Last week Wednesday was World Mental Health Day. I watched, listened and learned but I didn’t speak because I felt it wasn’t really meant for successful, middle aged men like me. Sure, I thought, I feel down sometimes but big men like us don’t call it depression, we call it “feeling a bit down” and we “pull our socks up and get on with it.
But I was chatting to my wife this morning about how some people are allowed to talk about this stuff and others just carry on and hold tears behind the eyes. She said “yes, people probably see everything you achieve, on social media, and think your life is wonderful but I see the pressure you carry behind the scenes. I see you waking up at 4.30 in the morning.”
That’s interesting, I thought. I wonder if it would be helpful to the people who think I glide through life, picking up CBEs and Honorary Doctorates, building companies, making money, launching schools and giving inspirational talks, to know how a big, old chap like me feels behind the smile?
And I wonder if other successful middle aged executives ever feel the pressure too, or is it just me?!
The problem is that it immediately triggers a strong sense of Imposter Syndrome. Seriously, compared to others I don’t have problems. I was listening to an excellent edition of BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour on World Mental Health day, and two young guests were talking openly about their mental health challenges. If I had got involved in that conversation it would have been like being in a room of soldiers just back from the front talking about how they are coping with having lost limbs and me saying “yes, yes, and look at me, I hit my toe hard on a stone and it really hurts too.”
Perhaps folk like me who essentially live in a state of mild sadness, with occasional bursts of happiness, are sort of “high functioning depressives”, a bit like high functioning alcoholics. Perfectly able to carry on and do amazing things in real life but always carrying around a cloud that won’t quite go away. High functioning depressives - I was very pleased with myself for inventing a brand new phrase. Until I googled it and was surprised to find there is a whole industry of high functioning depressives out there! There are even checklists that you can use to see whether you fit the bill. Wow, who knew such a condition was even available?!
The problem is that the checklists look like pretty normal behaviour to me.
A persistent feeling of sadness? Well, of course! I assumed we all live under a persistent cloud of sadness, punctuated with occasional moment of happiness. You mean some of you people are actually constantly happy, like, all the time? Gosh, that must be exhausting. I’ve not known that feeling for a long, long time.
Difficulty experiencing joy? Well it depends. If others achieve something, I can really, really enjoy it. When Fulham FC scored that goal at Wembley at the end of last season that got them promoted back to the Premiership I SCREAMED WITH JOY LIKE A WILD MAN. But when I achieve stuff, I shrug my shoulders and think “oh well, that couldn’t have been such a big deal then. I supposed I’d better try to do something better” and so it goes on...and on…and on…
Messed up sleeping patterns? Hmmm, okay you got me there. Sleep at 1am. Or 3am. Or 9pm. Wake at 5am. Or 4am. Sometimes not bother sleeping at all, if I’ve got a lot of work on. It’s quite a thing to work all night and listen to the birds break the morning silence. It’s also quite tiring.
Constant self-doubt? That’s an odd one. I am REALLY good at the things I do well. I mean world class. I’ve shared the stage with Bill Gates in front of 2,000 people, for goodness sake, so I’m not going to kid myself that I doubt my abilities. On the other hand, someone asked me once why I do some of the things I do and I said, honestly, I think it’s because I’m afraid that the world might decide I’m not good enough so I’d better keep doing useful things just in case the world notices that I’m not adding enough value.
Lack of energy? Isn’t that due to not always sleeping enough? Yes, sometimes you wake up and see a mountain in front of you, but by sheer dint of will power you bound over it or drive a hole straight through the middle, don’t you? You would be amazing at how much will power I can bring to bear. Oh, I know what you’re thinking – coping mechanism, right? Damn you and your tricky insights. But that doesn’t stop me driving on and on relentlessly when 99.9% of the rest of you give up – energy or no energy.
To be honest, I’m not convinced I quite make the cut for this high functioning depressive thing though. I laugh way too much. I find life too funny. I exchange messages with my brother all day and we chuckle silently at things only we understand. Once I was sitting on the sofa reading a book and laughing so much that my daughter came rushing in to check if I was okay. So, I reckon I’m probably fine. But thanks for worrying anyway.
They even have a name for this high functioning stuff. Dysthymia, they call it, so I guess it’s a real thing. But I know what real, heavy duty depression looks like. I’ve visited that place and it’s a whole different ball game. When my brother died, I think I cried every day for six months. Every single day. Whilst travelling to work and staying away from home all week, building a company and chairing a couple of schools. That was a tough period, I’ll admit. I definitely nearly broke then. Nearly, but not quite. I dug deep, swam upwards and clawed my way back to the surface. I found a way. I looked for the beauty in life. Did I mention my fabled will power? I do not break. Never, ever.
But sometimes big, strong men do break, you know. I remember, around that same time, I bumped into an old colleague of mine. We were reminiscing about chaps we used to work with 15 years early. “What ever happened to old so and so? He was good. Rock solid. Calm under fire. The ultimate professional” I asked. He fell silent. “Sorry to tell you, Tom” he said “but he got up one day, put his suit on, said his goodbyes, then walked down to the tracks and stood in front of an express train”.
I was shocked. Really shaken. But I have to confess, I also sort of understood. The relentless pressure. Mountains of pressure that he must have been carrying, with no way out. No way to make it stop. All lifted and gone in a split second. No, I would never do that, but yes, I sort of understood.
So, next time you see a big, successful, super confident executive, just be open to the possibility that they might be struggling too. They won’t tell you. No hashtag for them. You won’t see it unless you look very closely. But I’ll tell you where to look. Not at the smile. Not at the swagger. Not the booming voice. Look behind the eyes. Behind the sad eyes.