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Please See Me

Please See Me

I haven’t written about mental health in a while, but today I feel compelled to. I have not been in a good head space for a long time and its negative effects are rearing their head everywhere I turn.

First, for those of you lucky enough not to suffer from depression, I am going to share what an average day feels like to me.

I begin each morning with my first round of negative self-talk. Before I even get out of bed, I have told myself I have nothing to offer the world, my work or my children so I ask myself, “Why get out of bed today?” I am usually exhausted because I didn’t sleep. But I have to get the kids ready for school, so I wipe away the tears and fears and face the world scared from minute one each day.

As I get ready for work, I feel empty.

For 30 years work empowered me. It gave me a sense of self-worth, an identity that allowed me to lead and partner with colleagues, clients, and associates to make a positive impact. Sure, I work in media/advertising, and I wasn’t performing brain surgery, but I knew I was good at my job. I knew I helped others grow personally and professionally. I helped the best businesses in the world grow and transform (P&G, Microsoft, Yahoo, Activision, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, Walmart and many more). I was considered an innovator and someone who could see around corners to mitigate risk and drive towards a greater tomorrow. I was fulfilled. That was a long time ago.

But the first ugly thing that depression does is it rapes you of self-confidence and the spiral down from there is fast and furious. So, as I log on to my computer every workday I feel not only like an imposter (I could probably fake my way through that emotion), but more devasting, I feel like my existence is in friction with the world around me. Work is a people first business. And when you feel like the world is against you (even when it’s just in your own head), you perform badly. So, every day I underperform (whether literally or figuratively). And whether I have done anything positive or not, I end the day feeling like a failure. I have not lived up to my own expectations at work for years.

Evenings only bring more doubts. I sit in a dark space and allow dark thoughts to create the drama I use to get from watching entertainment programming. I cannot watch TV anymore because I cannot concentrate on the external. I live inside my head. All day. Everyday. I have a constant running drama in my own head; I am the tragic anti-hero trying to detangle myself from the web of life.

As evening turns to night, I recount my daily failures. At some point around 2am, I move from my couch into my bed and stare at the crystal chandelier over my bed trying to follow the rays of light that bounce off of it. I contemplate following a single ray of light begging for it take me to a place where I feel calm. For a moment. That is what I strive for – moments of calm where my ruminations stop and for a short time I feel buoyant and free.

I have been in deep therapy for years and have all of the DBT and CBT skills including mediation, mindfulness, radical acceptance, TIPP, self-soothing and others that are supposed to help me through these dark and troubling moments. For reference, CBT focuses on helping people change unhelpful thought patterns. DBT takes those CBT ideas or challenging unhelpful thought patterns, but also adds additional elements like mindfulness, acceptance and distress tolerance, and interpersonal skills to give you more tools for dealing with hard situations. Dialectical (the D is DBT) means holding two opposites ideas at once – like change and acceptance – and building a bridge to the mindset of freedom we all long for.

I am sharing my struggles because I want others to know what depression looks like – too often it is invisible and the depressed suffer alone. And the one sure way to remain in depression is to remain isolated and alone.

So, whether it’s in your personal life or your work life – go beyond the superficial, “How are doing”” when you want to engage with someone on a personal level. I know, even with my closest friends who know I am depressed, I often try to shrug the first inquiry or two to their platitude with a platitude of my own, “I ‘m good.”

Depression has layers, and like the layers of an onion, with each layer you peel back with a person who is stressed and depressed, the tears get more intense and more silent. It takes true compassion and empathy to be friends or colleagues with someone who is depressed. Stay connected, even when they push away.
The harder question for me is how to deal with depression in the workplace. Talking about feelings has been taboo in the professional world since the beginning of time. I think we are getting better at it – but we still have a long way to go. I am not a mental health professional, but I am a professional who struggles with mental health issues. Here are three tips I would like to see instituted more frequently in the workplace:

1. When you recognize someone’s behavior is changing at work (work is not getting done, they have more outbursts, or become more isolated) reach out and ask if you can help. If you are uncomfortable doing it yourself, go to HR, they are professionals who may be better able to reach out to someone who is struggling
2. With the explosion of ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) in the workspace, there should be one around mental health. Even if people in your workplace aren’t personally struggling with mental health, odds are there is someone in everyone’s life who is struggling, and we all need a new language for how to talk about this.
3. Fight for mental health resources and expenses to be covered by employer-based health insurance. The only way our insurance industry will change is if employers fight for it – and I do not see this happening.

In my experience the best way to overcome depression is to shed light on it. Depression grows in isolation and darkness. And while there are a few plants and animals that can survive in low-light or dark conditions (the Chinese evergreen the snake plant, bats and owls), there are no plants or animals that can grow in complete darkness. Humans need light to grow and thrive. And when someone cannot turn to that light on for themselves, if you observe closely, in some way, every depressed person is asking for someone to help them turn on the light. One of my favorite songs is by Coldplay, a song about a friend trying to save a friend going through tough times. The chorus refrain is “Lights will guide you home, And ignite your bones, And I will try to fix you.”

Lean in. Show compassion. Be the light for someone in need.

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