Former MOTORCYCLE GANG MEMBER
Now a Speaker, Author, Trainer : Raising Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace
Although British by birth, Susan speaks with an American accent, thanks to a lifetime of flitting between the UK, the USA and Canada. Against all the odds, she has established herself as a world authority on ‘Building Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace’ and her clients now include Walmart, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. Every day, she either speaks, trains and writes on the subject. It’s her passion. And it’s her passion for a very good reason.
Susan spent twenty five years as a member of a motorcycle gang in both Canada and USA, and by the end of it all her boyfriend was on the FBI’s most wanted list. From age 16 to 31 she lived with, hung out with drug addicts, murderers and abusers of every kind. She was, inevitably, a drug addict and alcoholic herself.
She is acutely aware that her experiences from these years were ultimately pivotal in the success she was eventually able to make of her life. She admits she wasn’t tough as a teenager and that got her into a lot of trouble, but that she developed mental toughness over time.
“I am Stubborn, resilient and driven”. She recognises that it’s less about what has happened to us, that is significant, but the way we react and respond to situations. “I think I am mental tough – but not every day – I have ups and downs. If I get down, I don’t stay there for long, I bounce back. I believe I can survive anything that is thrown my way”.
Susan explains how she doesn’t get particularly stressed by much, but that she does have two triggers that create stress for her: scarcity and worthlessness. Her parents were war babies who were heavily rationed as children and unknowingly created an environment that deprived their own children as they grew up. This affected Susan’s emotional development and she became paranoid about living ‘without’. She knows when her scarcity and worthlessness buttons have been pressed because she gets agitated. She has mastered the art of catching herself, having a few words with herself, and can now prevent her thoughts spiralling out of control.
“Growing up my parents taught me that in order for people to like me, I had to be perfect. By the age of 11 I’d worked out that I was never going to be perfect, and the only way to numb the pain of this monumental failure was to drink and take drugs.
“The only place to get my hands on drugs or alcohol was from the street gangs of the Canadian town where I lived. I became a 2nd tier runner for a mafia gang. By the age of 16 I had hooked up with a man in one of the most notorious motorcycle gangs in the country. It was a dangerous life – scarey at times – I knew at any point I could be shot, raped or murdered. Strangely I felt like I belonged and I knew they had my back and would look after me. I felt protected and special, for the first time in my life. If ever I doubted if I belonged I only had to look at my jacket with the gang emblem on it reminded me I was ‘Property of …..”.
Time spent, in her twenties, between Canada and the UK, entering countless rehab and psychiatric hospitals didn’t have much effect on her. She recalls one nurse saying “ You could be pretty if you wanted to”. That simple comment hit her hard, and prompted her to drink heavily again. “I knew I was in trouble when I looked in the mirror and thought how the hell could I look pretty? The mix of anti-depressant pills, drugs and drink were causing hallucinations, and I was acting really crazy. The hospital diagnosed me as schizophrenic but thankfully my friend’s mum knew the diagnosis was incorrect (she was an expert in personality disorders ) and they released me. So, in line with my habitual behaviour, I made a bee-line straight back to the gangs, the drink, drugs and abuse”.
The abuse was real – she has scars to this day of the gun shot wound on her leg where her boyfriend shot her, and the long scar from the broken glass being dragged across her chest. On one occasion, she was beaten black and blue in an underground car park and left for dead.
Susan tried to end her life on so many occasions that she has lost count. The one thing she can be sure of is that she was a completely useless failure at killing herself. “It must have been divine intervention that saved me because I can’t understand how I survived the lethal cocktail of drink and drugs I took, over and over. I really wanted to die”.
It was around this time that Susan started to develop some Mental toughness. She was non compliant – stubborn – and refused to have the mandatory gang tattoo. She started to develop values that were non-negotiable. Her confidence and resilience were growing. Around this time, her father made one of many attempts to rescue her, and she was able to sober up for a while. “That’s what it must be what it feels like to leave a cult – as I briefly sobered up I was hyper aware of how different I was to everyone else – I didn’t dare talk to people”.
The sobriety didn’t last, and Susan fell into a relationship with another abusive man. She managed to hold down a job, serving in a dress shop. On one particular day off she, not unusually, she drank heavily. She can’t recall anything after the first few morning beers, but she does know she somehow quit her job that day.
The following morning her first thought was of drinking, so she turned to the bottle of beer by her bed and took two sips. She poured the rest down the sink. To this day, she hasn’t consumed a drop of alcohol since. She was 31 years old.
“I had spent 25 years trying to destroy myself because I wasn’t good enough, could never be perfect, or accepted. But I also knew I was absolutely rubbish at trying to kill myself. I sustained many physical problems from my lifestyle – breathing issues, migraines, mood swings etc. But I sought help for my recovery, and was in a clinic with bank managers, lawyers, dentists and musicians. We were taught about AA’s belief in a ‘Higher Power’. I couldn’t understand what they were on about. I lasted two weeks before I tried to escape. The person that caught me said I would never be able to ‘escape’ until I surrendered to my demons.
“One of the most touching things is that the dress shop contacted me some weeks after I had quit, and asked me to return to work in the shop as they appreciated my work ethic, my resilience and my skill. It blew me away. I was suddenly valued and appreciated for something!
“I rose from working in that dress shop, to becoming the ‘Director of Employee Relations’ for one of Canada’s top banks, all in just 4 years. I continued to climb the corporate ladder, and I did it faster than anyone else has ever done it. I made a success of myself, not despite of my background, but because of it. I became so resilient, I would never give up, I bounced back and I build confidence in my own ability. I started to belief in myself and look what happened!”
Susan Armstrong is a woman of force. Some might say intimidating. She is certainly resilient and mentally tough. She admits her stubbornness (she sees it as a form of control) plays out in two ways in her life – it can negatively get in her way when it comes to relationships, but it can also inspire others and has propelled her career forward.
She believes taking action is key – that the best response to any situation is to act – even if it’s a mistake, at least your action starts a process of change. She is living proof that taking action works wonders. Doing nothing is not an option for Susan.
When asked how she would sum up her life’s purpose, she says “I wake people up”. And she says with a big grin on her face.
If you’re interested in developing your Mental Toughness, get in touch with Penny Mallory at [email protected]