Ryan: Optimizing My Brain

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Mental Health Series

Please note: This piece describes experiences with depression. 

I’d long-dreamed of climbing the corporate ladder and entering the c-suite by age 30. It was a goal I pursued with my trademark sense of boundless ambition. 

As a result, the notches in my marketing belt multiplied quickly in my twenties. 

I built the digital marketing strategy for an industry blog that counted Anna Wintour as a subscriber, helped Microsoft figure out how to sell software to students online (bye bye, floppy discs), and led Asia-Pacific-region marketing and sales development at ExactTarget. From there, I was fortunate enough to add marketing greats like Salesforce and HubSpot to my CV. 

As I rose through the ranks, my team and responsibilities grew –– but so did the pressure to perform at ever-higher levels. I started struggling to focus at work and at home; my mind was all over the shop. 

One day, I was in a one-to-one meeting with one of my direct reports. They were talking but I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. We were at a café next to the office. I tried to stay present –– tried to get in my usual zone of connecting with the people on my team and understanding how I can support them –– but the clangs of cutlery and whooshes of frothing machines wiped out any coherent thoughts.

After drowning in the ambient noise of that café, unable to give my colleague the undivided attention I wanted to, I knew if I was ever going to add ‘chief’ to my title, I needed more than just sheer drive and determination.

Until that point, I hadn’t thought much about my own mental health. But I decided to pursue professional help. I went to a psychologist and then a psychiatrist, who put me on ADHD medication. That treatment did the trick –– for a while. 

The pills settled my mind enough to achieve my ultimate goal: Just before my 30th birthday, I was offered the chief marketing officer job at G2. 

It was my dream job: a compelling business model, the chance to lead a great team, and the title I’d been working my entire professional life to get. It was, quite literally, the end goal in my mind. 

But a month or two after I started, a sense of emptiness set in. I’d been going, going, going –– all to reach this point –– and now I found myself plagued and paralyzed by the exact question that had driven me forward for years: What’s next?

Somehow, reaching the c-suite rung of the corporate ladder wasn’t enough. And I no longer had a big-picture plan guiding me forward. 

My days filled with an endless scroll of anxious thoughts. At home, I’d ruminate on everything that had happened at work and what I could have done better. Insomnia would set in. And even if I did manage to fall asleep, I’d wake up at 3 a.m. still mentally consumed by work. 

In the midst of this spiral, I was still equipped with the inability to half-ass anything. So, at that point, I dove headfirst into proper therapy, taking on two sessions a week. 

Going to therapy twice a week forced me to cut through the surface-level crap –– to move swiftly through the daily and weekly context you have to deliver in therapy in order for anything else to make sense. 

I went deep, exploring things like the bullying I experienced as a kid, my family history of depression, and the disturbing realization that I’d been sourcing too much of my self-esteem from my job. 

It was like I’d been swimming at the surface of my life and suddenly decided to strap on an oxygen tank to see just how fully I could submerge myself.  

Within three months, I hit rock bottom.  

Therapy has a way of making things worse before it makes them better. Digging up experiences and emotions you’ve repressed and learned to cope with in less-than-healthy ways, leaves you face-to-face with nothing but your trauma.

I sunk into a deep, dark depression –– to the point where I couldn’t even participate in therapy –– and at that point, I was recommended antidepressants. 

I’d always seen antidepressants as a sign of weakness –– an absolute last resort. But as I grasped at any potential lifeline, those antidepressants ended up being the buoy that helped me float to the surface just enough so I could continue therapy without falling further into the dark hole of depression. 

Since then, I’ve experimented with a wide range of modalities, lifestyle tweaks, and treatments –– everything from eye-movement desensitization to psychedelic medicine, which I still use today. 

I started weeding out the things that didn’t make me feel good, and prioritizing the things that made me feel and perform better. 

Eventually, I was able to fully abandon ADHD medication and antidepressants as I figured out what keeps me at the top of my mental health and wellness game. Today, that’s mostly exercising in the morning to let a little steam out of the kettle, avoiding alcohol, getting good sleep, continuing talk therapy, and doing periodic ketamine treatments

As I made progress on my mental health, my career progressed too. Now, I have multiple CMO roles under my belt. And, in many ways, it was my health and wellness journey that led me to my current job as the CMO at Gympass

My hope is that wellbeing becomes a competitive advantage for companies. At Gympass, we believe employee health and wellness is inextricably linked to individual performance and the health of a company.

In my opinion, the way we talk about our mental health should be no different than the way we talk about our physical health. They’re interconnected and equally important. No one’s embarrassed to put a gym workout on their calendar, so I’m not going to be embarrassed to be open about how I’m optimizing my brain. 

Working while dealing with depression was incredibly hard. Before I got to the place I’m in now — a place of balance and healthy coping mechanisms — I had to keep trying different things. But I didn’t quit; I just continued testing and learning along the way. 

My mental health journey has made me more authentic and given me more empathy for other people navigating their own journeys. 

Now, I put therapy sessions on my work calendar and Slack my direct reports when I need to take a mental health day. I hold the boundaries that work for me: I avoid responding to non-urgent emails at night, I’ve turned off Slack notifications on my phone, and I no longer schedule back-to-back-to-back meetings. After all, I’m an extroverted introvert and I know I need “Ryan time” in my day. 

I also encourage my team to take care of themselves in the ways that work for them. And because I walk the walk, instead of lying and saying they have a cold, my team members are open with me when they’re having a tough day and need to take a mental health break.

Throughout my journey, I’ve had the support of my wife Kate, who is a clinical psychologist. Together, we’re thinking about the environment we’re creating for our son, Jagger. 

I know my son will experience ups and downs when it comes to mental health –– we all do. But Kate and I aim to lead by example –– to embrace the good habits we’ve worked hard to develop –– and provide Jagger with a strong support bench. Because, at the end of the day, it’s the people on your bench –– your community –– who help you weather the inevitable highs and lows in the game of life.

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

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