Jonathan: Rewriting the Narrative

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Please note: This piece describes experiences with anxiety, disordered eating, and suicidal ideation.

It happened in a Whole Foods.

Somewhere in the supplements aisle, I started to feel a buzz against my thigh. My phone. It was a call from one of my business partners at Digital Natives Group, the marketing agency I had co-founded and run for more than a decade. 

We were about to blow past a deadline on a project that had already gotten off to a rocky start, and my job was to, yet again, eat shit and grin and bear the brunt of the client response. I’d be left navigating the relationship minefield.

Managing our clients’ high expectations was stressful. Sure, our work wasn’t open-heart surgery or landing an astronaut on Mars, but it was still important to people and we liked to keep those people happy –– often at the expense of our own sanity and well-being. Unsurprisingly, that meant these situations always came with a hefty emotional tax.

My mind quickly began forecasting what would happen next, and suddenly more than just the conversation I was having was spinning around in my head. Flashes of light obscured almost everything in front of me. Whatever I could see, I was seeing in double. Before I could even sense the motion, my body was rocking forward, knees slamming against the floor, narrowly missing the iPhone that had already slipped out of my hands.

Not here, I thought.

Slowly, with my full weight pressed against the shelves as I walked, I made my way to the end of the aisle –– the parking lot an oasis through the windows ahead. Already panting, I brought my leg speed up to match my breathing, then broke into a full-on sprint right up to the door of my car.

Inside the car, like a housewife pushed to the brink in a TV miniseries, I let out a holler as I shook my head and punishingly banged at my steering wheel until I had expended every bit of energy I had left.

Five, then 10, then 15 minutes went by.

I need to see a therapist, I thought.

Within a month, I made good on that proclamation and finally started to tackle the hard work of understanding and improving my mental health.

Now, this wasn’t the first time I’d gone to therapy. Years earlier I had worked with a therapist to get a handle on my relationship with food and my tendency toward compulsive overeating. But dealing with that problem was different –– it was tangible. It was in my hands, my mouth, my gut.

What I experienced that day at Whole Foods (and, as I’ve come to learn, in other moments before that day) was much more challenging for me to grasp, largely because of my own knowledge gap –– a gap I had manufactured. 

I had constructed a frame of reference that led me to believe anxiety presented with symptoms like fainting, sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, and an inability to act. That understanding obscured my ability to see the reality of my situation.

Because I didn’t have those specific symptoms, I assumed nothing was wrong with me –– that my reaction was the same any person would have in the situations I found myself in. Those reactions just happened to be, in those moments, impacting me.

Eventually, I –– like 40 million other Americans –– was formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, which I now treat with therapy, medication, exercise, and a supportive group of loved ones.

Today, with this chapter of my story under my belt and my expanded knowledge of anxiety, I’m looking to write a new narrative –– one that isn’t limited to the walls of my own mind or other private spaces. 

I talk about my mental health journey publicly. Why? Because I’m a big believer in the idea that addressing the mental health crisis we’re facing doesn’t come from conversations held behind closed doors, but rather from public discussions and behavior modeling from those who are in a position to help normalize openness and transparency. 

Research shows men aren’t as quick as women to recommend professional help for mental health. So if sharing my story –– if publicly discussing the fact I’ve struggled with anxiety, an eating disorder, and body image –– helps even one person feel more confident asking for help, then it’s worth it. If that person is someone in my family, my circle, or my workplace, even better. 

Having run, scaled, and sold a marketing agency, I’ve seen first-hand how being transparent about my own mental health struggles and successes can help build a more inclusive and engaged workplace, facilitating healthier relationships across our team.

I hope –– and believe –– those relationships have also helped our employees feel comfortable and safe asking for the resources they need to manage their mental health, whether it’s an afternoon off or longer-term support. 

While it can be challenging to escape the default dynamic that tends to develop between employee and employer, I’ve worked hard to focus on facilitating authentic connections, be open about my own mental health journey, and treat all members of my team like the individuals they are in an effort to create space for vulnerability.

All that said, I know I’m not perfect. Several years ago, one of my team members who I shared an open relationship with about mental health, posted about suicidal ideation on social media (fortunately, this person did not engage in self-harm). Having some familiarity with that myself, I wanted to help. 

But ultimately, under guidance from our advisors, my business partners and I pulled back: Unless the person had specifically said work had prompted those feelings, or shared them in the workplace, we were advised to avoid broaching this subject with them –– it would make the company liable if something happened.

We opted to heed this advice, and it’s a regret I carry to this day. At the time, I felt trapped. Why should I look out for the company’s best interest instead of my teammate’s? Fortunately, we were able to establish lines of communication between former employees and this individual so that we knew someone was checking in on them. There were people who checked in to make sure they were OK. But that’s not ideal, it’s not empathetic, and it’s not enough.

I dream of the day companies will have employee-care ombudsmen –– true advocates for all employees. People to match employees with resources, without burdening those employees with the weighty task of discussing personal struggles with managers or human resources representatives –– people with whom they might not be ready to share.

People are at the heart of everything. Every marketer knows that. It’s people who perform work, make purchases, and build a brand. Projects and profits are replaceable; people aren’t.

If we’re not respecting people –– and acknowledging the fact we’re all human –– by giving one another space to grow, heal, and flourish, then what’s the point?

Read more about this series, We're All Human: Mental Health Stories From Real Professionals.

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