How story telling helped me get back to work and cope with my brain disorder

By Will De Nardo

Sharon Richards, from Sale, worked for most of her life as a consultant clinical psychologist in the NHS.

Sharon also trained as organisational psychologist, a job which she loved and that saw work all over the world.

But just over a decade ago Sharon’s world was turned upside down when a brain condition, that would not be diagnosed till nearly 11 years later, meant her lifestyle and career would have to change dramatically.

One day in 2000, Sharon started to feel strange symptoms that she’d never experienced before, she started to suffer from an unknown brain disorder which would eventually lead her to the most unlikely of career paths.

Despite having three degrees to her name and a long and successful career in health care, Sharon gradually lost the ability to read and write.

Over time Sharon’s condition worsened and became so severe that she’d often lose hours of her day with no recollection what so ever, meaning she was forced to leave her job.

Sharon even had problems recognising family members, including husband Bill, now of 25 years.

The 53-year-old mother of two said: “I just lost the ability to recognise faces. I only had one son at the time, but when I’d go and pick him up from nursery I’d have to recognise him by the clothes he was wearing.

“I’d go into the nursery and just hope to God he hadn’t dirtied his clothes and they’d had to change him, if they had I just wouldn’t have known which one was mine.”

Doctors told Sharon she had ‘acquired dyslexia’, a form of the disorder that can affect people who have had no previous problems with reading and writing, usually after a brain injury.

Sharon was told that her posture, which she described as similar to an old lady’s, may have caused damage to her brain.

“My brain just stopped working, I couldn’t even speak properly. It took me two years to learn to read again and I still have problems,” said Sharon.

“I’m still to this day having physiotherapy, eventually they got me straightened up and now I don’t look like Quasimodo,” she joked.

Sharon’s recovery was a slow process but 2002 she took her two children to the Waterside Theatre in Sale where she met a story teller who would change her life forever.

Sharon found that despite all the problems she’d been having with her memory she was able to remember and recite the stories she heard that day.

“It was strange, I could remember every word of every story, I thought there was something intriguing here, even with a damaged brain there was something about stories that stuck in my head,” said Sharon.

Now she had started to recover and eager to get back to work, Sharon decided she wanted to find out what it was about stories that intrigued people to hear more.

This coincided with Sharon discovering Buddhism. The same year she attended a Buddhist centre in Manchester for help with her neurological symptoms.

Through this Sharon became a Nichiren Buddhist and later that year met her business partner and fellow Buddhist, Amanda Kinané, who had also been forced to leave her job after the death of her daughter.

Together Sharon and Amanda set up Success Stories at Work, a North West based company that specialises in teaching business and leadership skills through the art of story telling.

“All great leaders are great story tellers,” explained Sharon.

“We teach people to engage those they are talking to on an emotional level, away from the logical, by the book methods you typically get taught in these sorts of situations.

“It’s so simple that people often dismiss it, but the power of a story can change the world.”

So far Sharon and Amanda have helped a number of businesses achieve their potential using ground-breaking communication techniques that overlook the traditional management plans and marketing strategies.

“There isn’t a person on this earth who isn’t a natural born hardwired story teller,” explained Sharon.

“It doesn’t take long, because we’re not trying to train people to do things they can’t already do, we’re pushing at an open door.”

Sharon explained that these techniques are not as unusual as they sound and that companies in America like NASA and IBM are starting to use story telling techniques within their businesses.

As well as teaching business seminars, the couple also use the company to do a great amount of charity work.

They are currently making a series of videos telling the stories of individuals that live on the Offerton, a fragmented housing estate near Stockport, that is renowned for trouble.

Sharon explained they were trying to change the atmosphere on the estate by using the stories to make members of the community aware that the majority that live there are good people, whose stories are tarnished by a minority of wrong doers.

“We’re all about changing the world through stories,” said Sharon.

Despite suffering with these symptoms for over 11 years, doctors have only just got to the bottom of what caused Sharon’s brain to behave the way it does.

Earlier this year she was diagnosed with transformed migraine, which means she constantly has a migraine, all the time.

“It turns I’ve had a migraine non-stop for 11 years,” said Sharon. “But because I don’t get any pain, they weren’t able to diagnose me.”

To this day Sharon still suffers from flare-ups of her symptoms, explaining that she still occasionally struggles to read and even talk.

“If it gets really bad it feels like I’m drunk and I can only read when lying down” said Sharon, “but my family and everyone I work with are very understanding and supportive.”

Sharon explained that the story telling has been a lifesaver for her, not only in the sense that it has enabled her to get back to work, but also to understand and cope with the symptoms she suffers from.

“It was quite strange,” she said, “I could barley read, write and speak and I couldn’t remember things, so you would think that story telling would be the last thing I’d be any good at, let alone develop into a career.

“I’ve found what I was meant to do, I’m so much happier now, even with all these strange things going on in my head.”

Although Sharon is far from recovered, she is hopeful that now her disorder has been diagnosed things will start to get better.

“I’m on a winning streak now,” she said. “I’ve always been very optimistic, it’s onwards and upwards from now on.”

For more information about Success Stories at Work and Sharon’s story visit:

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