Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

How Tracy found a lifeline

There’s always a brighter tomorrow, as Chris McCann finds when he meets life coach Tracy Dempsey

Tracy Dempsey has been described as a real life whirlwind. Musician, singer/songwriter, life coach, events organiser, public speaker, drummer and radio presenter. And that’s only the roles I know of.

A true shining light in Belfast’s burgeoning culture and arts scene, it’s the much darker place that the 33-year-old has come from that is at the forefront of her mind as we meet in south Belfast’s fashionable Common Grounds café; where you will find poets, painters and an eclectic mix of the city’s bohemian underbelly sipping on skinny lattes and cappuccino.

A ‘regular’, Tracy orders a hot chocolate like an old drinker calling for a whiskey. I opt for a coffee and within minutes of us meeting she seems keen to talk about how only a few years ago she was on the brink after a serious bout of depression.

“I wanted to be hit by a bus,” she says frankly. “I could not see how life was going to change. I was that bad. I just couldn’t see a way out,” adds Tracy, who is only too aware that just miles from where we sit, one part of the city is in the throes of a suicide crisis.

You sense she feels the need to speak out. And for Tracy, her remarkable journey began after leaving school.

“I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do,” she begins in her thick Aghadowey brogue.

“I was a musician back then, but the musician career route seemed to be, you went to Queen’s to study music, then play in the Ulster Orchestra. That was the goal — and I was more into contemporary music.”

Tracy studied Industrial Management and spent three months in the south of France as part of her course. “When I graduated, it was at the time of the IT boom and I got a job, where I stayed for seven-and-a-half years.

“But the work just really wasn’t me,” she says, admitting she went on a downward spiral and became |“miserable”.

“I’d split up with my boyfriend, and was thinking ‘right that’s it — everything is falling apart’. But I realised it wasn’t just a relationship thing — the job I was in just did not reflect the person I was at all. I was asking myself ‘how did I end up here — an IT |programmer?’

“I’d played instruments since I was seven, played in orchestras all through school, toured France and Switzerland for a week at 17, but I’d thrown the baby out with the bath water by saying I didn’t want to do classical music. But more importantly, I’d kind of hit a brick wall — I realised it was actual |depression.

“I was off sick, thinking I couldn’t move jobs as all my experience was in that one place — I didn’t have actual qualifications. I had student debt and just couldn’t give up my salary. I was in the pits of despair.”

For avid reader Tracy, turning to books seemed the logical answer.

“I was on Amazon buying self-help books, all sorts. I got a book on CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and began using that. I even got books on philosophy — anything I could get my hands on really, in an attempt to make sense of the world and my place in it.”

And it worked, for a healthier Tracy eventually returned to work, took a promotion and bought a house.

But the following year, the storm clouds gathered once again and with crippling headaches, Tracy presented herself to her doctor. “Initially, I thought it was migraine and he said no, it sounded like cluster headaches. He said I was stressed out, burnt out. But the more I talked, he said it sounded like depression. I thought it couldn’t be as I’d had that the previous year, when I felt like I had no hope. This seemed different. At this stage, I seemed okay, I thought I was just tired. But the |doctor said again that it sounded like depression.

“I was asking for sleeping tablets, just to give me a break and he was telling me to leave work for a few weeks.

“But I was a team leader and felt I couldn’t leave people in the lurch. Then he asked me ‘what if you were to have a heart attack’?

“At the time I was 29 and thought that wasn’t possible. He told me again that I was burnt out, I was having seven-week headaches and my health was at risk.”

The doctor prescribed anti-depressants, but Tracy insisted she wasn’t taking them — until she got outside the surgery where she burst into tears. “I went back in and said ‘Okay, I’ll take the anti-depressants’. Even then, I still didn’t know whether I’d take them or not, but I took the prescription anyway.

“The way I saw it was: I had done the long-term work that was going to see me having good mental health going forward, but I'd left this chemical spillage in my brain. Stress was maintaining a depressed physical state of mind. So I did eventually take the anti-depressants, for around two months. I felt like that had cleared up the hangover.”

Ironically, it was amid the despair that Tracy came across an article in a magazine that would provide the turning point in her life, ultimately setting her on the career path that she still travels to this day — life coaching.

“I thought ‘that sounds like something I’d be interested in’,” she says. Armed with books and renewed determination, Tracy set out to educate herself on a career that few know much about.

On an internet depression forum, despite suffering herself, she helped one young woman through a difficult time.

“I ended up coaching a girl who was already being treated by her doctor. I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m not a doctor, but I was doing all the coaching stuff.

“That was about recognising how our thoughts can be sabotaging — and then trying to turn them into more positive thoughts.

“I was very proud of that. Obviously she was the one doing all the work, but I was doing my best to guide her through it. I’d managed to work myself into a much more healthier state of mind previously and I wanted to do that for her and it worked.”

After three years of studying and delivering life coaching for free, Tracy launched her own company, Soul Ambition, which worked with charities, businesses, local government, big organisations and individuals.

But what exactly is life coaching?

“It is basically like having a personal trainer for your mind. You can do all the self-help stuff, it might work, it might not. It’s a bit like going to the gym by yourself, it might work for you. Others may need a personal trainer. Like a personal trainer, a life coach will help you keep motivated, set goals,” she says.

“Soul Ambition started off as just a life coaching company, but as it went on, I was learning more about business and realised all the principles were applicable in a business setting as well.”

Tracy now can be found coaching entrepreneurs in anything from motivation to resilience or creative thinking to networking skills.

Social media too, has become a focal point for Tracy as she advises businesses how to market their firms online.

And it doesn’t end there either. For the girl who sank into a deep depression, having let go of her musical dream, is back on stage.

“I did my first singer-songwriter night at the John Hewitt. There was a catalogue of errors, but I made a joke of it all. I’d brought down a whole troop of mates for moral support.

“Then over the next year I just got very lucky as people were asking me to either play in their gigs or sing along — do backing vocals. Opportunities just kept falling on my lap,” she smiles, adding that her ‘dream band’ would be made up of Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Beirut and “some Samba thrown in there”.

“So I’m not aiming too high at all,” she laughs.

Currently performing a string of covers, she tells me of one in particular that pleases most.

“It’s an Elliot Smith song called Between The Bars. It’s a love song from the drink to the drinker that says ‘Oh yes stay here, drink up and tell me all your great plans that you’ll never do’. I think there’s a coaching aspect to that, you know.

“I used to sit in an office and be one of those people — well in the pub on a Friday talking about all these plans but never actually doing anything about them. So there’s a real resonance in |that one.”

Just speaking to Tracy can be quite cathartic. And her parting shot as we drink up in the Common Grounds could well have been words she could have done with, as she found herself at the mercy of depression.

“If anyone is feeling completely stuck, you are really only stuck by yourself, and yes, there are things we have to take into consideration, like family, responsibility and debts etc.

“But there is always a solution if you have the right attitude. There is always someone before you who has gone through the same circumstances and come out the other end.

“Just keep yourself inspired and don’t surround yourself with negative people, seek out the people, who are going to make you believe in yourself.”

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