Monday 19 February 2018

'Dread, fear and misery crept into every aspect of my life' - This woman swapped high-flying IFSC job to work with dogs


Paws for thought: Former tech company executive Maria Sweeney with her dog Bonnie in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Paws for thought: Former tech company executive Maria Sweeney with her dog Bonnie in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Freedom: Instead of an hour-and-a-half commute to work, Maria now walks Bonnie on the beach in the morning. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Maria Sweeney with Bonnie outside her dog-grooming salon she opened in Greystones. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Maria Sweeney

It was Sunday morning at the Isle of Wight festival and I woke up in my extortionately overpriced leaky tepee to an email from a prospective client.

They were based in Israel - where Sunday is the start of the working week - and I was trying to close a particularly big deal with them. The work needed to be done now. I pledged to follow my friends into the festival, but much like my frequent insistences of "I'll call you back", "Let's definitely reschedule for tomorrow", and "Lunch on Sunday sounds fab!", they were well versed in hearing empty promises from me by this stage.

So, while the others all went off to sit in the sun drinking beer and watch Blondie on stage, I was sitting on my mattress, hunched over my phone, frantically working. I missed the whole last day of the festival that I had been looking forward to for so long because I was terrified of missing the opportunity to close the deal. Work had totally and utterly taken over my life: it was like an addiction I couldn't satiate. I was losing all control.

The dread, fear and misery crept into every aspect of my life. I had a constant knot in my stomach and an unwavering feeling of drowning under a sea of responsibilities that I was never going to be able to let go of, or get on top of. When I wasn't in the office or visiting clients, I was on my Blackberry or laptop trying to wrangle control of the aggressive firehose of never-ending emails and calls.

Maria Sweeney with Bonnie outside her dog-grooming salon she opened in Greystones. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Maria Sweeney with Bonnie outside her dog-grooming salon she opened in Greystones. Photo: Fergal Phillips

I was constantly preoccupied and short-tempered. My anxiety levels were so acute that my relationship with my friends and partner began to suffer to such a point that I would barely communicate with them during the working week.

I would arrive home at night and go straight to bed, too exhausted to even communicate. They knew I was "too busy" to lend myself to idle chitchat and, for this reason, I lost touch with many of the people I would have considered important in my life, giving priority instead to the strangers on my client list. It wasn't even just the waking hours; my sleep was plagued with nightmares of failure and the shame that went with it. I would regularly wake up gasping for breath in a cold sweat after the all-too- familiar dream of having turned up to my old school exam hall to sit the Leaving Cert, which I hadn't studied for.

I needed Prozac to get through the day, Valium to sleep at night and heavy drinking at the weekends to forget. I would avoid the leading questions asked of me by my GP about how I was going to deal with this lifestyle long-term, and refused to admit to anyone, least of all myself, that I was completely and utterly burned out.

It took me many years to be able to accept this, as indeed I expect it still does a lot of people. Occupational burnout is so consistent with modern-day living that many of us no longer view it as anything but the status quo. We are so busy juggling the self-imposed pressures that we believe will keep our lives from unravelling that we often find ourselves running simply to stand still.

For 12 years, I worked in high-pressured corporate sales and marketing jobs for varying companies in the American tech industry who, in exchange for signing away your entire life and soul, paid out handsome sums of money (six-figure salaries), benefits (unlimited healthcare, generous stock options) and perks (all-expenses paid trips to Hawaii among other things). Not forgetting, of course, the free candy machine and an ever-stocked beer fridge. I was in my 20s, motivated by money and professional status, and yet I was never truly happy.

Throughout the course of my career, I had always put enormous pressure on myself to succeed. I came from a family of high achievers, and my father had always pushed us to be the best we could be and not to accept anything less. Not realising your full potential was seen as a sign of weakness in my eyes. I didn't realise at the time that this all-consuming strain I was putting myself under would ultimately lead to complete mental and physical exhaustion. In the last year of my corporate career, I joined a tech start-up which was recruiting a handful of people to launch its European headquarters in Dublin. After a laborious interview process over the course of several months, I was offered a job on the team and I felt like I'd won Willy Wonka's last golden ticket. As far as I was concerned, I was headed for the motherlode of my professional potential.

Freedom: Instead of an hour-and-a-half commute to work, Maria now walks Bonnie on the beach in the morning. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Freedom: Instead of an hour-and-a-half commute to work, Maria now walks Bonnie on the beach in the morning. Photo: Fergal Phillips

From the very beginning, the days were long, gruelling and competitive - often starting at 6am to get to my desk in time to deal with clients in Asia, working through lunch to cover Europe, and finishing late at night after internal video conferences with the all-seeing, all-hearing executive overlords in the US while they picked apart "what you could have done better today". Intense targets and promises of insurmountable rewards along the rungs of the corporate ladder meant co-workers scrambled over each other to reach a top so far away, they couldn't even see it. But, hey, a free beer in your hand while being emotionally cannibalised by your cubicle neighbour surely made it all worthwhile?

I had always defined myself by how successful I was professionally, so I flatly refused to admit I was struggling to keep up with the expectations that were not only coming down the management line but that I was exerting on myself.

I had never been in this situation before now and I sure as hell wasn't going to walk away until I had conquered it. An inherent need to survive at work meant that nothing else mattered. And for that reason, everything else suffered.

Allison Keating, registered psychologist at the BWell Clinic in Dublin, has worked with many multinational companies to help employees deal with stress. "Employees these days are encouraged subtly to avoid stress at work with the implementation of work-life-balance programmes, but who do these programmes actually benefit?" she says. "It seems that having a huge workload is simply part of the deal, but it should be the employer's responsibility to help combat stress."

During the recession, she says, employers were trying to wrangle control of their organisations by the threat of being let go, and that this has sown the seeds for the burnout we are seeing today. "Emotional labour" is how Keating describes it. "We have to put on a brave face at work, and this has two levels," she says. "The first is surface acting, which involves being somewhat fake to your co-workers and clients, and the second is deep acting, which occurs when you lose the sense of who you really are yourself. As a society, we don't accept that it's okay to say 'I'm not happy.'"

Conscientiousness in an individual contributes to burnout, Keating says. "We see this in different ways with men and women. In men we tend to see it in two stages, whereas in women there is also a third. The first is emotional exhaustion, where someone is so depleted with dread that they have nothing else to give. This leads to the second stage, which is emotional detachment - we see people become cynical with peers and friends having mentally 'checked out' as a result of the overwhelming stress they are under."

The third stage Keating describes is something called diminished personal accomplishment, which comes as a result of women feeling the need to prove themselves more than men. "It's when you are so burned out, you don't even know who you are any more. "Panic attacks, anxiety, depression, GI issues, chronic fatigue - these are all symptoms of acute burnout. Your body is literally screaming at you with adrenal fatigue."

GP, broadcaster and columnist Dr Ciara Kelly says she sees similar situations with her patients. "People close to burnout are generally high achievers who don't realise that they have limits," she says. "We see it a lot, for example, in those who are trying to start their own business as well as trying to hold down a day job. And particularly during the last 10 years or so, during the recession when everyone had to work extra-hard just to keep a roof over their heads."

Dr Kelly continues, "Stress inevitably translates into anxiety, and people often struggle to keep up with what's expected of them versus what is realistic. It's tiring and ultimately leads to depression, which can cause an inability to function and perform even the most basic tasks. It's not uncommon for people to suffer loss of appetite, low energy, lack of sleep. Sometimes those who are burned out find it hard to even get out of their pyjamas at the weekend."

Combating the effects of burnout is not something that Dr Kelly thinks medication should be a first-line solution for. "Counselling, mindfulness and meditation are all great ways to combat stress. It is true, however, that often people who go to their GP for help are doing so after trying some or all of these different solutions, as a sort of last resort."

We tend to go through different stages when employing coping mechanisms to deal with our shortcomings: denial, blame, apathy and then, if we're lucky, finally acceptance. Mine came one summer morning in 2013.

I was fighting my way down the pavement of the IFSC through the throng of morning commuters on the way to the office, and my big sister texted me to see how I was doing - knowing how much stress I'd been under recently. "Are you okay?" she typed. I stopped in the middle of the street; my eyes welled up, lip quivering, and I simply wrote back, "No."

She immediately rang me, told me that nothing was worth the grief and despair of the pressure I was putting myself under, and that we were going to sort this out together. I couldn't bear the thought of letting go, and yet the relief of finally admitting that it had all become too much for me was overwhelming.

"Is this really what you want from your life?" she asked me there and then. "No." I sobbed. "Okay then, let's come up with a solution. What are you really passionate about in life?" she asked.

"Dogs." I replied.

"Okaaaaay. What else?"

"Nothing else. Just dogs." I blubbered.

"Right. Okay. Really? Nothing else at all?"

"NO! Nothing else!"

"Well, dogs it is, then. Go to work, put on your game face for today, and when you get home tonight, we'll come up with a plan. But we're getting you out of there."

I hung up the phone and immediately felt like a 10-tonne cement lorry had just reversed off my chest. It was going to be okay. Once I actually allowed myself to let go of all the unrealistic pressures I had clung so tightly to for so long, I was able to make way for the logical solution to become apparent. I was going to pursue a career in something I really cared about.

That day I started researching the different jobs I could do that would allow me to work with dogs. However, the starting salaries were so prohibitive, I couldn't begin to comprehend how I would survive. But something in me had switched, and I was determined to follow through on my new course of action.

After just a couple of days hashing out my options with my sister, I decided that dog-grooming was what I really wanted to do. I could pay do an intensive apprenticeship over the course of five months and gain the qualifications needed to become a certified groomer. After that - who knew? I didn't have the first clue about setting up my own grooming salon, let alone a business plan or financial backing, but I was unfaltering in my decision to make it work whatever it took.

The next day, I called my boss into a meeting and informed him I was giving my notice. His initial reaction was to assume I was going to work for a competitor and he tried to talk me out of it, but when I told him my plan (and I use this term loosely, considering it was really nothing more than an idea), he sat back in his chair, shook his head and admitted that, while he was bowled over with surprise, he was actually jealous. Not of the working with dogs - he couldn't stand the things, he was quick to add - but that I was getting out of the rat race to do something with my life that would make me happy. That was a luxury he couldn't afford with a young family to support.

Fortunately, I had a supportive partner and family who helped me navigate the transition period, both emotionally and financially. While initially they must have thought I was going through some sort of a whimsical episode, they soon began to come round to the fact that this was something I was resolutely committed to making happen.

For five months, I drove a 150km a day round trip while I completed my certification at the best training institute I could find. Once I passed my exams, I took a job in a commercial grooming salon working 10-hour shifts for €9 an hour. It was exhausting. I was skint. There were times when I wondered whether it was really worth swapping the mental anguish of the corporate world for a constantly aching back and looks of contempt from strangers at the wet-dog odour that seemed to follow me around.

The first time my sister saw me in my grooming scrubs, a stark contrast to the suited, high-heeled appearance she was used to, she looked me up and down with disdain. "Ugh. You look like a farmhand…" she said, rolling her eyes. I beamed back at her, completely at peace with my unsavoury appearance.

I used this time working for other established grooming salons to build my own business plan, looking at what the world of dog-grooming was really in need of and where the gaps in the market were. While there were plenty of dog-grooming facilities available to people, I had a vision of a more luxury salon approach - a beauty spa for dogs to come and get pampered while socialising with other dogs.

Three years on and I am now the owner of that salon. Vanity Fur is a local enterprise in Greystones, Co Wicklow, a far cry from the heaving city-centre offices I was used to, but it's busy, successful and our customers all get a personal approach. Clients come for a range of services - we offer wash-and-blow-dries, haircuts, pedicures, blueberry facials and even basic socialisation, all in a fully visible open-plan set-up where their owners can see exactly what goes on.

Instead of commuting for an hour-and-a-half to work each morning, I get to spend that time walking our beautiful beach with my own dog, Bonnie. A rescue Collie I was able to adopt from a shelter after freeing up my time from the corporate world, she comes to the salon with me and plays with the other dogs while I work. I know my customers by name when I meet them on our walks, and some of their owners have even become close friends. My world is a different place entirely.

I don't regret a moment of my corporate career and I look back with nothing but appreciation for the business acumen I acquired and the experiences I gained. I realise now, however, that the corporations I put not only my heart and soul - but also my blood, sweat and tears - into would still be standing strong, regardless of the commitment I gave them. The insignificance of it all is overwhelming to comprehend when compared to how I used to feel about the importance of my role within the company. The biggest lesson of all that I am thankful for is learning how to accept that life is full of successes and failures. It took burning out to show me that admitting defeat can often be the biggest opportunity of all.

Photography by Fergal Phillips

Irish Independent

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