Sas Petherick’s Wellbeing Story
Sas Petherick is a writer, coach and mentor who specialises in supporting women experiencing self-doubt. Today, she’s taking over the SOL blog to share her own, deeply personal wellbeing story…
One of my earliest memories is of watching MASH on a small black and white TV and drinking a strawberry milkshake; my first ‘meal’ after undergoing open-heart surgery to correct the hole in my heart I was born with.
I was born in New Zealand in 1973 to young English parents who, at the time of my strawberry milkshake, were deeply grieving the recent, sudden death of my two-day old baby brother. In my little four-year old brain, I had conflated Paul’s death and my operation, and somehow believed it was my fault Mum and Dad were so sad. I made it my job to cheer them up. I look back now and wonder at my little self taking on such a momentous task.
My parents navigated through their grief in very different ways and home was often a confusing and sometimes unsafe place. My self-appointed role in our family to keep the peace meant I became highly attuned to the first sign of chaos and drama. I learnt to keep my emotions to myself, and developed a deep fear of conflict and anger. I have always had a troublesome relationship with joy too; this could never be relied on and usually came at a cost.
I found solace from all of it in books. Because I was best at reading, I was the only member of the Red Reading Group at my tiny village school in New Zealand. This, combined with my ‘gingerness’, meant I was never destined to be one of the cool kids.
But my love of stories, and perhaps my need to understand other humans so I could feel safe, meant I cultivated a boundless curiosity for words, conversations and ideas. At university I studied psychology, philosophy, poetry, theology and politics (consequently, I’m a fabulous dinner party guest).
Coping with Grief and Loss
Sadly, no amount of book learning could prepare me for the sudden death of my beloved mother in 2002. She was a vibrant and beloved 53-year-old with so many plans. I lost my anchor. A year later came the equally unceremonious end of my marriage.
At the time, I was living in London, leading large teams through complex organisational change. I threw myself into work, taking on increasingly ambitious roles for money and affirmation. I worked long hours, because I think I was a bit terrified of my own company. I was encased in some pretty thick emotional armour; judgemental, sarcastic and controlling. I resorted to my lifelong default of food and wine to numb my too-hard-to-feel feelings.
I saw a therapist and decided I didn’t want this to be my life.
I traded in the security of a pay check and took short-term, highly paid contracts that allowed me to travel. I went to almost every country in Europe; adventuring and partying and putting myself in incredibly risky situations that seemed hilarious at the time.
I found the greatest cure for grief and loss was vodka. My pendulum had swung from ‘Woman Curled Up in a Ball’ to ‘Most Likely to Skinny Dip’. It was half-a-dozen years of exhausting, brilliant fun.
But I knew I was a disembodied head chasing the next high.
Work, pinot noir, shopping and one too many adventures with infelicitous lovers — it was all an Olympic-level exercise in staying busy, to avoid being alone and facing the truth: that I felt broken, confused, disconnected and angry, often with a little shame sprinkled on top. Neat.
Utterly knackered, I eventually went home to New Zealand to rest. Staying still allowed me to breathe out. I began to feel the feelings I had been working really bloody hard to avoid. I allowed myself to grieve Mum, my marriage and all the things I thought I would have done by the time I was 35.
It felt epically crappy. But I knew it was real. I found a therapist, wrote my uncensored tender heart into my journal, began blogging, and over time, started to find my voice.
I met Ash in 2008. We fell in love quickly and decided to return to the UK for an adventure together. A year later I was in the biggest job of my life, six months in to my second marriage and convinced I was going to do or say something to ensure I was either fired, or my husband would leave me.
I was overwhelmed with the suffocating miasma of having created a life I wasn’t sure I was capable of showing up for. Suddenly I had so much more to lose. So, I think I tried to run away without leaving. And drink is perfect for that.
I was working in the financial district in London and there were at least half a dozen bars within a block of my office. After work, I would be there with colleagues, drinking bad red wine on an empty stomach. I had no off switch.
I woke up on the 3rd of January 2012 to a crippling hangover. As flashbacks from the night before slowly took shape, I felt a seed of shame in the pit of my belly begin to metastasise.
The stress of my job combined with my drinking was turning me into a mean and selfish drunk. The night before, I had said cutting, hurtful things to people I loved deeply, in pursuit of a cheap laugh. I couldn’t remember the last day I’d gone without a drink. I didn’t like who I was becoming, and I knew I was in danger of losing everything.
I have no idea why this really sunk in at that moment, but naked and alone on the bathroom floor, I quietly decided to stop drinking.
I didn’t tell anyone for months because I didn’t trust myself. After the shame of that night wore off, there was a strange euphoria that took hold (much like the first days of a diet). I felt determined and focused and in control.
But removing the option of drink was like lifting up a massive rug to find all the emotional detritus I’d swept out of sight. Up came all the feelings I’d spent a lifetime avoiding. My sadness terrified me, and I fought against it with anger. And I didn’t know how to be angry without creating a scary vortex that sucked the love out of everyone in the room.
I found I was very attached to my ‘work hard, play hard’ identity. I discovered an undercurrent of fear that if I wasn’t drinking, people would think I was weird, pregnant, a Christian, or The Very Worst Thing: boring. All these fears came true. It hurt until it didn’t.
My husband was incredibly supportive and loving during this time. Even years later as I am typing this, my eyes are welling up with just how lucky I got meeting him. We have talked a lot about his experience of my drinking and while horrible to face up to, I think it helped to establish a level of honesty and trust in our marriage that has fortified us.
In the process of getting sober. I realised I was completely burnt-out and left my job.
Taking myself out of all that stress helped me sleep, stay hydrated, eat more vegetables, connect with the people I loved – all very necessary aspects of self-care. In the process, my ambition for corporate stardom just evaporated.
Becoming a Coach
I’d spent almost 20 years managing teams of engineers and scientists and technologists, and for some reason, my colleagues had always trusted me with their secrets and fears, their dreams and ideas. These conversations had always been the part of my job I secretly treasured.
I have since retrained as a coach, eventually completing a Masters Degree. My dissertation was a deep study into self-doubt and this has become the basis for my work in the world. I now run a full-time practice, and lead retreats and workshops as well as mentoring other coaches.
Spending all that time researching self-doubt helped me to weave together the threads of my own experience. I understood so much more about why I had spent much of my life pretending to be confident, how I was prone to overdelivering and people pleasing, why I kept dating ‘charming bastards’, and why I procrastinated and numbed myself to avoid any kind of emotional discomfort or vulnerability.
The academic rigour also required me to think critically and objectively about this deeply subjective phenomenon of self-doubt. Why is it here, how does it show up, what are the ways we can overcome it? All of this helped me to make some sense of it and I’ve become fascinated by the tentacles self-doubt weaves into our lives.
Learning to Meditate
During the summer of 2014, I underwent further heart surgery. Unexpectedly, a defibrillator was needed to stop and restart my heart. After this literal ‘reboot’, I felt utterly different. I knew some profound shift had happened.
After years of being unable to get still, I felt an urgency to learn how to meditate. I found a deep and sacred solace when I was walking in the woods and found I was open to all the inexplicable, unseen mystery around us. I repaired some deep old wounds with my father. Two of my closest friends fell out of my life with little explanation. New ideas and inspiration and work and clients came to me.
It was confusing and beautiful, sad and exhilarating.
I’ve meditated every day since; it’s both as prosaic as brushing my teeth, and the most profound relationship of my life. In this stillness, I quietly connect to something that I honestly can’t explain. But it feels like the best kind of connection: sacred, comforting, intimate and at times hilarious.
And now I’m all me, all the time. I’m consciously myself in every context, with every person, at any given moment. I trust myself to show up as me every single time. I’ve learned how to feel the full spectrum of my emotions. I’ve found that no emotion is permanent, and few require an immediate response.
But you know, the biggest change is that I’m so awake. Particularly in that first hour of the day, just before the sun comes up – this is sacred and precious time to connect with myself and the vastness of everything.
So here I am: sober, awake, without all of my shit together, but mostly in the flow of an awakened and fulfilling life. It is a constant source of gratitude and wonder that I have managed to wrap a business around some of my very favourite things: conversations, writing, ritual and connection.
I’m not the kind of coach that shares inspirational quotes, and you won’t see me offering up five-step solutions to your complex and nuanced challenges. But I am fascinated by your experience of being human.
Self-doubt holds us back from being our fully expressed selves. It culls our spirit and wraps us in defeat. But it is a very logical and understandable response to psychological risk. Making sense of your particular flavour of self-doubt – where it came from and why – helps to minimise the ways it is holding you back, while honouring your particular circumstances, values, needs and preferences.
This is what coming home to yourself feels like.
Your story is remarkable to me. I can’t wait to get to know you better.
You can find more wellbeing stories here.
Love Sas xx