Finding Relevance
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Finding Relevance

Lesson 7: Facing Our Flaws Only Makes Us Stronger

Written by Amira Aleem

In July 2015, Andy was back in London looking for work after his short stint as a mentor at an accelerator programme in Singapore. Andy describes the long months which he spent meeting with people, having coffees with potential leads and reaching out to his ‘network’ (he tells me he hates that label) — it ran to some 70 meeting in six weeks.

Although the meetings in themselves were positive, nothing concrete came back. It was a situation made worse by the ‘escape’ stories he was surrounded by: stories of people who had quit their jobs to go travelling and had created new exciting careers for themselves, “knowing full-well that I had just failed at exactly the same thing.”

In the months that followed, from late October through to Christmas 2015 waiting around to hear back from places he had applied to and spending long periods of time alone in his flat in West Hampstead, Andy describes feeling incredibly lonely and frustrated.

The social isolation and the lack of structure to his day, meant that Andy found himself frequenting a local pub or bar as a way to meet people and get out of the flat when all his friends were at work. It also meant he was growing increasingly dependent on alcohol. He lived in a tiny bubble with regular contact only with two good, old friends from New Zealand.

Beer was often Andy’s companion during his time in London and abroad while he sought to find relevance and meaning.

Andy went on to start a new job with Tobias & Tobias in January 2016, before taking leave to try a new community housing project in Portugal in December 2016. As a knock-on effect of having things not go as planned in Portugal as 2017 started, Andy recalls withdrawing from social contact when he got back to London and it taking an immense toll on his personal health.

Although people were quick to congratulate him on the success of the house in Portugal, it couldn’t be further from the truth as Andy felt it. “No one could sense how crap I felt about my inability to make Portugal last beyond six weeks and how much I had sacrificed personally to attempt to build a community”, he painfully told me.

The personal cost of the venture had been overwhelming for Andy and it’s not something that was easy to handle. He found himself turning to alcohol once again to help him cope.

When there’s no one else around Andy explains how easy it is to go have a beer. It’s an easy way to seek distraction from the pain life throws up.

“There’s no easy answer to it — definitely it’s a way of protecting myself. If I’m in Portugal and suddenly I’m in an empty house — a house that is my responsibility — and I’m the only one there, feeling completely uninspired, I find it very easy to numb that feeling by drinking.”

The idea of living alone was not new to Andy. He had done it before in his 30s and had always found it comfortable. But in 2012, after being married for less than two years, Andy suddenly became a widower, an event that would set off much of his unrest and movement.

In the wake of his wife Rima’s suicide, Andy says he’s never really felt settled again, and the pressures of living by himself have been too much sometimes. The dishes don’t get done as quickly, the place isn’t as clean, and he has found himself often turning to social media for the social interaction he craves.

He’s taken measures to mitigate it. Earlier in 2017, while Andy was looking for work in London, he joined a seven-week canoeing expedition down the Mississippi River to ensure that he was in a healthy environment and with a community of people.

During the expedition, he applied to a business idea Startup Accelerator programme with Escape the City in London to give himself the opportunity to build a new network to support his search for work. He also completed a course and assessment to become a Paddle Sport Leader.

But drinking or not drinking is often too simplistic an explanation for the problem. As Andy describes, protecting himself from the social isolation is the much bigger problem. This becomes even more acute when he has nothing to focus on.

He often compensates for it by working long hours at work, and attending events. But events often haven’t served a real purpose, he explains as he finds himself attending a talk and then having brief conversations with people before they hurry off home.

As a result, Andy has often found himself walking into a bar, ordering a drink and striking up a conversation with someone. It’s easy to do and it helps him meet people. But the alcohol has had an effect on his physical health and consumes a huge amount of time.

Since 2016, Andy has spoken openly and honestly about his struggles with depression and he’s received largely positive responses; but with his struggles with alcohol it’s been a much more taboo topic.

The vulnerability and honesty with which Andy speaks is evident. “It’s a problem that I have and a hard one to shake.” It’s not something he is willing to excuse or pretend he has under control. Most importantly, he’s determined to not make it the feature of his story. “I don’t want to be remembered by it.”

But despite his struggles with it, Andy describes how attitude can make all the difference. “It’s remarkable what you can still do if you’re resilient at heart,” he says.

This can be both a good thing and a bad one, Andy is quick to point out. Although he sometimes goes out several times a week and stays late, he is able to function well the next morning having done it so many times.

But like he says, that can be a ‘false positive’, fooling you into believing that things are okay and that you are managing them. “I find it remarkable that in this world people can hide away where no one can see.”

It’s understanding the root of your vulnerability and addressing it head-on that really has the power to turn things around. In Andy’s case, it’s became apparent since we completed our interviews at the end of the summer that he has a mental condition, most likely to be bi-polar.

Since 2013, Andy has been experimenting with various challenges to limit his alcohol intake. Every year, it’s been at least a month; in 2016, it was 100 days without alcohol. In 2017 he had frequent periods of non drinking or drinking only 0% alcohol drinks.

Andy’s conclusion on: Facing Our Flaws Only Makes Us Stronger

We all have weaknesses and we do our best to manage them or, worse, hide or try to bury them. It’s really difficult to accept we have a problem with our mental health or suffer from addiction because we think we are inferior or we fear judgment.

Yet I found when starting a podcast series on the subject of mental health in business in the autumn of 2016 that by listening to other people’s struggles, I found sources of knowledge and inspiration to start opening up fully myself. The feedback was unanimously positive and it’s my firm belief that rather than society condemning vulnerability, it appreciates it in spades.

Thank you for reading this part of Andy’s story, we hope you’ve found it useful in some way. Next week will be the final lesson of this series and so we’re almost at the end now. Finally, a reminder that my writing work can be found here: https://medium.com/@amiraaleem.

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Andy McLean

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