JO JAKEMAN: My stroke at 44 – from the stress of always saying ‘YES‘

My stroke at 44 from the stress of always saying ‘YES‘: She was a frantically busy mum juggling a career as a novelist. Here, in a piece every people-pleasing woman should read, JO JAKEMAN issues a stark warning

Early this spring, novelist Jo Jakeman, 44, knew she was pushing herself hard.

Married to James, 47, who works in prison health care, with twin boys, aged 11, her aim, as she puts it, was to be ‘the best mother I could be’.

She got up at 6am to cook the boys scrambled eggs on toast, even on school days. ‘I wouldn’t let them have cereals because I worried about the sugar content.’

She would then start preparing their dinner. ‘I’d get something in the slow cooker,’ she says. Or she would peel potatoes for a roast. Because she always liked them to have a ‘proper cooked meal’. And this was all before she drove the boys to school, a round trip of about an hour.

She was also working flat out to meet a deadline. A writer of crime fiction, her debut novel, Sticks And Stones, a psychological thriller about how three women take revenge on an abusive man they’ve all been involved with, had been well received when it was published last year. ‘Cracking pace, plenty of twists and some well-judged dark humour,’ said one newspaper review.

And now she was rushing to finish her second, Safe House, about a woman who is not what she seems.

She was also saying yes to all sorts of publicity opportunities. Her diary was filled with personal appearances and talks in places as far from her as Hull and Scotland. She found such events stressful and worried about ‘looking stupid, saying the wrong thing, freezing, not being able to answer a question, that whole imposter syndrome’.

‘If I’m in a room of people, I will come across as confident and outgoing. What people don’t see is that I will then go home and it will take me three days to recover.’

Her idea of a good time was to be ‘in my pyjamas at home with the kids watching something on Netflix’.

Still, back then, she thought it was her duty to get out there —and so she kept saying ‘yes’.

‘I didn’t want to miss an opportunity, didn’t want to look back and think, oh, if only I’d pushed a bit harder.’

So, she said ‘yes’ to a talk to students doing an MA in publishing; ‘yes’ to a panel about violence against women in fiction. And worked through the exhaustion and signs her body was shutting down.

‘I had constant headaches, was bone tired and had terrible insomnia. I would go to bed early, but I’d wake up every hour.’ She cried on trains taking her away from her family in Derby and sat miserably in hotel rooms.

‘I decided that once I’d handed the book in I was going to give myself Fridays off, to lie on the sofa and binge-watch something, because I was feeling so rough. I thought, just keep going for a little bit longer and then I will rest.’

Things snowballed when her son was off school for six weeks with shingles and mumps.

‘So I am trying to be a ‘yes’ person, and I have one son at home, who is miserable, my other son’s still got to be taken to and from school and I am trying to meet my deadline. I could have said to my editor, “I am going to need an extra couple of months.” But I didn’t because I didn’t want to let them down.’

Looking back, she struggles to think herself back into the person who wouldn’t say ‘no’, who went as far as risking her health, because she always says ‘yes’.

‘My son went back to school on the Wednesday and I finished my book on the Thursday and I had a stroke on the Friday.’

We meet in a studio in London where I am struck by how well she looks: glossy blonde hair, joyful red lipstick, huge smile; any suggestion of frailty dismissed by a biker-style leather jacket and Karl Lagerfeld pumps.

‘I didn’t tell anybody about the stroke at first,’ she admits, ‘I thought that’s something older people have.’

Six months on she is much better, she says. But her mouth still has a slight droop and her memory is only recently restored to what it was.

‘I would get really frustrated because I couldn’t remember the words for things. The family made a joke about it, so I wouldn’t feel bad. Like, I couldn’t remember the word for the fridge, so I was calling it the “cold box”.They now call the fridge the “cold box”. The cooker is the “hot box”.’

In retrospect, there were warning signs. She remembers waking up that morning with ‘a blinding headache’ and a pain in her shoulder.

‘I thought it was a trapped nerve. I asked my husband to massage my shoulder but, as soon as he touched it, it was agony. Luckily, he was working from home, so he took the boys to school and I had a shower.

‘I stood for ages in the shower feeling terrible, woozy and really exhausted. Then I got out of the shower and looked in the mirror and my face had drooped to one side.’

 I didn’t tell anybody about the stroke at first. I thought that’s something older people have.

‘I’d read about strokes and thought, my voice isn’t too slurred, I can lift up my arms.

‘I thought, I haven’t had a stroke. My husband had come back and I sent him a text saying, “I love you.” He ran up the stairs, and went, “What’s wrong?” And then he looked at my face.’

We called 111. ‘I said I’m not having a stroke. I just need you to tell me everything is fine.’ After describing her symptoms, they said, “We’re sending an ambulance now.” I burst into tears when the paramedics arrived. My blood pressure was sky high and they rushed me into hospital.’

Jo had suffered a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) caused by a loss of blood flow to the brain. Known as a mini-stroke, the symptoms last a short time. These include facial weakness; drooping mouth; arm or leg weakness, speech difficulty, blurred vision and dizziness.

A TIA needs to be treated urgently because sometimes it is the precursor of a major stroke, either within a day or two, or in the months ahead. A TIA can potentially have catastrophic consequences.

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Jo says: ‘I just thought everybody was being lovely. I had my own team follow me around the hospital. It wasn’t until later I realised they were worried I was going to have another stroke.’

Back at home, she was given medication to reduce her blood pressure, follow-up tests and a regime of exercises, such as squeezing a ball to help get the feeling back in her right arm.

She describes the weeks after as filled with fear.

‘It really knocked my confidence. For quite a while, if I was going anywhere, I’d want my husband with me, because I was so worried it was going to happen again.’

So what caused it? She had none of the risk factors, such as a family history of strokes or diabetes. Her blood pressure was normal. She had it measured about three months before the stroke. She wasn’t overweight. Nor did she smoke, drink heavily, do drugs, or fall into the higher risk age group: 55 and over.

She says it could have been connected to her going back on the contraceptive pill after several years ‘to regulate my cycle’. Yet experts say the risk of the Pill causing a stroke is very low as long as your other risks are low.

‘Most probably, it was just stress,’ she says.

At 44, a stroke is unusual, yet more first-time strokes are now occurring at an earlier age compared to a decade ago, according to Public Health England. More than a third of strokes happen in middle-aged adults aged 40-49.

Experts aren’t sure why, but cite a rise in younger people with high blood pressure and high cholesterol as likely causes. Lifestyle is often to blame.

‘We know that for some people, stress can increase blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a risk factor for stroke,’ says Davinia Green, head of stroke prevention at the Stroke Association.

‘We know that it is important that you regularly monitor and get help to manage your blood pressure and reduce your risk of stroke and look at ways to reduce your stress levels.’

Jo says: ‘You suddenly think, had I brought it on myself? Had I let my family down, by pushing myself so much I ended up having a stroke?’

Jo was born in Cyprus where her father was in the Army, as an only child. The family moved back to the UK when she was six. They settled in the Midlands where her father joined the police and her mother worked for Rolls-Royce. Her parents were to separate 12 years later.

After graduating from Hull University with a degree in business studies, she worked as a grants officer for the National Lottery in Nottingham.

She met her husband there when she was 24. She says: ‘He was working for Sport England, and came to train us.’

They are polar opposites. ‘He is so even,’ she explains. ‘Excited is only a little bit up and depressed is only a little bit down. I am super-excited or incredibly crushed and depressed. He is a complete extrovert and does all the extrovert stuff for me.’

Jo had suffered health problems before. She had chronic fatigue syndrome in her late 20s, while working as a recruitment consultant and blames the job — ‘it was full on, but I loved it’ — and her mother developing cancer (something her mum still lives with).

She was also diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome in her early 20s, which meant getting pregnant was difficult.

Her twins were conceived via IVF when she was 33. Her devotion to her boys is partly just her approach but also ‘there is a bit of precious child syndrome,’ she says. ‘It took us nine years to have a family, including an ectopic pregnancy and a miscarriage.

‘There was a lot of not believing it was going to happen before I finally held them in my arms.’

She turned to writing when the twins started school and secured a publishing deal after winning the York Festival of Writing competition in 2016. One of Jo’s most attractive qualities is her enthusiasm for other writers.

For example, she is reading I Capture The Castle by Dodi Smith with her boys. ‘I love it!’ Another favourite author is Shonda Rhimes, whose memoir Year Of Yes resonated with Jo.

In the book, she said she was an introvert and described herself ‘hugging the walls’ at social events, and revealed how pushing herself out of her comfort zone and ‘saying yes’ had changed her life. It intensified Jo’s resolve to take chances and put herself out there.

‘She’s achieved so much, she’s such an amazing writer, you would never have guessed she was an introvert. So it made me feel, OK, I am not that strange. I read it, and it was a lightbulb moment. This is what I need to do. I need to be saying “yes” to wonderful opportunities that come up and try not to be so scared of them.’

Of course, it backfired. ‘The difference between Shonda and I is that she knows her limitations and she was kind to herself.’

Jo has now established a living pattern she is happy with. Quiet writing periods interspersed with time for herself and for family and friends. She works hard but isn’t as desperate to please or impress. Most important, she has learned to say no.

‘I now mainly do local events and instead of doing an event on my own, I do it with other people because I don’t want the pressure of it just being me.’

Her boys now only get a cooked breakfast on a Sunday. ‘The rest of the week they help themselves to toast or cereal and nobody cares. They don’t think I’m a terrible mother. They are perfectly happy if they have a fishfinger sandwich for tea.

‘I wanted to be the best wife, the best mum, the best writer, the best friend and, actually, I was having too high standards and wasn’t being the best at any of those things.

‘Now I say “yes” to looking after myself, rather than “yes” to the whole world and their needs. I am doing what’s right for me, rather than what’s right for anyone else.’

Safe House by Jo Jakeman (£12.99, Harvill Secker, and 99p as an ebook on Amazon in November).

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