I’d been feeling a bit lost for a few weeks. Maybe a few months even, I’m not too sure. A while, anyway. Not completely without purpose, but lacking a little… something. “Not feeling it” as they say. It’d been a time of introspection, not all of it particularly useful, coupled with a fair bit of time wishing I weren’t so introspective. It can all get quite meta when I’m thinking about how I feel. And how I feel about how I feel. You get the idea.
I get like that sometimes. It’s kind of exhausting, to be honest. I get into my own head and get stuck there for a bit. Outwardly I’m fine – perhaps a little skittish or distracted – but inside I’m spinning.
When I’ve been like this in the past, there’s always the internal monologue that just says I need to snap out of it. To follow the good old masculine trope and for fuck’s sake just MAN UP.
But of course, I know that bit of me doesn’t solve anything. Rejecting how I’m feeling, pretending it’s not real, or (even worse) beating myself up for even having these silly, selfish, weak things called emotions is a road I’ve been down before, and it’s always ended up at a dead end. [If you’re interested in one of those roads – perhaps the first dead end I found, actually – then you can find my story about my anxiety here.]
Unfortunately knowing all this in your more calm and more rational moments doesn’t necessarily help when you’re in the middle of it, because when you’re in the middle of the forest you can’t see the wood for the trees. And I was right in the middle of the forest.
Allow me to explain…
A long time ago I decided that if I was going to be leading people, in any way, big or small, I’d do that in a way that felt genuine and authentic to me. I’ve always known that the best way to bring people together was to try to connect with them – and to connect them to each other – with shared passion and values and purpose and all that good stuff. I don’t need to tell you that you only build trust through vulnerability, and that’s what I’ve done, for years.
This philosophy requires me to be emotionally open, genuinely caring, and empathetic not just to the individuals but to the group that individual is a part of too. If I’m not all of those things, all the time, then the connection doesn’t work in the same way. I’ve doubled down on vulnerability, time and again, because that’s what I believe in. There’s no question that it’s made my working life richer than I could have hoped for, but I can’t pretend there aren’t times when I’ve wished I could shut off the emotional side because it does take a hell of a lot of energy. You can’t reverse back out once you’ve started with an open, honest, vulnerable relationship because if you were to do so, the trust you’d built up would break into a thousand pieces, never to be put together in quite the same way again. Once you’re in, you’re in. And I’ve always been all in.
The result of that can be neatly summed up by this little gem from the visual artist Adam JK (you can learn more about him here if you like), who put it thus:
And that, mes amis, is the life of an ‘all-in’ leader, especially in the strange razor-edge world of running an advertising agency, where every success means people are working too hard and burning out and freaking out and you can see that they’re struggling and you wish you could do something… and every little failure means you might have to send someone home without a job. Someone you know, and care about. Someone you really, really like. Whose family you’ve met.
It’s always been personal for me. And the last couple of years only heightened that.
Authentic, vulnerable leadership is hard at the best of times, but leading through two years of global pandemic, where people’s expectations of their employer changed overnight and never changed back, has taken its toll on leaders the world over. I’m no exception to that. Overnight I felt responsible not just for the agency I run or the jobs of the people who work in that agency, but for the people themselves, too. We were the de facto community that people were missing. Work was, for many, the only human contact people had.
And so through two years of sustained growth in lockdown, I knew people were allowing their commute time to be subsumed by work, and working longer hours than ever. To help with that we were trying to hire people so quickly that there was no way we could be doing a decent job of embedding them into the group and setting them up for success. I could feel that we were cashing in all the “emotional currency” we’d been banking through the previous years.
Emotional currency is an idea I’ve talked about for a good few years now, and it’s simple enough – when things are going well and work feels good and morale is good and the mood is good then all that good stuff gets banked in people’s minds but more importantly in their hearts. The more the good continues, the more you bank. And then when things aren’t so good for a while for whatever reason, you have some good in the collective emotional bank which means you get some leeway – some time to get things good again. But here’s the rub – it’s not fair. You might have two years of good in the bank, but once you start withdrawing it’ll be gone in six months.
I could feel that the bank was getting empty. Not in the red, but not snow angels in the banknotes either.
And then as the shared experience of lockdown and Covid became smaller in the rearview mirror, everything happened. All at once.
Work got messy. The razor edge was sharp and painful. We were under pressure and I was out on a limb, fighting for what I thought was the right thing to do time and time again, holding on so tight that I couldn’t release, and in my own head so much that I started to question my instincts on things. And I’ve always trusted my instincts. Always.
Life got messy. An old friend took his own life, which rocked me in ways I still don’t really understand. Family members were in and out of hospital for operations which of course were always going to be fine but of course there’s always that bit of your mind which likes fucking with you in the middle of the night because WHAT IF..?
My head got messy. Losing sleep. Losing perspective. Losing myself.
It all came to a head on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday morning at the end of June. My wife told me that she was going away with my sons for a few days in the summer holidays and I’d be at home for about 10 days on my own. My reaction wasn’t “sounds great, I’ll sit around eating pizza in my pants and get the lads round to play poker”. It was “I’ll go fucking crazy here on my own”.
The way I’ve described it since is by using the analogy of holding a mental tray. You’ve always got a decent amount of stuff on your personal tray, and most of it you put on there yourself so it’s all balanced in a way that you can handle. But if you keep on putting more and more things on it, then eventually you’re going to struggle. And then if other people stick some stuff on it as well, and aren’t as careful balancing…
I just about managed to put the tray down before I dropped it. Just.
I spoke to my team at work and agreed that I’d take some time off in the summer.
Which I did. A month away. Time to get some more stuff in my toolbox. Started some coaching and some yoga and meditation. Started going to the gym, too.
I can’t say the return to work was gentle, though. If anything it was worse than before the break: intense and toxic and kind of disgusting really. If you ever want a case study on how not to handle the return to work of a leader who’s been suffering with their mental health, give me a shout.
When, like me, you’ve spent your entire adult life ‘showing up’ as self-confident and full of energy, it’s actually pretty easy to fake it. To turn it on and turn up and get through and get out. So I tried to be what I thought people needed me to be. No one needs a leader who can’t trust his instincts. Who can’t trust himself at all, really. I was so wrapped up in my own stuff that I couldn’t really be the support that people needed, but I couldn’t tell them either because that would be putting more on them and they were already covering for me. I thought I was doing okay because the time off had given me a chance to get my nose just above the flood waters so I could breathe, but I was still only one slip from going under again.
I had a panic attack one morning before going into the office. I called my wife and she talked me down and I went into M&S and got some fruit and went into our offices and up in the lift and sat down and didn’t say a word about it to anyone.
I couldn’t take more time away because people needed me. Or at least that’s what I thought. But looking back, I wasn’t completely there anyway. By the time I started getting cluster headaches [read about the delight of those here if you fancy it. TLDR – they are horrible] towards the end of the year I was just limping towards the alluring finish line where 2022 would finally be consigned to history as the shittiest year of my life. Beating the year my mum died takes some doing.
Lovely word, right? “But” makes everything that comes before it irrelevant. It turns the story.
But that was last year.
Yeah, I know that nothing magical actually happens at the end of December 31st, and that the whole idea of a “New Year” is just yet another construct that we’ve created – a story we’ve all decided to believe. But I needed to go with the romance of a new beginning. The turning of a page.
And as I sit here today, I do feel like I’ve turned the page.
Over the last six months since what I’ve euphemistically been referring to as my “little episode”, I’ve put a lot of time and energy into getting more things in my self-care toolbox that I can pick out as and when I need them. I’ve been going to the gym with a couple of friends who also could do with reshaping the dad bod [which considering I’ve been “Gym Free Since ’93” is quite a shift for me]. I’ve been doing a 1-2-1 yoga class every week since July. I’ve had some professional coaching which has helped me to get a better sense of my own values and what I need to be fulfilled. I’ve had a sprinkling of therapy along the way. Then just before the break in December, I learnt to meditate and now I’m doing that once or twice every day,. Last year I changed my meds and then this year got some advice and changed the dose which has helped. Hell, I even spent last weekend at a yoga retreat where as well as doing more yoga than I’ve ever done I also opened up to a load of complete strangers and chanted around a fire with a couple of shamen women for crying out loud [don’t worry I’m not converting – I just love a fire]. And perhaps above all, I’ve got my wife, and my two boys, and my dog, and the huge oak tree in the woods over the road.
I’m coming into this year feeling more centred and more solid than I have in a long time. Maybe ever.
At the same time, I’m also very conscious that all this is part of a journey and I can’t let myself be either complacent that somehow I’m magically “fixed” or concerned that “it’s only a matter of time before I crash again”. I just have to be whatever I am right now and be okay with that. I’m okay today. Tomorrow is tomorrow.
So why the hell am I telling you all this?
Well, there are a few reasons, actually.
The first one is then when I’m writing this, you’re not here. So I’m kind of talking to myself really – starting with the man in the mirror and asking him to change his ways [yes that is a Michael Jackson lyric – I couldn’t help mysefl and it’s lightened the mood a bit hasn’t it?]. It helps me to organise my thoughts, and as a result it’s kind of cathartic.
I’m also telling you because there’s a massive stigma around talking about mental health, especially in men, and if I can talk about it then at least I’m doing something to break down that stigma in some way. For me it’s just health -I’m not ashamed of my mental health problems any more than I’m ashamed of the fact that I need glasses or got diagnosed with gout at the age of 30 [a family disease for the Bartletts]. I take my pills for my brain at the same time as I take the ones for my liver. I take vitamins too. Sometimes I take something for allergies. It’s all the same. Talking breaks down barriers and stigmas and I have a lot of privileges in life so if I can’t talk openly about all this shit, who can?
If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, you may also have gathered that I’m a talker anyway, so this isn’t new news for a whole load of people. My immediate family know, and some of my extended family do too. A decent amount of the friends I’ve spoken to in the last 6 months know, because it would feel horribly inauthentic if they were to say “how have you been” and I were to say “yeah, fine thanks”, so I’ve tended to ditch the small talk and go for the big talk. And at work, I started off telling my immediate team, then thought it felt right to tell the whole agency about it because it’s real and I want them to know that it’s okay to not be okay. And then somehow I found myself in a really open and honest conversation with the new big boss in New York and I took a punt that he would get it and told him and he did get it and that felt good. So now a lot of people know I guess. Everyone, without exception, was kind and considerate and caring.
And now you know.
Which leads me to the last reason, which is actually all about you, dear reader
You see, the reason I overthink things and then write about it here is so that you can learn from my mistakes and avoid them (whilst, of course, making a whole set of completely different ones). Call it a friendly nudge, or wake-up call, or even a kind of non-specific remote intervention, but if you’re carrying your own tray and you’re wobbling, then please trust me, it’s not just going to magically fix itself. Yes, there may be light at the end of the tunnel but it’s no fun living in a tunnel on your own either and maybe, just maybe, a nudge around TIME TO TALK DAY might be the right time to maybe talk to someone about what you’re going through. It will help, I promise, and they will care, just like you would if the tables were turned. The truth is, they probably know already.
And on this day of all days, if you’re actually doing pretty well, actually, then you can make the world a better place by making a point of being emotionally available for the people around you who seem like they’re probably fine but actually might not be…
The colleague who always seems like they’re a step or two behind where they think they should be.
The family member who’s gone a bit quiet recently.
The friend who hasn’t made it the last few times you all got together.
Maybe they are fine, and you just have a nice chat and a catch-up and perhaps arrange a time to spend a bit of time together because it’s been too long, hasn’t it? But maybe they’re not, and you’re exactly the person they needed to talk to but just didn’t realise it. Either way, you get to talk to someone you care about.
Hey, don’t let me keep you. I’ve got a call to make anyway.