True Leadership

We talk about mental illness more than we used to because we need to: half a million Canadians missed work today due to mental health issues costing the Canadian economy $51 billion annually. 1 in 5 Canadians will struggle with their mental health in their lifetime. I’m one of them.

I have Bipolar II Disorder, a disease which causes my brain to alternate unpredictably between two dramatically different states: hypomania and clinical depression. For those who haven’t experienced this cycle, it may seem I swing back and forth between “happy” and “sad”. But it’s far more complex than that – happy and sad are to hypomania and depression what Nickelback and Justin Bieber are to The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. It’s swinging between happy and sad if those two emotions were on steroids.

Hypomania is a state of elevated mood, one that leads to you being tremendously creative, energetic, talkative, and confident. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had benefited from these elevated moods over the years. I could go four or five months at a time on 60-90 minutes of sleep a night earning elite grades, creating innovative projects, and putting in 80-hour work weeks that were more productive than others could manage in a month.

It comes with a cost, however: disorganized and racing thoughts, a high level of anxiety in situations in which it isn’t called for and an unhealthy lowering of inhibitions in social and work situations. When hypomanic, I take risks I shouldn’t, keep talking when I know I need to just shut up, ignore social cues, am overwhelmed with more ideas than I can handle, and am driven almost entirely on emotion. When it gets out of control, I’m often completely oblivious to my altered behaviour.

When it comes to hypomania, perhaps the genius comedian, Steven, Wright captured it best:

“You know when you’re sitting on a chair and you lean back so you’re just on two legs then you lean too far and you almost fall over but at the last second you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time.”

On the other end of the spectrum there’s depression: the more common state in Bipolar II Disorder. Depression is much more than sadness. Depression is an absence – a black hole into which you can throw everything that brings you fulfillment in a desperate attempt to fill it only to feel emptier than before. Eventually you lack the desire to even try. Depression is like walking through a spider web of despair: it wraps itself around you as a terrible feeling and even though you know it’s not actually a part of you, it seems to melt right in.

The true terror of bipolar disorder is that it can make the brain forget its responsibility to protect us. Instead, our brains decide we are the enemy and attack. I can’t explain what it’s like to battle an enemy that knows you better than you know yourself, that knows your biggest weaknesses, exactly what attacks will do the most damage and when to launch them, and can always be a step ahead your defences. It’s an enemy that can turn off optimism entirely, controlling your ability to believe in yourself and to generate hope. To wage that battle year after year can be so terrifying, intimidating, and exhausting that it can begin to make sense not to fight any more.

That was my reality for 29 years and I assumed it was just the way things were. I told myself it was a trade-off: I could get the marks, jobs and money other people wanted but the universe took something from me to balance out those gifts: the ability to feel peace and happiness.

In 2007, I realized that asking for help was not weakness, it was strength. Extraordinary friends showed me my illness could not be allowed to take my life from me. I sought and received treatment, and in the years since have been blessed with an incredible life. Yet, I told no one outside of my close circle of friends about my diagnosis for almost three years.

I lived and worked in the world of higher education: a place where intellectual weakness of any kind is stigmatized. Faced with a culture of “only the intellectually strong survive”, I stayed quiet about my illness, just like thousands of students, staff, and faculty do each year.

At a conference in 2010, I watched in awe as a speaker openly discussed his struggles with depression. Connecting backstage, we shared stories of our common challenges and revelled in the fact we had found someone else who could understand the paradox of being paid to help people live better lives while feeling like our own lives were out of control. As we entered the second hour of our conversation, I remember saying, “I just wish there were more people out there who would talk about mental illness openly the way we’re talking about it now.”

At that moment, the stage manager for the event walked over, handed me a microphone and said, “Alright Drew, you’re on next.” Sometimes the universe isn’t so subtle with its messages.

We try to impress people by telling them something they don’t know, but we can empower people by letting them know they’re not alone. Making someone say, “Oh wow, I didn’t know that!” impresses them. Making them say, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one!” frees them. I returned to my campus determined to let others know they weren’t the only one, and began telling those close to me that I was finally going to start speaking about my struggles with my mental health.

I was astonished at how many people encouraged me to keep my illness to myself; and these weren’t closed-minded people – they were individuals I know who cared deeply about me and had my best interests at heart.

“Look, Drew,” said one close friend, “your career is really beginning to take off. I wouldn’t mess with that right now. You can speak about leadership or you can speak about having a mental illness, but you can’t do both. It will torpedo your credibility with a lot of people. It sucks, but it’s the way it is right now.”

A superior at the university put it more clearly: “We can’t have the leader of our Leadership Development Program telling people he’s mentally ill,” this individual said. “That’s just the reality we’re dealing with.”

“What if that’s the reality I want to change?” I asked.

“Look,” they replied, “it’s not our job to change reality. It’s our job to equip our students to deal with the reality they’re going to face.”

Bullshit. It is our job to change reality.

A fundamental part of leadership is identifying which realities need changing and taking steps to do just that. Facing this pushback however, I remained quiet until a student whom I cared deeply about told me she had been diagnosed with depression but was refusing to seek treatment.

“Why?” I asked her. “It could make your life so much better!”

“Because,” she snapped angrily, flinging herself back in the chair, “my parents would be devastated. They gave me everything – food, a house, love, lessons in everything I ever wanted. My life has been amazing, and now I tell them I’m depressed? It’s pathetic.”

She went on. “Besides, I’m in an incredibly competitive program. They say everything is confidential, but it’s all online now. This goes into my records and one day it’ll come back to bite me. Who’s going to hire someone who can’t even keep their crap together?”

As she spoke, I saw in her all fears that had kept me quiet about my own illness: the fear that I would seem weak, that I would be an embarrassment to the people who cared about me, that I would be making myself unemployable.

So, for the first time I told someone the full story of my life with bipolar. The ups and downs, the embarrassment, and the feelings that I couldn’t “keep my crap together.” I told her about my decision to seek help and the multiple ways my life had become better as a result.

When I was finished, she looked at me quietly before saying, “I didn’t know any of that.”

“Well,” I replied, “I don’t really advertise it.”

“See,” she shot back, “you’re ashamed, too. Why should I be willing to do something that you’re not?” It was like a punch in the stomach.

“I’ll tell you what,” I responded when I’d recovered, “you try what the doctor suggests, and if it doesn’t work, you try something else. You keep trying different things until something starts to work. If you agree to do that, I’ll start telling other people the story you just heard.”

She kept up her end of the bargain and 8 months later it was time for me to keep mine. I accepted an invitation to speak at a TEDx event at a Canadian university. When asked what they were looking for, they responded, “We think you’re great, just do whatever you’d like as long as it’s less than 18 minutes.” I decided I would share publicly, for the first time, the story of my experience with bipolar. Well, maybe I would. I could still hear those well-intentioned voices telling me not to do it and some days they were louder than others. About two weeks prior to the event, I decided to craft another talk just in case I changed my mind, something I did approximately a dozen times over the next two weeks. I honestly wanted to share my experiences; I knew it would make others say to themselves, “I thought I was the only one.”

I knew it would have impact, I knew it would take courage, I knew it would be empowering for some, cause growth for me, and was what would make me feel best about myself.

I also knew it might cost me. I had worked hard to get to where I was. Was it worth the risk? Not doing it that day didn’t mean I wasn’t ever going to do it, just that I was waiting until I was more established. I was postponing, not cancelling.

Standing backstage listening to my introduction, I chose to do the backup talk. It was a solid presentation and consistent with what anyone who had seen my previous work would be expecting. The MC wrapped up my introduction and I stepped out onto the stage.

Instantly I knew I was about to give the wrong talk. My mind told me, The man you want to be would tell the story you know needs telling.

I told my story publicly for the first time. For the first time I told a stranger (several hundred of them, actually) that “I planned to kill myself.” It was utterly terrifying.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, both in the room that day and in the years since. I’m blessed to receive a lot of positive feedback on my work, but the emails that hang on my fridge — the ones I read when I need to be reminded how lucky I am to do what I do—are the ones I receive after one of my talks on mental health. I’ve done a lot of things of which I’m ashamed, but I will always be tremendously proud of the fact I told the right story that day.

We still live in a world that equates mental illness with mental weakness, and when your career depends on people seeing your ideas as credible the pressure to remain quiet can be overwhelming. For years I succumbed to that pressure because I was afraid it would cost me what I loved, but when I spoke up I didn’t lose – I was taken higher by the support I received, and perhaps more so by the shame I finally threw off. No doubt you are remaining quiet about something because you fear it will make you look weak, that it will be an embarrassment to those who love you, or that it will make you unemployable. But pushing our truths out of the light only means they wait for us in the dark, and that we must continue facing them alone.

Asking for help is not weakness, it is strength. Accepting help is not weakness, it is strength, and having the courage to use your story to free others from their fear is the very definition of leadership.

The story is the basic unit of human understanding. Don’t be afraid to share yours.