What follows is perhaps the most difficult piece of communication I’ve ever written.
It’s difficult because of the hurt, guilt and shame I still feel despite my rational mind knowing these feelings are unwarranted and unhelpful.
It’s difficult because of the stigma attached to mental health issues; the automatic distance people put between themselves and someone they view as ‘unstable’; the sub-conscious caution with which somebody ‘prone to stress’ is handled, perhaps sidelined when “this deal’s really important – we’d better not use him. He might crack up.”
I’m generally perceived as the go-to guy. I’m the one the sales people would prefer to have on their team in any bid, the one they’d like to wheel out to present to customers on our various business solutions, because I know my stuff and I communicate well. Terms associated with me are ‘dependable’, ‘rock-solid’, ‘gets it done’, and ‘secret weapon’. I know this about myself, and I take pride in it. It’s a result of many years’ of putting others first, operating beyond the definition of my job role, and doing what needs to be done to win the deal, implement the solution, and keep everyone happy.
You may view this as arrogance, but this self-view is an essential part of my core self – self-belief, which feeds my willingness to take on new challenges even without knowing what I’m getting into, because I can always handle it.
Well it turns out, not so much…
Last week I was involved in a presentation skills course, which initially I was slightly annoyed (okay, really annoyed), about attending because I’ve had extensive training and experience in presenting, dating back to my Army days when during Officer training at Duntroon I received what I can only describe as first-class instruction on such things. Regardless it was mandatory, so I went along, thinking perhaps I might sneakily get some ‘real work’ done whilst being a wall-flower during the course.
Despite the obvious problem with the whole ‘wall-flower’ plan, for this is not a term with which I’m usually associated, I was quite rapidly drawn in to this course which was quite superb, and showed me that presenting to persuade is very different to presenting to instruct, which is what I learned at the Royal Military College.
During this course we did many ‘last minute’ presentations on inane (but often hilarious), topics, drawn randomly from ‘product’ and ‘audience’ suggestions written on cards by each of us, using the structure and approach we’d learnt to move our fictional audience to the next stage of the decision-making process. Two of my favourite combinations were ‘Automobiles to blind people’, and ‘Sex toys to Mormons’.
The final afternoon of this two-day course required us to re-present the first presentation we’d done right at the beginning of the course. I applied all the techniques we’d been shown, and felt I was ready to deliver a knock-out performance. Then I had a technical problem which prevented me from displaying my speaker notes on my screen, leaving me with very few, very sparse slides and throwing me completely.
Normally I’d not have struggled much. I’d have made some joke to show the audience I wasn’t bothered, and just ad-libbed my way through. This time I experienced a sudden rush of anxiety, my mind turned to fog, and I stammered my way through the next five minutes of hell, wanting to ‘vomit on my shoes’ (a term I’ve picked up from a wonderful person I’ll speak of shortly), until I sat down feeling crimson and humiliated.
I was furious with myself. I knew I was better than this, and I didn’t understand why I was so emotional. I’m usually great under pressure, focused in a crisis. I whinged about it for a while to my wife and a close friend, and moved on with life.
Or so I thought. Until yesterday. After a brief chat with my manager about my workload, which had breached ‘ridiculous’ to become ‘absurd’, mostly due to my own inability to say ‘no’, and desire to show my new team that in my new role I’ll be even MORE effective at helping them qualify, design and sell the solution, we set off in separate cars to a partnering meeting with a senior manager from another organisation.
Then I cracked. One moment I was driving along, thinking about the people I had to get back to, the proposals I had to write, the research I had to do, the templates I had to make; then I couldn’t breathe. My heart felt as though it wanted to explode out of my chest, I felt like vomiting, my ears began to ring and I gripped the steering wheel hard enough to leave impressions.
What the hell was happening? My rational mind was saying “Dude! Settle down! What have you got to be so upset about? You live in perhaps the best place and time in history, you have a beautiful family whom you can support. You have no right to feel like this!”
I turned my thoughts, whilst concentrating on breathing slow and deep, to my wife – and immediately started to cry. What the hell? I thought of my kids – more tears. Shit. SHIT. Thoughts of my family carried with them emotions which decimated my control. I was starting to panic. I thought of my friend, with whom I had discussed my presentation failure, and that calmed me a little. Okay, I’m okay, I just need to calm down. My mind flicked back to my family – and I started to hyperventilate. I felt as though I had a lump of cheese stuck in my throat. My heart continued to pound, and I could hear it in my head. My feet felt like they were burning. I started to sweat. This was not normal. I realised there was something seriously wrong.
I reached our destination, and my boss parked ahead of me. I was struggling to get myself under control, to be professional, to not be weak. He was walking towards me. I was trembling. My hands were visibly shaking, and I wasn’t sure I could talk because of that cheese stuck in my throat. I said “Man, I think there’s more to this than just my workload,” and my face contorted as I tried not to cry. I was walking into a meeting with senior management from a company we hoped to partner with, and I was about to become a blubbering mess.
My boss looked at me with concern, and his face changed. The look wasn’t horror – it was recognition. He said “Man, you’ll be okay. I’ve been there. Just relax.”
I pulled it together for the meeting – barely. Focussed on the task at hand I was okay, but on the way back to the car my mind flicked back to my to-do list and the breathing thing started again. I took a phone call from a colleague, and it wasn’t work related. It was about camping and my recommendations about camper trailers. This actually calmed me down significantly. My boss went on his way, and I headed to my next appointment – another one with a C-level manager whom I’d not met previously.
I arrived early. I sat in the car for forty minutes, wondering if I’d make it through the next meeting. I took another call, from a good friend who happens to represent one of our vendors, and I quickly fell apart. He saved me. He told me his story of struggling with a workload he willingly took on believing he could do it all, help everyone even when they wouldn’t help themselves. It landed him in hospital. He’d made changes. He suggested I’d better seriously consider doing the same, because this story doesn’t have a happy ending if you don’t.
I got through the next meeting. I survived, and nobody knew. But I was bearly hanging on. My heart was still racing, and I was in constant fight-or-flight mode, with adrenaline pumping through my body and unresolved tension. We’ve evolved this response as a defence mechanism, with helpful physiological effects such as evacuating our bowels and bladder so we can run away from predators faster, pumping additional blood to our arms and legs to assist in the physical exertion of fighting for our lives, or running away, focusing our attention and slowing our perception of time. These are very useful when your problem is a predator or enemy. They’re of no use whatsoever in modern society and your problem is workload. Unless you’re a lion tamer or bear handler, in which case maybe.
I had been speaking with another friend via Twitter throughout the week about other things, and she had coined the term ‘vomit on your shoes’ in describing how she’d felt during a failed presentation once. She DM’d me to ask if I was okay because she was worried about something I’d tweeted the day before, which evidentially she saw as a warning sign of stress. I didn’t want to burden her. I didn’t want her to think I was weak, unworthy, or a drama-queen. Regardless the dam broke, and she patiently listened, talked it through with me, and helped me understand that the feelings of guilt, shame and fear I was experiencing are understandable but undeserved, and that this can happen to anyone. None of us are immune, and those of us who take pride in our talents for enriching other people’s lives are perhaps even MORE in danger, because we find it so difficult to say “No,” when asked “I know you’re busy, but could you….?”
Without her help I don’t think I would have gone home. I don’t know what I would have done, but I felt so ashamed of my self-involvement, so unworthy of feeling stress when I’m so privileged compared to the rest of humanity, that I could barely function. I wanted to vomit on my shoes.
To my two friends who helped me, I could never adequately express my gratitude to you. I feel immensely lucky to have friends like you, who listened and advised and helped me understand I’m not a failure, this is more common than I would have thought, and we all need help sometimes. I will never forget what you did for me.
So too the other friends who responded to my comments on Twitter and Facebook – people who also recognised the warning signs and told me that I was not alone, they were there if I needed to talk, and they’ve been through it too – I thank you. Normalising this experience and helping me understand that so many of you have experienced the crushing effects of anxiety and severe stress, and that I should not try to deal with it alone, helped me enormously. It has been a humbling, amazing experience, reaffirming my faith in people and the importance of friends.
As for me, well I don’t have the answers yet. I know at least that I have a problem and I don’t have the necessary skills to deal with it myself. I have started the process of seeking assistance from a psychologist to help me find some coping mechanisms and learn how to recognise the warning signs of stress and anxiety. Stigma be damned – I can admit I need help, and a psychologist has the training to provide it.
I’ve spoken with my boss about it, and he has been supportive and understanding. He pointed out that the world will not end if I say “No.” He will work with me on redistributing some of my workload, especially the items which aren’t my job anyway. I know I’m in no danger professionally with him, as he’s without a doubt the most understanding and supporting manager I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He’s a friend too, and I value that highly.
If you’ve never had an anxiety attack, never felt like you were about to drown in sudden, unexpected emotional turmoil, please take this as a warning. I’m no Superman, and neither are you. Reach out to friends, family – even colleagues – whoever you have. Don’t try to struggle with this alone, because from the stories I’ve heard that leads down a road from which you can’t necessarily return.
Seek professional help. There’s no shame in it. Life doesn’t teach you all the skills you need to get by, and you wouldn’t give a second thought to seeking the assistance of a mechanic if your car broke, or a dentist if it were your tooth.
And if you’re an employer or manager, please consider this: Business planning considers the maintenance needs of production machines, IT systems and even building facilities, with planned, funded maintenance activities to keep them operating at efficiency, but assumes people will take care of their own maintenance with holidays or whatever. In many cases the sad reality is that workers either do not have the spare funds to take a real break, or put off leave until “things aren’t so busy”. Your people are the glue which holds your organisation together. They are your only appreciating asset, as your equipment rapidly depreciates and loses value from the moment of purchase, and your property value is of little operational benefit. Your people grow in value, and your business will benefit from a maintenance plan to keep them operating effectively.
The song “Superman” by Lazlo Bane really captures my feelings about this. Lyrics are included.
Have a listen, and feel free to comment about your anxiety or break-down experience to show others they aren’t alone, they haven’t failed, and they can get through it.
Follow-up post -> When your mind defects