I’m not a traditional fit for this kind of environment. I don’t hear many stories that are much like mine.

Photography by Leonora Saunders

Justine

One of the reasons I’m passionate about diversity is that I’m not a traditional fit for this kind of environment. On the odd occasion when I have shared a bit of my background, people are really surprised. I don’t hear many stories that are much like mine. Maybe because it’s difficult to talk about some of those things. But I really believe in the power of sharing stories, and that hearing people’s stories can make you realise you’re not on your own.


My mum and dad ran an off-licence and throughout my childhood we lived in the flat upstairs. They worked in the shop together; he was the manager and she was an assistant. My dad was a larger than life, gregarious figure. My mum was the person who kept everything ticking along, at work and at home. My mum died when I was sixteen; she had had cancer on and off for six years. The last seven months of her life were really hard; for her and for us. She knew she was dying, leaving behind a family with an uncertain future. I'd always optimistically hoped or wished that she would win her battle with cancer. We found out in the February that she was terminally ill. That was the point when I started to contemplate the fact she would actually die. She died in the November. My dad slept in my bedroom that night, on a mattress on the floor. If anything it felt it was me comforting him. My dad, who had been an extremely proud man and quite a character at work, couldn’t manage the shop without her. Despite running the shop for sixteen years, he didn’t know how to do the paperwork; he didn’t know how to do the accounts. So he lost his job. And because we lived above the shop, we lost our home.

For a couple of years, it was just the two of us living together in a little flat; he was manic depressive and he attempted suicide several times. He was also a heavy smoker and rarely left the flat. As a sixteen-year-old girl, spending time in our smoky flat in the tower block felt quite gloomy. My self-worth was pretty low. I had been bright and had gone on to sixth form college, but at that point, I think my aspirations were pretty non-existent. I had no direction, but I knew I needed some money and decided to try to find a part time job to fit around college. I got free school meals, and I'm not sure I ever really knew what to do with the money I earned. I used to do a lot of overtime, mainly to get out of the house, but also because work gave me a ‘purpose’ – something useful to do. After a couple of years working, I’d saved up a bit of money. When my dad tried to take his life the second time, I felt I had to move out. If I didn’t have the money I’d ferreted away, I don’t know what I would have done.


My first job was working for McDonald’s and at the time I thought it was the only thing I was good enough for. I used to work on the tills. I actually really enjoyed the job and was quite good at it. A couple of years in, I plucked up the courage to apply for a new job working on the checkout at Sainsbury’s. I was so convinced that I wasn’t good enough for the new job, I hung onto my McDonald's job and did both – there were days when I'd finish a shift at Sainsbury's and have to leg it across town to start a shift at McDonald’s. I got a lucky break when I was nineteen and secured a job doing really junior admin work in the City. Eventually I let go of the part time retail jobs, but I’d regularly look at my colleagues and think, ‘I’m never going to be able to do that.’ It's not that I thought the jobs everyone else did were beyond my capability. But I didn't feel I was good enough. It took a long time and a lot of hard graft in City roles before I felt I deserved to be here.

I joined my current firm about eleven years ago. I love working here; it’s probably the first place where I’ve felt that I can be myself and that’s taken time. I work very hard, I’m enthusiastic about things. I’ve been fortunate that that has opened doors into different roles and functions. I don’t have the same background as a lot of people that work in my industry. Practically speaking, I don’t think that matters at all day to day, but when it comes to building up networks, socialising and making small talk, I have noticed over the years that I feel intimidated by some people – and that's never really gone away. Occasionally I get caught in highbrow conversations about history, politics or travel and try to scrape through by nodding and smiling…and even though I feel I’ve earned my place, I feel exposed. I have adapted the way that I speak. I think being short probably doesn’t help either!

Being from a working-class background, I believe social background is one of those areas where people maybe unconsciously judge. With every will in the world I can’t change my background nor would I want to. I know for a fact it has made me stronger. There have been times in previous jobs when I’ve felt on the back foot, a bit of an outsider. Maybe by the time I came here, I’d been around professionals for long enough to adapt the way I conducted myself, so at least I felt credible in this space.


Around twelve years ago I started suffering from panic attacks. I had long periods where I couldn’t sleep; it was very typical for me to lie in bed and not get to sleep until 4 o’clock in the morning. I had no idea it was anxiety.

I was diagnosed when I experienced a panic attack so badly that I ended up in hospital. I was given tips to manage panic attacks in the moment, though they never really worked for me.

Over time, that awful anxiety continued. For me, anxiety was physical as well as mental. During bad spells, it happened every night. I'd experience breathlessness and a tingling sensation along my side. And then – and I don’t know how I realised this – I realised that if I reached over and dug my nails into my back really hard, the physical symptoms of the anxiety would lessen. I could lie there for hours, digging my fingernails really deeply into my back. I still couldn’t sleep, but the pain was better than the angst. At its worst, around eleven years ago, I'd occasionally resort to using sharp objects. Thankfully, it’s been a number of years since I’ve had to do that. It was only when my husband, a police officer, turned to me one evening in bed and shouted "STOP SELF-HARMING!" that it dawned on me this is what I had been doing.

I still occasionally self-harm now, though a lot less than I used to. I guess to a degree it puts the control back in my hands. I’ve accepted that I may never stop self-harming for good, because this is one technique that can deal with the angst.

From time to time, things do hit me and worry me, and I’m sure that part of that is down to my experiences earlier on in life. I have two children, who bring me more pride, warmth and happiness than I'd ever have imagined! I would do anything to make sure that what happened to me as a teenager does not happen to my own children. I guess that’s why now I’m a little more ambitious – I am responsible for more than my own outcomes; I am responsible for them too.
When you’re at work, it can be very difficult to open up about these things. There are already so many barriers to being a working woman and being seen as being good at your job. I feel mental health issues in particular can be perceived by many as a sign of weakness, of not being able to cope – worse still, corroborating people’s perceptions of women being more emotional or more fragile. You rarely hear of successful, senior women who have suffered from mental health problems.

My anxiety has posed many challenges to me personally, but I don't feel it has impacted on my ability to perform well at work, or to be a good mum. Employers need to recognise that sometimes a weakness can actually turn into a strength. Maybe we need to make those difficult experiences more visible, encourage senior people at the top of organisations to appear less invincible and demonstrate that everyone has vulnerabilities.

There’s a lot more to people than you see on the surface, which is why we shouldn’t make assumptions. I’d like my story to help other people who suffer from anxiety to feel a little bit of reassurance; even though it may never go away, it doesn’t mean that you have an unsuccessful or unhappy future ahead.

And to help people feel acceptance. I think I’ve accepted now that I will probably do this forever.

And maybe that’s ok.