I was an anxious child. I can’t really explain why, but my default way of being was being worried. As Einstein said: “One of the most important decisions one makes is whether we choose to live in a friendly or hostile world.” I unconsciously chose the latter. My mother was a worrier before me, and I remember vividly her telling me, “If we don’t have something to worry about, then we’ll then worry about that.” I think that was meant to be reassuring but it never quite hit the mark.
This default made me strive to make sure things didn’t turn out how I feared, which meant I tried to be in control, work hard and always be as good as I could, or better than others. As long as I tried hard to make things right, then surely things wouldn’t go wrong – the naivety of youth.
It wasn’t always easy growing up, even though I was very fortunate in so many ways. I had a loving family and an idyllic countryside environment to grow up in. I got a free private school education, thanks to my father’s job as a teacher, which I know makes me extremely privileged. On one hand, it gave me the best starting place possible and the rest of my academic and career life would flourish because of it. But on the other hand, it severely damaged any self-confidence or self-esteem I might have had. I was different from the girls at school; most notable was not the difference in money and lifestyle (which was also very clear to me) but the fact that I was a day pupil and they were all borders. This difference excluded me from being “one of them,” from fitting in, from belonging. In turn, this only served to fuel my habits of worry and anxiety. I struggled to make friends and was always on the periphery of groups, desperate to be part of them. Subtle but long-term exclusion and rejection made its imprint on me here, and it would take over twenty years for me to unlearn the defenses I built up to protect myself from this pain.
At the time, I didn’t know anything different so I wouldn’t have classed myself as unhappy for these five years at the girls’ school, but when I was forced to move schools at 16 to my father’s school (where we also lived), the difference became stark.
Finally, I felt like I found a place to fit into, and while I was painfully shy to start with, I started to find the world a little less hostile. I made friends more easily and started to grow in confidence. This was from a very low base, but as a result of this and a more nurturing environment, my academic results rose to the top and my sporting abilities flourished. It was a happy couple of years, not worry free, but it felt like I’d moved from surviving to thriving and I realized then what happy school life was meant to be like and how absent it had been until then.
This was also a time that I started to realize that I was different in one important way from most people around me. I think all teenagers struggle with emotions and hormones and general growing up challenges, but my feelings were extreme. They could totally engulf and overwhelm me, both positively and negatively, and it often felt totally out of my control, and even a curse. I could rollercoaster from extreme happiness to extreme sadness, or worry, from one day to the
next. My mother and I were very much alike in this, and it was quite apparent if you observed our relationship that it fluctuated precariously between loving playfulness and World War III.
Unfortunately, the coupling of the exclusion in my early school years with this emotional sensitivity drove me to develop strong defense mechanisms to protect myself from further perceived hurt. In addition, there were frequent triggered outbursts of behaviour that would cause pain to those around me and myself. Of course, at the time I couldn’t understand the cause of this behaviour, this would come decades later.
The following few years at university, while again not worry-free, was a period of exploration in the world. I lived away from home, made great friends, fell in love for the first time and continued to do well academically and in sport. The worry always made me study hard. I was not a natural intellect but I put in the hours and was adept at recalling information in exams.
Towards the end of university, I’d like to say that I pondered my calling in life and searched endlessly for the career path that would fulfill it. I had finished a degree in Geography and Anthropology but was disillusioned and overwhelmed with the challenges in the world that I had studied. I wasn’t inspired by jobs in town planning or going to live half-naked with some indigenous tribe in the middle of nowhere, which seemed to be the only options directly available. So instead I looked at those around me and joined the masses that were attracted by the sparkling promises of bright futures in accounting, law, banking, and marketing. I followed the migration into London and signed up for three more years studying while working and living hard. I fitted in and felt a sense of belonging and friendship inside and outside of work, which is what I had been yearning for since those early school years. The accountancy training with one of the big four firms is still one of the best business training grounds and certainly wasn’t a bad stopgap. I just have one regret: I forgot it was a stopgap. I forgot to revisit this decision, and then it became a career path I just slipped into and, true to form, tried to be the best at it I could.
This career path was a successful one for me when measured in the traditional way. I passed all the grueling exams the first time and qualified within three years. The desire for change and exploration motivated me to follow a group of work friends out to the Sydney office for a two year working holiday. At 25, the years in Australia were a couple of the best; a relatively worry free and sunny ex-pat life where there is an immediate sense of belonging and kin.
After two years I was forced to face the reality of staying more permanently or returning home, and the draw of the family from the other side of the world made this decision for me. It was hard returning home. It was at this moment that the reality of family life hit home. A fact that didn’t seem relevant to tell you until now was that my beautiful vivacious mother was diagnosed with early- onset Parkinson’s disease when she was about 30 years old. Of course, it was always in the background of my growing up but not with any seriousness or gravity, though I am sure it was for her. Looking back, she was strong and courageous and determined not to let it impact her or her family and that is why I think it never really hit me before this point. But she had deteriorated while I’d been away and the starkness of her illness was like a punch in the stomach when I came home.
I settled back into the UK, again moving back to London and re-integrating with my old friends and life in the city. I left accountancy, as I couldn’t see myself in the partners I had been working for in the firm, and decided commercial finance in the industry looked like an obvious next step for me. I worked for seven years for one of the UK’s largest supermarkets, moving up the ladder every couple of years. I would go home as much I could but often, I was torn between the guilt of not going home and the pain of going home and facing my mother’s illness. This came to a head when it was time to buy my first house, and I decided to move back to West Berkshire and be closer to home and family. It was extortionately expensive to buy in London so this also drew me out of the city. It wasn’t long after this that I also moved my work out of London and started working for my third employer, one of the UK’s largest telecommunication companies. Again, I continued to grow and ascend up the ranks and develop as a leader. I also was in a happy and solid relationship and thinking about the next steps towards the vision of a family life of my own. I thought I could see the path clear in front of me. The path that those around me were also taking and the one that I believed was normal, right, successful and the route to happiness. One year later, while waiting for a train in Brighton station, I received the call no one ever wants to receive. “I’m sorry Miss Barton. We tried everything we could to save her, but I’m afraid she died in theatre.”