Today, as I read and listen to all the conversations around the coronavirus pandemic, mostly doom and gloom, I get taken back to a time in my not too distant past when my world seemed to be falling apart. I think about how my thinking at the time led to some serious outcomes that I now believe could have been avoided if I knew what I know now.
At the time, I was running a design agency with some 12 or so staff. For a myriad of reasons, we were struggling to stay afloat and had built up quite large debts with the inland revenue and banks. Some of the reasons were totally outside of my control, including the global financial crisis and the earthquakes that struck in my home town of Christchurch, New Zealand. And some of the reasons were down to me. Inexperience at business, poor decision making, trusting people who should not have been trusted, having my priorities wrong etc.
When all this was happening, it felt like I was living inside a wicked nightmare that was continuously conspiring to kill me. My situation felt hopeless. I could not see past the immediate situation and I fell into a fog of despair. In the end, my brain and body simply gave up. I had a severe mental breakdown. Before this happened to me, I had no idea what a mental breakdown was and how serious it could be. My legs turned to jelly; my speech was slurred, my brain felt dead, I felt numb and had lost all sense of hope.
This Illness then led to my business going into liquidation, calls being made on personal guarantees I’d made on business loans, no income and so on. My nightmare seemed even worst. Ultimately this all led to me trying to end it all, more than once.
Since this time, I have recovered, both mentally and physically. I now have a strong mindset that I believe could have got me through the trials in my past. This mindset isn’t some kind of spiritual or woo-woo way of being; it’s a mindset that has formed through re-conditioning my brain through new learnings and ways of being that I’d like to share with you now.
Being not OK is normal.
Our brains have evolved over many millions of years, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we lived with the genuine fear of predators. Our brains release chemicals in our brain to enable us to fight or flee. And new thinking suggests that depression and fatigue are evolutionary mechanisms to force us to lie low and not place a burden on the rest of the tribe. These mechanisms persist today, and it’s our fear of circumstances that cause these very same feelings of not being OK. So accepting that not being OK is entirely normal and that it is part of being a normal human being, was a huge relief for me. I no longer felt like there was something wrong with me. I was simply being normal for the circumstances I was in and could put this worry to bed. If you’re feeling ‘not OK’, well that’s just you being normal.
Life is not always a forward journey.
Think about team sports, like football, rugby, basketball, and even board games like chess. Winning the game isn’t all about forward moves. All of these games involve backward moves to ultimately win the game. It seems to me that life is no different. Life is painful at times, sometimes really painful. When going through one of the pain points it’s so hard to see the long view. When I was losing my agency business, I had zero thought that within a couple of years, I’d be heading up a new technology startup. And two years later, when that startup was failing, I couldn’t have imagined that now I’d be doing something even better. I can speak from first-hand experience that every nightmare I’ve gone through has led to personal growth, increased wisdom, and new opportunities. However bleak things might look now, understand that your life will become richer and better a little further down the track.
Things in life can change from moment to moment. And so can you.
We tend to live in our current reality, in business, at work and at home, and when living in this reality, we tend not to look up consider new possibilities or news ways of being. So when hard times fall upon us, it’s hard to imagine doing something different or being someone different to who you are today. When my agency had failed, and I was in the middle of a crisis, it was hard to imagine the future I am in now. Humans are incredibly adaptable things and can make all kinds of opportunity come out of any situation. Believe me; I’ve been there and done it multiple times. Try not to look at your future right now through a dirty lens. Instead, trust in your ability to adapt and grow.
Stories are stories; they are not reality.
I used to be terrible at ruminating and playing out all kinds of situations in my head. I’d continuously be thinking through what if this, what if that, even holding full-blown conversations in my head in how I’d respond to people saying things to me. And one day I realised that much of my thinking was based on stories that had no basis in fact. I now operate a simple rule that says something is not true until I know it to be true. Let me explain. Let’s use an example that most of us could probably relate to. We are driving in our car, and another car cuts across you, and you need to brake hard to avoid contact. Your blood boils, you toot your horn, gesticulate and shout WTF! All of this reaction was predicated by a story that you had created that the guy in the car was an idiot and had a blatant disregard for you or your safety. Well, the guy probably isn’t an idiot. He may have a lot on his mind and may not have even seen you. He may actually be a very caring person who was simply distracted and being careless. The point here is we have a tendency to make up negative stories and then act as though these stories are true. By continuously stopping your story making habit it keeps you grounded and stops your emotions going crazy when they really don’t need to. It takes a while to break these habits but it does happen. And when it does you’ll notice how much lighter you feel. So think about all the things you’re saying to yourself right now. Will you actually lose your job or business? If you do will it really mean that your partner will leave you because you’re hopeless? If you end up losing your house, will that really be the end of the world? Acknowledging that these are just stories can give you space to consider outcomes that may not feel so bad.
You may need help and you owe it to yourself and your family to go and get it.
Many of us are not great at accepting that we need help. This one is a massive topic on its own which I could write a book on, but there are a couple of simple points I’d like to make now that I know what I know about neuroscience and mental health. The first thing is that when we are struggling mentally, it is a good idea to find someone who can unpick what you’re going through and help you with strategies to get through it. Your brain is complicated, and people are complicated things. It takes people with real expertise to be able to help unravel what’s going on and get you feeling better. This isn’t one of these things to tough out, especially if you’re a guy. You may need to try a few different people with different styles before you find one who can help, so don’t give up on the first try. The second thing is to have an open mind that you may need medication, even if for a short while to get you over the current hump. If you do enough searching on the internet, you’ll find plenty of material stating that antidepressants don’t work and it’s all about things like “Lost Connections” (see the book from Johan Hari). While much of this sentiment may be true, I believe that in some circumstances, medication helps to lift the cloud just enough to make things like counselling even possible. It did this for me. A good doctor should be able to take you through a robust screening to determine if medication would be helpful.
Over to you…
Yes, we are in a pretty sh*t time right now, and we’d all much rather wave a magic wand and have it all go away. But that ain’t gonna happen.
The burden of life can be hard at times, and that’s the way it is. Life is hard. It twists and turns like a twisty turny thing. But at the end of the day, we must have a belief in ourselves and that good things will come from this. It’s a nasty storm we’re in. All storms pass. And above all the grey clouds is a clear sky. That clear sky is always there regardless of what we see and experience on the ground.
Ride the storm, Kia kaha.