Tuesday, 28 September 2021
A WOMAN from Henley who overcame depression, bulimia and a binge-drinking habit to become a successful businesswoman says she wants to help other people who have had similar experiences.
Emma-Jane Taylor also had to cope with being abandoned by her father and repeatedly sexually abused by a family friend as a child.
Now she is an award-winning dance and fitness instructor, the founder of a new women’s networking group and has written a book about her experiences.
Ms Taylor, 46, said: “People would often look at me thinking I’ve got this wonderful life and I do, but I’ve worked so hard for it. Now I’m becoming much more known not just as a woman in business but for who I am and how I got here.”
She was speaking before the launch of Don’t Hold Back in which she tells how she overcame her early life trauma and the destructive habits she developed to cope with it.
The book also contains various exercises designed to help readers face their own worries and pursue their goals.
She came up with the idea of writing a book after being invited to present last year’s inaugural Thames Valley Venus Awards, which celebrate women in business.
For the first time in her life, she felt confident enough to talk about her past in front of a crowd of more than 300 people.
Ms Taylor, who has lived in Henley for 20 years and has a 10-year-old daughter, said: “That was a huge catapult forwards for me. I’d started writing my story about five years before but it was a case of writing and deleting, writing and deleting over and over again.
“This made me more confident in speaking out and I can’t tell you how many people have come forward to thank me and tell me they’ve had similar experiences.
“I couldn’t have written this 20 or even five years ago but I’m strong enough now to be certain that I’m doing the right thing. You can’t be half-hearted when you’re sharing something like this — it’s a tough process as it’s all or nothing.
“The book is based on my journey, my life and what I’ve gone through, from the moment I hit rock bottom to becoming a successful entrepreneur, although soon after I started writing, it became clear that it was a self-help book for other people.
“You can’t write a book like this without experience of the subject matter and I just want to give something back and help others to face their fears.”
Ms Taylor was born in Marlow, the youngster of three children, but her parents divorced when she was a toddler. She lived with her mother and stepfather, Jane and Alan Taylor, and says her early childhood was happy and she continued to see her father.
Her problems began when she nine and she was sexually abused while on a family holiday in Greece.
The perpetrator owned a restaurant where her family regularly ate and was trusted to look after her in the evenings.
After this incident, she suffered with anxiety and developed an obsession with cleanliness and going to the toilet regularly.
When she was 11, she opted to go to a secondary school in Maidenhead to be nearer her father but soon afterwards he told her that he wanted nothing to do with her until she was older. Apart from a few brief exchanges in her teenage years, they have not spoken since.
Ms Taylor’s mother and stepfather moved to Mill End, near Hambleden, where a friend of the family secretly lured her into a physical relationship when she was only 13.
This man took advantage of her vulnerability and would ply her with alcohol and drugs as well as behaving in a jealous and aggressive way towards her.
She initially consented because she had known and trusted him for some time but by the time she was 16 she realised that it was wrong and told him to leave her alone.
He eventually backed off but the trauma severely affected her mental health. She behaved badly in class, prompting a series of fruitless visits to the school psychologist who labelled her a “juvenile delinquent”.
She also drank heavily, smoked and periodically took laxatives or force herself to vomit after eating.
On her final day at the school, the headteacher told Emma-Jane that she was glad she was leaving.
Ms Taylor said: “I have fabulous parents and don’t blame them for what happened as there are some extremely devious and manipulative people out there.
“It became my norm to be treated badly by men and I pretty much went along with it. I felt miserable at school and was seen by teachers as the child that was never going to succeed in life — the failure.
“It wasn’t always like that but it all started when my father left and the abuse started. I was heavily distracted because if you’re drinking and taking drugs you’re bound to be.
“By the time I was referred to the psychologist, I was in such a bad way and never talked to anybody about what was going on. It was completely overwhelming and I wouldn’t have even known where to start.
“I did get some sympathy because they knew my dad had left but that just covered up the other things that were happening.
“I don’t think the sessions were a particularly serious investment on the school’s part — it was more of a tick-box exercise as I was so naughty that they had to either take action or expel me.
“Becoming a teenager is complicated at the best of times and when you’ve been through an intensely traumatic experience, you can remember highlights but there are chunks of my life that I don’t recall very well.
“I think teachers need better guidance on noticing and understanding pupils who are struggling instead of just putting them to one side or referring them to someone else. If someone had only asked whether I was okay or just recognised that there were some problems going on, perhaps things could have changed earlier.
“Education is crucial and when you get to your teenage years you’re dealing with hormones as well as practical problems.
“I was the needy kid who wanted to be loved and wanted by others and if children behave in certain ways there’s usually a reason behind it. Nobody would have behaved the way I did if they were happy.”
After school, Ms Taylor took up an apprenticeship in hairdressing but had to leave when she developed dermatitis. She then had a series of temporary jobs from bar and secretarial work to being a personal assistant and a sales representative.
She began to realise she needed to change her life when she told a male friend that she wanted to be a professional dancer and he replied: “That’ll never happen because you’re just a drinker who likes to party.”
She said: “That was a real ‘lightbulb moment’ and I started to think that I didn’t want people seeing me in that way. I was a hard worker who did well at everything I tried and recognised even then that I had a lot of drive. I was willing to do whatever was necessary to earn money and support myself but I had no focus.
“At the same time, however, I was a very heavy binge drinker. I could consistently achieve in my job but would drink a lot between Thursday and Sunday every week which put an enormous strain on me mentally, physically and emotionally.
“I had very strained relationships with people around me as a result. I was complicated and confused and where you’re forever fighting with yourself there’s bound to be trouble.
“I was like a rabbit in the headlights — I felt constantly under pressure, defensive and angry with everything, angry at the fact that people had hurt me.
“By then I was living back in Marlow and there was one occasion when I was about 23 and woke up after a night of partying in London with absolutely no memory of how I’d got home. I then realised something needed to change and I decided I was never going to drink again — and I haven’t.
“It had started as a way to distance myself from the abuse but in the end it just became easier to live like that. You can end up with people who you think are your friends and you just blend into the crowd because everyone else loves to drink and to party.
“Nobody would notice that anything was wrong but I would come home and cry my eyes out. I was becoming aware that this wasn’t the life I wanted. I never enjoyed it and it had only ever been a means to an end, a way of escaping from reality.
“I knew I had to step away from that life, to stop drinking and smoking and find a way of making my life worthwhile. I’ve never looked back and now want to help other people to do the same because there are so many people trapped in this sea of darkness.”
Ms Taylor left Marlow and cut her ties with friends who didn’t support her change of lifestyle.
She lived with friends in various places while having different types of therapy including hypnotherapy, reiki and acupuncture as well as undergoing weekly counselling.
Because the subject was so painful to talk about, she would take the rest of the day off work to recover from the lunchtime counselling
She said: “I’ve done the complete A to Z of therapy and still go to see a clairvoyant every now and then, not because I want to go back over my past but because I want hope for my future.
“There was a lot of crying and we began integrating reiki and herbal supplements to help calm me down.
“It was a relief to finally talk about it but it was also pretty terrifying because I’d kept it inside myself for such a long time and was suddenly putting it all out there.
“It took a while to develop trust in the professionals I was seeing. Although they’re obliged to remain confidential, I struggled to accept that at first and I even visited practitioners in Thame because I didn’t want to bump into anyone from Henley.”
By the time she was in her late twenties, her mental state had improved significantly and she was able to gradually reduce the frequency of her sessions. Her habit of restricting her food intake or making herself sick when she was under stress had also subsided.
Meanwhile, dancing had always been her “go-to” hobby as she had lessons in jazz, tap, modern, ballet and acrobatics from a young age.
From the age of about 10 to 15 she danced professionally, appearing in a West End production of Cinderella with Dennis Waterman and Rula Lenska as well as regional performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Her commitment lapsed when her troubles were at their worst in her late teens but she took it back up when she was 19 when she joined a cabaret dance troupe called Cameo.
The group, which was based in Henley, toured the UK performing variety dance shows.
She started teaching dance part-time when she was 24 and qualified as a personal trainer in order to supplement her income the following year. She gradually scaled back on her temping commitments as her classes grew until she was able to go full-time.
Ms Taylor said: “It was always a big part of my life and I think it helped me to keep my sanity because you can become someone else when you’re dancing or acting. It takes you away from yourself during difficult times.
“I don’t know if it was confidence that made me go for it — it’s more that I just knew this was something I loved.”
She launched the Stageworks performing arts school, which is still running, when she was 28.
It now employs 20 part-time instructors teaching children on six days a week while her personal training company Nutritiousworks has eight staff. She also employs three adminstrators and a personal assistant, allowing her to step back from the day-to-day running of the businesses.
Ms Taylor said: “I faced various business problems like learning how to put on productions but there were never any failures, just experiences which I learned from and improved upon. It grew organically because I had a dedicated team around me who were passionate about giving children an opportunity to perform.
“Our productions got bigger and better, which opened up new opportunities and built on our good name, which meant more and more people wanted to be a part of it.”
Her current focus is SHEnetWORKS, which she launched in January as she wanted to “empower” women. It meets twice a month at the Hotel du Vin in Henley and encourages women to support each other in both their personal and professional endeavours.
Ms Taylor said: “I’ve been networking all of my business life but it’s only in the past three or four years that I’ve really come to appreciate the power of collaboration.
“Years ago, I would have been too scared to share my business but now I’m confident that I can work with another dance school or fitness class because we can bounce ideas off each other and be strong together. The more you make good things happen, the better your life will be.
“When I was younger, I could never have imagined being a success. I was the girl who was going nowhere but now I’m confident that if it all fell apart tomorrow I would do something else with my life.”
She started writing the book before the start of the worldwide #MeToo” movement, in which women share their experiences of harassment, stalking and domestic or sexual abuse on social media, but it tied in well.
Ms Taylor said: “Social media has definitely made it easier for people to talk and be heard but there’s also a downside because if you’re depressed, you can look at other people’s profiles and photos and think they have a wonderful, perfect life when that’s not really the full picture. It’s also very easy for people to make nasty comments, which I’m strong enough to deal with but 10 years ago it would have put me back in therapy.
“Nowadays I’ll just delete anything cruel and block the person saying it but part of me would love to reach out to them because nobody who does that can be happy or emotionally stable.”
Ms Taylor said her daughter was a “massive inspiration” for her book and she is considering writing another on succeeding in business.
She said: “I want her to understand the importance of having your own voice and not being afraid to speak up.
“She sees how hard I work and is learning from that but we also have plenty of downtime together. On Saturday lunchtime my phone and emails are switched off and I just become her mum. She isn’t allowed to read my book until she’s 18 but by then I’m sure she’ll be old enough and wise enough to understand why I wrote it.
“I’ve already had several people thanking me for sharing my story, including people I don’t know.
“If I can help just one person then it will have been worth it.
“I was once asked on a BBC Three programme what my biggest regret is and although I don’t believe in regrets because everything is some kind of lesson, I wish I had spoken out sooner.
“If I could go back in time, I would remind my younger self that she’s done nothing wrong, remove her from the situation and tell her to go and speak to someone without being afraid.”
• Don’t Hold Back is published by Vision Maker Press and is available via Amazon.
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