Personal reflections

December 7, 2020

If life is a journey, then Lizzy Hodcroft knows all about the crossroads we must navigate along the way. An entrepreneur with North East start-up successes to her name, Lizzy’s path to the life she knows today has not been without its difficulties. Having fought anxiety over her appearance, and then seen a friend attempt suicide, Lizzy did the same, feeling she had failed to live up to others’ expectations. Over the next decade, Lizzy found herself in a damaging loop of bulimia, drug addiction and rehabilitation that only ended when she swapped America for the north east of England. Starting over again, Lizzy took small steps to rebuild her life before launching a condiment business that gave her renewed confidence and belief. Now, as co-founder and chief executive of Newcastle-based Discova, she is channelling her mental health and wellbeing experiences to help others chart a path to fulfilment. Here, she tells her story to Steven Hugill.

“I knew I still had a chance if I learned to live again.”

Lizzy Hodcroft was trapped in a vicious circle.

Underweight, dependent on drugs and in a difficult relationship, the former high school footballer, who had tussled with numerous opponents on the pitch, was now up against an altogether tougher adversary – herself.

“I’d abused my body for years,” she admits.

“I remember speaking to a friend and telling her I was so afraid because I believed my heart was ready to give up on me.

“It felt like I was at death’s door and I was only 24. I really scared myself.”

The background to Lizzy’s story began years earlier. The daughter of a Newcastle father and Texan mother – who had met while working on Norway’s oil and gas fields – she grew up in America’s Lone Star State, visiting the UK during summer and Christmas holidays.

However, after positive formative years, Lizzy gradually began to struggle with body dysmorphia, and then, in her teens, saw a close friend attempt suicide.

The latter played a part in Lizzy making an attempt on her own life aged just 14 and set off a chain reaction that shaped her mental health and wellbeing journey over the next decade.

“I constantly thought I was the fat, ugly kid, so I’d go around trying to tuck my tummy in,” reveals Lizzy, who was born in Scotland when her parents moved from Scandinavia to Aberdeen.

“Then, a few years later, I made a suicide attempt.

“A friend of mine had come to my window about two or three months earlier, telling me he was so sorry because he’d taken a whole bottle of Tylenol PM – a mix of paracetamol, aspirin and sleeping pills.

“He ran off into the night, but he was taken to hospital and survived.

“It really shook me up.

“I don’t know why, but I began thinking, ‘I need a bottle of that too’. So I bought one and hid it in my closet.

“Then, one evening, I had a trigger moment; I felt like I couldn’t be the person and daughter I was supposed to be anymore, and I overdosed.”

After receiving emergency treatment, Lizzy was transferred to a psychiatric hospital.

“The place had a real ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ feel about it,” she recalls.

“It was completely dark when I arrived, and I remember laying down on my bed and seeing that someone had written ‘I’m watching you’ on the ceiling.

“It was a really scary time.”

After a month of rehabilitation, Lizzy was allowed to go home.

However, with her dysmorphia returning, she began to suffer from an eating disorder and grew increasingly distant from her family.

“I struggled with bulimia and got kicked off my high school soccer team, and I was hanging out with new people too,” says Lizzy.

“I began to take drugs and ended up in hospital.

“In the States, the police show up and give you an ultimatum; go into rehabilitation or spend time in jail.

“I did about five months at a place in Utah, but when I got out, my mum told me she didn’t want me to go back to Texas because she was worried I’d end up in the wrong crowd again.”

Heeding the advice, Lizzy moved to England in April 2007 to live with her Fenham-born father.

At first, the change proved positive, with Lizzy enrolling in a course at Newcastle College to train as a chef.

However, following the conclusion of the next academic year, Lizzy returned to her home city of Arlington, a former railroad boomtown sandwiched between Dallas and Fort Worth.

But the move went wrong, and following a tumultuous few weeks, Lizzy, at just 24-years-old, was in real danger of seeing her life cut short.

“I fell into a wrong crowd again was taking drugs and was engaged to someone who was an incredibly bad influence,” she says.

Packing up her things again, Lizzy returned to Newcastle in December 2008.

“I’d always been very lucky in that my family had been there to help me through things, but now I had to do it on my own,” she says.

“It was hard, and I had to plan my days, even down to basic things like making sure I had breakfast and that I went for a walk or popped into Tesco to get food.”

As she adjusted to her new life, taking work in the hospitality sector, Lizzy found comfort through Texan cuisine, which, she says, was a “huge influence” on her mental health and wellbeing.

Melding skills from her chef course with the tastes of southern America, Lizzy launched The Sweet Beet condiment business.

“It was the first time I felt like I had something I could do for me,” says Lizzy, who complemented time on her commercial endeavour with shifts as restaurant duty manager at Newcastle’s Blackfriars Restaurant.

“It helped me learn about my strengths and weaknesses, provided motivation and put me alongside so many kind-hearted individuals.”

While growing the company, Lizzy appeared on BBC show Dragons’ Den in an attempt to secure financial backing to supercharge her start-up’s momentum.

What she received, however, was a far more valuable insight into her future.

“Some of them knew me better than myself,” laughs Lizzy.

“They said they thought I was going to succeed in business, but not with The Sweet Beet.

“They told me The Sweet Beet would be the vehicle that would take me to something else – and they were right.”

That next venture, so prophesised by Deborah Meaden and her contemporaries, was Discova.

Recently rebranded from its original Myndr name, the Newcastle-based company is focused on people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Co-founded by Lizzy in 2018 alongside Emma Reilly, after they met at a NatWest Business Accelerator programme event, the tech operator has created an application that offers a “revolutionary” approach to support.

Built around data science and insight from medical professionals, including clinical psychologists and therapists, alongside contributors’ personal experiences, it is, says chief executive Lizzy, a complete reversal of traditional one-size-fit-all methods.

With individuals and businesses of all dimensions able to subscribe to its offering, Lizzy says Discova is placing actionable solutions into individuals’ hands – while maintaining participant anonymity – helping them find ways of managing anxiety, stress, debt and personal development.

“When we met at the NatWest event, Emma and I talked about our past mental health issues and a while later she contacted me and asked if I would be interested in doing something,” reveals Lizzy.

“We are definitely approaching this with a real sense of empathy,” says Lizzy, who sold The Sweet Beet in 2019.

“I’m still changing as a person and we are all on a continuous journey of finding out who we are and what we believe in.

“We are not a replacement for a care service; we help people become more self-aware, we understand red flags and triggers, and we help with coping skills.”

The importance of Discova – which previously received Innovate UK funding and Ignite Accelerator programme support – was put into sharper focus earlier this year, when the Government introduced the national spring lockdown to shelter the UK population against COVID-19.

With everyday normality disappearing overnight, huge swathes of the country had to adjust to new living and working patterns, which, for many, impacted severely on their mental health and wellbeing.

What the scenario showed, says Lizzy – as did the re-introduction of a lockdown across England in November – was that we all need to take more time to acknowledge the importance of self- reflection.

“We are just not equipped to be in this kind of situation for so long.

“Right now, it is incredibly hard to plan for the future and get to grip with the change to our home lives because we are such creatures of habit.

“Working from home is fine, but even when you shut the top down on your computer, if someone emails and wants an answer to a question, you don’t have an excuse not to work on it.

“We don’t know where we’ll be in a week, a month or even six months, so it does become hard to feel like there is a reason to push forward,” continues Lizzy.

“All of the normal things that give us energy and drive, like family and hobbies, have been taken away from us.

“It basically forces us to question who we are – if I’m not the person who goes into the office and leads meetings face-to- face, who am I?

“For the first time, a lot of people are having to listen to their inner voice that is a very difficult thing to do.”

Such a situation, says Lizzy, means Discova has taken on even greater importance.

And, by using both her and Emma’s experiences – alongside feedback gained from trials with housing association Home Group over the summer – Lizzy says Discova is providing a real point of difference, with its unique, tailored provision standing out in the marketplace.

“People want more guidance and structure to the solutions they are trying to find – it isn’t enough to be told to ‘go for a walk’ if you are feeling slightly suicidal,” she says.

“It is about personalisation; we are trying to find the right balance, and have content from medical professionals and real-life stories, as well as things like video, audio and podcasts, to help us achieve that.

“We have created one of the most comprehensive care signposting lists online and have put together some carefully considered questions that direct people to the right areas of support.

“Our application recognises a person and how they might interact with the system, and we have worked hard to make sure what we offer isn’t patronising.”

And to help increase awareness of its work further, Lizzy and Emma – who previously founded the Bold & Brave clothing brand – plan to hold an event in Newcastle next year.

Called DiscovaCon, the seminar, scheduled to be hosted by Northumbria University in April, will hear from speakers including mental health campaigner and former footballer Clarke Carlisle.

“It will be one of the first of its type in the North East, and we’re hoping to roll it out across the UK,” says Lizzy.

“It will look at mental health in the current landscape, existing services and support, and how things can be improved.

“For Emma and I, it is now all about pushing out what we’re doing to more people.

“We want them to engage with us and, if it’s not for some of them, we’re ok with that – their feedback will be just as valuable to us.

“We’re putting a flag in the North East to show this area can be a leader when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.”

 

Lizzy Hodcroft, co-founder and chief executive of Discova
www.discovahealth.com
@discovahealth

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