O CHRISTINA PATTERSON, Journalist, Broadcaster, Author
“I would say mental toughness is the ability to cope with the shit that life throws at you” says Christina Patterson as she reflects on the concept. She is bang on, and she has had enough shit thrown at her to know.
“I was very sensitive child and I am still a sensitive person; I weep easily over something I’m reading, or a story in the news, or even music, art. But I think if you’re sensitive, you can also be strong. I suppose rather than use the phrase mental toughness, I would probably say that I’m a strong person and I’ve had to be, because I’ve weathered a few storms.
A few storms indeed. Christina grew up with a schizophrenic sister, who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital as a teenager. Then in her mid 20s she developed an auto-immune disease called lupus, which crippled her for a few years. She has had breast cancer twice, including a mastectomy. Amidst her health issues, her sister, father, mother and brother all died.
As if all this wasn’t enough to bear, in 2013 she was fired from the job she absolutely adored, as a writer and columnist at The Independent. She had thrived under the pressure of writing a full-page column in the news pages for the Saturday edition, a lead column for the Wednesday edition and big interviews with some of the world’s leading writers, artists and politicians. “When I lost my job, in spite of already having had a lot of bad things happen in my life, it was one of the most devastating things that ever happened to me because I absolutely felt it was my vocation.
As someone who thrives on meeting tight deadlines, losing her job hit Christina really hard, “I would say that you have to be mentally tough to do that work, but I relished it all. One minute I was interviewing a Hollywood film star and the next minute I was interviewing a Prime Minister. As a journalist, you don’t have the option to miss deadlines. Everything is about delivering. That’s a value I developed from a young age, from my heavily principled parents.”
And then last year, in 2019, her brother died very suddenly.
“When my brother died last summer, it was probably the worst thing that’s ever happened in my life. It was terrible. He didn’t have a partner or children, and there was no one left in my family, so I knew I would have to do everything; post-mortem, funeral, registering his cause of death, closing bank accounts and all that stuff. It was horrific.
“The week before his funeral, I was at his house trying to sort out admin stuff. It was an incredibly hot day, and I passed out and concussed myself. When I came round, I just sat there, on my own, I could barely walk, let alone drive. And I thought, I have to get up and function because I’ve got to be at that funeral – I have to speak and greet all his friends. I think that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Sheer determination and knowing I had to do it, that I wanted to give my brother the best possible day, meant I just had to do it. It came down to basic focus, concentration and knowing that this thing had to be done. I faced it all and got through it.”
“One thing that has helped me at certain points in my life is psychotherapy. I also developed a strategy of simply getting on with work and just coping. When I got my cancer diagnosis, I turned down chemo because I had just started a new job and didn’t want my colleagues to see me going bald and realise I had cancer. (Clearly, if the cancer had spread, that decision would have been crazy, but luckily it hadn’t.) I had five weeks of radiotherapy. In the whole year of my treatment, which included two lots of surgery, I had just two and a half weeks off work. I didn’t feel like I had a choice – no one else was going to pay my mortgage – and thankfully the treatment was successful.” Seven years later, the cancer came back and Christina underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. She had six operations in eight years.
“I was brought up to believe that if you say you’ll do something, you do it. I’m always surprised when people don’t take deadlines, friendships or commitments seriously. Honesty and justice are core values for me and I will stand up for people when I think they need my support. When I was fired from my job, I was so angry because it felt like such an injustice. I shouted at my boss – the whole office heard it – and walked out. I never went back. I stand up for my principles. I always have.
“There have been occasions in my life when I have felt desperate and even suicidal. At times, I was so intensely distressed that I thought it might be easier to be dead than alive. In my twenties, when I was immobilised with pain, unemployed and with a diagnosis of an incurable auto-immune disease, I felt like everybody else was getting on with life and having a lovely time, and I wasn’t. But I never gave up and I’m so glad I didn’t. The truth is, I just love life.
“Right now, what drives me and makes me feel most alive is engaging with the complexity and the beauty of the world, and trying to understand it better. Trying to cast light on issues, asking probing questions, finding ways to reduce suffering, increasing understanding and finding clarity where there is confusion. I am a curious person, and I want to find out more. Finding joy in the small things is important for me; I love coffee, cakes, crisps and a few glasses of decent sauvignon.”
Christina is brutally honest about how stress manifests itself in her, “I believe we all carry our stresses and distress in different ways, and I tend to carry my pain physically. I’ve had a fair bit of ill health. I think now that I’m fundamentally a healthy person and a strong person, but it’s been a long journey.
Christina has bounced back from every obstacle in her path. She is super bright, and quite rightly, confident in her abilities as a writer, journalist and broadcaster.
“The more you see things as threats in your life, the more stressed you get, So I just get on with it. But trust me, I can cry! I spent a lot of last year crying since my brother died, and when I lost my job. Clearly, you can develop more resilience, but I think it helps when you are led by example by the people around you. Your environment is massively important.”
In 2018 Christina published her first book The Art of Not Falling Apart, and she is about as qualified as anyone can be to write that. It was a Book of the Year in the Mail on Sunday and the New Statesman and has recently been a No 1 bestseller on Amazon Kindle in five categories. I recommend you give it a read.
She would say she is ‘strong, yet sensitive’. I would say Christina Patterson is mentally tough. Seriously tough.
‘The Art of Not Falling Apart’ is available from Amazon
Read more about Christina at https://christinapatterson.co.uk/
If you’re interested in developing your Mental Toughness, get in touch with Penny Mallory at [email protected]