Part 1: The Context
It was the last week of April 2017. Wanda, my wife, and I were coming back from a week in the Dominican Republic for the wedding of our friends. We had an amazing week in a beautiful resort with great weather and surrounded by people we loved. It was a good way to get re-energized after a big winter. I was feeling great! At least that is what I would have honestly responded if you had asked me when I got off the plane.
There was one “thing” that was on my mind though, but I was hoping that things would turn around. Back in December 2016, after a year of negotiations, my partners and I closed the deal that would have us sell our business to an international holding. Although we no longer owned the business, we were staying around for several of years.
Without disclosing details of the deal, let’s just say that there was a big incentive for us to meet or surpass our financial targets in the first year of the deal, which for us was 2017.
The division I am leading had performed amazingly in the previous three years, and we were poised for another great year in 2017. Our January numbers were good. Then February came and it wasn’t good. Oh well, shit happens! Then March came in: even worse! Hmmm…
A few days after coming back from the Dominican Republic we were going to receive the April results. You thought March was bad? Not only were April numbers really bad, and now May was not off to a good start.
Just a quick note here: Financial results are not magical, and if you have four consecutive bad months and they come as a total surprise, you’re clearly not on top of things. So to say that it came as a surprise would not be the truth. Looking back, I was just hoping that things would get better”. As we all know though, hope is not a good business strategy.
So there I was in early May, way behind target, knowing that there was no way I was going to be able to do anything to bridge the gap to our budgeted number. Even meeting our target for the second half of the year was now becoming a long shot.
Part 2: The Voice
How could I let this happen? Why wasn’t I more proactive? Am I losing my touch? What the hell is happening? We had been so successful and now I had screwed it up. Bye bye nice financial incentive! Actually, I could deal with the fact that I wasn’t going to earn it. After all, I reasoned, I deserved nothing because I was responsible for this catastrophe. But what about my partners? They worked super hard and they deserved their payout. Now it wasn’t going to happen because of me. They had trusted me and I failed them. And that’s the part I couldn’t deal with.
Let me be clear: never ever did any of them tell me to get my act together or make me feel responsible in any way for what was happening. On the contrary, they would say things like: “Don’t worry man. If it wasn’t for you or your team, we might have never even been able to receive an offer. We are a team, we win as a team and we lose as a team”.
That didn’t register with me. Actually it didn’t matter. The only voice I heard was the voice inside my head telling me that I had failed and that I was letting my partners down. We all know the voice, right? It’s the one that makes little snarky remarks like: “Shit!” when you break a glass or “Come on!” when you miss that golf drive or the voice that makes you say things like: “I was never good in Math” or “I can’t be creative to save my Life”. We all have the voice, and it’s normal. Until…
My voice started to wake me up in the middle of the night and wouldn’t allow me to fall back asleep. It was a master at “catastrophizing”: What are you going to do? What’s going to happen now? You have let them down and they are no longer going to trust you anymore. Who could blame them? If I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t want a partner like you! And now that you are not going to get that payout, I’m not sure you’re going to be ok financially. As a matter of fact, I think you’re in big trouble. And if they kick you out of the business, what are you going to do? You won’t be able to ever find another job! You’re getting old and now you’re damaged goods! And so on, non stop.
This went on for days and weeks. With every day that passed, I was getting more anxious, and because I wasn’t sleeping, I was getting weaker. I was becoming much less productive at work. That fed my anxiety even further, and the downward spiral accelerated. People around me were noticing my negative transformation. I was barely eating anything and I was losing weight faster that those contestants on The Biggest Loser. It was fitting because I was a big loser.
Finally, I believed I had been unmasked. All those years of being a successful businessperson were based on sheer luck. This luck had now come to an end.
Part 3: The Fall
We were now in mid-June and as Paul McCartney once wrote: I wasn’t half the man I used to be. I would spend days at the office staring at my computer screen, being totally useless. After talking with my boss and business partner Marc, we decided that I should take some time off to clear my head. I just had one more meeting in Vancouver, and after that I would stay home for a while. I was scared to go to Vancouver. I worried I would get lost and wouldn’t even be able to find my way to the hotel. I didn’t want to get on the plane. My assignment was to moderate a discussion session with a client which was normally something I could do with my eyes closed and one arm tied behind my back. But now just thinking about it terrified me. That flight became the longest 6 hours of my Life. I still don’t know how I made it through that session.
I was relieved to get back home and be able to “relax” for a few days. Relax? I couldn’t even relate to that word anymore. I became insomniac. I was miserable at home. There was nothing I enjoyed anymore. I didn’t want to read or even watch TV. I hated being outside. I was just miserable because I was always with myself. Wherever I went, there I was!
The only thing that kept me sane for brief periods of time was exercise. I would go to the gym and spin or run, I would go for bike rides, for a jog, for a walk. While I was exercising, it felt like the pain in my soul was more bearable. Depression hurts, it really does. I was in deep depression. It could also be called burnout or a mental meltdown. I would later be tested, and I scored highly. On the Beck Inventory, a standard test for depression, I scored off the charts. Severe depression was the official diagnosis.
After that, my mental situation deteriorated rapidly. Not only did I believe I was responsible for the poor performance of the business, but now I was quitting. I felt like I was abandoning my partners. I then became obsessed with the idea of going back to work. After two weeks of “break” I came back to work part time, doing half days. It gave me some temporary relief knowing that I was back and no longer on sick leave.
I spent the months of July and August being a zombie in my office, unable to concentrate on anything and unable to complete the simplest task. Sometimes I would leave my office and go for long walks in Old Montreal with no destination. I just wandered around aimlessly. Sometimes one of my partners, Valya, or my colleague, Lynne, would come to find me and walk with me. “Guy, you need to go home” or “You’re killing yourself! What are you going to do to get better?” they would say. Or sometimes they would just walk with me and say nothing.
In August, Wanda, Maxime, my youngest kid, and I spent a few days at a cousin’s cottage. It was fun. It helped, but not enough. We also took four days in later that month to go to New York. Wanda thought New York would be a good distraction and would help change my mood. We stayed at a hotel in Times Square… Looking back, I don’t think Times Square was the best place for someone whose nerves were shattered! It felt a little bit like sticking a knife in an electric socket while being in the pool… I pitied my wife. She had been coping with me for several months now but didn’t know how to get me out of this funk. Now, I think about it with a big smile on my face and in my heart, but we certainly weren’t laughing then… After returning from New York, I worked for another two weeks.
On Friday, September 8th, we had a partners meeting. At the end of the meeting, Marc asked me to stay. He said: “Ok now there is no boss, no partner, just me, your friend of 25 years, and I’m really worried about you. I’m afraid I need to tell you to pack your stuff, to go home and to just find a way to get better. You need to disconnect from this place completely, stop thinking about us, and heal yourself. Take all the time you need and don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything here. We’re a strong team and we’ll manage”. I broke down, cried and just said: “I think you’re right”. I packed my things and went home. The only thing I told Marc before I left was that I didn’t want to keep my condition a secret. I wanted people to know that I was going through burnout and that I needed to take time off. This is one of the best business decisions we made through this process: to be transparent and authentic.
Part 4: The Bottom
I was now back home, knowing that I wasn’t going back to work any time soon. I felt relieved because I wouldn’t have to spend my days pretending that I was working and looking as though I was busy.
The first few days off work were challenging because after getting out of bed (I will come back to the getting out of bed part later) I would have breakfast, if I was hungry, shower (most days), and then that was it. I had no plans. Nothing. Nada.
After a few days of coaching from Wanda I signed up at the local gym, and a yoga studio. I decided that I would exercise first thing in the morning and I would attend a yoga class in the afternoon. At least I would have a motivation to get up.
The first challenge was to get out of bed. The depression was painful and was the first thing I would feel when I woke up. It’s a difficult thing to explain, and I even struggled to identify the physical symptoms to my doctor. I still struggle to find the right words to explain it, but it was a real physical pain that I felt in my core, somewhere in the middle of my body, right near my heart. It wasn’t a sharp pain, but rather a heavy dull pain, that made me feel anxious and noxious at the same time. I didn’t want to get out of bed yet I couldn’t stay in bed. I would sometimes get out of bed, go downstairs and lie on the couch with the TV on, not really paying attention to what was on. At one point, sometimes at 7:30, sometimes at 9:00, sometimes at 10:30, I would literally roll myself off the couch, get dressed, and make it to the gym. There I would spin, row, run or do stairs for at least one hour. The exercise numbed the pain and the anaesthetic would last for a couple of hours. Then I would go back home, and try to eat a little. When I came back from the Dominican Republic, I weighted 189 lbs. which for me was about 10 lbs. over my “fighting weight”. In late September, I was down to159 lbs… Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw my lifeless look, my sagging face and my rib cage. All my clothes were now too big for me so I never knew what to wear. The idea to go shopping for new clothes was just too overwhelming.
During the worst of my depression, the concept of time changed. Minutes were longer, hours lasted forever and days seemed infinite. The only time I looked forward to was bedtime, because I would take something to control my anxiety, and this would make me fall asleep. There was a small window between the time I took my medication and the time I fell asleep when the pain would lift and I would feel more “normal”. I loved that break from pain, but hated the thought that I would wake up the next morning feeling horrible all over again. I always hoped that something magical would happen and that maybe the next day “it” would be gone. The next day I would wake up, anywhere between 4:00 and 6:00, wonder for half a second if “it” was still there, and then my brain wheels would start spinning and the heavy dull pain returned. It didn’t matter what time it was or what time I had gone to bed, there was no falling back asleep. To add to that, I was completely incapable of napping during the day, no matter how exhausted I felt.
Part 5: The Healing
At the end of May, following a conversation with my physician, I had actually started taking antidepressants. We both thought that it was a good idea to stop the fall, and I had had success with antidepressants when I experienced difficulties going through my divorce seventeen years before. Logically, I went back to the same antidepressant, knowing that I would have to titrate the dosage up over a period of a few weeks. Since I had responded in 2000, I thought there was a good probability that I would respond again. Nope!
After increasing the dose and waiting two more weeks, we came to the conclusion that this drug wasn’t going to work for me this time. So on to the next one with a similar process: initiate the new drug, wait 10 to 14 days, if that doesn’t work, increase the dose, wait another 10-14 days, if that doesn’t work increase one last time. That did not work either, so on to drug number three. After the third dosage of the third drug, I finally started to feel better, so I decided to stay the course! By the way, my physician was very proactive and aggressive (in a good way), so that in spite of the failure of the first two drugs, I was able to experience relief relatively quickly. It’s important to know that if you are going to go on medication, you have to be patient and compliant!!! If you are going to give up after 5 days because of side effects don’t bother (although they are transient, you will probably have side effects).
Now, I believe that medication is an important part of the therapy, but by no means is it the only part.
During the summer, I had asked a friend of mine who is a psychologist to refer me to a colleague. Thanks to him, I found someone named Jean-Marc.
To be honest, the first few visits I wasn’t convinced that this was going to work for me. Jean-Marc is a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) specialist. CBT uses exercises that help to rewire your brain. It helps to change your internal conversation, to change that little voice from being critical and negative all the time, to a voice that is encouraging and positive. At first, I would do the exercises, even though I didn’t believe that it would help me. I was convinced that I was well beyond the point where this type of therapy could restore my mental health.
During one of my conversations with Jean-Marc, I told him that I was 100% convinced that within 12 to 18 months I would wind up a homeless person, living in “Carré Viger”, a square in Montreal where homeless people live. When he asked me why I thought that, I explained to him that I believed I would not be able to go back to work or if I did, I would collapse again and be fired. After that, nobody would want to hire me and that would eventually lead to serious financial problems. At one point, my wife would have had enough and she would leave me with my youngest son to save herself and my boy. I was also convinced that my other children Vincent, Caroline and Marco who are all young adults would have their own life, and would want nothing to do with their loser father. I would therefore be unemployed, broke and without a family. I was destined to become a homeless man.
To say the least, Jean-Marc had a very different perspective on the whole thing,. In a very professional, respectful and somewhat humorous way he said: “If I could take all the money I own, mortgage my home and use my children’s education funds, I would be willing to bet all of it on the fact that this will not happen to you!”. He added: “I’m not saying that the scenario you describe never happens. I’m just saying that it will never happen to you. You just don’t have the profile”.
The other great advice from Jean-Marc was to minimize my exposure to negative things. I was a big news junkie and liked to stay on top of what was happening in the world. The reality is that the news industry thrives on communicating negative and shocking information. Psychiatric associations around the World now recommend that people minimize the time watching the news or completely stop watching.
Eventually, as Jean-Marc had said during my first few sessions, my little voice started to change its attitude, and slowly became less negative. Little by little I started feeling better. Was it the weather? Was it the medication? Was all this exercise starting to kick in? Was CBT finally having an impact?
The last element, but not the least, of my recovery was my very strong support network. My wife Wanda was at the core of this network. Without her relentless and unwavering support, my depression could have lasted much longer. My four children who are my greatest treasure gave me their unconditional love, and each of them supported me in their own different way. My Mom, who is a force of Nature and the most amazing model on how to age gracefully and beautifully, gave me energy just by being herself. My sister and her husband were my lifeline in the darkest hours.
Then there were my close friends Daniel and Charles who took me out for lunch or dinner even when I didn’t want to eat and who would call me to find out how I was. They kept telling me that I was going to be ok. My buddy KMO who was devastated to see his “Veep” in limbo, would call me constantly and take me out on long bike rides. Even though he didn’t always know what to say, he wanted to be there. My former boss Allen who was working with me on a contract when I started my fall, picked up all the balls that I was dropping without anyone noticing that I wasn’t able to do the job.
My friend and coach of the last 15 years, Mike Lipkin, who had himself gone through a severe depression 20 years ago before me doubled down on me and started calling me every week, wherever he was on the planet. Mike is a motivational speaker and a coach. He has worked with thousands of people all over the world, but even Mike admits that he used every trick in his bag, every motivational tool he knew to keep me fighting between calls. Sometimes I would see his name on the phone when he called and I didn’t have the energy to talk, but I would force myself to pick up. I would have hung up on myself, but Mike never gave up on me. In the toughest times, he would say things like: “Now it’s no longer about delivering the numbers, about showing up at your best, or even about showing up. It’s about how you’re going through the day. Don’t worry about tomorrow, just focus on today. Just make it through today”. Now, we’re amazed at just how low I fell, but, more importantly, how high I rebounded.
Those were all the elements that helped me out of the hole I had dug myself into. I didn’t know then and I still can’t say with certitude today which of these elements was responsible for my progressive recovery. But I don’t care. They all played a role and they are all part of what I now call “My Recipe”. I am convinced that if I apply My Recipe diligently, if I am disciplined about it, the probabilities of burning out are low, not zero, but I put the odds dramatically in my favour.
It’s important to note that My Recipe is my Recipe, and it may very well be different from others in my situation. To each their own, but here are the elements of My Recipe:
- Be compliant to my medication
- Be physically active, 5 or 6 times a week
- Write down 4 or 5 things that I am grateful for every night
- Apply sleeping hygiene methods
- Practice mindfulness
- Read positive books and watch positive series or movies
- Nurture my support network
- Engage in constructive conversations that get me out of my own head
Part 6: The Return
I mentioned earlier that I had made the decision early on that I wanted to be authentic and transparent through this process. Now that it was time to go back to work, I was somewhat anxious to meet my colleagues, and tackle the Bogeyman of coming back after a depression. I wanted to address it quickly and avoid the awkardness that can occur when people don’t know how they should respond.
After getting my partners buy in, I regrouped my Team (40ish people) around the couch near our lobby. I told everyone that I was happy to be back. I said I didn’t want to have any secrets. I stated: “I could be standing here and telling you that I’m back from chemotherapy after fighting cancer or that I had knee replacement surgery, but that’s not what happened to me. I lived through a burnout, I had a depression, a mental breakdown. It was a really rough few months for my family and me. But now I’m back and feeling better than ever. I will spare you with the details of my journey, but if anyone is interested in discussing further, I’d be happy to do it. Come and see me, or book some time with me and I will answer any and all questions you may have”.
That was it! The bogeyman was gone, there was no awkwardness and by the end of the day it was like I had never left.
We are now in mid January, and it’s been two months since my return to work. I’m sticking to My Recipe with a discipline that I never knew I had. I feel fantastic. In fact, I haven’t felt this good in years. When I look back at the past fall (literally), I don’t see it as negative at all. During my episode, I saw a psychiatrist twice to validate the medication plan that my doctor and I had decided on. He is a very nice, empathic man that my friend Dan Léger introduced me to. On my first visit, he told me: “You know sir, you are very lucky to go through a burnout”. He added: “Not many people have the chance to take a significant pause at your age, and evaluate where they are and who they are”. I have to say I didn’t really understand what he meant, but today I totally get it.
The best way for me to explain my experience is through an analogy. Imagine that you let yourself go for a few years, stopped exercising and put on 100 lbs. Then, one day you wake up and decide to sign up for a serious 2 two-month Boot Camp. It’s a retreat program à la “Biggest Loser”. If I visited you at Day 20 of 60 and found you in the middle of a gym doing 100 push-ups (and feeling like puking), after a 10-kilometer hike and two hours swimming laps in a pool, you would likely tell me that you are miserable, and ask me to get you the hell out of there! But if you completed the two months, lost 115 lbs, and achieved the best shape of your life, you would look at that Boot Camp as an extremely positive experience. Of course, you would remember all the times when you wanted out and all the exercises that you HATED, but it would still be an awesome experience
Well that is the way I look at my burnout today. It was very painful as I went through it, but it helped me become a stronger, happier, healthier person. When I look back I see my Mental Boot Camp as an extraordinary opportunity to become Christian Roy 2.0. I hope I never have to go through it again but I’m blessed to have gone through it like I did.
By the way, the business is booming. We have strong momentum going into 2018. It looks like it could be one of our best years ever. Whatever lies ahead, I know we can rise to the challenge together.
The End (or maybe it’s the New Beginning)
It’s the very struggle of life that makes us who we are. — The Dalai Lama