If you combined the swagger of Mr White, Blonde, Pink, Blue, Brown and Orange in the opening credits of Reservoir Dogs and Rosie Perez’s epic opening dance moves in Do The Right Thing, that’s about the level of confidence I wanted to wander through life. But unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Ever since my mid-teens I’ve suffered from anxiety. That single statement took me about a decade to admit to myself and probably the same again to do anything about it.
There was a time when my default reaction to mental low-points was to simply withdraw from any human interaction, but I’ve come to the realisation that vocalising my struggles, and using the platform that’s evolved from the company I’m privileged to lead, can only be a good thing — especially for the industry in which I spend most of waking hours — creative and technology.
Even though it seems that the topic of mental health is the conversation du jour, for a long time I was ashamed of how I felt and incredibly embarrassed about how my mental state manifested itself in daily life — whether people could see it or not. However, taking mental health out of the shadows, and removing many of the associated stigmas can only be a positive step to better addressing the illness.
Being a CEO of a VC-backed company, some may say publicising my struggles is a risky position to take — showing vulnerability and frailty when you’re in a position of leadership and abdicating my responsibility in projecting a level of confidence to help drive people towards a big hairy vision. But I don’t believe vulnerability and leadership need to be mutually exclusive. I believe the two can work for each other in not only making me personally stronger, but also enabling the thing I’m lucky enough to be a part of, to even greater levels of success. I’ve also been very fortunate to have a VC who appreciates that regardless of how good an idea is, a great company is built by its people — and those people perform their best when they feel accepted and supported. I think if you were to talk to other founders who have successfully traversed the fundraising landscape, you’ll hear the general consensus that “money ain’t everything”. Through my own VC’s support of me as a leader, I’ve been able to write this without fearing there’s a trap door waiting for me on the other side.
Let’s not go down a rabbit hole just yet
Just to be clear, life hasn’t been one long episode of Dante’s Inferno and I haven’t been completely paralysed with fear for the last 43 years. I led a pretty normal childhood, had a very supportive family, completed multiple university degrees, and have co-founded three companies. The third company, YunoJuno, started as a conversation over a few pints in a London pub. This year (2018), that conversation, or the company it formed, just hit £100 million in sales annually and we’re still only operating in one city — London.
Somewhere in between all of that, I also managed to trick a very exceptional Aussie/French/Scottish lass into marrying me. (She is all three. I have not married one of each.) We left our hometown of Sydney a few months after we were married to embark on a very typical Aussie endeavour and live abroad (London) for a year. That was 13 years ago. In that period, I have developed the most incredible friendships with the most diverse bunch of people from all over the world, have my professional career grow in ways I never would have imagined and been lucky enough to call a third city (New York) home for a period of time.
I mention these things to simply say that my life with anxiety and depression hasn’t been void of joy or successes but rather, like many people on this journey, they have just been an ever-present threat. The things that come without much fanfare but feels like a mardi-gras of crap whilst you’re in it.
The mardi gras of crap
Whilst I might live with things like anxiety for the rest of my life, I’m proud to say that life has definitely improved for me these last few years thanks to some actions I decided to take. This post is to write a bit of my journey and if anyone can replicate the things that have helped me overcome certain struggles, or even just feel less alone on the subject, then the post’s job is done.
But before I go into what I did about my situation, here are a few things that life with anxiety and depression typically meant for me:
- Waking up in the morning, lying in bed motionless, eyes open but not actually being able to move and having a general feeling of dread for the day ahead of me. If you’ve ever seen a film set in a remote Nordic village where someone falls in a lake and trapped under a thick layer of ice (possibly pushed by the local devil child or trainee vampire) — I was that guy.
- Becoming mute in either a meeting or presentations — pretty awkward when I was the organiser of the meeting or when I was the person suppose to be presenting!
- Panic attacks in elevators, fearing the walls caving in on me but having a greater fear of someone entering the lift.
- Being so consumed with worry about a particular situation’s long term outcome that my ability to deal with anything in the present would be completely paralysed.
Hoo-boy. I said it took me 10 years to admit my mental state to the outside world but this post, and those points, have been sitting in ‘draft’ for three years now. Like I said, I was too ashamed and embarrassed to highlight my struggles. But now it’s out there. So let’s move on together.
Help when I needed it
In 2009, after said decade of either denial or procrastination, I started seeing a therapist. If I was to describe the experience in one word, it would be: transformative.
Who knew talking to a trained and accredited professional would be so life-changing??? With this external help, I was able to reframe so much of what dominated how I thought and processed situations — real-life or imagined. It was in this period that I was able to build real resilience in an area of my life I thought was forfeit. So the first and highest recommendation I could give to anyone struggling with mental health is to acknowledge that it’s an illness and like any illness, the best course of treatment is via professional help.
Alongside seeing a professional to help me navigate my state of mind, there are a few other things that helped me overcome various parts of my situation. It’s not meant to be a “here’s-what-will-fix-you” list, just a simple set of things that I can say have helped me:
- I began practising Mindfulness. I won’t go into the full definition of Mindfulness here but it’s incredible to see the traction it’s had in recent years across so many different sectors. From startups to large corporations, the effect of mindfulness practices is not to be understated. It is changing people’s lives and the organisations at which they spend so much of their energy and time. Mindfulness treatment is recommended by the National Institute of Clinical Effectiveness (NICE) and is an NHS recommended treatment for a number of mental health conditions. I discovered it by chance when I was in a particular low point. I was watching BBC breakfast early 2010’s when I heard an interview of Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman. Together they wrote what has become a groundbreaking book in the field: Mindfulness — A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. It has been the text that I have carried around with me since I saw that interview and I recommend it to everyone I talk to on the subject. I’ve purchased it for many of my friends as well as for my employees when I ran mindfulness sessions at YunoJuno. Even though I’ve tried other tools like Headspace (which is excellent btw), this small book is the resource I continually come back to and its 10 minute guided mediations are the things I do every single day. But if app’s a more your thing, I’ve also recently started using Calm and I’m very impressed with its simplicity and structure in focusing on very specific areas. Pretty easy to see why they have made such a mark in such a short space of time.
- I took fitness seriously (or at least more serious than sitting on my sofa watching ninja warrior). Today I run, cycle and sometimes box, as often as I can. I try and do this in the mornings either in a dedicated time slot or as part of my commute. I find that doing this in the morning helps me get my head straight for the upcoming day. There’s also less chance of me conveniently finding other ‘important’ tasks that stop it from happening.
- I make sure I start the day by being grateful. I know there are a lot #grateful posts on the internet these days and I’m not trying to intentionally dis them, but I keep it very personal and quiet. I simply say three things I’m grateful for and leave it at that. It’s amazing that taking three minutes at the start of each day to simply remember and be thankful does to your outlook and interactions for the rest of the day.
- I took more time to stop and think what my actions or reactions might make someone feel and tried to look at things from their perspective more. Growing up in a Christian home, the concept of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was drilled into me at a very early age. But you don’t have to have been raised in any particular faith to appreciate that this is pretty solid advice. You think Mike Tyson would have made himself an ear sandwich if he had that nugget rolling around in his prefrontal cortex?
- I sleep more. Oh man, if someone told me the effect sleep (or lack thereof) would do to my cognitive state when I was younger I would have probably saved myself a lot of anguish. The fact of the matter is, sleep isn’t an unproductive, bit-of-nuisance chore. It’s very seriously like that pill Bradley Cooper takes in Limitless. Beyond the “I feel wrecked” state I find myself when I get little sleep, I’ve been able to see a direct correlation between the amount of sleep I get and my cognitive awareness and mental state. So much so that it’s now the thing that governs my movements every day.
These are the things that I’ve done and what has helped me manage my mental well-being. I hope that one/all of these things may help someone else in the same situation. But the main reason for the post is to add my name to the many other people, from all walks of life, committed to raising awareness to mental health and well-being and continue to push it out of the shadows and into the light where it can be discussed, examined, and dealt with in more innovative ways.
Do not let your difficulties fill you with anxiety, after all it is only in the darkest nights that stars shine more brightly.
- Ali Ibn Abi Talib AS