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To mark 2018’s Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 31st, MindSpace is excited to be launching a podcast hosted by Dr. Joe Flanders focused on mindfulness, mental health and wellbeing. Episodes will feature Joe in conversation with a wide range of guests. In this first episode, Joe had the privilege of sitting down with Christian Roy, a Montreal advertising executive and mindfulness practitioner to talk about workplace mental health, well-being, and resilience.
Christian is an unbelievably successful business man. He worked for a global pharmaceutical company for many years, before making the transition to advertising in 2013. He took the lead of the health division at Tank which quickly became an industry standout, thanks largely to Christian’s smarts and leadership. But in the spring of 2017, a series of bad sales numbers triggered a downward spiral into mental illness that would leave him panicked, 30 pounds underweight, and unable to get out of bed.
Christian tells us about his plunge into anxiety and depression, the “mental boot camp” that got him going again, his “recipe” for maintaining well-being, and how he talks about the experience with his colleagues. He also tells us why, after all that, he considers the experience a gift.
Christian offers rare and inspiring examples of how corporate leaders can embody openness, humility, and courage when dealing with mental health in the workplace. His story also highlights the importance of making self-care a priority, the impact of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and mindfulness meditation, and the value of understanding well-being as a skill to be developed and maintained.
Below is a transcript of some of the interview’s highlights. For another first hand account of the experience be sure and check out Christian’s blog as well.
Read excerpts from the conversation between Joe and Christian.
Christian describes his anxiety:
I started to become really anxious, then you know you don’t sleep well, so I’m not rested. I didn’t want to eat so I slowly stopped eating. I wasn’t as diligent with exercise. Then the little voice inside myself started to take more and more space and started to become louder and louder:
“Now at the most critical moment in our history… now is the time I’m letting them down.”
I’m struggling and at a time where I needed to be really focused and look for solutions and I started spinning and spinning and I was losing control.
“You’re letting them down. You’ve let things slip away. Why weren’t you on top of things? How can you let that happen? Those individuals trusted you… How can they trust you again?” It was louder and louder more present more and more negative. It was just me beating myself down…
The wheels are spinning and it’s not so much solution oriented but really problem. If I was awake, it didn’t matter what time, there was just absolutely no way I was going to fall asleep again.
His anxiety got so severe, he couldn’t perform even the most basic functions at work:
Very quickly I became completely useless at work. I wasn’t able to focus. With the anxiety came all these other cognitive symptoms. My ability to focus on a task, my short term memory started not working the way it used to. I just wasn’t very useful at work.
They used to refer to me as the crisis management guy. In times of crisis, this is the guy you want to be with. This is the guy you want there because he’s super calm when things get really messed up. I was thinking… I lost that. I started to think I was a bit of a fraud. I was just at the right place at the right time and I had the right people around me. I wasn’t really the guy. See now it’s happening and it’s your crisis and you’re not even showing up. To the contrary, now you’re panicking.
Now I didn’t know how I was going to make it to Vancouver. Like how can I get into a plane and fly for 5 hours and find the hotel? Things like that that I had done. I travelled the world and been in meetings in Seoul and Tokyo and travelled on my own. Now I was afraid that I wasn’t going to make it to Vancouver.”
His anxiety eventually lead to a major depression:
Frankly there were days I would come in, turn my computer on and look at my screen for hours and hours. I was past going on LaPresse or CNN websites. I couldn’t even focus.
There is nothing I liked to do any more. It’s like the joy of life had been sucked out of my body. There was just nothing that gave me pleasure anymore. I have 4 children, very close to them, and I would say even THAT. I still enjoyed having them near me, but there was nothing. Life had been sucked out.
That pain of depression. It’s a real pain. It’s like a pain in your soul where you wake up and there’s 2 or 3 seconds before you start feeling the pain and you’re thinking “oh, maybe the pain’s gone” and then it kicks in. And so you’re looking for how to get that pain under control. In my case, exercise would give me a bit of break. It wouldn’t completely go away but I would get a bit of a break.
Back in April, I was 189 lbs and now I was 159 lbs. I lost 30 lbs. For a guy who could lose 10 to be in tip top fighting shape. Maybe 10, but I couldn’t lose 30. So then at 159 my clothes don’t fit, my pants don’t fit and don’t talk to me about going shopping for clothes because I could hardly get out of bed and the last thing I want to do is be in a shopping centre. So I’m putting my baggy pants and my belt and I have to put yet another hole and my t-shirts are too big and every time I look in the mirror I see this guy I just can’t recognize.
Christian was in such bad shape that he was convinced he was going to end up living on the street:
I told [my therapist] I was going to wind up in Carre Viger as a homeless man. First of all I’m off work, I’m never going back to work. And even if I do, it’ll be in May and I’m going to fail. They’ll see that very quickly this time. At one point these guys are just going to say enough is enough. They’re going to throw me out. I’m going to wind up without a job. And I’m not going to find a new job. I can’t even keep the job that I know, how am I going to find a another job? Nobody is going to hire me. That’s going to create a financial issue for me. My wife is there for me, she is supporting me, but at one point she is going to get fed up. She’s in her early 50s, she’s beautiful, she’s intelligent, she’s going to say “I need to survive this.” I’m drowning she’s not going to allow herself to drown. So at one point she’s going to call it quits. And my kids, they’re like 13 and in their early 20s. At one point they’re going to move on with their life. The last thing they want is to spend any significant amount of time with their lose father. So financial difficulties, no job, no wife, no kids, no friends therefore, eventually, I’m going to get kicked out of my house and what am I going to do? I have no money, no jobs. So I’m going to wind up in Carre Viger! I was convinced.
With the help of therapy, medication, exercise, and a supportive entourage, Christian dug himself out of the hole. He tells us about the challenges he faced with his meds and about the impact of his Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. I asked him what was helpful in his CBT and he described an insight about self-compassion:
One thing is trying to retrain yourself to say… okay, who’s your best friend? Ok, my best friend is “Jonny.” If Jonny came to see you and told you the situation and what his fears are, what would you tell him?
So for example he’d say about the work environment “you know okay so you weren’t able to deliver on the revenues with this client because this happened you got an explanation. If that happened to Johnny, would you say “Johnny, you’re a loser!” like “I can’t believe you!” No, you’d say “Johnny this is business! Par for the course. You win some you lose some. Stuff happened that’s out of your control.” And so funny enough I was still able to say “yeah that’s what I would tell Johnny” but my little voice wasn’t buying that. My voice was still telling me that I was a loser.
He got back on his feet and gradually went back to work. When he first arrived back, he was completely open and authentic in his first meeting with his team:
I called the meeting and everybody came. I was sitting on the couch. I said: “hey, I’m happy to be back. I could be here telling you that I just finished chemotherapy and I’m able to come back or that I had knee replacement surgery. But that’s not what happened. I think Marc and the rest of the team were clear, I went through a burnout. I had a depression. I had a mental breakdown. That’s what happened to me. I’m sharing this with you because we say we should talk more about mental and we’re a communications agency and we’re in healthcare. So if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” I said “I don’t want there to be any malaise and people feeling uncomfortable. That’s what happened to me. It is what it is. I got lucky. I got out of it. I said I’m not going to go into details about the journey or about what helped me – I don’t want to bore you with those details. But if any of you wants to talk to me whether for personal reasons, family reasons, just book some time to talk to me. We’ll go have lunch, have a coffee, whatever. And I’ll tell you everything and anything that you need to know. I have no problem discussing anything that happened to me. But that may not be for everyone. It happened to me. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to any of you but it also means that it COULD happen to any of you. Again, it’s like cancer, we don’t get to choose these things. There’s probably some things in my genetic background. I know that I’ve had big stresses, possibly bigger stresses than what I went through and I came out of it unscathed, no depression no burnout. But this time, you know what? It hit me and I fell down. And I’m back. I don’t know if it’s going to happen to me again. It might. I’m certainly playing the odds and applying my recipe and I’m extremely disciplined about it.” That was it. That meeting lasted 10 minutes. People just reacted the way they reacted. Some were just like business as usual. Some I could tell got teary-eyed and you could tell for some reason it hit home. But that’s it. The awkwardness was gone. I tell you by the end of the day it’s as if I hadn’t left.
The way I did it was probably the most selfish way to do it. Because I didn’t want to deal with the malaise. I didn’t want to deal with having to pretend. But coming out and being authentic about what happened – and I didn’t make it bigger or smaller than what it was it’s just the way it was for me – then the whole thing went away. It was easy for me!
Christian has a regular mindfulness meditation practice and relies on it to sustain his recovery:
Mindfulness. My practice of mindfulness and meditating and doing all the exercises to focus on being in the present moment. I need to do that. It makes me enjoy life because life is happening in the present tense. Not dwell on what happened or didn’t happen in the past. And not care too much about what’s going to happen tomorrow but like I’m with you and you’re the most important person in the world. You’re the most important people in my life because you’re the only one in my life right now. So what it does is that it’s really about enjoying what I’m doing right now in the moment. And the mindfulness practice – because it is a practice – I need to practice it every day. By practicing this I can be more in the now.
After all of that, Christian considers the whole experience to be a gift:
I got to go through a mental boot camp. I had the opportunity. I was well-surrounded. I had a great psychologist. A great GP. I have an amazing wife and children and support and people like you who referred me. I look at it and I see that as a positive experience because I’m a different person. I’m not changed completely but I’m a better person than I was prior to my burnout.