Depression: The Invisible Tormentor
When I read To Anybody Going Through It by NBA All-Star Kevin Love I was in awe of his courage. It is not easy to admit mental illness. I know. Until reading Kevin's words I would never have considered writing this blog.
I was really going through if for the better part of a year a few years back. To the point that I was no longer able to fake being okay, so I hid.
My job had become entirely different than what I thought I had signed on for. I had stewarded The Real Game from an eight-period pilot in a small middle school in St. John's, Newfoundland to a series of four, 15-20 hour experiential primary (Grade 3/4, 5/6) and secondary (7/8, 9/10) career exploration programs used by millions of students annually in 60,000 Canadian, U.S., U.K., French, Dutch, German, Irish, Australian, and New Zealand schools. This had been a pinnacle of my career. When a market-leading Ed-Tech company purchased the IP rights to The Real Game Series I accepted the invitation to join the company, expecting to lead the series to even higher plateaus with new digital versions.
Being an Ed-Tech company, it discarded the five internationally best-selling print editions (everything a teacher needed in a 3-ring binder) to focus exclusively on the first-generation digital editions (7/8, 9/10) I wrote before joining them. Enhancing The Real Game never got high enough on the priority list, so the digital versions were never significantly enhanced. I was encouraged to leave The Real Game behind and position the company as a 'thought leader' in the career development industry. I coordinated monthly blogs by global career development leaders, organized invitational career summits at major North American and global conferences, represented the company on national and international boards and project working groups, wrote and presented extensively.
The company couldn't measure immediate sales impacts from my 'thought leadership' work, so I was asked to take on a new online sales role promoting the company's 'under-construction' community engagement platform. Knowing this would require this "old dog" to master "new tricks" (sophisticated online sales software and procedures) with an unfamiliar business market, I admit to real trepidation. However, the company's career exploration and planning software was league-leading, so with strong and genuine encouragement from a President I like and respect, I reluctantly agreed. I shouldn't have.
I became a slave to telephone, email, and Zoom daily frequency targets (success metrics) and an all-consuming customer relations management (CRM) system. It was a call centre approach to complex sales requiring multi-agency sign-off. Unlike in previous roles where I could draw on my reputation and name recognition, I was unknown in this new market. I enjoyed many of the virtual conversations I had with education, business, and workforce leaders, and I learned a lot. But I hated slavish adherence to the ever-present, insatiable CRM!
As a boomer, I never mastered keyboarding. When I was in school, typing was for girls who aspired to be secretaries. In terms of analytics, my 3-finger typing put me at an insurmountable disadvantage trying to keep pace with a sales team of digital natives selling a popular offering to a known market. First, I had to research and feed the CRM an endless list of people and organizations in workforce development across North America. Then I would play interminable telephone tag with senior executive "prospects" to schedule virtual presentations and meetings. I spent vastly more time in online research to find organizations and their executives, and poking my way around the keyboard before and after calls, than actually interacting with people. For the first time in my professional life I hated my work and I felt like a total loser.
Before long, I found myself leaving my office regularly to escape the hated keyboard and screens. I would pace back and forth in a secluded area of the building, or climb the five floors of my building repeatedly. Visions of suicide by launching myself down the concrete steps tempted me more than I want to admit. Most days I would also do robotic laps on the unoccupied fifth floor. At lunch I would take walks on a wooded trail that skirted a small lake adjacent to the rural campus. At days end I would often play nine holes of golf - alone. I was in pretty good shape physically, but I was train wreck mentally and emotionally.
I eventually hated facing people and calls. I cancelled on two keynote speaking commitments, but somehow found better people to fill in. I lost my appetite completely. In the evening, I would wrap up in a blanket in my favorite recliner and sit immobilized for hours thinking black thoughts, often in the dark. When I couldn't sit still another moment, I would pace the halls at home. I couldn't imagine being able to fake my way through Christmas without drawing the people I care about most down with me. It took everything I had to hang Christmas lights on one small tree outside, but not on the house. My wife, and medication, literally saved me. She just kept repeating, "I love you, I believe in you, and we'll get through this."
In the end, I accepted a fair severance package and moved on to projects back in my wheelhouse. I have scars, but I bear no grudge. The company is well led, has an excellent product suite, and hires and retains top-knotch IT professionals passionate about helping young people. I was the square peg in a round hole.
Reading Kevin Love's story brought back all-too-vivid recollections of my darkest year. I have immense respect for Kevin's courage, honesty, and humanity. Mental health can be as precarious and incapacitating as physical health. But it's invisible - until you can't take it, or fake it, anymore. For anyone feeling as hopeless as I was, see your doctor and know that, as my wife, my dearest friend, kept reassuring me, "you will get through this." If you know someone who might be "going through it," be kind enough to ask how they are. Then just listen, authentically and empathetically, and show you care.
I've procrastinated too long in posting this, because it's scary. But if it helps one person feel better, as Kevin Love's story made me, it's worth whatever comes.