We were coming towards the end of the programme, and I was well over my imposter syndrome. I thought back to day one, when fifteen of us – the chosen ones from over 250 applicants – sat together in the incubation hub on the new TU Dublin Grangegorman campus, and there was no one more surprised by my inclusion than me. We were entrepreneurs embarking on a six-month Enterprise Ireland grant, which not only paid us a salary but provided us with all the means to grow our startup businesses; one to one sessions and group workshops in finance, marketing and sales; guidance on business plans, matching with mentors, mock dragon’s den pitches, opportunities, support and encouragement. As a woman in my fifties, and with a non-tech business, I appreciated it, and I made sure to thoroughly embrace every helping hand that came my way. I turned up, I ticked every box, I met the deadlines. Before that, I’d run a drama school for almost thirty years, specializing in building confidence in people, so it was ironic that entering this new world of business did so much to knock mine. At one point, my drama school had centres all over Dublin. I trained and employed my students to teach. I wrote, directed and produced hundreds of my own plays, as well as taking on any outside directing or adjudication work that came my way. I managed budgets and people with ease but now, when it came to talking about finance, the dragons in the den tore me to shreds; terminology was an issue for me and I really didn’t know my assets from my ebitda. Translating the ideals of my new business – a natural skincare partnership – into targets and bottom lines just sucked all the fun out of it. Still, I ploughed on, a little stressed perhaps, but I like to think that I was managing; the dream of bringing the business to an international market was worth all the challenges.
“Can you see yourself in five years’ time?” My mentor asked. Yes, yes I could, in the same way that I could always see a show’s end production in my mind’s eye, knowing what I wanted and simply having to put in place the pieces that would make it come to be. I knew what I was about, in other words. I wasn’t shrinking into the wallpaper or picking nervously at it. And yet, on that day, towards the end of our six months, when I had long since gotten over the surprise of being included, why did I have a sudden and debilitating panic attack? One minute I was cracking a joke and the next I was overwhelmed by the desire to burst into tears. I struggled to control myself, desperate to understand what was happening; the sense of foreboding doom, the difficulty breathing, the seemingly unachievable task of comprehending the concept of marketing my business. It was only when the palpitations started that I remembered the panic attacks I used to get as a teenager, those terrifying alien possessors that tormented me at night when everyone was asleep and I was alone. No rhyme, no reason, no warning, no encouragement: I was in a full-on panic attack before I knew what hit me.
It passed. Or at least, the panic would come and go, but the palpitations didn’t leave me. I had the measure of them because I knew how to breathe my way through them, but it was exhausting, day and night. I found I was blaming the business, cursing the direction I was trying to take it in. I began crumbling spectacularly in the various dragons’ dens, crying in one case and vowing, eventually, that I would never put myself through the trauma again. Where was she, that girl who directed her first musical show aged twenty two? Who set up her school at twenty three and ran it successfully for almost thirty years? Where was she, that woman who became a mentor to others, who understood the importance of her work, who built her reputation on building confidence in others? What happened to the woman who wasn’t afraid to change direction in her middle years? I didn’t know until the hot flushes came, along with the night sweats. Although I tried to lean into it all, sometimes it got the better of me; going out for dinner and defiantly bringing my little electric fan along, only to end up in tears while the waitress recommended supplements that had worked for her. I didn’t know the menopause was to blame, robbing me of myself, even when I walked away from the business and my dreams for its future. When my doctor started me on HRT and the searing heat went away, I found her again; when my energy and a decent night’s sleep returned, and I stood in the clearing, there I was: still ready, willing and able.
The pandemic followed on the heels of my menopausal kickoff, and I used my time wisely, up-skilling, assessing my strengths and wondering who I could offer my services to. I’d be quite the catch, I often thought; the things I know, the journeys I’ve navigated, the ideas that spring from me. I’m still alive and fresh with enthusiasm. God, the team that works with me, what fun we’ll have, how productive we’ll be! But alas, lurking around the corner, like a boot-boy squeezing on the dying embers of a cigarette butt, was another challenge for a woman who’s only half way done with her life: ageism. No one wanted a woman in her fifties. Now that, I was not expecting.
(Next blog: Ageism!)