When Chris Stoddart, 43, suffered a panic attack at work, he found himself walking out – but a Retail Trust counsellor helped him find his way back.
“When I found myself walking out of my job one Monday morning, wandering the streets of Sheffield with my phone switched off in my pocket, I knew I’d reached rock bottom. I’d been suffering from anxiety and feeling like an imposter at work for weeks, and I didn’t know how to climb out of the hole I’d found myself in. But the Retail Trust helped me to regain my shattered confidence – and I’d tell anyone feeling the same way to reach out for help too.
“I got my first job in retail when I was just 16, at a cheap-and-cheerful sports store. I ended up working there for 25 years, but in September last year, I decided it was time for a change. As a footwear manager, dealing with customers had become pretty stressful, so I took a back-of-house job as a stock controller at a flagship luxury goods store. It was a completely different role, and a big change – probably one I underestimated, if I’m honest.
“In my new role, I was in charge of seeing deliveries in, distributing stock, and dealing with over 1,000 inter-branch transfers a week. It was fairly intense, but because I’d come from a store within the same company, there was an assumption that I’d know what I was doing without the need for an induction. I had to hit the ground running, and felt a lot of pressure, but I didn’t know how to voice my worries. Because I was new, I didn’t have any friends at work I could talk to, either.
“Although I’d always been good at switching off after work, I started having trouble sleeping, because my mind would be racing. Sometimes, I’d go to the pub after work and have a few too many drinks to unwind – but otherwise, I didn’t want to go out socialising any more. I’ve suffered from mental health issues in the past, including feelings of low self-esteem, and I felt overwhelmed – that I was an imposter, I couldn’t do the job, and I wasn’t good enough.
“Not surprisingly, my wife Katie noticed the change in my personality. She pointed out that my feelings were irrational – after all, with so many years in retail under my belt, I knew what I was doing – but they didn’t feel irrational to me.
“It all came to a head in October, six weeks into my new job. When I got to work that morning, I started having a panic attack. I felt trapped, like I had to get out and away from everything. Without thinking, I went onto Facebook and Twitter, posted ‘HELP’, and switched my phone off. Then I left the building and just started walking, without knowing where I was going.
“I didn’t think about my friends and family, who were sending me worried messages – luckily, Katie knew I wouldn’t harm myself. I was just in a daze, on autopilot, without a plan. Looking back, it caused a lot of upset, but I wasn’t thinking about the consequences – I just had to escape. I was missing for about four hours before I was found in the street by a family friend, who took me home.
“It was clear that I needed help, and a colleague from my old job recommended that I get in touch with the Retail Trust. I’d heard about them through posters in the staff room, and decided I needed as much help as I could get. So I emailed them – and they were brilliant. After asking me a few questions about my situation, they arranged six telephone counselling sessions, which started within a week.
“I’d had experiences with NHS counselling before, but when my counsellor, Amy*, called me, it was a breath of fresh air. She seemed so sincere, and just let me speak, talking through everything I’d been through and explaining how I felt. We talked about self-care, and about coping mechanisms to deal with stress and anxiety. Some of the techniques, like meditation, didn’t suit me, but I found that doing breathing exercises, and downloading the Calm relaxation app, really helped.
“Amy also showed me the importance of looking at things from a different perspective, by reminding me that things are never as bad as they seem, and after my first session, I felt really upbeat. After being signed off sick from work, I had weekly counselling sessions, with plenty of follow-up emails from Amy, and eventually returned to work nine weeks later.
“Three months on, I’ve had a couple of wobbles, but I’m so much better at coping with stress now, both in and outside work. I can spot the signs more easily, which is when I do my breathing exercises, and I find it easier to talk about my concerns. I tell work when I’m having an off day, just to keep them in the picture, and they’re very supportive. I’ve joined a gym to help me destress, and Amy taught me not to beat myself up if I don’t exercise every day – putting pressure on yourself to reach goals, even healthy ones, can just add to your stress.
“I can’t fully express how much the Retail Trust did for me. The reason I’m speaking about them now is that I’m not a model on a poster, telling you how great they are. I’m a retail worker, just like you, so I can tell you from experience that if you’re feeling stressed, they really can help. They’ll keep everything completely confidential, and might be able to lift you from where I was – which is pretty much rock bottom – to where I am now: back at work and fully functioning.
“When you’re suffering from mental health issues, I know it’s tough, and that it can feel really difficult to ask for help. But if telling my story encourages just one person who’s feeling the way I was to do that, it’s worthwhile. I really hope it does.”
*Name has been changed