Brim-fill the bowl,it’ll spill over.
When Alastair walked into psychiatrist Azita Moradi’s office, he was a ticking time bomb. His drinking was at an all-time high, as was his blood pressure, weight, and anxiety. Alastair was a successful, wealthy, 47-year-old CEO of a large Australian organization. He lived in an affluent suburb of Melbourne and was married with two sons. He was so successful in business that it was killing him.
As a child, Alastair had vowed never to be poor. When his father was made redundant from his job, alcohol became the fourth member of the family. “I will never be like my father,” he thought to himself. “I will make a success of my life.” When his school went on an excursion into the city, Alastair saw what success looked like – men in suits striding purposefully through the streets. They were focused, clear-eyed, walking with confidence. They were everything he wanted to become. Two years later, Alastair’s father collapsed and ended up in hospital, where he died of alcoholism. As he stumbled through the months after his father’s death, Alastair veered from grief and sadness to determination and anger.
Although driven to succeed, Alastair made an effort to treat people well. By the age of 40 he was CEO of the organization he’d been part of since his late teens, having climbed steadily through the ranks, from intern to director. To all appearances, Alastair was a success story. At a personal level, though, he was never able to shake the feeling that he was a fraud. He felt unworthy of his position, his wealth, and the respect shown to him by colleagues.
Throughout his working life, Alastair always felt the chill of poverty at his back. He worked harder and harder to outpace that cold wind. Every now and then, he thought he’d left the fear behind, but as soon as he started to feel comfortable, he’d sense it again. So, he would work more hours, taking on more responsibility, until he was working 16 hours a day, often still on his laptop at 2am.
His wife not only complained about the early morning work, but also about losing him. “You’re risking a heart attack!” she’d say at least once a week. As a young couple, they’d promised to always listen to and be there for each other. As the anxiety increased, the only thing that held his fears in check was alcohol. It soothed him, relaxed him in social situations, and settled his hamster-wheel mind for a few hours. But it took him even further from his family. “It’s only temporary,” he told his family again and again. “When this restructure is over, I’ll take time off. I’ll stop working so hard.”
Not enough sleep. Too much fast food. Up to ten drinks a night to manage his anxiety and depression. No time for any exercise. Sitting at a desk or in the car from 6am to 10pm every day. Arguing with his wife. Taking his anxiety and exhaustion out on his family. Everything about his lifestyle was leading to the perfect storm.
One cold, rainy Thursday night, Alastair came home at 11pm to an empty house. The lights were off, his wife’s car was not in the garage, and his sons’ beds were empty. He opened their cupboards and drawers and found more emptiness. Breathing in great gulps of air, he ran to the room he and his wife shared. The bed was empty. Her walk-in closet was empty. She had even taken most of the food from the cupboards. He had been out of the house since 6am and she had had plenty of time to strip the house.
Alastair talks of the shockwaves, like tremors after an earthquake, that ran through him that night. He woke to his alarm at 5am after sleeping only three hours. The restructure was at a crucial stage and he remembers thinking, “I don’t have time to deal with this. I have to prepare for the morning meeting. I’ll have to deal with it tomorrow – or at the weekend when I’ve got some time.”
The weekend came and went and Alastair drank more than four bottles of wine. He didn’t call his wife. On the Monday morning, Alastair woke up feeling tight in the chest, as if a rope was wrapped around his ribcage. He couldn’t breathe properly and his heart was beating erratically. As if she were right next to him, he heard his wife’s voice. “You’re going to have a heart attack one day!” With sweating, trembling hands, Alastair called the ambulance, terrified they wouldn’t get there in time. At the hospital, the doctors told him he’d had a panic attack. Yes, he was overweight, drinking too much, working too hard – but this was “just a panic attack.”
Despite their reassurances, Alastair continued to feel the tightness in his chest and became too afraid to leave the house. “What if I have a heart attack at work? Or in the car?” he thought. “Will they get to me quickly enough? At least if I’m home, I can call the ambulance.” He dialled the office, informing colleagues that he had the flu and couldn’t come in. That was one of the first occasions Alastair had ever taken time off work.
Two weeks passed and still Alastair stayed home, fending off workplace queries, claiming that he’d contracted pneumonia. His insomnia became so severe that he went three nights without sleeping and his mind raced uncontrollably. Every time he thought about work, his pulse hammered, his chest tightened and his face and hands broke out in a cold sweat. Every time he heard an email notification on his laptop, he wanted to run out of the room.
Finally, at the end of the two weeks, Alastair admitted to himself there was a direct connection between his symptoms of panic and thoughts about work. He knew he needed help and went to his GP, who prescribed sleeping tablets and referred him to Dr Moradi for psychological help. This was the moment when Alastair began to calm the storm raging within him. “Into my office walked this gentle man with a deeply furrowed brow. He was clinically obese, sweating profusely, and terrified he was about to die.” He was chasing corporate success because of his fear of poverty, but with no clear goal or end point in sight.
That fateful Monday morning, when his panic attacks first started, Alastair had made the decision to lay off several his staff. While the restructure alone was stressful, it was the repetition of history that finally tripped him up. Without being aware of the silent drama being played out in his subconscious, Alastair felt responsible for ruining the lives of his staff, just as the faceless CEO had ruined his father’s life when he had been laid off. He was responsible for causing the same suffering he’d experienced as a boy.
“While he received medical care to treat his obesity and high blood pressure, Alastair and I worked on understanding the underlying psychological factors behind his behaviour and drive for success. He began to redefine his vision of success and his own sense of self-worth as distinct from work, wealth, and achievement. While he had assumed the breakdown of the family was due to poverty, he realized it was more complicated than that,” noted Dr Moradi. After months of unpacking the impact of his early experiences, he understood that what he cared about most was family unity and togetherness, not wealth, corporate success, or having a big house. He learned how to focus on what mattered, and stop the obsessive doing, which was almost wholly motivated by fear.
[Extract from ‘Not Doing: the art of effortless action’ by Diana Renner & Steven D’Souza]