The high-flyers who used trauma as a springboard to a better future

The Olympic gold medalist Sir Mo Farah revisited his traumatic childhood for a documentary that aired this week. He is one of many successful people who overcame adversity to not only survive but thrive

This week the UK got to know the real Sir Mo Farah. In an act of extraordinary bravery, the decorated Olympic athlete and UK national treasure delved into his traumatic childhood for a BBC documentary that aired on Wednesday. 

It turns out that he is really called Hussein Abdi Kahin. The name Mohammed Farah belonged to another young boy, who’s documents were used to traffic Kahin into the UK from Somalia, where he was separated form his family. In London, he was forced to work as a domestic servant. Running became his escape, and he excelled at it; winning two gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, in his adopted city, was a high point in a remarkable career.  

As broadsheet newspaper columnists, we have been interviewing people for more than 20 years, including prime ministers and poets, CEOs and chefs, actors and archbishops. What has struck us repeatedly is how many of them have overcome bewildering trauma in their early lives.

At first we thought it was a coincidence. Then as the cases accumulated, we began to realise that far from holding these high-flyers back, the struggle to deal with disadvantage has driven them to reach extraordinary heights.

We started looking for examples and discovered that of the 55 British prime ministers going back to 1721, 25 lost one or both of their parents as a child. A further three lost a sibling, eight were affected by serious mental or physical illness and two endured a dramatic change in family circumstance. According to our analysis, 69 per cent of these political leaders suffered a serious trauma in childhood.

Former prime minister Tony Blair (main picture, left) was 10 when his father had a stroke that left him paralysed, destroying his legal career. It was, Blair told us, “the event that shaped my childhood.”

The mother of current Labour leader Kier Starmer battled with Still’s disease, a rare and incurable condition that meant she could not speak for many years and ended up having a leg amputated. He spent hours as a child sitting by her bedside in hospital high-dependency units.

The Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey lost his father when he was four, and then when he was 12 his mother became terminally ill and he was her carer for three years until she died.


The inventor James Dyson was just nine when his father died of cancer. Image: James Dyson

We soon realised that this phenomenon applied to many spheres of public life. According to one study by educational charity the Aldridge Foundation, seven in 10 entrepreneurs cite traumatic childhood experiences as a formative event. James Dyson was nine when his father died of cancer. Steve Jobs was given away by his mother as a baby. Terry Leahy, the former Tesco boss, shared a room with his three brothers and lived in his school uniform until he was 16 because there was no money for other clothes.

Creativity appears to thrive in harsh conditions. John Lennon, abandoned by his father when he was five, then lost his mother – who has often been described as his muse – when he was 17. Oprah Winfrey was raped when she was nine and became pregnant at 14, with a child who died in infancy, acquiring an empathy that allowed her to persuade others to open up on television.

Paralympian and TV presenter Ade Adepitan was a baby when he contracted polio in Nigeria and lost the use of his left leg. His mother and father used all their savings to bring him for treatment in Britain. It gave him, he told us, “a sense of urgency. I needed to prove I was worthy.”


Losing the use of his leg gave Ade Adepitan ‘a sense of urgency’. Image: Ade Adepitan

Psychologist Victor Goertzel studied 400 well-known figures from the 20th century for his book Cradles of Eminence. Three-quarters of these exceptional individuals had suffered poverty, broken homes, abusive parents, alcoholism, illness or other disadvantages. “The ‘normal man’,” Goertzel concluded, “is not a likely candidate for the hall of fame.”

There is a growing body of scientific evidence about the psychological and neurological impact trauma. Nassir Ghaemi, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, US, believes that ‘normal’ people tend to be conformist, more willing to compromise and to take safe decisions, whereas it takes an original mind, a restless energy and a risk-taking streak to become a leader in your field. 

Martin Lloyd-Elliott, a psychotherapist who has worked with high achievers, said many are driven by a “disproportionate burning desire to compensate” for an ego that has been “wounded” by childhood trauma. “The trauma becomes a driver,” he explained.

But he points out that it would be wrong to romanticise adversity. “Most people who’ve suffered severe trauma in childhood never really recover without significant therapy. If you look at high-achieving personalities, they often have dysfunctional relationships. The trauma still manifests itself somewhere in that person’s story.”

Often, they believe they have made it because of, rather than despite, misfortune

Research by Public Health Wales, the national public health agency in Wales, found that those who have suffered four or more adverse childhood experiences are 20 times more likely to have been in prison, 16 times more likely to have used crack cocaine or heroin, and four times more likely to have a drink problem.

Yet these children are far too often written off, which makes it even more important for us to learn how to help them come to terms with their backgrounds. The fact that some people have found a way of dealing with adversity may provide us with the tools to assist young people who are struggling to overcome complicated childhoods.

For many of the people we have interviewed, a difficult childhood is just the beginning, and they share an incredible optimism about life. Often, they believe they have made it because of, rather than despite, misfortune. It is unnerving that a key ingredient of success appears for some to be a childhood disaster, but it is also deeply reassuring for both parents and children that an imperfect past can be a springboard to a better future. 

Three high-flyers with traumatic pasts

Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour party

Raised on a council estate in Stockport, Angela Rayner was a carer for her mother – who has bipolar disorder – from the age of 10, became pregnant at 15 and left school with no qualifications at 16. 

She has a reputation for being ballsy and confident – a “fiery, ginger” Northerner, as she likes to say. Yet she admitted: “I can’t be loved because I never have been, so I find it difficult being nurtured and feeling happy. I haven’t got that inner peace.” 

Rayner’s earliest memories are all “pretty horrifying”, she told us. “My mum has never really been a mum, because she’s not been able to. She cut herself, she’s been sectioned, I’ve had to bathe her and get her out of bed, then get up and go to school.” 

She was searching for love when she became pregnant. Thrown out of home by her father, she got a job as a care worker to earn money to feed her son Ryan. “I was determined to give him everything that I didn’t have,” she said. “I just wanted to prove people wrong.” 

Rayner is convinced that her past has made her stronger, and a better politician. She may not have read PPE at Oxford, but she knows all about hierarchies and power. As she put it: “On the council estate there were levels of superiority. We were the lowest. It taught me structures and it taught me about people. The master’s degree in ‘real life’ that I have has been the thing that I’ve used the most all my years I’ve been in parliament.” 


Brian Cox, actor


The actor Brian Cox’s childhood in post-war Dundee was, he told us, “blissful up to a certain point and then it went belly up”. His father, a shopkeeper, died suddenly when he was eight and his mother had a series of nervous breakdowns. It was deeply traumatic and disorientating, yet he frequently draws on his early experiences when acting.

His father Charles’s death came just three weeks after he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His mother Mary’s mental health deteriorated dramatically. The actor remembers one particularly unnerving moment. “I came home and I could smell gas. She was on her knees and the oven was open; she said: ‘I’m just giving it a wee clean.’ I only realised in hindsight that it was a suicide attempt. Then she really got very ill. It was pretty bleak.”

Eventually, she was taken away to a psychiatric hospital. Brought up after that by his three older sisters, Cox would spend hours in the local cinema, watching films back-to-back, partly to keep warm but also to escape from the harsh reality of his life.

He joined the Dundee Repertory Theatre at the age of 14, then got a place at drama school in London. Cox has now won multiple awards, but he says it is the struggles of his early life that define him, giving him an inner strength, as well as a sense of urgency. “I realised I wasn’t going to waste any time,” he told us. “I don’t in go for any ‘shoulda coulda woulda’, I just think, ‘Do it.” 


Lemn Sissay, author and poet

The internationally acclaimed poet (pictured, centre right) started writing when he was living in a children’s home to prove that he “wasn’t alone”. 

His mother, Yemarshet, was a young Ethiopian woman who came to England to study. While here, she discovered that she was pregnant and gave her son up to be fostered so that she could complete her education. She wanted their separation to be temporary, but the social worker ignored her subsequent requests to see her son. He even gave the boy a new name: Norman (the social worker’s own name) Greenwood (the name of the family that was going to foster him). It was only when he was 17 – and finally got to see his birth certificate – that he discovered his real name was Lemn Sissay. 

Sissay remembers his early childhood with the Greenwoods in 1970s suburban Bury as “blissfully happy”. Then, when he was 12, the Greenwoods rejected him. Mrs Greenwood had another baby, and turned on her foster son. The rows escalated, Sissay was beaten and accused of stealing. He was sent to live in a children’s home. 

Wood End, where Sissay lived for several years as a teenager, would later be the subject of an abuse probe. It was, the poet told us, “brutal”. Poetry became his escape. He remembers the sense of freedom he felt when he finished his first piece of writing, sitting in a deserted dormitory. “I want to say you don’t need to suffer pain to be a poet,” he told us, “but I do feel like you have to have a real reason to create, that’s the spark to the engine.” 

The result was astonishing. At the age of 17, Sissay used his unemployment benefit money to self-publish his first poetry pamphlet, Perceptions of the Pen, which he sold to striking miners in Lancashire. He released his first book of poetry in 1988 when he was 21. Today his work is recognised and celebrated globally. 

This is an edited extract from What I Wish I’d Known When I Was Young: The Art and Science of Growing Up by Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson. Out now, published by William Collins   

Main image: Tony Blair and Ade Adepitan

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