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‘Take A Reality Check: Are You A Workaholic Who Needs To Change? ’

I swear that was the moment I thought I was going to collapse. Lot of people were staring at me, and my chest just started to pull. It was pain like I’ve never experienced before and it was a horrible feeling.

One Year On from 22nd August, 2014

Between eternal silence and a life full of sorrow, what stops me is a bottle of water. I think to myself that I have had enough of this and raise the bottle to my mouth to drink it all in slowly. It’s time.

The Incident

I still remember the events as if they happened just yesterday. Friday, 22nd August, 2014 was a day that changed my life.

It was business as usual in the world of sports television broadcasting. We were busy writing scripts, editing features and coming up with story ideas for forthcoming shows. I had got my employment pass (EP) renewed that day, and my colleagues were having a laugh since my picture on the EP looked quite funny!

I was to meet my friend Anjali that evening for dinner, so I quickly wrapped up work by 6:30 PM and headed home. On the bus journey to the MRT stop (train station), I started feeling a bit weird. I wasn’t able to swallow my saliva and felt quite uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I just passed it off as nothing untoward and got on the train.

There were about six stops until my destination, so I was chilling out and listening to music. Again, I started feeling a similar sensation in my throat. Only, this time, my legs started to tingle as well. Before I knew it, it was a mixture of not being to swallow my saliva, tingling in my legs and feeling lightheaded. I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on, so I immediately put my headphones back in my bag and got up.

Let’s face it, we’re all good at playing doctor and self-medicating – let me just walk it off and I’m sure I’ll be fine, I thought. I tried walking up and down the train compartment but nothing changed. By this point, I was two stops away from home and I’d started breathing very heavily. My blue polo t-shirt was covered with sweat.

Paya Lebar was my MRT stop and once I got off, I swear that was the moment I thought I was going to collapse. Lot of people were staring at me, and my chest just started to pull. It was pain like I’ve never experienced before and it was a horrible feeling. We all watch so many movies and TV shows where these things happen, but you never think it could happen to you; even less so when you think you’re perfectly healthy.

That said, I never saw my life flash in front of me or anything like that. It’s amazing how clearly you think when faced with an adverse situation. I somehow walked to the exit (still don’t know how I managed that) and called Anjali. I told her, “Anj, I think I’m having a heart attack, please take me to the hospital.” She rushed from the restaurant where she was and came to the train station. Fortunately, the hospital was just about 5 minutes away and we got there very quickly.

There were a number of other patients in the emergency wing at that time but, as soon as the staff saw my condition, they rushed me in. The nurse took my blood pressure and mentioned that my heart rate was really high. While I’ve heard so many cases where people tend to feel worse once they got to the hospital, I must say, in my case, it was the complete opposite. I knew I was in good hands and started to feel more at ease. The prospect of a massive bill that was about to present itself did cross my mind a few times; but, other than that, it was all positive!

Slowly, the nurses started doing a number of tests (blood, ECG, renal screen, etc.). Without my knowledge, Anjali had already told the staff that I was a massive sports fan and that I supported Liverpool. Immediately, instead of talking about what happened to me just 45 minutes prior to arriving at the hospital, the staff started to talk sport and were asking me why on earth Liverpool signed a guy like Mario Balotelli?! This was simply amazing and I felt so much calmer.

The doctor on shift then came by and saw me lying on the bed. I said to him, “Doc, this is the first time I’m lying on a hospital bed. God’s grace, I’ve never had anything major before but this is really freaking me out.” He just smiled and said that there’s a first for everything, Mr. Veeru. He asked Anjali to give me a cup of water. As I began drinking it, he asked me how many cups of water I had that day. I said that this was my first. He replied saying that was problem number one.

He seemed to know so much about me already and that was quite strange. He mentioned that he too had family and friends who work in the media and that life in broadcasting is not easy. He went on to ask me how much sleep I had got the previous night. I said about 3-4 hours. He said that’s problem number 2.

His final question was “Do you like your job?”. I said yes, of course. He said, “There, my boy, is problem number 3. You don’t like it, you absolutely love it and sometimes that’s not always good.” The conversation went on for a bit, and he said all the test results would come tomorrow and that there was nothing to worry about.

I still couldn’t understand how or why this happened. That was really affecting me. I thought I was in the best shape possible, fit and healthy. The doc even told Anjali that he didn’t think I was much of a drinker or smoker. She laughed and told him that Veeru would get tipsy on just 2 beers! And the closest I’ve come to smoking a cigarette is holding it for friends when they’ve gone to the restroom or something like that!

Anyway, before leaving the hospital, the doctor gave me an anti-anxiety pill. He reassured me that everything was fine but had stressed the fact that I need to start taking care of myself better. Keep drinking loads of water, he said, and ensure you get a solid 8 hours of sleep every night. However, his last line was what remained etched in my memory. He mentioned that many of the patients he’s treated for episodes similar to this one slipped into depression, started doing drugs and basically abused their bodies. He said start taking the baby steps towards recovery now and you will be fine

The Aftermath

While I was still a bit rattled by the whole event, I felt a lot better after I got home. My friends were simply amazing. Many had come home that night and kept making jokes about what happened. That actually lightened the whole mood and I felt quite happy. Eventually, whether it was through a phone call, text, WhatsApp or Facebook, there were heaps of messages. I was so touched by this show of support and it really meant a lot to me. Even when those on the other end of the line were yelling at me for being married to my job! As they say, it’s the thought that counts.

The next morning the doctor’s office called and said that every test came back normal. It was a mild case of cardiac discomfort coupled with a pretty strong anxiety attack. Again, I started to worry. How can a day be so normal and then suddenly have something like this happen? That’s when I realized that it wasn’t a case of just that one day, but the series of events leading up to it.

If I look back over the last few years, before August 22nd 2014, I really was obsessed with work. Some of us are very lucky to have jobs we love, but the doctor was right. For me, my work became my life. Everything else came second. Family, friends and, most importantly, my health. Even if I suffered a personal setback, my way of dealing with it would be to put in more hours of work and use it as a distraction.

I would be filming in Sri Lanka or Hong Kong for close to 12 hours a day on a cricket assignment and, while I always ensured the camera crew were well fed and had plenty of water, I hardly took a few sips. I was so focused on the job and, many a time, I have skipped several meals while on location.

The more I thought about the reasons for the attack, the more it all began to make sense to me. It had been a very stressful phase in the office leading up to the 22nd of August. From managing the content for our cricket show, I was asked to spearhead the entire production.

Honestly, I didn’t think I was ready for such a big responsibility. I didn’t want to turn the promotion down but things didn’t get off to the best of starts either. Two people on the cricket team who were very dear colleagues had just left the company; one was a producer and the other was a very senior editor.

My colleague Amar and I were tasked with running a weekly global program and, though we had completed over 100 episodes by then, it felt like being back to square one and starting from scratch.

All this really took a toll on me, and as much as I kept trying to power through, my body had to find a way of giving me the message to slow down.

Coping & Recovery

I studied Psychology in school as well as in University, and the first thing I realized was that this may have been a one-off episode but it’s important to address it properly.

I did read stories where many people who had been through something similar just threw their lives away. I was determined to get back on track and I just wanted to live better. Initially, things were quite hard. There were times in office where I would feel suddenly breathless. There was just so much going on in my head that it resulted in more stress and more anxiety. Out of the fear, a few more trips to the hospital were made but once I got there, the docs clearly said that it was all in my head. It was a constant battle with myself and I slowly realized that, unless I stopped worrying, nothing can move forward.

My father has being doing yoga every day since he was a teenager. My brother and I used to laugh at him and say “Yoga’s for old people, Dad!” and things like that. Funnily enough, my recovery process started with yoga. I enrolled myself in a class and, to my amazement, I really enjoyed it. We went on a family holiday barely a month after my attack and the hotel we stayed at had yoga classes too. I started to get stuck in and found that this was an excellent way to stay fit.

Now, no matter where I am, I always try and do one session for about 25-30 minutes a day. Nothing fancy, nothing that involves difficult poses, just simple breathing exercises and stretching. I still kick myself for not having gotten into yoga earlier.

In addition to this, I started learning a few healing techniques like Pranashakti and a variety of Tension Relieving Exercises (TRE) as well. Meditation was also an integral part of these processes and that’s something I try and do on a regular basis.

Anxiety is not something that just disappears one evening. It takes time and I knew that. The yoga and healing was helping tremendously but I still needed to work a great deal to get back to normal emotionally. Work continued to be hectic and, with such a small team running a global TV show, things were getting tiring as well.

A dear family friend of mine asked me in passing, “Why don’t you speak to a therapist? He / She might be able to help you with finding a better work-life balance, dealing with stress, anxiety etc”.

I was against the idea at first but slowly came around to it. Through my family friend, I made contact with Glenn Graves, an American Psychologist who’s been working in Singapore for over a decade. Glenn gave me that outlet to just let loose. I felt very comfortable right from the start and through the sessions we had, I was able to identify my biggest priorities in life and what I should be focusing on.

Glenn asked me questions that had me thinking about solutions. Almost immediately we discussed the possibility of working from home one day a week. It also led to the idea of traveling earlier to shoots rather than on the same day of filming. I couldn’t help but wonder why I didn’t think of all this earlier!

I took his suggestions back to work and my boss called a big production meeting a few days later where he said, no matter what sport you work on, every single person has the chance now to work from home one day a week. The company showed a lot of care and even footed the bill for the various therapy sessions. It’s a lovely feeling to be wanted but they could have easily asked me to resign and go find another job.

Final Thoughts

So, have things changed one year on? Oh yes they have and I’m proud to say they have for the better. It sure has given me a lot more grey hair but then again, being and staying healthy tops all that!

Yoga is in full swing pretty much on a daily basis, breakfast hasn’t been skipped in nearly a year and wherever I go, my light blue water bottle follows me around!

Tennis is one sport I really enjoy playing. Earlier, I used to just turn up and start playing a match with friends. Now I find myself warming up, doing a number of breathing exercises and stretching for a good 20 minutes even before getting on-court. The small things really do matter.

From time to time, I still think about that evening a year ago. What if I had collapsed? What if Anjali wasn’t there? What if I had done nothing about this? That will always remain with me but I’m extremely glad with how things have gone post the episode.

Through the course of the last 12 months, I have shared this story with numerous friends and well-wishers and many have come up to me and said that it’s been like a reality check for them too. It’s no secret we all live in a crazy fast paced world filled with deadlines, stress and long hours. However, my biggest take-back from this entire phase is, NEVER compromise on your own health.

I’m able to do certain things which I thought were never possible before. For example: From replying to work e-mails the second I used to get them to now not even responding on a Friday to a mail that I can reply to on a Monday, things have really changed.

I still get the odd jokes here and there from people though. Veeru, how’s your doctor? What is he saying now? How’s the heart patient? How are the palpitations? Will this movie we’re all about to watch give you another panic attack? The list is endless! Friends will always be friends and, though these questions used to annoy me at first, I just laugh and play along now. That’s the best way to react to it!

I find myself less hyper and much more relaxed in life. That’s done wonders for me both personally and professionally.

A few months ago while on work in Colombo, I finished filming and took 3 days off to spend with friends. At first, it felt weird since I was on a work trip but soon, I loved every bit of it. It was so refreshing. More recently, I just got back from Vietnam. It was a trip, which, at first I wasn’t planning to go on because of work but decided to juggle things around so I could get a few days off. Looking back, it was one hell of a holiday and I really want to visit the country again!

Some of this may seem quite silly to many of you but I hope it does strike a chord with at least a few. Whether it’s that extra glass of water, that extra fruit or that extra hour of sleep, just go for it.

I needed this wake up call to get me back on track and I thank my lucky stars every single day for giving me this reality check. Boy, did I need it!

Originally published on Veeru Murugappan’s LinkedIn blog – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/take-reality-check-you-workaholic-who-needs-change-veeru-murugappan?trk=prof-post

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