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Health and wellbeing: How stress put our lives in jeopardy


By Karen Ireland

Tyrone father-of-four Ben O’Hanlon had a stroke when the pressure of running three businesses became too much, while Banbridge man Johnny Breen had to give up work as he juggled a business with the needs of a terminally ill parent.

‘After recovery I went back to work — but I delegate now’

Ben O’Hanlon (58) lives in Pomeroy with his wife Patricia (58). They have four grown up children, Caroline Nugent, Shirley Rocks, Pauline Quinn and son, Niall and he is MD of several outdoor companies, including Todd’s Leap activity centre in Dungannon. He says: 

Looking back my health was at boiling pot and the doctors kept telling my wife that I was a heart attack waiting to happen.

I was working long and crazy hours and trying to run three businesses. I was running around trying to carry all the information about them and what needed to be done in my head from staff rotas to daily meetings.

And at times it felt as though my head would explode with so much information.

Things came to a crunch one morning when I got up early to go to a meeting in Dublin. One of my sons was living at home at the time and I woke him up for work, too.

I was taking tablets for blood pressure at the time. That morning I couldn’t see the words on the bottle properly.

But I thought I was still tired. Then my arm wouldn’t work properly and I couldn’t get the tablets back in the bottle.

I thought I must be exhausted so went back to bed. When my wife and son realised I wasn’t up and about, getting ready for work they instantly knew something was wrong, so they came to the bedroom. I thought I was making perfect sense, trying to tell them I was just tired but they said I was talking nonsense.

My wife called an ambulance and the medics worked with me for an hour before rushing me to Craigavon Hospital. A scan at the hospital confirmed that I’d had a stroke. I was very fortunate as it had been picked up early and no real damage had been done. If I’d stayed in bed and hadn’t seen anyone the effects would have been very severe.

Looking back, I know my life was crazy. I was working all the time and running between all the businesses.

The Chest Heart and Stroke team came to visit me and helped me realise all this.

They supported me so I could get back on my feet and taught me techniques to deal with all the information I’d been carrying around in my head. So, I learned to start writing things down and making lists.

Before this happened, I was working up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. I also got rid of one of the businesses which was causing me the most headaches.

There was no warning that this was going to happen to me, but my GP probably knew I was a prime candidate.

After my recovery I went back to work — but I delegate now. I hand much more of the work over to the children and I take a back seat.

I’ve also stopped worrying about the small stuff. Chest Heart and Stroke were amazing with me and I am very thankful to them.

I’m well aware of the signs and symptoms now thanks to them and I know what to look out for in future.”

‘If you’re suffering the first thing to do is talk about it’

Johnny Breen (46) lives in Banbridge with his wife Catherine and their two daughters, Rebecca (13) and Emma (11). He is a community fund raiser with the Meningitis Research Foundation in Belfast.

Several years ago, I had a very comfortable lifestyle with an excellent job as a director of a local clothing company in Belfast. I had always been proud of the fact that I pushed myself hard at work, to give as good an example to colleagues as possible and for self-satisfaction. The fashion business is also a very competitive market and commitment was necessary. On a personal level I would have been seen as fairly easy going with plenty of friends. I was outgoing and involved with quite a few clubs. On the outside I seemed to have it all.

However things started changing slowly. Looking back the stress started about 2010. It was mainly all work related and I was pushing myself to the limit and working ridiculous hours. It was extremely challenging and time consuming.

At the same time my sister and I were unfortunately dealing with our mother who had a terminal illness. Although we did have some support from family and friends, our father had died back in 1995, and it was a difficult situation. Basically all of my time was taken up with work and visiting/caring for our mother, and it was not sustainable.

It slowly consumed me, to be honest. I slept very badly for a prolonged period of time, probably getting about three to four hours’ sleep each night. Then when I woke up it was back to a hectic work schedule and sad personal situation. It’s no good if you aren’t properly rested, having spent three stressed out hours staring at the ceiling before you got up.

I became quite introverted, although I tried to hide it, both at home and at work.

For me the biggest change was to my personality. I was completely lost. I stopped enjoying free time, family time, even sport, which I had played for many years. When I was at home I was lethargic, unenthusiastic, demotivated, and when I was at work I was agitated and unfocused.

Eventually I had to take two weeks off work. It was a very difficult fortnight, which really did not improve my condition, and I went back too early. I then had to take another two weeks, which were also of limited help.

Having previously been to see my family GP about stress back in 2010/11, I realised that my situation was worse, and went back to see him again a number of times in late 2014. He was very good with me, very empathetic, very reassuring. He put me on a low dose of medication to balance out the brain. However, following something of a relapse, I was offered counselling, which I received at Daisy Hill in Newry. I have to say it was a real turning point for me, and that is not something I feel shame admitting.

I made myself a plan to take control of my life. I remained in my job, but on a three-day week. We hired more staff to reduce my workload, which was a help. I knew though, that I had lost my mojo for that position, and in fact, I needed a break. So, really in fairness to my employer as well as to myself and family, I left my job in March 2016, to take a sabbatical.

Leaving my high-powered job was one of the scariest, but best, things I have ever done. It was a massive step, but to get better I knew I needed proper down time, not just a break. I had known for a while that I would like to become involved with charity work as a profession, and this break was a stepping stone towards that.

I could live life at my own pace. I was very busy, but doing what I wanted to do. I did a lot of voluntary charity work, which was brilliant fun and very satisfying, and bought and renovated a rental house.

But I was doing this at my own pace, and never worrying about what day of the week it was, not dreading Sundays and Mondays.

I was very lucky with my physical health and fitness down the years. I probably delayed seeing my GP too long about stress, but once I did go, I could see that, at last, I was working on a solution rather than bottling up the problem and just battling through. You can only do that for so long before you feel yourself being sucked down.

Now, life is good, I am a completely new man. I work as a community fund raiser with a local charity. I am still involved with other voluntary charity work, including PTAs and Banbridge NI Children’s Hospice Support Group. I have taken up running with a couple of friends, recently ran the Belfast Marathon, and play a bit of football. I am happy, I deal much better with stress. I recognise if I am getting a little bit edgy and can deal with it. All the symptoms have more or less gone.

It may seem like a cliche, but if you are suffering from stress — the first thing to do is to talk about it. Choose someone or a small group you trust. Not necessarily family, I confided in one very close friend, as well as my sister, and it was a massive help to me. It also took the pressure off my wife, not to mention our young children who knew something was not right.

My close friend was someone I had known for over 10 years as we worked together, so he knew some of the stresses I was experiencing, and helped me through. I’ll be honest, he was absolutely crucial to my recovery. Once you have broken the seal of talking about it, you find you have hope again.

If I had not got help when I did I could be a statistic now with a very different ending.”

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