inspirational life stories
Meet Sarah, a photographer who loves to chase sunsets, cook and have a cuddle with her cat. However, it wasn’t always this way. Up until recently Sarah was existing rather than living, a situation so many of us can relate to. Read on to discover how Sarah overcame the challenges presented to her and what life is now like on the other side.
Thank you Sarah for such an open interview.
q: Tell us a little about yourself
A: I’m Sarah. I am 46 years old, Mum to a nearly 20 year old son (how did that happen???) and wife to Corin who I wouldn’t be without. I trained as a teacher at University in the early ‘90s and went straight into full time teaching upon qualification and that was my career path for 24 years. I progressed from classroom teacher to Head of Department within a few years and then to Assistant Headteacher and finally Deputy Head over the last 15 years. A radical change of circumstances occurred in late 2018 / early 2019 which led to me making the decision to leave teaching and to strike out on my own as a self-employed photographer. This was not a financial decision, it was strictly related to my mental and physical health and overall quality of life and there is much about the situation that I am not permitted to talk about outside of discussing with my husband and /or my solicitor for legal reasons. I was not alone in this, which perhaps implies something of the situation.
q: For over 20 years you had no time to meet friends for coffee at the weekend and evenings did not exist. Can you tell us how that made you feel and the impact it had on those around you?
A: Where to start? For a long time, work was my refuge and a legitimate reason to hide from a marriage that wasn’t working. However, over time, I had my son, that marriage ended, a new relationship began and my life improved. I began to see that work was front and centre in my life, rather than my family and life in general. However, it was manageable for most of the time.
In 2011, I started experiencing some quite awful health issues, related to my periods, and after a great deal of battling (that is a whole story in itself), I was diagnosed with severe endometriosis and a ball of scar tissue surrounding my left ovary that was the same size as my uterus. After trying different none invasive treatments, it was decided that a full hysterectomy was needed and so my 40th birthday present was the removal of virtually everything, except 1 ovary to stop me from going into menopause. Long story short, the endometriosis returned and over a 3 year period I had 6 surgeries and finally had the remaining ovary removed. In 2016, as I was sat in my hospital bed recovering, only a couple of hours after coming round from surgery, I was responding to work emails. My internal alarm bells started to ring around this time.
As this was happening, my son was also preparing for and sitting his GCSEs and I saw first hand ,and from the perspective of a parent, how much stress the ‘system’ was putting on my smart, intelligent and wonderful child, who had become tearful, introverted and clearly very anxious. More alarm bells and I think this is where I really started to question whether I could stay within a profession that was contributing to the mental health issues of young people.
I lived from half term to half term, wishing my life away in 6 to 8 week blocks, looking forward to the next school holiday to catch up on sleep and to catch up on work. I worked every day, came home and cooked our tea, then went back to work. Saturdays often involved me sleeping very late into the day and Sunday always involved sitting at my desk marking at least one set of books along with preparing my lessons for the week and doing whatever else needed doing (data analysis, preparing staff training etc). Even during the holidays, I worked, like most of my friends who are also teachers, and so work ruled my life and life largely became work, eat, sleep repeat.
I missed out on huge chunks of my own son growing up – I was physically there, but not necessarily present with him in the moment as work was consistently at the back of my mind, niggling away at me. Similarly, with my husband, who quietly and helplessly watched as I was consumed by work and stress, but tried to support me as best as he could, without criticism.
q: During this time would it be true to say you lost a sense of who you were?
A: Over time, with everything that was / had happened to me, including the surgical menopause and the physical symptoms of that (insomnia is a witch!), I can honestly say that I became a shell of who I really am. I had once spent evenings going out and doing photography or spending time with my telescope imaging the skies. Weekends had at one time involved going out walking with hubby and son, cooking great meals and generally being a woman in control of life.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I shut myself off from the things that had given me genuine pleasure and a separation from work and the balance tipped. Even simple things like keeping on top of housework and preparing food slipped, and the road to weight gain through too many takeaways started. Obviously, this impacted on my self-esteem as well.
I was genuinely on a collision course with a fairly significant mental health crisis because all I did was worry – about work and then about how my family must be sick of my constant focus on work and a self-perpetuating cycle just built and built.
There was a significant period of instability and change in my work environment too, over a few years, and in October 2018, the insensitive actions of someone linked to my work environment, along with the impact of some medication, caused me to start experiencing suicidal thoughts and resulted in my being signed off from work for a short period of time. This was my first major wake up call.
q: You mentioned that you feared that change would bring disastrous consequences. Can you describe what you were imagining and now that you have made the change did any of your worst fears actually happen?
A: For a number of years, friends and family had been encouraging me to take the leap into self-employment to make use of my talents as a photographer, but the fear of irregular income and the reality of a significant reduction in earnings was too much and so, despite 60-70 hour weeks and poor quality of life, I continued on the path towards mental health issues and a crisis point.
Ultimately, in some respects, the decision was made for me, through changes at work, and I walked away because circumstances were such that I could no longer work in the ways that the broader education system required me and colleagues to work. I loved teaching with a passion and I am exceptionally proud of how I have contributed to the lives of over 3000 children and their families over the 20+ years I was in the profession. But turning young people into statistical targets, with all of the associated pressures that that creates for teachers and support staff, made it into something that no longer sat well with me.
The initial break was traumatic, for many reasons, and I experienced my second episode of suicidal thoughts. However, amazing support from GP, family and friends, my union and online communities got me back on my feet and after a period of grieving for my job, I dusted myself down and considered my future. Initially I was trying to get another teaching job, but some deep, late night conversations with hubby and other family members, caused me to reflect on whether I was doing this because I wanted to teach or whether it was because it was ‘safe’ and expected of me. My brother spent some time getting me to evaluate my transferable skills and sowed the seed of going self-employed.
I imagined that I would never get off the ground and that I would quickly give up on myself and return to something familiar. However, I haven’t! I still have a roof over my head, I have regained my balance, I have the flexibility to spend time with the people I care about, to go out chasing sunsets with my camera and to focus on my own wellbeing and self-care. I’m starting to understand the power of being able to say “No!” to people as well as connecting with people across social media and in real life who I would never have had the opportunity to meet, but who have in just a few short months, brought me so much joy and fun and therefore contributed to me returning to myself.
Family and friends now consistently comment on “having the real Sarah back” and how well I look. I feel ten years younger and my confidence is back to where it was when I was in my mid-twenties – sassy, confident, ready to take on the world.
I’m having to budget quite heavily, and I will be using my savings for a period until I establish regular income from self-employment, but it really is amazing how much you can strip back from your life when you need to. I’ve realised that, being able to live a life that makes you happy and keeps you well is infinitely preferable to having an abundance of disposable income, having experienced being mentally unwell for a long period of time.
q: Congratulations on the setting up of your new business! Tell us about what you do and why you chose this.
A: So, I am a photographer. It still feels very strange to say this, but it’s a good feeling too.
I learned photography from my Dad, 3 decades ago, in my teens, before digital cameras were even a thing. I have continued to learn and develop throughout the last couple of decades, doing odd pieces of freelance work, including a few weddings and thousands of portraits of close family. On so many occasions, people asked why I didn’t give up teaching and pursue this passion.
When it came to there being a choice between trying to get another teaching job or taking a chance, I decided to take the risk.
I’m a multi-genre photographer, focussing on portraiture, weddings and events.
q: What has been the best thing about starting up your own business?
A: I’m in control of my time and no longer ruled by the ringing of a bell every hour or subject to the targets and expectations of others. I decide on my priorities for a day, week, month and set my own task lists. I’ve broken out of the bubble of education and seen the wider world outside, connected with so many amazing people and discovered that I have so much potential that was sitting untapped and underused previously. I’m now applying the theory of business that I spent 20 years teaching to GCSE students and that is actually really exciting.
Also, being able to work hours that help me and sit with my night owl nature also is a massive benefit. I get to work evenings and go to events or do home photography shoots and this works really well for me, as my sleep patterns tend towards late nights and preferring to sleep in a little!
q: You mentioned at the start you kept a list of positives to keep you going. Can you tell us some of these positives and how this process helped you during the tough days?
A: I kept a list of reasons why not being a teacher anymore was a benefit so that when I was losing my nerve or feeling bad about being at home and not being in a school environment, I could refer to my list. I added to it every day for a few weeks and it is quite long.
Some of the things on the list seem ridiculous when I look back at them, for example
“Being able to go to the toilet when I need to”
Some of the positives are:
• Not working in a toxic environment
• No trust issues
• Waking when I am ready
• Spending evenings with my husband and my son and not worrying about the never-ending list of jobs I need to do
• Being able to have music on whilst I work.
• Being able to have a cup of tea whilst I’m working.
• Being able to take time for myself if I am feeling poorly, rather than being threatened with attendance plans if I’m not in work.
• Wearing whatever I want – no more restrictions about hair colour, footwear, tattoos or nail varnish. My purple velvet boots are worn virtually every day, my nails are frequently brightly coloured, and I have decided to have some bright pink bits added to my hair and no one can tell me that it’s not allowed!!!
• Being able to be creative
• Knowing that the work I create is mine and can’t be claimed by my employer as their work product (yes that really happens in teaching)
• Having the time to submit and collect my medication prescriptions to the GP.
q: What are you most proud of these days?
A: I have a sense of my own potential now, instead of being a cog in someone else’s machine. I have complete control over my life and get to make my decisions. I am proud that I am learning to say no and to assert myself when others try to take advantage of my goodwill or perceived inexperience as a businessperson. I am proud that I understand my own value and self-worth and that I have come through the other side of a very traumatic set of life experiences with my dignity intact!
q: What does your typical day look like? How is that different to before?
A: I get up any time between 7 and 10, depending on how my previous day was and how I am feeling (I suffer from insomnia so if I haven’t got to sleep until the early hours of the morning, I allow myself to sleep).
Normally, I’ll get up and have a cup of tea, let the cat have a cuddle and then get in front of my computer and attack any admin I have e.g. processing photos, contacting clients. I do some commission-based work for another photography company, so on days where I am working for them, I wait for my job sheet and contact clients to confirm bookings.
Sometimes, I will take myself off to local coffee shop so that I can go for a walk and also work without distractions at home (it’s amazing how clean our house is now – I am a procrastinator sometimes with work).
Throughout my day, I regularly check Twitter and my other social media channels and try to engage with relevant chat hours, although if I am on an assignment this is tricky.
If I’m not on assignment in the afternoon I will spend some time in the kitchen, cooking a meal and I’ve got into making fresh bread quite regularly too. This time, listening to music or a podcast and preparing proper food is something I really enjoy and that I realise now that I missed previously.
I don’t think I have a typical day anymore, which is the best bit about it!
q: Do you wish you had made the change earlier and why?
A: In some respects, yes, as I have got my sense of self back, my confidence is improved, my relationships with the people I care about have improved immeasurably, I’ve lost weight without even trying and life feels good.
However, and this probably sounds counterintuitive, but in some respects, I’m glad that things happened the way they did, because I’ve learned some truly valuable lessons about myself and about other people along the way. My experience has helped others in similar positions which has been some solace for the brutality of the situation I found myself in as well.
q: What advice would you give to someone who feels they have lost their sense of who they are?
A: Listen to your inner voice – I suppressed my inner voice for far too long and it was nearly fatal.
Talk to people you trust and also trust yourself – if you feel like something isn’t right, it probably isn’t. Try to get to the heart of what you are feeling – I am a big advocate of lists and journal writing, so I wrote things down, in lists, in letters to myself, in notes on my phone etc. Even when I felt like what I was writing down was silly or irrelevant, it was helpful because it helped me to organise my thoughts and to eventually see that there was a pathway through the chaos.
Reach out and engage with people – you’d be amazed at how supportive people can be on social media and how willing people are to share experiences, support and advice.
q: Where can people find you?
A: My website is www.sarahdunwoodphotography.co.uk
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