My journey from IT to wellbeing with Parkinson's disease

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Paul Heywood had finally achieved his goal of working as an IT Director at a FTSE100 company when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Here he tells his story of becoming diagnosed, getting back to good health and taking on a new venture. He is now Managing Director of Halcyon Life, a corporate wellbeing and resilience programme.

My passion for tech started at a young age. I knew even in the early days of computing that I wanted to study the topic at university. After graduating I worked my way into management within Ford and it was there that my vision to become an IT Director became clear. So I returned as a mature student to study for an MBA at Henley Management College and was delighted when a year later I won the academic prize for best dissertation from over 600 students.

I remember on the day of my last exam, when I bent down to tie my shoelace, an agonising pain shot up my back. It was the first time anything like this had happened to me, so I decided to ignore it.

Post-MBA my work included roles with Ernst & Young and L’Oréal. They were demanding roles but great companies to work for. I moved out of London with the family and life was great. But I was constantly juggling tasks, insomnia was creeping in and commuting didn’t exactly help.

People who have experienced the realisation that they need to make a drastic change will tell you that it usually happens at one specific ‘moment’. My moment came towards the end of 2014.

I had school fees to pay, my own career and my wife’s career to balance, a mortgage to cover, plus a long daily commute. It was getting tough and something had to give. It was my marriage that took the first hit – a crack, not a break, but emotional stress was never far away.

The climb was getting harder and I lost my job as the financial crash hit. I know this is nothing unusual, but in a severely strained relationship I started to falter.

My diagnosis

Things took a positive turn as through my connections I landed a job as IT Director in a City law firm. It’s amazing how energising one piece of good news can be; it had taken me 20 years to fulfil my ambition of becoming an IT Director and it had been a rocky road with many twists and turns along the way.

Soon after though, I started to realise that things were not right with my health. Just small things like cuts taking too long to heal and the occasional numbness in my toes. Then one day I noticed that my right arm was not swinging naturally and my right hand was stiff.

“I think we’ll start with Neurology.”

These were the words of my doctor, and I was sure he must be wrong. My symptoms were physical: too much work and not enough sleep.

But MRI scans proved me wrong and the diagnosis was early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Though I’d achieved my ambition, it was at a heavy cost... I was 48.

Keep calm and carry on

There is no cure. There are theories but none of them adequately explained my situation. The only thing I feel it could have been in my case was stress – prolonged exposure to the everyday stress of modern life.  

By now I was working in my second IT Director role at 3i, a FTSE100 company. It was a great role but I had to commute to both London and Birmingham. Unfortunately my marriage broke down shortly after starting the role and the stress in my personal life was getting worse.

My journey back to health

People who have experienced the realisation that they need to make a drastic change will tell you that it usually happens at one specific ‘moment’. My moment came towards the end of 2014. I was on my way into work and I began sweating profusely... I knew I was no longer well enough to perform at the level required in my position and would have to leave my job.

Trying to rest when your body has been conditioned to catch the 6:54 to Paddington is hard. But I learned how to calm my mind and get off to sleep. I discovered a possible link between my condition and the digestive system and was advised to take a probiotic by my dietician.

I began to wonder what would have happened if I’d taken these actions a few years before. I might have been able to continue working and perhaps I wouldn’t have gotten ill at all.

I began reflexology to counteract the muscle stiffness caused by the Parkinson’s and through a recommendation from my therapist I found a personal trainer who devised a programme that really started to push me. Over the next few months the combination of a healthy diet, exercise and better sleep started to show some tangible benefits.

My health was improving but my back, which had been an issue since my MBA days, was causing problems. Acupuncture was the next thing to try. I vividly remember my acupuncturist inserting a needle into the top of my head. My whole body lit up! I started to shake uncontrollably, as if it was releasing some sort of pent up energy. It felt as though my entire nervous system had been reconnected and my body was working as ‘one’ again.

A new road

I began to wonder what would have happened if I’d taken these actions a few years before. I might have been able to continue working and perhaps I wouldn’t have gotten ill at all.

How valuable would all of this advice have been to me if I had been aware of it earlier, especially if the information had been presented in an easily accessible format for busy people like me?

I was feeling great and ready for a new challenge. I’d gathered a team of experts around me and was about to travel down a new, exciting and very different road. One where I could use my experience and ‘my team’ to develop a wellbeing and resilience programme that would be of value to companies who wanted to invest in and protect their staff. ‘Halcyon Life’ started to take shape.

My rear view mirror to wellbeing

With hindsight, it’s fascinating to observe the effects on an individual as the layers of wellbeing are peeled away. First your mental resilience declines for whatever reason. It can start with something as simple as lack of sleep. This is followed gradually by your physical health, which can be difficult to maintain in today’s busy lifestyle. Then, in my case, the sudden removal of your closest and most trusted support structure, your family and your home.

Rebuilding yourself isn’t just about good diet and exercise. Mental resilience, which allows us to face everyday challenges with confidence and emotional balance, is vital for us to perform at our best and begin to ‘thrive’ in today’s busy life.

Fast forward to today, and with a new supportive partner, a great relationship with both of my wonderful children, a new home and a company with a great team of people helping others to benefit from my experiences, I’m starting to thrive again.

 

About Paul Heywood

Paul Heywood

Paul founded Halcyon Life in 2017 after ill health forced him to stop working as an IT Director. Prior to forming Halcyon Life, Paul held senior positions at 3i, Fieldfisher, A&O, WHSmith, L'Oréal, Ernst & Young and Ford Motor Company.

Halcyon Life run Wellbeing and Resilience programmes for corporate clients and private individuals using a team of expert dieticians, personal trainers, stress management coaches and complementary therapists.

Paul has an MBA from Henley Management College.

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