Why paying attention can save you paying a heavy price

“We’ve got to do it very quickly, otherwise you’ll lose the use of your right leg.” Urgent advice from Jitesh’s surgeon. A momentous event that had small beginnings — picking up a box.

Jitesh was one of my spoon-by-spoon interviewees. In 2000 he was working for a consulting firm in the Middle East. “The client had sent a huge box of files and things. It was a Saturday and we were working late. I foolishly picked up the box.”

His back gave way, but he got it treated. After a while the pain subsided and life carried on as before. Long hours, no exercise and no follow-on physiotherapy. A few years later it happened again. “Things just broke and I had to take time out. I had a spinal blister. The spinal fluid leaked and was pressing my sciatic nerve. They had to operate to remove the blister and stabilise my back.”

In 2017, whilst Jitesh was on holiday, he picked up a heavy bag and it triggered a third episode. By then things had reached a critical point. “That’s when I paid attention, but it was too late to do anything without surgery. The nerve had pretty much become dead.”

“With hindsight, I could have prevented it getting to that level but I didn’t really do anything. I didn’t pay much attention.” In my 100 interviews I’ve heard this many times. We just fail to notice soon enough.

Catch it in time and we get to decide the outcome. Leave it too late and it’s not ours to choose anymore. “It got to a point where I had no choice. I ended up with a fusion of the lower vertebrae,” Jitesh said.

So why didn’t he notice soon enough?

The consultancy was short-staffed and a carrot was dangled in front of him — promotion to partner. All day he sat at his desk without moving. Then at night, rather than exercising, he carried on working. He failed to notice the impact on his health. He was too busy. And work was more important.

Jitesh isn’t alone in prioritising work over health. In 2008 Pete collapsed at a railway station. He woke up in A&E, “I looked in the mirror and I had blood all over my face.” He’d bitten off the side of his tongue whilst having a fit. He surfaced during a lumbar puncture and then woke again in a dark room. “My mum was holding my hand saying, Peter, don’t you go before me.”

There were weeks in an isolation ward as doctors thought he had a brain tumour. “I literally just couldn’t move. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t think.” Once home he started having mood swings and wasn’t able to go back to work. “Pete before 2008 was fun, creative. Pete after 2008 was moody, serious, changed. I couldn’t string a sentence together. I’d lost my sense of identity.”

But how did things get to this point? On the surface it all looked great as he’d been promoted to his first Executive Creative Director role. “We had a fantastic 18 months. We were winning awards. We were winning pitches. We were changing the business which was fantastic.”

But he’d been suffering from bad headaches for weeks. And over that time he went to see six different GPs. But they just said take more painkillers, so he did. Then on the 16th June, after he’d rushed out of his third client pitch of the day, he collapsed at London Bridge station.

Months later Pete returned part-time but the stress slowly ramped up, “It felt like I was wearing a mask. I was pretending to be someone. I was struggling with confidence, trying to get back to the personality I used to be.”

Then further down the line there was more. “Having to make one person redundant is bad enough, but whole swathes of people in a creative department in Manchester?” Then he had to let more people go in London. “You don’t sign up for that, do you? It had a massive effect on me, almost like PTSD. It was the worst possible thing I could have done — to have such an impact on peoples’ lives.”

So how is Pete twelve years on? Fortunately he’s fine. He’s had nine MRI scans since he collapsed and now has the all clear. He’s also changed jobs and is working quite differently. So what was the diagnosis? “Oh, they think it was simply just a brain infection.”

Jitesh and Pete are just two examples of many. They are very different people from different countries in different jobs. What they had in common was they were both working flat out. They missed the signs because they were just too busy. They ignored the niggles, the twinges and the fatigue.

It’s easy to forget, but it just takes a moment. We just need to breathe, scan our bodies, pay attention. Doctors talk about “early detection.” Catch a problem quickly and you can reverse it. Minimize the damage and sometimes you can even find a cure.

And what applies to our bodies also applies to our lives — our jobs, our careers, our relationships. We need to pay attention to that growing irritation, the sense of frustration, observe the dip in our interest. We need to sit up and take note. The stitch in time that will save the nine.

And what about Jitesh — how is he? He’s also doing well. He does his stretches, goes hiking and is learning yoga. He’s also cooking healthily and keeping his weight under control. Nowadays he pays attention and notices, “I’m quite careful about my back and am conscious of it.”

He has left the consultancy though. “I’d had enough. I’m no longer interested in partnership.” He’s enjoying a new role in a different environment. “The working hours are the same but the pressure is different. You’re no longer in the rat race. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. We have deadlines and pressures, but it’s not incessant as it was before.”

And how does he feel about changing roles? “Frankly I have no regrets leaving. On the day I felt a big lead weight lifted off my shoulders. I suddenly felt a great sense of freedom. I would never go back to that environment again.”

At the end of my Spoon-by-Spoon interviews I ask what advice people would give their younger selves.

Pete said, “Just make time for yourself. Work isn’t everything. Don’t pour so much into work — alter the balance with home. And don’t have this pressure of always driving for a senior position and putting yourself in scenarios where you have to “fake-like” the stuff you hate.”

Jitesh said “Work was the focus at that time and that drove everything. That needed changing. Get a balance between work, health and other things. Get your priorities set out clearly… refocus and re-prioritise other things in life.”

And how is his right leg, the one he was close to losing? “I still have a slight tingling pain sometimes. But I definitely feel I’m in a much better place now.”

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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