IS SUC­CESS AN ILL­NESS?

The high-flyers ‘killing it’ at work

Cosmopolitan (UK) - - Contents - As told to JEN­NIFER SAVIN Pho­to­graphs RUTH ROSE

It was early Fe­bru­ary last year, and the pho­tog­ra­pher’s cam­era clicked in the back­ground as a make-up artist dusted fine pow­der over my fore­head. That day, of all days, I should have felt ex­cited, pinch-me-pleased and burst­ing with en­ergy, but in­stead my stom­ach was weav­ing it­self into a bun­dle of macramé knots. I was on set in Los An­ge­les with my best friend – who just so hap­pens to be ac­tress and model Suki Water­house. We’d first met in a night­club and, six years on, had launched our own ac­ces­sories la­bel, Pop & Suki. We were film­ing a pro­mo­tional video that day, but as the bags shone bright in candy colours un­der the stu­dio lights, in­side, I felt darker than ever. On the sur­face (and if you were judg­ing by my so­cial-me­dia ac­counts), I had it all: my own fash­ion brand loved by the likes of Lady Gaga and Jes­sica Alba, a hugely pop­u­lar Snapchat show,

Pil­low Talk With Poppy, and a suc­cess­ful pre­sent­ing ca­reer that I’d been pour­ing my blood, sweat, soul and tears into since the age of 19. I was known for my pos­i­tive and up­beat in­ter­views with celebrities on MTV, and at­tended red-car­pet events in both Lon­don and LA, the two gor­geous, de­mand­ing cities that I split my time be­tween – ones that as a school­girl grow­ing up in Leam­ing­ton Spa I could only pray I’d visit one day, never mind live in. But on that af­ter­noon, when I should have been fly­ing es­pe­cially high, none of that mat­tered. Phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and men­tally, I was noth­ing short of empty. Sud­denly the tears came thick and fast.

I man­aged to get through the rest of the day with the sup­port of Suki and the crew, be­fore slump­ing into a taxi home, but the next morn­ing was a dif­fer­ent story. I was done. My body felt so beaten that I could barely peel the du­vet off my­self. The bloat­ing in my stom­ach, a per­ma­nent fix­ture for the last few months, had got so bad I looked heavily preg­nant. Shivers ran through me and my ton­sils felt like rusty nails. I’d reached break­ing point with­out even re­al­is­ing I was close, and fi­nally my body had re­belled against the pun­ish­ing diet favoured by my gen­er­a­tion: stress, cof­fee and adrenalin.

FROM LA TO A&E

I lay on the floor of my apart­ment un­able to move, a mil­lion miles away from my fam­ily, but too drained to even make a phone call. As I cried at how alone I felt, ev­ery mus­cle pulsed and ached. A cock­tail of tired­ness and sad­ness had seeped into each cell and I had ab­so­lutely no idea what was hap­pen­ing to me. It was ter­ri­fy­ing. Even­tu­ally I dragged my­self to an emer­gency doc­tor who took blood and urine sam­ples, ran saliva tests and asked me ques­tions about my life­style. Al­most im­me­di­ately he de­liv­ered an un­ex­pected di­ag­no­sis: I was suf­fer­ing from adrenal burnout.

This was the mo­ment when, for the first time in nearly eight years, I stopped to take stock. Coun­try­hop­ping and years of hus­tle meant that I never, ever switched off; I was con­stantly plugged in, be it to my in­box, In­sta­gram or so­cial scene, as I was crush­ingly afraid of miss­ing out. Di­vid­ing my time be­tween two con­ti­nents meant that as soon as the work mes­sages from Lon­don stopped com­ing in, LA woke up to bom­bard me with more. I’d reg­u­larly pass out in bed with my com­puter on my lap, or phone in my hand. As a teenager, I told my­self that if I wasn’t the most tal­ented per­son in the room, then at least I could be the hard­est worker – and some­how it had al­most be­come an ad­dic­tion. I’ve never smoked a cig­a­rette in my life, but I was truly hooked on in­hal­ing emails, com­pelled for­ward by mul­ti­ple strong cof­fees a day.

In my love life, too, I felt com­pelled to com­pete – this time not with my­self, but with the seem­ingly end­less pool of beau­ti­ful, avail­able women who filled the dat­ing apps I pored over. Even here, like so many other men and women my age, I felt the pres­sure to self-pro­mote, to “sell” brand Poppy to the masses and hope to God they bought it.

All of this came tum­bling out in that ster­ile doc­tor’s of­fice – and I wasn’t alone, he said. Cur­rently, rates of anx­i­ety, stress and de­pres­sion are at an all-time high, with mil­len­ni­als

“Phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and men­tally, I was empty”

re­port­edly be­ing the gen­er­a­tion most at risk from all these.* Stress weak­ens the im­mune sys­tem and in­flames the body and brain, yet our cul­ture tol­er­ates it – cel­e­brates it, even. Ever had a friend moan about how busy and stressed out she is, only for you to re­spond with your own longer list of spin­ning plates? Ever had that small, quiet thrill that you are ac­tu­ally the busiest? Me too. But if you’re con­stantly un­der high lev­els of stress and feel­ing anx­ious, your adrenal glands can’t con­tin­u­ously pro­duce the ex­tra cor­ti­sol your “fight or flight mode” de­mands. That’s when burnout oc­curs.

I re­alised there were signs of it among many of my friends, too – sub­tle things, like our col­lec­tive lethargy. We’d all been graft­ing so hard since the age of 18 to smash our ca­reer goals that when we fi­nally did, we weren’t able to en­joy all of the in­cred­i­ble things that were hap­pen­ing to us. We’d host or at­tend as­ton­ish­ing par­ties and spend the time net­work­ing, ex­haust­ing our­selves rather than en­joy­ing them, then flop into bed early. I’d re­peat­edly lis­ten to friends panic that they were afraid they were be­com­ing de­pressed af­ter feel­ing un­able to cel­e­brate their hard-earned wins when, in ac­tu­al­ity, what they were feel­ing was burnout – a to­tal de­ple­tion of en­ergy. As an eter­nal peo­ple-pleaser, I found my­self tak­ing on ev­ery­one else’s stress on top of my own, too.

A NEW VIEW

Af­ter I crashed and burned, I spent months re­treat­ing from friends, des­per­ately try­ing to claw back some of the buoy­ancy most peo­ple ex­pect you to have in truck­loads in your twen­ties. The doc­tor pre­scribed me an­tibi­otics for my throat and sent me to see a diet spe­cial­ist who gave me an eat­ing plan and sup­ple­ments to rein­tro­duce nu­tri­ents into my body. Some­times I’d lie in bed and watch videos of old in­ter­views I’d done and feel sad that I’d lost my “flame”. I’d call my par­ents, who would urge me to fly home, but I didn’t.

It was a slow process, but grad­u­ally, my stripped-back sched­ule took ef­fect. A turn­ing point came when a friend rec­om­mended I try a breath­ing class. (When we’re stressed, we stop tak­ing those deep belly breaths that tell our body we’re re­laxed. It was partly why I looked so bloated, too.) The teacher asked us to scream at the top of our lungs like a wild an­i­mal. As the noise rose up from my stom­ach, set my lungs ablaze and flew out of my mouth, a slow sense of free­dom rose through me, too. We spend so much of our lives try­ing to main­tain a sense of con­trol that dis­re­gard­ing so­ci­etal norms, even for a few hours, sparked a sense of lib­er­a­tion. I cried for hours af­ter that first class, but not for the rea­sons I’d been cry­ing for months pre­vi­ously. It moved me so much that I’ve since trained as a breath­work in­struc­tor my­self. But re­cov­ery wasn’t as easy as just tak­ing a few deep breaths. For months af­ter­wards I couldn’t even walk into a cof­fee shop with­out shak­ing – the mere smell of caf­feine set off in­ter­nal panic alarms. My body was still protest­ing against stim­u­lants.

Be­fore I burned out, I thought the ex­pres­sion “self-care” sounded in­dul­gent for all the wrong rea­sons, but I’ve worked hard to re­wire that mind­set – we can’t change our be­hav­iours un­til we change our be­liefs first. Cru­cially, I re­alised that no­body else could make me feel enough un­til I did it for my­self. I would wake up, scroll through so­cial me­dia, tap-tap-tap­ping, sched­ul­ing meet­ing af­ter meet­ing, wor­ry­ing about work and friend­ships, agree­ing to ev­ery so­cial event be­cause I felt ob­li­gated, and then still feel guilty that I wasn’t do­ing enough. All the time my self-es­teem was non-ex­is­tent, to the point where I be­lieved I only “de­served” a good night’s sleep when I’d reached peak ex­haus­tion. Around this, I’d try to cram in in­tense ex­er­cise in the hope of re­duc­ing my in­flated stom­ach. I still love work and push my­self, but no longer to break­ing point. When I feel my­self edg­ing to­wards bad habits again, I’ll take a step back.

The process made me re­alise that, while we’re taught to clean our teeth and brush our hair, no­body re­ally teaches us how to take care of our brains. It took me un­til the age of 26 to fig­ure this out, as well as the im­por­tance of cre­at­ing pos­i­tive daily rit­u­als for your­self. That’s why I’ve spent over a year de­vel­op­ing my app, Happy Not Per­fect, which pulls to­gether all the strands of my ex­pe­ri­ences and out­lines the steps to re­cov­ery from mil­len­nial burnout and daily anx­i­ety. I used to just ig­nore the tired­ness, over­e­mo­tional re­ac­tions and other clear signs that I was run­ning out of gas, and yes, I still have days when stress feels over­whelm­ing, but they’re much fewer and fur­ther be­tween. Self-care is not self­ish. You can­not pour from an empty glass.

Poppy’s mind­ful­ness app, Happy Not Per­fect, is avail­able to down­load now

“I crashed and burned then spent months re­treat­ing”

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