This post has been sitting in my drafts for weeks.
It’s something I’ve been avoiding the way you’d avoid a bill you don’t want to pay, or a project that seems too daunting to start.
I’ve questioned whether it should be celebratory, or somber, or even shared at all.
Paraphrasing from Rebecca Rinaldi a bit, but if there’s anything I’ve come to respect more this past year, it’s rawness.
The ability for someone to be vulnerable and say exactly how they’re feeling good or bad. The world is so guarded and fearful of being wounded, fearful of confrontation. Openness and honesty are a few of the most beautiful and rare characteristics there are.
This post is a celebration because I’m approaching the nine month mark on a trip that I never planned to be more than a few weeks long.
That’s not by accident, and it’s not because I’m a budget travel wizard.
It’s because I’ve hustled to start two successful businesses- a digital consultancy and teaching operation, while working to pilot a third.
This post is also a bit somber, as I acknowledge it’s been just over a year since a day that was the catalyst to change everything I once knew as familiar.
A year ago, getting out of bed to shower was a task I found seriously difficult.
A year ago, I was averaging panic attacks daily. Often, multiple ones.
A year ago, I wasn’t sleeping much.
A year ago, I was drinking two bottles of wine at a casual pub night.
A year ago, I was cancelling plans left and right.
A year ago, my hair was falling out.
Truthfully, I don’t remember much about the day itself.
I’d finally made it to a workout class- something I’d been trying to do with some degree of regularity.
During the class, I found myself replaying moments from things that had happened that day. With hindsight, I was intensifying them far past the point of reason. But, of course, I didn’t understand that then.
At this point, panic attacks were a near daily occurrence.
But, what made this day so profound, if you will, was that it was when I experienced a panic attack so bad I thought I was dying- in the midst of my workout class, and in a room surrounded by people.
I’ve blacked out most of the moment and hours that followed, but I remember feeling like I was choking, being unable to breathe, and so dizzy, I had to lie down. My heart was racing, I was freezing cold, and I felt completely out of control.
I’ll be forever grateful one of the coaches, who is also a close personal friend and also grapples with clinical anxiety, recognised what was happening and was able to help.
After things got a bit better and we decided I didn’t need emergency medical attention, he called Le, who came down from Edinburgh that night.
My memory of the next few days is hazy.
What I do recall clearly is calling a good friend and asking for a personal referral to one of London’s best psychiatrist and psychologist duos- family friends of his.
In the weeks that followed, things started to make sense, but didn’t necessarily get easier. A severe clinical anxiety disorder diagnosis didn’t phase me- I’d almost expected it.
Hearing the words ‘major grade depression’ floored me.
I had a mental picture of what I thought depression was, and I simply couldn’t believe ‘people like me’ could have it.
What exactly did I have to be depressed about?, I wondered.
I was living in London, working in a field (digital advertising) I liked, and had everything I thought I’d wanted.
How little I knew then.
But now, now I’m a treasure trove of information about depression and anxiety, and actively learning each week.
So often, I hear, ‘Oh I get a bit sad sometimes too’, or ‘I also worry about some things.’
My intent isn’t to downplay experiences or feelings because, no one knows what you’re experiencing but you.
But let’s be clear, clinical anxiety and depression are debilitating in every sense. They’re not casual, or fleeting emotions.
Paraphrasing from a Goop podcast, this point hit home with me on a recent road trip-
We need to recognise depression as lethal.
No one is arguing about how lethal cancer is anymore. There are trials and research and drugs and massive fundraising causes and ribbons.
But, depression is still majorly stigmatised. And, suicide rates are rising.
It’s not feeling a bit sad, or something you ‘snap out of’. If you’ve had depression, you know it lasts weeks, months, even years, and is paralysing.
We, as a society, need to start recognising it as lethal, because it absolutely is.
When you share a cancer diagnosis with close friends a family, the response is overwhelmed with support- how can I help? what do you need? how can I be there for you?
Depression, not so much.
There’s a lot of shame in depression.
A lot of misunderstanding.
And, generally, a lot of not knowing what to say, do, or how to help.
Matt Haig, one of my favourite authors on the subject, sums it up the joint experience of anxiety and depression well, saying-
Adding anxiety to depression is a bit like adding cocaine to alcohol.
It presses fast-forward on the whole experience.
If you have depression on its own, your mind sinks into a swamp and loses momentum, but with anxiety in the cocktail, the swamp is still a swamp but the swamp now has whirlpools in it.
The monsters that are there, in the muddy water, continually move like modified alligators at their highest speed.
You are continually on guard. You are on guard to the point of collapse every single moment.
The depression diagnosis surprised me because it simply didn’t occur to me that I could be depressed. I knew something was seriously wrong, but I wouldn’t have ever come to that conclusion on my own.
In the months to follow, I slowly started making changes. And, finally, in December, tiny cracks of light began to shine through.
I spent last New Year’s in Edinburgh with Le and a bunch of our friends. There’s a particular moment I’ll remember forever-
We were walking through the street party, and as I’ll Be There started playing, everyone simultaneously broke into dance.
Bopping around the street, sing screaming the lyrics, surrounded by people I loved, I was moved to tears.
Happy, joyous tears.
It was the first moment I could remember feeling an ease that reached beyond happiness in many years.
The feeling of knowing that things were going to be okay, that everything would work out just the way it should. That there was no need to worry or over-analyze- all I needed to do was be.
I think it’s important to acknowledge and share what happened then, what’s still happening now.
If any of the people I look to as mentors- or frankly, anyone else I look up to in the advertising industry- had been even a fraction as open as I’m being here, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me years to ask for help.
The anxiety disorder diagnosis didn’t surprise me because I knew I suffered from anxious tendencies.
But, I didn’t know how bad they were, or that there were things I could do not just to manage them, but actually retrain myself to think and act differently.
In advertising, and especially in New York, there’s a particular set of ‘guidelines’ just about everyone subscribes to without much thought.
Not staying at the office until late?
Not reading and responding to emails in off hours on your phone?
Not writing emails and working on presentations over the weekend?
Not checking in on emails, and possibly even taking a few conference calls, while on vacation?
Not firing off late night texts to colleagues, or scribbling down an endless to-do list for the next day?
Not thinking and rethinking an approach on your way into the office?
Then, you, are most definitely an anomaly in the industry.
At least, that’s been my experience, and the experience of just about everyone I know who works in advertising.
I don’t know a single person living in New York City, working in the ad world, that wouldn’t identify as ‘overly stressed out’ on a weekly basis.
What I do for a living was by no means the only contributor to my experience, but it certainly was a dominant factor.
I never set work boundaries for myself, and that’s my fault.
But, I’ve also never had a boss who served as an example of someone who successfully set boundaries for themself, their team, and were visibly praised for doing so within the company.
That last bit is important.
I’ve had bosses who’ve signed off in the evenings or completely checked out while on holiday, but I’ve never- not once- observed those actions heralded.
Since starting conversations on Instagram about burnout, anxiety and depression, I’ve been surprised by the amount of people who’ve messaged me to say thank you, or ask for help.
If you’re experiencing burnout, anxiety or any other mental health ailment- you need to know you’re not alone.
What you’re feeling is real and valid.
And, however you’re feeling isn’t because you ‘can’t handle it’.
That’s bullshit, and flat out untrue.
I’m working hard from Bali- arguably, harder than I ever worked in London or New York (without the insane office hours 😉 ) because I’m invested in what I’m building.
Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness.
It shows just how strong and self-aware you are.
I’m still making changes, still figuring things out.
Reading books about anxiety, depression and burnout helps.
Listening to podcasts, where others share their experiences helps.
Sound therapy helps.
Yin yoga helps.
Giving more helps.
Less screen time helps.
Connecting to the community I’m living in helps.
Turning off notifications helps.
Learning to ask for and accept help from others helps.
Limiting caffeine helps.
Giving up alcohol for stretches of weeks or months helps.
Eating better helps.
Talk therapy helped, a lot.
I’m grateful for all the help I’ve received.
I’m grateful for my privilege to have access to it.
And, I’m figuring out how to help others who are in less able positions.
The amount of money I’ve spent on therapy alone in the past year would disqualify a majority from getting the same help I’ve received.
It’s been over nine months since I can remember having a panic attack.
Migraines are a thing of the past.
I’m sleeping through the night.
I wake up grateful, every single fucking day.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but the macro vibe is good- really good.
Recently, a good friend and I had the following text exchange-
Him: It’ll be almost a year by the time I see you! I can’t believe London was that long ago.
Me: I don’t even feel like that was my life anymore. I feel so disconnected from it, it almost feels like an out of body experience. Like, I’m looking back and watching this person in so much pain. And now, I’m deciding which ecstatic dance class I want to go to my first week back in Bali.
Him: You’ve moved on. It’s a gift you’ve given yourself.
If you would have told me last October that I’d be writing this post from Sydney, while getting ready to head back work in Bali- I would have never believed you.
I don’t have much planned, aside from a few goals I’m tracking towards.
I’ve spent the past two months travelling Australia and New Zealand with one of my favourite humans.
I’m looking forward to finding my solo travel rhythm again in places I’m equal measures apprehensive and excited to visit (looking at you, India and Sri Lanka).
But, first, a return to Bali.
And then, only the universe knows.