People may recall a personal post published last April about my wife’s sudden death in 2000. I was both surprised and humbled by the huge reaction to the post and it seems to have been helpful to many people who have experienced loss of a close family member or friend.
Today I am going to share another personal experience that I hope will help others. I have just returned to London from a six week work trip in Asia and, on my final flight back to London, I read an article about the number of people in the USA who suffer from anxiety. It stated that over 50 million prescriptions are issued each year in the USA alone for anxiety-related drugs and how these are prescribed quite freely by doctors around the world to treat anxiety. The article touched a chord with me.
Many people will be aware from my previous post that my wife died suddenly in quite traumatic circumstances. It was a terrible shock for me and my three young children aged 6, 8 and 14. I also had a demanding job requiring extensive travel. Two weeks after the funeral, I went back to work and, three months later, I was again travelling 130+ days per year. It is all a blur now of juggling nannies, looking after my kids needs and of course running the biggest department of the International Tennis Federation. Looking back, I chose to keep busy and to try to forget what happened. This was not easy but I am proud that my three kids have grown to be great adults who are successful in their own right and that we are close.
I am not afraid to admit that there were very tough times since Daisy died 18 years ago. I sought professional help at various times from people who were expert in trauma therapy and tried to understand better how to cope with our loss. There are, of course, no rules and something like this never fully goes away. Often during tough family moments, the memories of that terrible day came flooding back, like when I was moving out of the family house in 2005 and the decision to send my younger children to boarding school in Ireland in 2007.
Thanks to the support of my family, friends and work colleagues, there were, of course great moments, which led me to believe, somewhat naively, that I was over Daisy’s death and had moved on. But in the difficult moments, the flashbacks would come and, with them, a feeling of anxiety that something like this could happen again to someone close. Despite running a big department, the challenge of managing people and travelling extensively, I found work matters relatively easy to deal with. I certainly was never anxious about work and was very comfortable handling big budgets, difficult situations about staffing and managing the many projects and events. Compared to decisions about my children’s education and wellbeing, work decisions were relatively easy. I guess this is understandable as, in the end, family, friends, health and relationships are the most important things in life.
In 2014 I had one of those times when family matters were very challenging. The details are personal but, as a result, I started to have flashbacks to that terrible day when my perfect world imploded, when one moment I was having breakfast with my wife while my kids were watching TV nearby, and the next moment I was trying desperately to revive her as she lay dying.
To anybody who has not experienced anxiety, it’s a tough thing to deal with. You focus on and worry about things even though they are unlikely to happen. It reminds me a bit like the nervous feeling in your stomach in those moments before a big tennis match, but much worse and lingering. You struggle to sleep and, in those waking hours in the middle of the night the memories come flooding back.
After Daisy’s death, I learned the importance of not trying to deal with things alone and I consulted the same experts who had helped me before. Talking to experts gives perspective but, in life, it’s not about knowing what to do; it’s about doing what you know! So I thought of myself as the expert juggler and stupidly believed that the great Dave Miley could handle everything. But in that moment in 2014, a lot of the balls that I had been juggling came crashing down. I guess I hit a bit of a wall.
It’s kind of funny now looking back but the expert that I saw at that time in 2014 asked me to update him and effectively outline my lifestyle. I told him the whole story from Daisy’s death, the raising of the children alone, to my hectic job and 130+ days of travel each year. When I finished explaining what I considered my normal life, I looked up. The doctor pushed his glasses back……… looked at me up and down…. shook his head……used an expletive that I will not repeat here…… sighed out loud…..before telling me that no wonder I was struggling as he was shocked that I could be juggling so many things. I realised then that I had to regroup and to consider making changes.
I decided to step back and over the next six months, I reduced my work and travel to try to get back on track. I did not stop working but, with the support of the ITF and its HR department, I worked flexible hours and reduced the amount I was traveling by 50 per cent. This gave me time to see experts in anxiety and trauma and to try finally to come to terms with my loss all those years ago.
What followed were six of the most difficult months of my life. I finally faced the reality of what had happened in 2000 and, with the help of experts, began to deal with those tough memories and to develop tools that helped enormously. During this time, I pushed myself to exercise a lot – difficult because when you are feeling anxious, it is the last thing you want to do. I realised that I had to do the opposite to what my mind and body was telling me and that took a lot of mental strength. I went to hot yoga three times per week and to gym other days and fought so hard to get back to where I felt normal. After 6 months, I felt much stronger and back to my normal self. But the positive was that I emerged with a better perspective about my life and what was important. I had finally stopped running and understood that I was not superman and that I needed more balance in my life. By August 2015 I felt great and travelled to the US Open for meetings and then to the ITF AGM in Santiago in September where I presented and chaired meetings and was relieved to be back working normally. I felt that I had made peace with the past and the anxiety was gone, and I was energised once more.
So, what are some things that I learned in those months:
- Your health is your wealth
- Family is the most important thing and, if that is not right, it’s hard to focus on other things like work.
- Not to be ashamed to admit to feeling anxious as anxiety is a normal reaction to what I had gone through.
- Not to be afraid to get expert help as when you have anxiety and it is a very hard thing to deal with and it’s particularly hard to deal with alone. I learned the value of professional support and of developing tools to deal with it and to face the causes. I should have done this earlier.
- Fitness needs to become a priority just like eating and sleeping.
Before 2014, fitness came after my work in terms of priority. I used to try to finish my work and then fit in the gym or some form of fitness. This meant that most of the time fitness took a back seat. After 2014, fitness and health became a key priority.
Now I do gym, hot yoga or tennis every day, but without a set time. The night before, I check my schedule for the next day and I look to see when I can put 75-90 minutes in my day for fitness. Then I put it into my schedule like a meeting (and I never cancel meetings!!). It’s my fitness meeting with myself and, no matter how busy I am, that meeting is my priority. Occasionally I have to sacrifice an hour of sleep to fit it in, but that is a small sacrifice. I am happily quite busy with my work again and back travelling 130+ days again. But I keep a much better balance, make time for my family and friends, and I know that, as a result, I am much more effective at my Development work at the Asian Tennis Federation.
I resigned from the ITF in early 2016 and, after taking a year off where every day was the weekend, I am now active in international tennis as a consultant. I see now that, in an organisation like the ITF, you can become somewhat institutionalised and my experience since leaving the ITF has given me a much better understanding of the bigger picture in the great sport in which I work. I feel that I can see things now from more sides and feel better placed to see the important things for tennis.
By sharing my story, I hope that I can highlight the impact of anxiety, how important it is to seek expert help and what can be gained by concentrating on fitness and health and more balance in life.
Remember……..What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!