Londoner Esther Stanhope, now 48, explains in her own words how her ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle caught up with her, leading to a healthier, happier outlook…
My job in TV and radio was a dream. I loved developing programmes and working on shows like Strictly, and with people like Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. I also got to go to glamorous events such as the Cannes Film Festival.
I think my driven personality must have come from my dad, who died of a heart attack aged just 40. I was only five, but my mum later told me he was always on the go, just like me.
All I remember is being carried on his shoulders and the smell of his leather jacket – then one day he was gone, leaving me, my four siblings and my mum, who was pregnant at the time.
When I started my career in the 90s, I wanted to work hard and play hard. In the media, everyone was like me, with their whole work/life balance revolving around social events.
I’d go to film screenings and launches, where there was always champagne and canapés. I probably drank and smoked a bit too much, but no more than anyone else. I’d try to make time for the gym, but something always cropped up and I’d put it off.
But in 2011, when I’d had my second child, Truman, now nine, a brother for my daughter, Mirabelle, now 14, I decided I wanted to do something for myself, using the skills I’d picked up from years in the media.
So I launched my own company – The Impact Guru – advising business people on how to make the best of themselves. It took off immediately, with high-profile individuals and blue-chip companies wanting my advice.
I found myself saying yes to everything. I’d be thinking, ‘Where can I get clients? How can I sustain the revenue? If I stop spinning plates, I’m going to drop them all.’
I loved it, but I was a whirling dervish – booking my travel and hotels here and abroad, setting up meetings and speeches, even doing my own accountancy.
I knew that my husband Adam, 59, a film producer, and the kids thought I was overdoing it, and at the back of my mind I knew they were right. But it wasn’t until late summer 2016 that I really realised I was taking on too much.
One day in September, I was due to speak at the University of Greenwich in London, and had arranged to meet Claire, who I was interviewing to be my assistant, at the station.
That was typical of me – cramming in as much as I could. I remember thinking, ‘Any normal person would sit down to chat over a cup of coffee. She must think I’m insane.’
Amazingly, Claire took the job, but even though I no longer had all that admin to deal with, I was still packing in at least eight meetings a week.
In June 2017, I was at the airport bright and early for a flight to Amsterdam. As I waited for the shuttle to the terminal I couldn’t catch my breath. It wasn’t terrible, so I just put it down to rushing about in the humidity. But it happened again when I landed back in the UK.
When I got home I said to Adam, ‘I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, but I had this weird feeling. I’ll get it checked after I’ve been to New York.’
Three weeks later I was in America at a conference and it happened again. This time my left arm was numb too. I’d arranged a day off to go to the gym with my sister-in-law, who lived with my brother over there. But in the middle of a CrossFit class I went a bit green and felt a tightness in my chest. I had to go outside.
I thought I was just horribly unfit because it passed after I’d taken some deep breaths, but my sister-in-law wanted me to see a doctor there. ‘No, it’s fine,’ I said. ‘It’s not likeI was going to collapse.’ But I started to think something might be wrong.
When I got home I called my GP about my symptoms and asked if it was worth coming in. ‘Long-haul flight, father died of a heart attack, tightness in chest? Go straight to A&E,’ she said.
Adam and I walked to The Royal London Hospital in East London, and I had to stop a few times because I was finding it hard to breathe. I got in at 10am and was quickly referred to a heart specialist for all kinds of tests.
I had a meeting at 3pm and said to the cardiologist, ‘I’ll be out before then, won’t I?’
She stared at me. ‘You do know you’re being treated for a heart attack?’ she said. ‘It’s mild, but still serious. You have to stay here.’
I couldn’t believe it. I honestly thought I was being a bit of a fraud being admitted because I felt OK. ‘I’m not dying!’ I insisted.
I postponed all my appointments and just sat in my hospital bed. Because I had nothing better to do, I wrote my blog.
I spent a week there and for the first time in ages I enjoyed just relaxing. My family and friends came to see me and I tapped away writing – the first time I’d ever done anything like that.
The doctors diagnosed a blocked artery to my heart and inserted a stent to open it – they make a tiny hole in your wrist and thread the stent all the way up to your heart.
I wasn’t very fit and was a little overweight – by just a stone or so. My diet was OK, but it was inherited cholesterol problems and my smoking and stressful lifestyle that did it. I was put on statins, which I was told to take for the rest of my life.
Lifestyle change I’d been overdoing it for years, throwing myself into my career. I gave up smoking and I no longer drink as much. I walk everywhere to do my 10,000 steps and go to the gym – but not at 6am like I used to.
I made a decision not to be stressed any more, pushing myself and being in a constant state of low-level panic. I no longer stand on the Tube platform checking my watch and sweating because I’m late. I’m realistic and do two things a day, not 10.
I also start every day with yoga and ask myself what I’m grateful for, rather than thinking, ‘Oh God! What do I have to do today?’ My business is still successful – I’ve just learned not to beat myself up about it.
I started spreading the word for the British Heart Foundation, warning women of the risk of heart disease. I wasn’t hugely overweight or going purple.
I didn’t look or feel like a heart attack victim, but this happened to me. Women should look out for it. It’s a cliché, but it’s true – I’m grateful for my health, my family and this second chance.