The loud ring of the telephone – the wake-up call I’d requested – roused me from my sleep. I rubbed my eyes and stumbled out of bed to get ready for a series of meetings. But in the bathroom, I paused in front of the mirror. Resting my hands on the washbasin I stared at myself. And the sight wasn’t pretty. My weight had been creeping up, mainly because I had been having a lot of fast food over the past four to five years and now, at 5 foot 10 inches (1.78m), I was 135kg – the heaviest I’d ever been. Even worse, I had recently developed psoriasis, a debilitating skin condition that started off as a few small red patches on my legs, but was now covering virtually my entire body.
“What’s happening to you?” I asked myself. My face was puffy and my skin patchy and flaking.
Staring at my reflection, panic pulsed through me. I was losing control of my life. It was all work, and travel, but my body – and happiness – was suffering. I was too busy to schedule a visit to the doctor so suffered in silence for a long time.
As the CEO of a multinational company, I was constantly on the go, splitting my life between Dubai, the UK and Spain. I was hardly ever at home and missed my wife, Elizabeth, 38, and kids Eliott, 13, and Scarlet, seven. But I believed that working hard to give my family security was still the most important thing I could do. For years I managed to keep a lid on my stress. But when I hit 40 three years ago my lifestyle began to catch up with me.
Because I was moving between countries, often living out of hotels, it felt like I had very little control over my health. I was too busy and honestly did not even have the time to think about it. My eating habits were chaotic when I was away from home. It was either fast food like burgers and fries or pizzas at the airport, which I ate on the go, washing them down with soda in the hope of boosting my energy levels, or rich food in restaurants at the hotels I was staying in. In fact it was only when I went home that I actually ate a balanced diet and my wife was becoming increasingly concerned every time she saw me. “You need to take better care of your health,” she would often tell me. She also used to encourage me to take up a sport or join a gym to keep my weight in check, but I used to tell her that I was too busy, and that was the truth.
Now I hated what I saw in the mirror – a fat man with red, scaly skin. It just didn’t look like me. I’d somehow got lost. The weight gain was annoying and upsetting but the psoriasis was truly changing me. Before I’d been confident. But now the patches of raw, itchy skin – called plaques – were destroying my self-esteem. I was covered in them – my hands, my face, almost every part of my body was affected – and I felt self-conscious when I spoke to clients and colleagues. Some unkind people actually made me feel worse, asking, “It’s not catching, is it?”.
My family was very supportive and understood I felt self-conscious. But they didn’t know how to help me apart from my wife pleading with me to find time and see a doctor.
Finally, two years ago, I did see a doctor when my psoriasis became worse, but his reply was worrying. “There’s no known cure,” he said.
I was left reeling. All they could offer me were steroid creams, which helped to alleviate the symptoms, but it didn’t stop it from spreading. The cause of psoriasis is not known, but research suggests that stress and diet are contributory factors.
I didn’t even consider that the way I lived my life could have anything to do with it. I suppose it was easier that way, because I couldn’t see how I could change my life. As I saw it, there was no way I could work less or gain more time for myself, so I blindly just carried on for the next couple of months, managing my psoriasis as best I could with the creams that the doctor had prescribed, ignoring the warning signs – poor concentration, low self-esteem and fear of impending doom – that a crisis was looming.
But that day 18 months ago I had a near panic attack after seeing myself in the mirror in that Dubai hotel, thousands of kilometres from my wife, and I realised I had to do something about my condition.
I wanted to talk to the only person who had always been my staunch supporter – my wife. My voice was quivering with stress and worry when I called her. “Hi, honey,” she said. “Why do you sound as though you are upset?”
“I need help,” I blurted out. “My weight, my psoriasis...” I said unable to speak properly. I was suddenly a total mess but, thankfully, Elizabeth is a very level-headed person and once she had managed to calm me down and heard me out, she promised to find someone close by who could help me.
Within the hour she called me back with a name – hypnotherapist Russell Hemmings. She had googled “self-help in Dubai” and, after arriving at Russell’s home page, read all about the people he had helped.
She told me he was an expert in helping people overcome anxiety and his success was well documented in the media. Coincidentally, he was located just around the corner from my office.
I was in such a state that she rang him first to explain what had happened and that I’d had a meltdown of sorts and then he called me. I think of that phone call as the starting point for all of the changes I’ve made in my life since meeting Russell. Just to hear his calm voice on the other end of the phone, taking charge of the situation, filled me with a tremendous sense of relief.
One of the first things Russell told me was not to worry and that he would be able to help me. “I’ve helped several people lose weight so that is not a problem at all,” Russell said.
I cancelled my meetings and decided I had to go and see him right away. Fortunately, Russell did have a vacant slot the same afternoon.
That first meeting was a revelation for me. I went to him thinking that he would focus straight away on my feelings of anxiety and stress, but in fact the first thing he asked me was about my diet. I told him that I lived on junk food – burgers, french fries, pizzas and fizzy drinks and rich restaurant meals for dinner and lunch which were loaded with calories. I didn’t mention my psoriasis as I was too self-conscious but he guessed I was hiding something. “There is something else troubling you,” he said, and that’s when I opened up about how my skin condition had affected me.
What Russell told me subsequently was that my exterior was actually a mirror, reflecting my inner turmoil. And the fact was that my life was completely out of balance. The way he saw it, my weight gain, my psoriasis and my anxiety were all connected. He joined the dots for me and made me look at my life through a different lens. I would never have come to those conclusions by myself, but he made me realise that if I didn’t make major changes to my life then my condition was only going to get worse.
“They are all interrelated,” Russell told me. “Once you are able to control the stress and tension in your life, everything else will fall into place.”
That first day he looked at my life in great detail and saw my strengths as my ability to problem-solve, plan and meet deadlines in business and decided that the best way to approach my condition was to treat it as one of my projects.
“I suggest is that you treat this as Project David,” he told me. “Approach it like a problem in business that needs solving.” So we looked at my condition very objectively and from all angles. We identified what needed to be done, created a flow chart of sorts, set targets and identified the steps to achieve them. “We can review your progress regularly,” he said. We took it one step at a time, addressing my diet and stress first to see whether it had any impact on my psoriasis.
The sessions – I had six in all and regular review sessions whenever I was in Dubai – were dedicated to talking therapy and hypnotherapy.
Russell helped me look at life “360” as he termed it, and not just as related to work or the family. “You need to consider all aspects of your life – career, family time, your own time, sport time,” said Russell.
He told me I’d have to set aside time for everything and not concentrate on only one aspect such as my career if I was going to change my life for the better. He said it was important to work smart rather than hard and spend time to unwind and relax once I left office. I began to refocus on my work-life balance, equally prioritising my health and my family with the demands of work and I realised that I could work smarter and still achieve as much, if not more.
Through Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy – the style of therapy that Russell uses to change behaviour – I learnt how to induce a deep sense of relaxation through deep breathing and some auto hypnosis techniques every time I felt my stress levels rise. Russell reprogrammed my thoughts to crave healthy unprocessed food such as fruits and vegetables, lean protein with less diary products and sugar. I also drank lots more water.
He also reprogrammed me to eat smaller portions. From the very first session, I began to detest fast food and started to have only fresh, healthy food. I couldn’t bear to even go near burgers or fried chicken and instead began to enjoy salads, fruits and fresh healthy foods.
I couldn’t believe the therapy was working at first. But I knew it was because I had to keep buying new clothes and the psoriasis was starting to abate. Many of my friends and family too were commenting that I looked well and healthy. And for the first time in years I actually began to lose weight. I lost 35kg in 18 months.
In addition to losing weight, I feel a lot better physically and mentally.
Now when I look in the mirror I can’t quite believe I let myself put on so much weight. I hadn’t realised just how bad carrying those extra kilos had made me feel. Before I felt sluggish and had no energy, now I’m climbing mountains in Spain. Now, I walk, cycle, visit the gym even when I am living out of suitcases. I also have a set of dumbbells in the office that I use to workout regularly when I am too busy to go to the gym!
Another positive side effect of losing weight is that I feel mentally sharper, my concentration levels have sky-rocketed and I feel like I work smarter. But the most amazing thing about the whole experience is that my psoriasis is virtually gone.
My life is completely different now, I have more energy, more drive and more focus. I spend more time on the things that matter the most – family, health and happiness. Maybe surprisingly to some, this makes me a better manager.
My wife is overjoyed by the changes in me. I recently heard her say to her best friend, “The changes that have happened in David are amazing. For one, his food habits have changed completely. He has stopped eating fatty processed foods all together. David’s treatment has had a ripple effect, as we all eat much healthier now and do a lot more exercise. It’s great to see David playing football with the kids and I feel I have got the old David back.”
I still practise the deep-breathing techniques and certain stress-relieving measures that Russell taught me and I think I always will.
I’ve realised how stress and the wrong foods can completely mess up the body and the mind.
Sometimes, I regret not having taken some time out for myself and visited an expert to sort out my health issues sooner. I guess, it had to take that mirror in the Dubai hotel room to spur me into changing my life.