Williams has been a news anchor and presenter for the BBC and Channel 5 during a broadcasting career of more than 35 years. In March, after 15 years of mental health training, she became a senior psychological therapist with the Centre for Anxiety, Stress and Trauma. Williams also presents the Radio 4 podcast Life Changing. She lives in Kent with her husband, Paul Woolwich, who works for an environmental charity. They have five children, aged between 30 and 13.
I get up at 6am, sometimes 5am, ingrained from my days on the BBC Breakfast sofa. I have a cup of tea, stretch for 20 minutes and then spend an hour getting the youngest kids to school. After a walk with our dog, Molly, I have a couple of eggs with oatcakes and Marmite and endless pints of tea, like Tony Benn.
I spent three years working with cancer patients and trauma survivors in the morning [while completinga doctorate in counselling psychology] and presenting the Channel 5 news in the afternoon. My supervisor thought I was absorbing too much, but putting on the face and the news presenter clothes actually helped close the door on the trauma.
A lot of skill is involved in making you look television-friendly — a great make-up artist, good hair and lighting. Without all that, I look like a 57-year-old mum-of-five. In 500 hours plus of one-on-one therapy I’ve been recognised by patients on only two occasions.
I’ve had some private clients, but my focus is now an NHS role where I’ll be providing psychological support to frontline staff but also helping to train emergency services so they understand what trauma looks like.
I felt a lot of complex feelings, including guilt, as a journalist — seeing people in the depths of despair, using their storiesto bear witness, but not being able to help. You take on their suffering long after you’ve left a disaster zone and if you don’t process it, it can turn around and bite you. Working in that area, you need not just physical but mental protection. I’m now delivering trauma awareness training to journalists coming back from Ukraine — I call it an emotional flak jacket.
I always stop for lunch, even if I feel I haven’t got time. My late dad was a journalist [on Fleet Street and BBC radio] and, growing up, our lives were governed by deadlines. Sunday lunch came out of the oven as the pips sounded on Radio 4. If the phone rang we knew we’d lost him. He said: “Don’t be a journalist and, whatever you do, don’t work for the BBC.” I did both! I was a good girl but it was my one act of defiance. Working in the NHS feels like a homage to my mum, who was a nurse.
Earlier this year I wrotean academic paper on how mindfulness affects people living with cancer. I know from my own experience of it that it’s easy to get into a pattern of brooding [Williams underwent a double mastectomy in 2015]. It’s hard to accept kindness from others and even harder to show it to ourselves.
My children have needed quite intense mothering for 30 years. I used to think that looking after myself was selfish: I’ve got quite a strong self-critical voice that drives me, but it can also dominate. Psychology has taught me to have more self-compassion. And I’ve learnt to be more flexible, otherwise the tough times can break you.
The people we hear from on Life Changing have that psychological flexibility. Their experiences may seem tragic and horrific but, in each case, they have something to teach us about resilience.
The kids come home at 5pm. I ask if they have homework and they always say no. Then they disappear to their rooms to chat with the mates they’ve just left. Even when I was presenting the evening news, we’d always eat together as a family and still do.
As soon as I hit the sofa, my eyes start closing. We’ll try to watch something but the last thing I hear is Paul saying, “I don’t know why we bother.” By 9.30pm it’s all over and I’m snoring gently.
Life Changing is on Radio 4 on Wednesdays at 9am