A year ago, I became the man I thought I always wanted to be. I was 29 and had worked my butt off to reach the C-suite, becoming chief marketing officer of a very successful tech company. I was making good money, owned multiple properties, and had a great home. Most importantly, I had — and, thankfully, still do have — the world’s most intelligent and wonderful wife.
But on the inside I was a broken man. In many ways, a broken boy, deeply scarred by a childhood filled with such relentless bullying at elementary school that my memory has largely blocked out entire years of my early life.
While we’re brought up being told by our parents that it’s “What’s on the inside that counts,” society does an overwhelmingly good job of delivering the opposite message.
The career and the nice things I surrounded myself with were defenses, built unconsciously to protect that young and fragile part of me that hadn’t dealt with my low self-worth. (While we’re brought up being told by our parents that it’s “What’s on the inside that counts,” society does an overwhelmingly good job of delivering the opposite message.)
It was only at this point in my adulthood that I finally realized, and accepted, that something wasn’t right. I had all the external trappings of a great life. I should be happy, I told myself. I should be able to appreciate this and feel good. But I couldn’t. All I could think was: What’s next?
That moment became my wake-up call. So I began working on my mental health. As a result, I’ve become a better man, a better executive and something that once seemed impossible: happy.
I’ve also come to see that my journey can be instructive for ambitious executives who all too often struggle with their own mental health, such as Elon Musk, who has experienced public meltdowns and revealed on Twitter that he endures "unrelenting stress" and "terrible lows".
Experts have long raised concerns about executives, especially in the world of entrepreneurship. A clinical psychologist said many are “hypomanics” who “live on the edge, between normal and abnormal.” The co-founder of a mental health startup explored whether mental illness among CEOs is “a trait or an outcome.”
But obviously, it isn’t just executives who battle with mental health challenges. The CDC has reported that only about 20 percent of adults with a diagnosable mental disorder or a self-reported mental health condition were getting treatment. “Embarrassment associated with accessing mental health services is one of the many barriers that cause people to hide their symptoms and to prevent them from getting necessary treatment,” the report said.
This problem is especially acute in the workplace. Mentalhelp.net reports that 98 percent of people surveyed say mentally ill people are stigmatized and discriminated against, and the vast majority of employees of all ages are uncomfortable discussing mental health with a current or prospective employer.
I was one of them. I had kept my struggles a secret from everyone I worked with. I was convinced people would look down on me as damaged goods. That I would lose promotions. That competitors might use the information against me.
It was only when I began doing the real work to improve my mental state that I realized other people may have felt the same shame and fear about their mental health.
So as I committed to therapy, I made another big decision: to set my twice weekly appointments on my work calendar to public. When people look for times to meet with me or to book meetings I’m needed at, they see those sessions.
I also mention these sessions in conversation, with (almost) no shame. My wife — a clinical psychologist who helped guide me down this road — says I’m a much happier person at home these days, and have stopped attributing so much of my self-worth to my career.
Recently, I joined the board of Bring Change to Mind, an organization founded by actress Glenn Close to end the stigma and discrimination around mental health.
I sometimes think about how my childhood trauma helped me in a way, propelling me and giving me the drive to succeed. But I’ve come to understand that my ambition and energy don’t have to come at the cost of my mental health. It’s possible to hold onto all that drive while also finding self-worth and enjoying each stage along the way.
Achieving that requires daily effort. I’m still learning to let down my defenses as I piece through a lot of buried memories. But I’m much less afraid now. And I know that through this process, I have the chance to become a better man than I had ever realized I could be.
MORE MENTAL HEALTH HELP
- How to get mental health services if you can't afford it
- Struggling to cope? An online 'mental health peer' can lend support
- What mental health experts say to their kids about school shootings
- How to find the right therapist