Lisa’s gone from panic attacks to performing in her own show. And stopped saying “I can’t”.

The moment I’d pictured and carried around with me for 18 months had arrived. Five minutes earlier I’d been backstage corralling the younger generation, all waiting for the first few bars of the opening number. Now I was centre stage. Dressed in a Barnum-esque costume complete with top hat and cane, red tails and fish nets, basque and boots. It was a pinch-me- before-I-wake-up moment. The dream was a reality.

I am absolutely not the kind of person who entertains crowds. Prior to this I’d never organised a show, never mind doing anything theatrical myself. I hate the stage and even struggle with public speaking. I just don’t like being centre of attention. Yet here I was, holding my cane aloft, singing and facing the public.

That night under the spot lights I knew my mum would be proud. I knew my daughter was proud. I was on the stage at the Hilton Metropole because of them. My mum Monica died at the age of 31 of complications caused by Crohns, when I was 2 years old. Then I grew up and became a mother. And history repeated itself, but in reverse as my daughter Megan was diagnosed with Crohns in 2013, aged 15. At a time when she should have been going to her prom and having fun, not worrying about what she was eating or how many tablets she was meant to take she spent three months on a liquid diet. And my world fell apart.

“I am absolutely not the kind of person who entertains crowds.”

Welcome to my nightmare of guilt, panic attacks and a severe crisis of confidence. Two years of living in Dante’s inferno. I was very young when mum died and don’t remember much about her. All I knew is what she died of so when Megan got rushed into hospital, I can’t even describe how I felt.

For the first six months when Megan was really poorly and in hospital I was like machine, just coping with the day to day. But as soon as she started to get better, I completely lost it. I couldn’t deal with her being away from me and wanted to know what she had eaten at every second of the day. I had overwhelming anxiety and felt so guilty that I hadn’t noticed she had Crohns. I felt I should have noticed, should have seen the signs.

I got really angry and was having panic attacks, although at the time I didn’t know what they were. I’d get a bruise on my toe and think I had toe cancer. I developed really bad health anxiety and kept going to the doctors and have loads of tests, but eventually the doctor asked “What’s going on at home?”. This was 18 months after Megan’s recovery and it dawned on me it was in my head that I wasn’t well. So I got some counselling, medication and CBT.

When Megan was first diagnosed I was in my mid 30s and doing alright – nice life, happily married, nothing to complain about. I was a partner in a business, managing a team of 12 people and was quite detached. But Megan’s hospitalisation made me reevaluate my life. I realised there wasn’t much joy or passion in it.

Pretty soon after this I co-launched my new business, Spoken, with a former employee from my previous company, creating brands and websites. It gave me something positive to focus on.

Having my new business meant I stepped out of a downward spiral and into the Brighton business community. What a tonic. New people. New challenges and new opportunities.

“I stopped listening to that voice that says ‘You can’t do this – you’re an imposter’”

But running our own business meant finding clients. I’d never networked before and found it terrifying. I’d sit round a table with loads of strangers and couldn’t even hold my water glass I was shaking so much. But I persevered and once I’d done five events it gave me a boost – I realised I could do five more. Then I got invited to a big BNI networking event where I knew I’d have to stand up and talk about myself. I couldn’t sleep the night before, I was terrified.

And I think what changed for me is that I stopped listening to that voice that says ‘You can’t do this – you’re an imposter’. I changed the voice and it now says “You’ve done that – now you can do this”. Nothing will ever make me feel like I did when Megan was ill – nothing’s that scary.

I reconnected with myself again and decided to confront Crohns head on, raise awareness of the condition and fundraise for Crohn’s & Colitis UK. One night I had a drunken conversation with a client at a networking event and said “Wouldn’t it be great if a children’s charity did a pantomime to raise money?” and before you knew it I was organising it. Once I said I’d do it and asked a few people to get involved it all just snowballed.

A content writer friend had done amateur dramatics and she wrote the show, Tycoons In Tights, which starred a hotch potch of Brighton business owners and friends, all more than happy to leave the boardroom behind for two nights to be ugly sisters and dwarves. We raised £4K and I was delighted. But it wasn’t an extravaganza. I wanted my next venture to make an indelible mark. I wanted it to tingle with twinkling lights and ticker-tape. White smoke and sequins.

I was inspired by the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the inspiration behind the 2018 blockbuster The Greatest Showman. An original musical that celebrated the birth of show business and told of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation. Forget big thinking. I had my giant thinking Top Hat on.

“I thought I knew me, but I wasn’t living to my full potential.”

The result was the Execs Factor, a blatant X-Factor spoof, with eight acts, four judges, two presenters, one writer and me, The Ringmaster (or Mistress). For someone who hates being the centre of attention this was a huge deal as it meant I was introducing the show at the start and closing at the end. The show took place at the Hilton Brighton Metropole and was packed to the rafters. This time we raised £10,000.

I can’t believe I’ve done all this, even now. What I’m most proud of is that I’m a person who can make connections with people that will give up their time for free. The last few years have taught me to challenge what I think about myself. I thought I knew me, but I wasn’t living to my full potential. I always thought there were things I couldn’t do, I thought people didn’t really like me and because I put on a hard exterior to get respected at work, people didn’t get to see the real me. But actually I realised when I started my business that I didn’t need to be anything other than myself. And you never know what your full potential is until you push yourself.

It shows how we put ourselves in boxes. We’re constantly learning and adapting to our changing environment but I’d forgotten that and become afraid of change. I think it goes back go my childhood and that little voice that says “I can’t”. Every time I say I can’t do something it doesn’t take me long to realise that I can.

Megan is still in remission and the older she gets the less I worry. When I got on the stage I talked to that huge audience about what it’s like to live with a chronic illness. It’s important to dispel the myths about how it impacts people to have something that you’ve got to live with for the rest of your life, how it affects you mentally and impacts on your family.

From overwhelming anxiety about my daughter, anger and voices in my head to launching a successful business, galvanising the local business community, putting on shows and now even becoming vice president of my local BNI networking group… I can’t quite believe how far I’ve come in a few short years. You never really know yourself or what you’re capable of.

Lisa with some of the cast of The Execs Factor.
Words: Lisa Seymour and Marina Gask.

Lisa Seymour is co-founder of Spoken, an award-winning studio creating brand identities.

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