I had built a successful career, but somehow I couldn’t focus — I didn’t know I was depressed
I have always loved tests.
They have always provided me an opportunity to prove what I know. They verify that I’ve learned and confirmed where I stand.
I have always done well on tests, including a major one I took in 2012.
My score was an impressive 90 per cent. Normally I would have been thrilled, but not with this test.
It was the DSM 5. It confirmed I had clinical depression. It proved I am an overachiever, even when it comes to depression.
I went through a range of emotions as I tried to process this.
I started with shame. What would people think about me?
Then fear. How would this affect my business?
Then weakness. How could I be a respected performer with this?
My first instinct was to hide the diagnosis and not let people know. As my story shows, my instinct couldn’t have been more wrong.
My name is Michael DeVenney and this is the story of my battle with depression.
A culture of bravado
If you look around you, depression is probably there. The Mental Health Commission of Canada now confirms that about 20 per cent of people suffer from depression over their lifetime and even more people suffer from anxiety disorders.
The likelihood is someone close to you, a colleague, friend or a family member, or even you, has a mental health disease. And it is a disease.
We don’t really understand depression. The word has been used so often it has lost its meaning. It just sounds like you are a bit down, or sad, like you can just “suck it up” and get back to work.
In business, where performance and achievement are often unspoken bywords for respect and value, it is almost impossible to admit to having a mental illness. Our business culture encourages us to build walls to make sure no one finds out we are struggling. That only adds to the problem.
Entrepreneurs, executives and professionals are taught to be strong and in control. We are taught to internalize problems. We are taught our work is our identity.
We are taught to believe we will be cut off and ignored if we can’t compete at the highest level.
When we fail to measure up to others’ expectations, we isolate ourselves. We believe that even our family and friends won’t understand.
We feel alone. Maybe we start drinking to unwind, eat more to feel better, pop a few pills to get through it or other more extreme coping strategies.
I was petrified that colleagues or clients, people whom I relied upon so heavily to feel a sense of self-worth, would find out I was suffering from depression.
The impact on businesses of anxiety and depression is enormous and far-reaching. I know how my depression hurt my team, my business, my clients, my friends and family. Now that I have developed a greater awareness of my own struggle, I am able to see others are having similar challenges all around me.
As we push for a more vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem and rapid growth of companies, I am more worried about some of the impacts this will have on the founders behind the businesses leading the growth.
It is time we stop telling entrepreneurs that “stress is a natural part of work” and to “suck it up”. We have to remember the people behind the companies they manage.
How did I end up here?
Mental health is complex. My depression has developed over many years and a series of events.
Genetics played a part. A number of my family members suffer from depression.
For me, I can trace it back to being mercilessly bullied during high school for five years. Every day I went to school, I knew I would be embarrassed, humiliated, or even physically threatened, all because four guys thought I was different.
There never was another reason I could figure out. The result of this relentless bullying was that my self-esteem was destroyed at an early age. My sense of worth was shattered, but I knew I had a good mind, which is how I survived.
I found when I performed well on a test, and achieved success, people respected me and saw something good in me. Achievement and appreciation in the eyes of others is how I found my worth. I depended upon others to see something in me.
After university, I earned my chartered financial analyst designation and joined the investment industry, where financial performance was rewarded and respected. I pushed myself for years to achieve in this competitive setting.
I did well (very well), but I paid for it.
The pressure mounts
Working as many hours as possible each week (80 hours per week at times) was part of the price I paid to earn a sense of worth and value in the eyes of others.
With all those hours came stress. And then came the anxiety of whether or not I could keep giving more and more to live up to what others expected of me.
The anxiety started to build.
I had tension headaches, dizziness, trouble sleeping and back pain. I became so tense that I could put my back out for days just by bending the wrong way.
At 40, I had my first bout with panic disorder. For no reason at all, I could feel my heart pounding like it was going to burst out of my chest. This was followed by short blackouts and chest pains.
I pushed myself and worked the hours to get through each day, but in the process I became more intensely unhappy.
I dreaded not being able to stay on top of things and tried to control everything and everyone around me. There was nothing for me in life except the business. I felt trapped.
My business partner, David Bluteau, was very understanding and patiently helped me try to find a pathway forward.
I decided the best route was to start another business to switch gears. Why not add to the hours and push through it, I thought?
By starting the new consulting company, I chose an industry where creating value for others was the key. It seemed like a perfect fit. But then the over-achievement syndrome started and I pushed for the business to grow and get larger. I needed the recognition that growing the company brought to me.
Clients respected my thinking and wanted me to do the work. It couldn’t get any better for me, or so I thought. Again, I was wrong. It didn’t get better for me.
Further into the fire
I pressed on with the new business, ignoring the initial anxiety disorder until the physical effects multiplied.
What started as backaches and shoulder tension turned into more serious symptoms, like chest tightness and constriction. I started gaining weight, losing sleep and feeling a greater sense of emptiness in spite of doing more work than ever.
I kept trying to put in more hours to get through it. I was frightened of how people would react if I said I couldn’t handle the pressure.
One night, while travelling for work, I woke up in a panic.
I couldn’t breathe, my hands were tingling and seemed swollen and there were intense pains in my chest. I tried to get up, but found I was so dizzy and fuzzy I couldn’t put my feet on the floor.
Was I having a heart attack? Was I having a stroke? No. My body was screaming it had had enough of trying to fight anxiety.
That night, my mind wouldn’t stop racing through every possible catastrophe and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I lay awake, waiting for it to be over. I was scared this time, but once again I had to finish my job and do what was needed from me.
The next morning, I called my business partner, David, who encouraged me to see a doctor immediately.
A quick assessment was to put me on medication to “take the edge off.” While it provided some relief, it was a band-aid solution. Now I was simply medicated to continue a torrid pace.
I pressed on, working harder than ever. As the physical symptoms worsened, I raised the dosage.
The worse things got, the harder I tried to hide it. The impact of lack of sleep, constant stress and anxiety (medicated or not) shattered my confidence and affected my ability to make decisions.
I couldn’t focus on anything. When working, I could pay attention for short periods, but it took me hours to unwind. I couldn’t be around people, other than when on the job.
I was rarely sleeping more than three or four hours each night. I started having blackouts. I would knock out on the couch for several hours and then be completely unable to focus when I came to. I couldn’t read, talk to people or even watch television.
I became increasingly isolated and the only place I felt safe was at home. Eventually, I was unable to hide my struggles.
Symptoms started showing in front of other people. I was so embarrassed. I felt I was weak and that people were uncomfortable around me. It was time to start seeking help.
After a referral from my family physician to see a specialist, I was a given a test —the DSM 5 (based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) — to determine if I had clinical depression.
As with so many tests I took early in life, I passed. Always an overachiever, I was in a deep state of depression.
I couldn’t work my hours any longer. I felt like I wasn’t worth anything. Some mornings it took me an hour to talk myself into getting up and ready for the day.
I often got in the car and went to do something, only to turn around and drive back home as I just couldn’t face it.
I cut my hours back and tried working from home. The business suffered and that just took away what made me feel worthy.
It was a vicious cycle.
My staff needed leadership and direction, a vision of a better future, and I couldn’t provide it. I was too tired and had no energy to support them.
Friends tried to help me seek the help I needed. I just wasn’t listening. I kept thinking I was just being weak and I could think or work my way out of it.
Physically, I hit the next wall. I started having seizures. I would suddenly lose control of my body and fall to the floor unconscious, only to wake up shaking. I started having thoughts about ending it all and, sadly, made a few attempts that I thankfully didn’t complete. I knew I needed help.
I made the decision to enter a clinic, something that had never sat well with me. I was still ashamed of needing this form of help. I knew there would be more medication, more pills to cover what I was already trying to hide from everyone.
A few weeks before I was scheduled to leave for the clinic, I was home for a family event and my wonderful aunt (who I found had struggled with depression over her life as well) said something that resonated with me: “Mike, you have always been in charge. Take charge of this and find a way that fits you.”
I cancelled the clinic and looked for other options.
Of all people to help me, a video made by Michael Lansberg, former host of TSN’s Off The Record, hit home.
In the video, a short documentary called Happy on the Outside, Lansberg explains depression is an illness and not a weakness. That it is a medically recognized disease with physiological impacts.
He highlights the importance of talking openly about depression. He says the more you talk the more you own it and can accept depression without shame.
And then the big one: People may never really be “cured” of depression, but they can learn to manage it and remain contributors who are creative, smart and achieve much. This was a life-changing moment.
Inspired by Lansberg, I began to read a lot about depression and found some answers.
I had never been physically fit, but the science is clear on the positive benefits of exercise to energize, strengthen the body and the mind and up the mood.
My business partner, David, was there again to help and encourage me to start something.
I happened to start a spin class and met the instructor, Jeff Badcock. We hit it off and became great friends.
He got me off a stationary bike and on a serious road bike. I liked it.
Jeff introduced me to Jeff Zahavich (I know, confusing, and I call them Senior and Junior), owner of Kinesic Sport Lab, a local business specializing in performance for everyday athletes. I was hooked. I connected instantly with Jeff Junior, as well, and we have become close friends.
The Jeffs got me to commit to cycling and even to wear spandex.
I began cycling four times each week and even went to a cycling performance camp. I called it cycletherapy.
Part of the work of Kinesic Sport Lab is to track performance data. As an analyst, I was home. I loved being able to gauge my progress. Almost instantly, I could see my fitness improving. In the first year, more than 30 pounds melted off with a reduction of eight per cent of body fat. People noticed. For the first time I could remember, I felt free and hopeful.
Jeff Senior eventually persuaded me to take up mountain biking, which has been phenomenal for my confidence.
Cycling provided me with three major tools for managing depression — physical activity, being outdoors and being with friends.
All this activity helped clear my mind and allowed me to sleep better, up to eight hours a night. Driven by a desire to become a better cyclist, I also started eating better. I began to change my work week to accommodate cycling — the first time in my life I remember putting myself first.
This was a big step for me. I committed to never working crazy hours again. That had brought me material success but, overall, unhappiness.
The boost in confidence from cycling enabled me to talk openly about my depression. I was amazed at the response.
It seemed everyone I talked to had been touched by some form of mental illness. It might not have been them personally, but there was always a close connection — a colleague, a friend or a family member.
It was freeing for me to share my story and gratifying to know that, by sharing, I was making it easier for others to open up.
I wish you strength
Is my story nicely completed?
No. I am on a journey.
I am a creative and productive depressive. I was trapped in sadness and lacked hope for a better future. But now I am building a life and a professional career that is more balanced and rewarding.
And I have a life! I will always have to manage anxiety and depression. There will be downs ahead. But I have shaped my environment to make it work.
I am not ashamed of having depression. It does define me, but in a positive way. I work with it now, rather than trying to fight it. I am using it for good.
For anyone reading this, and who is struggling through depression in silence, my wish is that you are able to stop feeling alone and start talking about it.
Opening up shows courage and strength — not weakness. I wish you strength.
Michael DeVenney is a Halifax-based entrepreneur, volunteer and cyclist. He is president of Bluteau DeVenney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org