Burning brighter after burning out

Burning Bright

Depression: ‘The Artist’s Reward’ according to Ernest Hemingway when describing ‘the terrible mood of whether it’s any good or not” that many writers experience. This burden and brilliance that so many authors carry can also be found within our wonderful world of media, marketing and more that the Cannes Lions Festival so famously celebrates and showcases. Last year’s Cannes Lions promo campaign was ‘Thank You Creativity’, well, better late than never, Creativity, I’d like to personally thank you.

I consider myself a pretty resilient person. For the last 16 years I’ve held my nerve, jointly building and leading Livity, a different kind of business, unswervingly led by its purpose of helping young people change the world. We chose to deliver our purpose through an agency and publishing model, perhaps not the easiest of sectors on reflection, but it was what we knew, connecting with youth through the power of brands and marketing. What started as a 6-month experiment in 2001 - could we create a socially responsible youth marketing agency? - continues today and if I allow myself a proud moment I think we can answer our own question with ‘yes you can and yes we have’, evidenced through great work that young people love, created with great partners like Google, Dyson and PlayStation, evidenced by our talented and fun Livity family past and present and evidenced by playing a small, but often important, part in 1000’s of spine-tingling young people stories and their ‘What Nexts’ in life.

As with all businesses there have been ups and downs across a decade and a half. As leaders, as entrepreneurs, as creatives, we rise to those challenges, we thrive in the hard times as much as we adore the good times and our creativity is often at its most magical when our backs are against the wall and the pitch is in just a few hours. The energy I generate around me when I’m ‘up’ is always fueled by a strong sense of creativity and can be felt across any business or project I’m involved in, anything is possible, momentum is strong and the sense of self and group belief is high. But occasionally it’s not always this way.

As human beings in this beautiful, complex world we’re all carrying our own metaphorical life backpack of bricks. Each ‘brick’ representing a different challenge or experience. Mostly we move through life unaware of the load on our backs, we have an innate strength to keep on going, no matter how many bricks or how heavy the backpack.

What I’m learning, is that if I don’t look after myself, by creating space and a slower pace at points in my day, week, month or year, my back pack begins to feel more noticeable, a little heavier and with less room for more bricks. If I don’t take time to be mindful with my Calm app, do a yogic bend or two, have a boxset binge, fun with my family and friends or get my hands dirty in the garden, I become less resilient. I’ve become better over the years at making and valuing that space and using it to my advantage, both in terms of my leadership and also my creativity, so, I was utterly shocked to find myself in a place at the end of 2016 where I had taken on a few bricks too many, had stopped looking after myself and suddenly and violently I toppled over.

Ongoing physical health issues had taken their toll and I became very unwell plus some people challenges had felt more emotionally brutal than usual, the combination of physical illness and mental stress, on top of the year that was 2016, left me exhausted and burnt out.

With support and understanding from my board I stopped for a while to get my health back on track. I noticed it was far easier for us all to talk about the pretty personal physical aspects of my burnout; heavy and debilitating periods; fibroids; severe anaemia and a pending hysterectomy, than it was to talk about my mental health challenges. Apart from one early reference from me it was never mentioned again, not by me, nor anyone else and there was an underlying sense that the messaging around my absence should be kept topline and to my physical health. It’s a first-hand experience of the stigma and awkwardness that continues to be attached to mental health illness. We’re afraid and unused to talking about mental health illness and I hold myself accountable for not talking about it more openly and honestly, that’s why I am now.

At that moment, in that state, I knew it was time to reevaluate how I was living my life and I felt sure that I needed to make some pretty big changes. But what? The critical question of ‘what’, triggered extreme anxiety in me which led, even more quickly, to a 2-3 month period of depression. I now understand that I’ve experienced anxiety and depression in the past, however, this was the first time I’d given it those names. What was new and far worse was the ping ponging between anxiety and depression. Utterly exhausting and terrifying in their own ways.

Alongside brilliant support from my GP, NHS Talking Therapies, my hypnotherapist (don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it) and my family, I created a two-pronged attack. The first bit of the plan was surrendering to my poor mental health. Whilst I was experiencing a hollow helplessness, at the back of my mind I felt strangely sure that it was going to pass, but I knew that for the moment I just needed to let it be with me and me with it, shuffling around like a ghost of myself. The second part of the plan, once I’d stopped fighting the mental health gremlins, was to dig deep and unlock my dormant creativity. I distracted myself from my anxiety by giving myself permission to use my deepest fears as the starting point from which to play with creative and entrepreneurial thoughts far away from my day to day reality. Slowly it began to work, it gave me energy, it was fun and a new purpose led business idea began to emerge, renewing my own sense of purpose and self-belief, it made my brain ache in a good way and there’s a chance it might actually become something real, although, never has the expression ‘there’s method in my madness’ felt so apt as I read this back (#PromoAlert if you’re curious to know what it is come to my Cannes Lions talk).

I used my creativity to help me out of my mental health illness and into my own ‘What Next’ in life. Out of such a violent moment I have created something that can potentially sit beautifully alongside my new non-executive role in my beloved Livity, as I transition back into the business, now lead by the inspiring and unstoppable Alex Goat and her brilliant leadership team, that makes me proud and excited for us all.

There is an important, if complex, relationship between my anxiety, my depression and my creativity that is both a blessing and a burden. On the positive side, my anxiety can help me be incredibly productive and solution finding, sometimes depression forces me to stop, rest and be, albeit uncomfortably and sometimes my creativity reemerges more powerfully because of the anxiety and depression. It’s important to say that it’s much easier to see these benefits when on the other side of the mental health illness and I’m working on less dramatic swings. In the worst moments, my anxiety and depression create a terror and paralysis in me and a deep emptiness and self-loathing, those moments are when you need to be kind to yourself and ask for help, even if it’s really hard to.

My story is not a recommendation on how to deal with mental health illness, it’s simply my story, shared to hopefully help make it easier for others talk about their own mental health, to normalise it, perhaps create a ‘that’s me’ moment for someone or at the very least, just to be open and honest. Whilst painful, I’m nearly on the other side of it and grateful for all I’ve learnt and I’m pretty sure I’m about to start enjoying life more than ever before. So yes, I reckon you can burn brighter after burnout.

There’s a brief addendum to this story. I had my hysterectomy in April and suffered a major internal bleed after what had been a successful operation. It was frightening and pretty dicey. There’s nothing more focusing that being told to ‘hold on’ and then waking up after 5 hours in theatre and a few days in intensive care to make you feel incredibly grateful for being alive in this crazy old world, good times and bad. I thought it might bring a slightly more evangelical view on ‘life’ and eradicate my anxiety, it hasn’t! But it is an additional tool in my mental health management kit, helping to create perspective and gratitude when anxiety bites or when depression winks. Bring it on Cannes Lions 2017 and thank you Creativity.

Michelle Morgan is Co-Founder of Livity and Mentor for See It Be it

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