relate to my illness; I felt misunderstood and isolated.
I want to end the stigma surrounding mental health and combat the notion that being ill is a weakness. It isn’t. Developing a coping strategy that is helpful to you is essential: over time, I began talking about my illness and its effect on my mental health and I now give speeches to businesses and individuals on how to overcome anxiety associated with health conditions and mental health.
At the recommendation of my GP, I tried both acupuncture and meditation and found both to be very helpful tools in managing my daily health. I am also fortunate to have the unending support of my caring partner, without whom I don’t know how I would have managed.
It’s fantastic to see that mental health awareness is having a real moment and to learn about the strides some companies are making to support employees with mental ill health – and indeed with ill health overall – but there is a long way to go.
As an IoD member and business leader, I felt compelled to share this personal account of my relationship with my own mental health in the hope of raising awareness around this important topic and perhaps helping others in a similar position.
Professor James Knight is an international business person and journalist, European Editor of Spa Canada and IoD Member.
Throughout Mental Health Awareness Week (13th - 19th May 2019) and beyond, the IoD will be featuring stories from our members relating to mental health as part of the #alittlemoreconversation campaign. Track the campaign via the dedicated mental health hub and the IoD's social media channels.
Return to the IoD Mental Health hub