The hardest part is letting people see who I really am
SAMHC Featured Blogger:
CEO Tonkin Consulting
Chair, Mental Health Working Committee Consult Australia
Depression has been with me throughout my adult life and whilst I have appeared successful, the voice inside my head (my voice) has been telling me that I am worthless.
Today I am the CEO of Tonkin, a husband to Jen, a father to 5 beautiful sons and still actively participating in athletics, a sport I love. I have a great life and a lot to be proud of. I have always had a lot to be proud of, though most of the time it hasn’t felt like it.
I spent all of my adult life with the belief that I would have chronic depression for the remainder of my life. I had first been diagnosed with depression as a teenager and had a number of depressive episodes between that point and today. Chronic depression had become part of my identity – I used it to explain why I kept myself hidden from those around me and why I wouldn’t share myself with people. Chronic depression had also become my security blanket – as strange as that sounds, it was almost comforting to have a label that I could put on why I felt the way I did.
Despite all the successes in my life, successfully graduating from Civil Engineering, holding down a job for 18 years, being promoted to CEO of the company at age 33, marrying the most beautiful woman, having five wonderful and talented sons, having been successful at the sport I had chosen to pursue, I felt a failure who was never going to be good enough. I also projected that belief onto everyone around me, so I wouldn’t share what I was doing. In effect I had built a wall around me to protect myself, but in doing so had isolated myself.
I don’t like to talk about my running and I don’t like to talk about my job – why? Because I am scared that you might think what I have told myself for years – that I am not good enough and never will be, that I am a fraud and talking about it will uncover that anybody could do better than what I have, if they were given the chance.
This was how I was for many years, hiding, withdrawing and not sharing myself with others.
I have come to realise that the only person who had built the wall around me and who judged me was me. I had put on everyone around me my beliefs of how they saw me and my fears about how I didn’t want to be seen. I had put the wall up to protect myself from judgement of others but only succeeded in allowing the judgement that I gave myself to be the only voice I heard.
In the process of building the wall there were not too many people who had been given the key to get in. Fortunately, one of them was my wife but even letting her in could be extremely painful. I realise that if I want to be the best me that I can be, then I need to bring the wall down and let people see the real me. And that means showing them the whole of me – not deciding which bits I want to let them see. It also means not putting on them the judgements I have made about myself – I need to let others make their own judgement.
What has changed since coming to these realisations?
From that time I have worked hard to allow a group of people to actually know me, I have been much more open about sharing my experiences, even when every part of my body is screaming out not to.
In some ways I have grieved about not being able to retreat into myself and not being “good enough” to stand on my own. I still don’t know how to tell others what is really going on in my head. I don’t know how to tell others I sometimes feel like I am drowning under the weight of everything I am trying to carry and that I don’t know how to stop.
For a few years we have used a dinner plate analogy for all the things I have in my life – what is on my dinner plate. My dinner plate is regularly stacked too high and regularly has things starting to slip off. The worst outcome is if the dinner plate breaks under the weight of everything I have on it.
Sharing the dinner plate so that others can help has been critical, but to do this I have to talk.
So how do I find the words to talk, even when they won’t come and when they do come they don’t make any sense?
I just have to start talking, I have to start with what is in my head right now and it may not make sense. I have to start to let the tap drip and as it starts to drip it starts to run and then it starts to flood. I don’t think what I say makes a lot of sense because everything jumbles together, but all the things that keep me isolated and alone start coming out. With the support of my wife and others in my life, we can start to make sense of some of it. It doesn’t make it all go away, but by sharing what is happening it helps me to realise that I am not alone. I have a great group of people around me who want to help, who want to be a support to me.
I know that my depression is not something I can control, but it is something I can manage. I don’t understand why I have depression or what causes it for me – the medication I take has been a bit of trial and error to find what works. But I do know that it doesn’t change who I am or what I am capable of doing. Depression does not change my cognitive ability, my ability to problem solve, to build relationships or to face the challenges of life. If anything, depression has helped me to understand my own emotions, which in turn has helped me with everything I do every day in my job and as a person.
I manage my mental health by:
- Eating healthy food
- Not drinking alcohol, coffee, etc.
- Actively participating in athletics and training with a group of people
- Maintaining a regular nightly bed time
- Maintaining a regular daily wake time and morning routine
- Being aware of all the things that cause stress in my life and trying to manage them as best I can
- Talking to my wife, my friends and my medical team
- Building up a network of people who support me in my fight.
These are the choices that I have made to put me in the best mental health possible. None of them are difficult things to do, some of them are less enjoyable but the outcomes of choosing them make them definitely worthwhile. I also know that the choices about having relationships with others who I let know the real me is actually the biggest benefit in my battle with mental illness.
In my day job at Tonkin, I am fortunate because I can influence the way in which we work. Firstly, I have chosen to talk about my battles to try and make it OK for people to talk about what they are dealing with. As a business, we are also helping our leaders learn how to have a conversation with someone who is struggling. We are trying to build a culture inside our business where people are genuinely cared for and supported to be the best that they can be. We know that if we can provide an environment where everyone is treated as an individual and everyone has someone that they can turn to for support, then we are giving people the ability to build their own support networks.
We are making changes to our business to give our employees choices associated with having a healthy diet, increasing exercise and managing stress. By providing options we are giving our people the chance to make good choices. However, everything we can do as a business doesn’t actually do it for an individual. Making changes to help your mental health is something that only you can do.
As we build our understanding of mental health and what helps people to be as mentally healthy as possible, we also can help businesses respond. Ultimately, we can offer support but the only person who can make the changes to be mentally health is you.
I choose to be alive for my wife and for my children – that means I choose to make changes to be healthy.
What do you choose?
By Gerry Doyle
CEO Tonkin Consulting, Civil Engineer and Chair, Mental Health Working Committee Consult Australia
Gerry Doyle is the Chief Executive Officer of Tonkin Consulting and is responsible for implementation of the organisation’s external strategy and developing ongoing business relationships. He has gained broad and practical experience in the design and project management of water supply and wastewater projects in South Australia. This includes the planning, consultation and development of negotiated solutions which meet key stakeholder and business needs in complex and challenging environments.
Since being appointed as CEO in 2011, Gerry has been instrumental in spearheading the notable growth and expansion of Tonkin Consulting. With a strong focus on building a culture of delivering exceptional outcomes, inspiring people to create a brighter future as well as encouraging them to be the best they can be, Gerry’s skills in bringing the right people together coupled with his strategic insights makes him a remarkable business leader.
Gerry has been on the Board of Consult Australia for 3 years, 1 year as deputy president, and in that time, he has made a significant contribution to putting the spotlight on mental health issues in the workplace. Gerry is the Chair of the Mental Health Working Committee of CA and has been a driving force behind the activities by CA aimed at helping businesses to create mentally healthy work environments.
Gerry is also an active member of Engineers Australia and also on a number of other committees.
SAMHC Featured Bloggers
The SAMHC presents our series of guest featured bloggers who generously share their personal thoughts and experiences of mental health and wellbeing.