On paper, Lawrence Wosskow (pictured) had it all. But like so many other men he was secretly suffering from anxiety
On paper, Lawrence Wosskow had it all. An entrepreneur and self-confessed ‘adrenaline junkie’, his goal was to retire at 40 to enjoy the fruits of a short but incredibly successful career. At 39, he achieved it.
He amassed a fortune through buying into companies, including Cafe Rouge — ‘I had all the money in the world,’ he says. ‘I had a wife — Julie — who I loved and who I’d been with for ever, fantastic friends and two amazing children, Hannah, then 15 and Toby, 14, who meant everything to me. On the face of it, life was perfect and I had everything I’d ever wanted.
‘Yet at the same time, it was turning into an unmitigated disaster because I felt so unwell.’
For Lawrence, now 54, suffers with anxiety. It might sound an unlikely issue for a successful businessman, but as he explains: ‘I’ll put through a $10 million deal without breaking a sweat. It’s the small things that keep me awake at night.’
It was during a trip to Peru with friends, just after he retired in 2003 aged 39, that he first realised something was seriously wrong. ‘One night I woke up with my heart racing so fast I couldn’t get my breath,’ he says.
At first Lawrence thought he might have altitude sickness but the symptoms persisted when he arrived back home in Sheffield a few days later. ‘I felt dizzy, my heart was fluttering, my brain was racing and I felt I couldn’t breathe,’ he says. ‘It was incredibly frightening.’
Lawrence’s GP ran blood tests and he had an electrocardiogram to check the heart’s rhythm, but the tests didn’t come up with anything conclusive.
Yet his heart palpitations and dizziness persisted on a daily basis. It took numerous visits to the GP over the next six months before Lawrence was eventually diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). It’s a surprisingly common problem — a review by the University of Cambridge in 2016 found that more than 8 million people in the UK have some form of anxiety disorder.
GAD typically causes a continuous feeling of unease and an overwhelming fear that something bad is about to happen, as well as physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and dizziness.
‘We are hardwired to experience anxiety as a normal response to dangerous and difficult situations,’ says Dr Kate Lovett, a consultant psychiatrist at Devon Partnership NHS Trust and dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
‘However, for some people, feelings of anxiety can get in the way of their day-to-day lives. That’s when it becomes a problem,’ she says. ‘They describe worrying about multiple situations constantly which is exhausting and debilitating.
‘It affects their sleep and appetite and often goes hand in hand with depression. Sufferers often experience butterflies or a knot in their stomach. Some people develop nausea and diarrhoea, as well as breathlessness, an increase in heart rate and pins and needles.’ Sometimes the symptoms are so severe they can leave people in fear for their life.
General Anxiety Disorder typically causes a continuous feeling of unease and an overwhelming fear that something bad is about to happen, as well as physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and dizziness
‘People who are anxious very often think: “I’m going to have a heart attack.” The fact is, nobody has ever died of a panic attack,’ says Dr Lovett.
Lawrence describes his panic attacks as frightening and debilitating, and says they last anything from ten minutes to half an hour. ‘I’d wake in the night with my heart pounding, followed by an urgent need to go to the toilet,’ he says.
‘Sometimes the attack would pass but I must have asked Julie to drive me to A&E at least a dozen times because I became so breathless and frightened I was convinced I was about to have a heart attack.
‘We had no idea what was happening and Julie was very worried. But when doctors tested my heart, they said there was nothing wrong with it — I was suffering from anxiety.’
What causes anxiety is not fully understood. It’s believed to be at least partly genetic. If you have a close relative with an anxiety disorder, you are five times more likely to have anxiety yourself. A history of stressful or traumatic experiences in childhood are also important factors.
Lawrence believes his has a genetic basis — his mother suffered from anxiety and depression — but he also experienced some traumatic events as a child.
‘After my parents divorced Mum tried to kill herself a couple of times,’ he says. ‘I was ten and 11. Both times, I found her and had to call an ambulance. I think I buried all those difficult feelings for years and years, repressing my feelings with a lunatic work schedule.’
Lawrence now thinks he had anxiety from a young age — he recalls feeling dizzy and having heart palpitations even in his 20s. ‘But when you’re running at 100mph, you never stop to think that your body is trying to tell you something,’ he says.
‘When I bought into the Cafe Rouge restaurant chain aged 27, I worked all the hours God sent, opening as many restaurants as I could in a ludicrously short time.
‘And when I wasn’t working, I was doing something crazy: racing cars, competing in triathlons. As soon as I stopped work, it felt as though the adrenaline constantly flowing through me had nowhere to go.’
Lawrence describes his panic attacks as frightening and debilitating, and says they last anything from ten minutes to half an hour. ‘I’d wake in the night with my heart pounding, followed by an urgent need to go to the toilet’ (Stock image)
Nearly three years after he retired he bought the ailing roadside restaurant chain Little Chef for £48 million. ‘Little Chef saved me as I was so fed up doing nothing, but it also nearly killed me,’ Lawrence says. He believes the stress contributed to a near-fatal heart attack in June 2006, at the age of 43, while he was in Germany watching the World Cup quarter-final.
During the match, he had persistent chest pains that radiated down his left arm. He flew back to the UK soon after and went straight to hospital, where an electrocardiogram and blood tests revealed he’d had a heart attack.
Lawrence has always been convinced his heart attack was related to his anxiety, although none of his doctors would confirm this. ‘But knowing my own body, I feel 100 per cent certain it was stress and anxiety that caused it.’
In 2007, Lawrence, who was then living in the U.S., went to a cardiologist to try to find out why a fit man, who had never smoked and had no family history of heart problems, should have a heart attack.
As Lawrence recalls: ‘The cardiologist said my problems were in my head rather than my body. He sent me to see a psychiatrist who, as well as giving me a prescription for the antidepressant sertraline to help with the anxiety, advised me to find something to keep myself busy as my mind was too active to do nothing.’
Lawrence phoned a colleague in England who suggested a plan to revamp Harrogate’s town centre, creating bars and nightclubs. ‘I was dealing with skilled people thousands of miles away, so I knew it wouldn’t be too stressful,’ he says.
Lawrence now takes ramipril to treat high blood pressure and congestive heart failure, Crestor, a statin used to lower cholesterol, and aspirin to reduce the risk of blood clots. He still describes himself as ‘a worrier’ who gets especially concerned about things he can’t control. ‘I’ll toss and turn if I have a flight or a meeting the next day,’ he explains.
He now lives in the Bahamas and makes a point of discussing anxiety with other successful men. ‘One out of three men aged between 30 and 60 will tell me they are suffering the same symptoms as me, but are too embarrassed to do anything about it,’ he says.
‘They usually hide behind work and don’t tell anyone. We need to be much more open about anxiety rather than brushing it under the carpet and hoping it will go away.
‘It’s not something to be ashamed of, it’s part of who you are. It will always be a subject very close to my heart.’
Lawrence’s memoir Little Chef: The Heart Of The Deal is out now (littlechefmemoir.com, £13.85 paperback, ebook £4.99).