Self-development – when small steps are the heroic effort

Written by David Duker, Shifties Contributor. 

I truly believe that anything is possible. No matter who you are or what stage of life you are at I am a firm believer that you can do, experience or achieve absolutely anything that you set your mind to.

There’s only one slight catch – it won’t necessarily be easy! Life is full of ups and downs, and you will be asked to rise to many challenges along the way.

This is an easy thing to say but this journey towards endless possibility is actually about ‘living it’. The good and the bad. There is no ‘Pass Go’ card. Sometimes it’s through experiencing life’s darkest hours that we find the strength and clarity to achieve things that once we never thought possible. And so, I’d like to share with you the journey through one of my own personal darkest hours and how my life has changed throughout a turbulent but incredibly rewarding few years. 

Here goes…

2013 was one of THOSE years! Tumultuous, incredible and bloody painful. In the space of a few months, myself and my gorgeous lady had moved house, got married and received the crushing news that my sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Man, the highs and lows condensed into such a small space of time was so intense. My response was to

‘man up’ and be strong for those around me, which saw me working harder than I’d ever done before, as I was in business with my sister’s husband. It was my way of trying to relieve their burden as much as I could.

The lowest point

My diet was shocking, my lifestyle terrible and I was juggling so many roles that I could barely keep up with myself. Super Dad one minute, supportive husband the next, a rock of a brother (or trying to be at least), supportive brother-in-law, a present son and a friend to those around me who I would help in any way that I could. Shit, I didn’t have a lot left to give. Actually, I had absolutely nothing left to give. As I watched my incredible sister fight her way through and overcome one of life’s ultimate challenges, I was on the edge. God, I love my sister – what a warrior.  In March 2014, my body and mind just let go of everything, and I had a breakdown.

My memories of that evening are relatively vague but after working 12 straight days without a break I ended up in hospital, passing out on my way into the ward and coming to, covered in those little round pads as the doctors did an ECG. My dad stood at the end of the bed with an expression of disbelief which still haunts me to this day.

And so, there I was! The result of all this drama and after a few weeks of doctors appointments was that I had been diagnosed with post-viral fatigue and exhaustion. I have never dug too deeply into this diagnosis but did understand that it would be reclassified as M.E after six months if things did not improve. As the months rumbled on I found myself briefly on anti-depressant medication and suffering from bloody insomnia! Physically without any energy and struggling to process the simplest of thoughts. When I look back I see that I was in a bit of a state.

Simple optimism

I felt like an empty shell of a man but the first shoots of recovery were already present. For me, one of the key attributes of resilience is optimism. I’d seen it in my sister’s journey and also witnessed it countless times through my passion for history – having the belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Optimism. A simple yet incredibly powerful word that allows you to see life in its best light. A word that signifies belief, faith and positivity, and all accessible with a slight shift in mindset.

So, with one positive decision, I decided that I would no longer see myself as an empty shell but more like a blank canvas. This was to be a bloody painful process but I had an opportunity to rebuild myself and a damned exciting opportunity at that! I am a true believer that in life we do not ‘find ourselves’ but we ‘create’ ourselves through an open mind and a willingness to learn and develop. Yes, there is definitely a large element of self-understanding involved but, for me, the process was very much one of creation, and with this new-found clarity, I now felt that I had at least a little control.

I asked myself, while still at quite a low ebb, ‘at this moment in time, what am I in control of?’. It was still plainly clear that mentally and physically, things were still far from great but I realised that I did have total authority over the things that I put into my body, and my mind.

And so began the quest!

The first step was all about diet. What are the things that I can eat that will give me the energy boost that I sorely need? This led onto a complete re-evaluation of my diet and, after a few months of trial and error, I felt a noticeable improvement. As much as we’d all love that quick fix when we are in a low state, unfortunately, in my experience, it just does not exist. The name of the self-developmental game is small, consistent steps that will eventually take you anywhere that you want to go.

Next up was a real close look at what I was feeding into my mind. Both with regard to the information that I consumed and the people who I surrounded myself with. There is a saying that ‘you are the average of the five people that you spend the most time with’ and this is something that really stuck with me. I made a conscious decision to analyse this and took to looking at all of my message inboxes to see the results. It was enlightening.

As I began to consume more positive material, listen to more inspiring people and, one of the biggest game-changers of all, meditate, things began to settle in my mind once again and an element of clarity returned. Small, consistent steps.

And I got to the point where I felt a bit more ready. ‘Right, sod this,’ I thought, ‘I need a challenge!’. I needed to find an outlet. This process of self-development had been going on for a few years now and within that time I had started to study a martial art. My energy levels had rocketed as I began to regularly exercise but I felt I had something to prove to myself. ‘Hmm, but what to do? I know, the London Marathon!’ In for a penny, in for a pound! Having been completely and utterly inspired to action by one of my heroes, Leonard Cheshire VC, I signed up to run the marathon in 2018 for the disability charity that he had established after the war. The process of both training for the marathon, whilst training towards becoming a black-belt just reinforced what I was slowly beginning to learn – small, consistent steps. You have to clearly set your destination but then focus on the journey with a full and open heart. Each step, each day, each week, is one mini-triumph towards your eventual goal that you can be proud of.

The small steps start to add up…

The confidence that I gained from running the marathon and raising some much-needed funds for a charity that I adore, propelled me forward once again. It was around this time that The Tally Ho Project was founded.  Now, I love what I do, love how much energy I have and am learning every day how to accept and be at peace with, well, me.

These were the foundations that saw me recover from feeling pretty worthless and totally irrelevant within my own life, to now truly believing that anything is possible. Please, don’t get me wrong, throughout this whole period I was up and down like a yo-yo! One minute absolutely buzzing, the next down in the dumps, but you learn to manage and limit the darker moments and truly embrace the light. Also, I am so incredibly lucky to have a loving and supportive family behind me every step of the way.

I don’t want this post to come across as self-indulgent, just an open offering about my journey. I remember how it felt back in my darkest moments and know full well that no amount of preaching can change the way you feel. I’d see people around me ‘succeeding’ and that just seemed to compound everything. The truth is that the challenge has to stir within. There has to be that moment of clarity, where you decide to make a start, a small, modest but bloody heroic start. Nobody can do that for you. But, once you make that decision, there are many incredible people and charities who will support you in your quest and who genuinely want to see you succeed. You are most definitely not alone.

Mental health is a very real and intimidating thing to comprehend at times but I found that if I didn’t eat well, stay hydrated, exercise regularly, surround myself with the right people and challenge myself, then I wasn’t even giving myself a chance.

Anything is possible.

Onwards and upwards – always. x

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