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Hi, my name is Katie Hancock I am a 40 year old mother of two beautiful, crazy boys, I have a wonderful network of family and friends and I am a successful HR leader. I am also a keen basketballer who has retired many times, in fact I have probably had more comebacks than John Farnham. I have two degrees, in Science and Psychology, and am part way through a Masters of Neuroscience. I have over 15 years experience in strategic HR, 7 years at management level, and in October last year I suffered a breakdown.
The breakdown didn’t just happen on one day, there were a number of months and events that led up to it, and it went on for a number of months as well. In fact I would say now looking back that I didn’t actually know I was having a breakdown.
Now, just over a year on from the start of my breakdown, I think I am back to normal, whatever normal is. And it is in the fact that I feel like I can see clearly now that makes me realise I am well on the way to recovery, and have been able to process what happened to me on some levels at least. That and the fact I am now able to talk about what happened without crying. Well I think I am, we will soon see.
In a moment of madness earlier this year I agreed to do this talk. Steph Waddon, who is here tonight, was a client of mine and we could meet every few months to talk business. She had been watching my journey from a successful and awarded HR leader to a shell of that person, and believed I could help other HR practitioners and individuals like myself if I was able to share my story.
I think when she first asked me to share my story I thought she was the one who was mad and probably agreed just to humour her. Anyway, however it came about here I am, ready as I will ever be to share my story with you. I am going to try my best to be completely honest. I will also be totally vulnerable which quite frankly scares the shit out of me. But if story helps some of you, or helps you help someone else avoid travelling the path I did, then the stress of standing up here will all be worth it.
If I think about words to describe me, from as far back as my kindergarten teacher, it is words like responsible, capable, reliable, strong willed, intelligent, passionate, outspoken, results focused, dedicated and committed. I didn’t need help, I never asked for it and if it was offered I would say no thanks, I am fine (and in my head I was say I am a strong person, I don’t need help).
There are plenty of people around who need help, I helped many people in my life all the time, I didn’t need to burden anyone by having them help me.
I would like to ask you to keep the context I just gave you in mind as we go through my story, I am sure many of you will recognise yourselves or someone you know in there somewhere. What I saw as my greatest strength, my ability to be strong when others weren’t, to get things done, to always be reliable and the one to save the day had finally brought me undone.
I was in a very busy management role working 70+ hours most weeks, I was fully breastfeeding one baby and had a normal, energetic 3 year old too. I had a very active social life with lots of great friends and family close by in Canberra. I was exercising one, sometimes two times a day as I became determined to be a size 12 and the best version of myself. My life was full to the brim, and even at that point, before the things I am about to tell you happened, I was at high risk of breaking down.
I am going to spend a few minutes now briefly describing some major events in my life that I think all contributed in some way to my breakdown.
I am not doing this because I want you to feel sorry for me, or because I think what happened was worse than what many of you would have faced in your lives but rather to give you some context over how someone who was so strong and capable could get to the point that I did, where I had no reserves, no resilience, not even any empathy left for anyone else, least of all myself.
In February 2010 I had my first beautiful boy Max, and as the major breadwinner in the family returned to work when he was 4 months old with a double action breast pump in hand (yes they do exist) so I could express milk and give him the best start even though I felt so guilty about leaving him.
In September 2011 I suffered a miscarriage which I then found out was quite common. Women don’t talk about this, and at the time I just felt like a failure as all the women around me were happily falling pregnant and I couldn’t. And then I talked to someone about it and realised how many of us it happens to.
I was blessed to fall pregnant again and have my second baby boy Toby in September 2012. In the weeks after Toby’s birth I suffered with some level of post-natal depression, not that I ever saw a Doctor or received any treatment.
After 3-4 months I did manage to get it under control, but it had made me see perhaps I wasn’t as invincible as I had always thought I was. Again I returned to work when Toby was 4 months old, and managed to juggle work, two little boys and everything else well enough for the next year or so.
In June 2014 my sisters partner took his life, and she was thrown into her own battle to survive. I held her together over the most difficult time of her life, often staying with her overnight and being away from my boys and husband.
A few months later in August 2014 my husband was coward punched in a pub and suffered a brain bleed. I woke to the police at my door at 3am and thought he was dead. Mike recovered well but it took time and sadly he lost his new job as a financial planner due to his injury and recovery time.
Understandably that was an incredibly dark time for him and I held him up, helped him secure a new job and continued to work fulltime myself and care for the boys and pretend to everyone who was watching and expecting me to crumble that I wouldn’t do that and that everything was ok.
In January last year my marriage ended, something I had always believed would never happen to us. I find it hard to explain or talk about even now. I threw myself into my work and just tried to survive that next 8-9 months, not really understanding how broken I was and how I could not keep going the way I had been.
One comfort to me today is how happy my ex-husband is, he has a new partner he loves and they have a happy life together that they share with my boys half the time. On my bad days it gives me some comfort to know it was the right decision to leave and although I am still recovering he is in a great place.
Looking back to last year and knowing what I know now, from a behavioural perspective I started to display behaviours demonstrating that my pre-frontal cortex was in pretty big trouble. I will leave all of the theory and brain insights to Silvia Damiano who is speaking next, but will give you my version of Brain 101.
Up at the front here there is the pre frontal cortex that is involved in higher level thought processes and decision making, and drives calm, considered behaviour.
Then there is the limbic system which drives stressful, controlling behaviour. And when you are stressed and anxious you are very much in your limbic system, creating a situation where you become unable to see possibilities or solutions.
You have probably all heard of the fight or flight response, or what is referred to in the psychology world as an amygdala hijack. I was basically in the grips of the biggest amgydala hijack I had ever experienced, with the exception of when I was drinking and could forget all my worries (I am not going to spend time talking about how I self medicated with alcohol, that story is a talk in itself, but I am sure you all know that drinking to excess is not the best way to deal with stress).
Basically I was in a fairly constant state of fight or flight.
So what were the behaviours I was displaying? I lost focus and became easily distracted, something that had not happened to me before. I had trouble listening, I would interrupt people and stopped thinking about how that impacted them, I just wanted whatever I was doing to be done quickly and move on from it, I had become very impatient.
I withdrew from my work colleagues and friends. In terms of work I started to work from home, a lot, and cancelling one on one meetings with my staff leaving them to manage their own workloads.
I stopped returning the calls and texts of family and friends, and avoided any situation where I would have to try to explain what was happening to me or face the fact it wasn’t ok.
In the months leading up to October, and the months after, my boss at the time would regularly ask if I was ok, what did I need to help myself and team and what could he do to help. And each time I would say I was fine, we were fine, it was a tough time with a high workload but we would be ok, I would be ok all was ok. And because he trusted me he accepted that.
He was interstate and didn’t have visibility of what was happening. Others would mention things but he didn’t see that behaviour nor experience it himself so he left me to my own devices which is what I would have wanted – before.
I now realise how desperately I needed to relinquish control, to acknowledge I could no longer do my job at that point and to ask for help. But I never did. I was in complete denial that this was happening to me.
In many ways I have now made peace with what happened, and whilst I am still recovering I am grateful to know so many things about myself that I didn’t know back then. One quote I found very comforting in my darkest days was that the darkness is only frightening after endless light, and that made me realise how lucky I was that my life had been endless light for 39 years, I had not lost any of my immediate family, I had fallen in love and gotten married and had two beautiful boys, I had a successful career that I loved and a wonderful circle of friends.
I was so lucky, but I now understand that as human beings adversity and tough times are inevitable and I had no choice but to learn to trust my journey even when I couldn’t understand it. We spend a lot of time lying to ourselves and others, hiding what we see as the bad bits, our flaws and weaknesses, for fear of being judged. You can spend years running away from things you are ashamed of, when if you can be brave enough to turn around and face them they lose their power over you.
The course had been booked months earlier, and it was purely coincidental – but of course there are no coincidences and quite clearly was meant to happen the way that it did. I almost didn’t go, I was a mess and could barely do more than get the kids to school and get back home to stare blankly at my emails.
But for some reason I did go, and that really was a miracle. For two days I was in a bubble, safe from the world, and able to start to reflect on who I was, who I had become and what was happening to me. I was sitting in a room surrounded by HR professionals, ex CEO’s and management consultants, and to be honest there was nowhere in the world better for me to be to begin to accept I had broken down.
I can’t remember all of what happened, but I do remember being told “Katie I have been there where you are”, I have walked in your shoes”, and “you will be ok”.
, the CEO of the About my Brain Institute, who ran that certification is here today. I think if you ask her to be honest about what she thought of me that first day she met me, particularly after she saw the state of my brain, she would wonder how I got dressed and made it there at all. Actually she wouldn’t, as getting dressed is a habit so my limbic brain would have managed that part of my day.
Either way Silvia saw me at my very worst, when the pain was so raw I could barely talk about it. And I sat quietly in the room and took in what I could, and at some point over that two days I realised I was going to be ok.
I have come a long way since last October, and continue to focus on my recovery and being the best mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague and person I can be. My desire to help others has only gotten stronger, and if my story can do that then I understand why this happened to me.
If you start experiencing any of the things I did please don’t be afraid to ask for help…..don’t be too proud……it isn’t weak to ask for help. You can’t look after your family, you can’t be there for your friends, you can’t be a great boss or colleague if you don’t look after yourself first.
On that note I would like to invite Silvia up to talk to you. Silvia is an accomplished woman, a scientist, author, leadership expert and CEO. She is also a caring and loving mother, friend, colleague and boss to many, including me, and I am forever thankful for the day I met her last November.
Katie Hancock has over fifteen years’ experience delivering strategic HR solutions to clients in the private and public sectors in Canberra, Sydney and the UK. Katie has degrees in science and psychology.
Katie is passionate about helping leaders understand how the state of their brain impacts on their own health and performance, and on the performance and health of their teams.