Have you ever felt that your job is almost making you ill? Like you’re stuck in a dead-end job that pays your rent but crushes your mojo? Are you frustrated about getting older but no closer to following your dream? Have a crazy idea for a career change but worried what people will say?
I was working as an NHS programme director in 2010 when work-related stress and burnout caused me to ask myself all these questions. I used to walk to work in so much stress I had chest pains, was snappy with my partner when I returned home, and couldn’t sleep due to worry about the next day. I remember the moment I realised I couldn’t keep going any longer. Sat in yet another meeting, suddenly everything hit me. I burst into tears, walked out of the room and that was it.
My burnout was a result of too much pressure being placed on me... by myself. I was determined to be seen as a knight in shining armour, to deliver every impossible project I’d been assigned. In hindsight, I think I had returned to work too early after having my baby. Pre-baby, 4am starts were the key to my success but when you have a baby who wakes up at 4am every day too, I just couldn’t work the hours I used to.
I was slowly crumbling but didn’t want to admit it. Nine years ago, having stress or a breakdown on your CV wouldn’t be helpful to a career-driven woman, so I ignored the symptoms. The thought of going to a doctor to admit something was wrong, that I couldn’t talk, that I couldn’t think, that I couldn’t deal with this any more, was really embarrassing.
“I decided that I was to stop, enjoy my baby while I could, and re-evaluate my life. So I quit my job.”
I remember making an appointment with my doctor and sitting down with him and describing everything I had been going through. I told him about the things that I had been thinking and feeling, and how I felt like such a failure. I told him about the constant cloudiness in my brain. He diagnosed that I was on the verge of a breakdown and needed to take some time off. My initial response was shock – what on earth was he talking about? I was too busy to take time off. But he gave me a wakeup call, saying: “If you don’t stop, you’re going to be very ill.” He signed me off for two weeks.
You would think that I’d just accept I was stressed and take time off to relax, but I couldn’t – I wanted to understand more about stress. What was it about this condition that had transformed me from a career-driven and ambitious person to someone who literally cried all the time and felt everyone was judging me. I realised this is what overwork and stress does to you, and I decided that I was to stop, enjoy my baby while I could, and re-evaluate my life.
So I quit my job.
Still obsessed with the causes of stress, I even completed courses on stress management. I then built a vision of a business that would help people like me live as stress-free as possible. I visited exactly 195 businesses around the country, with my baby, to get ideas.
My partner had a somewhat neglected farm inherited from his family, and I found myself wondering whether this was where I could create my dream wellbeing business. I thought back to the New Economics Foundation’s ‘five ways to mental wellbeing’ – connect, be active, take notice, keep learning, give – and put all five at the heart of my decision on how to change my life. But I had no experience of creating a business – could I really do this? Soon, the stress returned as I tried to plot the perfect plan, but it was different this time. It was passion and enthusiasm I was feeling.
I had read lots about the calming effects of animals, so I set about finding an animal which could be core to my business. It needed to a creature that could live in a stable, survive challenging weather and didn’t take much in terms of looking after. The one that ticked all three boxes was unexpected: llamas.
After researching how to actually purchase llamas in the UK, I came across a specialist llama trekking provider. From the moment I first met a trained llama, I knew they were the animal for me. Working with them was a steep learning curve – and obviously completely different from anything I had ever done before – but I never looked back.
We ran llama trekking for a while but eventually, when I started to turn the farm into a dream wedding venue, the llamas themselves became the stars of the show – dressed up in bow ties they create an amazing wedding experience and are now so popular with staff and couples alike. And being around them helps all of us de-stress too! You just can’t help but smile when you look at a llama: their beautiful eyes and lashes, out of proportion neck and their big teeth make them truly the most adorable creatures.
“It’s eight years now since I decided to do something to change my life, and transforming a neglected farm into a unique, peaceful, special place has paid off”
In the years after we launched I can’t say it wasn’t hard. I would experience more stress than I originally experienced in my old job, but the stress was different – instead of frustration, I was feeling passion. I had the freedom I wanted to run my own business and design the life that I want.
It’s eight years now since I decided to do something to change my life, and transforming a neglected farm into a unique, peaceful, special place has paid off. We focus on sustainability and the wellbeing of both staff and couples who get married here – taking as much stress as possible away from the couples who get married here and encouraging them to put all the focus on what really matters on the day: fun, laughter, family and friends. This has seen us win awards and, more importantly, a secure future.
When I think of the moral of my story, it comes down to this: if you have a dream for a different life, don’t let anyone stop you. You only have one life, and you don’t waste it all thinking ‘what if?’. Live your life now, and give it a go – what have you got to lose?
Make 2020 the year you changed your life.
Celia Gaze is the founder of award-winning wedding venue The Wellbeing Farm and author of Why Put a Bowtie on a Llama?, available now
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