Watch the full webinar here, or read the transcript below.
I want to share a very personal story with you of some events that occurred over the past couple of years during the COVID pandemic. I must warn you that there may be some talks of suicide that may be triggering for you during this journey. If you want to log off and log back on in the next 10 minutes that you have that opportunity to do.
Picture this: it’s February 2020, and I am on top of the world. I was a successful business owner. I had published my first book. I had conducted my first TED Talk and I had been named a Top 30 Global Guru in management and I was headed to Indonesia to pick up that reward. I was so excited. I thought nothing could go wrong.
Or so I thought. I had already gone through what I thought were some of the most horrific things that people could go through within their lives.
At the age of 11, I went underwent open heart surgery due to congenial heart failure. I thought, oh my goodness, this is the end. In fact, my parents were told I had six months to live, but guess what? I live to tell the story. And I haven’t visited a cardiologist in over 30 years.
I had my first child at the age of 21 as a single mom, but I was still determined to go to law school. And I went to law school as a single mother and brought my five-year-old son along with me. His first day of kindergarten was my first day of law school. If that wasn’t challenging enough, I got married during law school. And the next thing you know, I was pregnant again with my second child, and had her via C-section my first day of my last semester of law school. But guess what? I still persevered and graduated on time.
But here’s the thing: because medical insurance was too expensive, I wasn’t covered. And this was before the Affordable Care Act. I couldn’t go back and get it after I was already pregnant, that was considered a preexisting condition. So guess what? I had medical bills that were mounting up and I had to file for bankruptcy right after my law school graduation. But that was okay. I made it through that too.
Now, I faced various challenges throughout my life, but still I continued to conquer. And with each challenge, that just strengthened me. It strengthened my fight, my grit. And as I jumped over each hurdle, I was already waiting, ready for the next one, the higher one. I just wanted to go as high and as far as I possibly could. I pushed myself as if I had no limits whatsoever, and my hunger for professional success became greater and more enriched as the years went by.
Now, I knew that the color of my skin and my gender would pose different challenges for me as I navigated first the corporate world, then navigated being a business owner, especially in New York City. And I knew that my credentials had to be better. I had to work harder than anyone. At one time, I was working a full-time job, three part-time jobs, and was teaching at three different universities across three cities and two states, writing my book at the same time. I was doing all of this stuff.
But here’s the thing. When I slept, I felt guilty. My family would often hear me pecking at the keyboard of my laptop at three o’clock in the morning because I just couldn’t get enough. But when I went down, I went down. My body would hurt and I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. That drive for success suddenly vanished.
But those days were few and far apart. I was able to just lift myself up out of it. Burnout is what I would call it. And then, all of a sudden, I would be back at it, checking off one goal after the next.
Then March of 2020 came, and a virus that I thought was worlds away made itself to New York City, made itself to America, and shut America down.
All of the events I had scheduled, including that trip to Indonesia, were canceled. My clients canceled all our projects together. I found myself sitting around the house without anything to do. My brain had not been trained to abstain from doing anything now. While the rest of the world was busy having Zoom happy hours and making calls and dancing to DJ D-Nice and Club Quarantine, my brain was not having that. And it started going places that had never been before.
You see, my success, my self-worth, had always been centered around professional success. And when that professional success was taken away, I didn’t know who I was. And I felt as if I had no worth, no value to contribute to society.
I started to act differently, think differently. My speech started to speed up. My eyes started to glaze, and my husband noticed. Something was different. And he told me, I think you need to get help. Although I didn’t agree with him, I did. I started to go there to therapy for the very first time.
As I’m going to therapy and starting to reconcile all these things that were happening, another thing happened that brought America to a standstill and that was the murder. A man named George Floyd. Watching that brutal murder of George Floyd prompted America and workplaces to have a racial reckoning to realize and want to rectify the historic and systemic racism that were happening in our workplaces.
With that, my business picked up. I had more clients than I ever had. More importantly, I was having conversations that I had been begging to have in organizations for years. I thought surely my brain would go back to normal. I would start just being my normal self any day now. But as the days went on, I found myself going deeper and deeper and deeper into a dark, dark hole.
In January of 2021, it all came crashing down. I decided on January 25, 2021, I no longer wanted to live. Even though I had a wonderful husband, two beautiful kids, a thriving business, and to everyone on the outside, I seemed to be functioning very, very highly. Even that therapist I was talking to was like, you know what? I think you’re okay. I think you’re just like everyone else trying to reconcile all the events that were happening right here in America.
But that night I grabbed every bottle of pill that I could find in our household, grabbed a bottle of champagne, and I placed it in our guest bedroom. I went into my daughter’s room and placed a ring that I always wore in her sleeping hands, and kissed her cheek. And then I went into that guest bedroom, and I took every single one of those pills and washed it down with champagne, and closed my eyes for what I thought would be the very last time.
I woke up with very, very blurry vision to the sight of people taking the strings out of my pajama pants, taking the shoelaces out of my school shoes, and being escorted to a room with a mattress on the floor where I laid and slept for days while a stranger watched my every move because I was on suicide watch. For the next several days, I was involuntary admitted into an inpatient psychiatric facility. It was while I was admitted there that I learned that I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I learned that my ability to stay up for days at a time to think I could conquer anything in the world, those were called manic episodes. And those days and nights where I just couldn’t get out of bed, no matter how hard I tried and my body hurt to, I now know what that was. Manic depression.
And after I returned home and shared this with my family, I thought to myself at that moment, I’ll never be able to share this with anyone else, because if anyone else found out that I had been diagnosed with a mental illness, surely my life would never be the same. No one would ever see me as credible. No one would ever trust me again with their business, and their companies, and all these things that I have been trusted to do before.
But as I sat there for the next several weeks, it turned into months, hiding from society, going black on social media, a place that I was always so engaged in on a day-to-day basis. I researched bipolar disorder and mental illnesses and found out that one in five people suffered from a mental illness. One in five. I thought about all the people that I had met in my life. I thought about the people in my family and how many people probably had suffered from these crippling diseases, but felt the same way I did that there is no way I would be able to share my disease. So like me, they sat there and suffered in silence.
So, what did I do one day? I thought back on my journey to how I’ve gotten there before my diagnosis. And I thought about how I used my social media platform to be very vulnerable, to be very transparent about the things that were happening in my life about my failures, my successes, every single thing. Why wouldn’t I share this? Why wouldn’t I be vulnerable in this moment? I had shared that I had open heart surgery at 11 years old. There was no shame, blame or pain around that. Why should I have shame, blame, and pain around being diagnosed with the mental illness?
So November of 2021, I sat down with my family and I said, I have to talk about my diagnosis, I have to talk about my journey publicly. And they agreed. So one morning I woke up, I posted my professional photo, and I wrote the caption, “This is the face of bipolar disorder.” And I shared my journey with my over 80,000 followers.
Now, as you can imagine, I was super, super scared about what the response was going to be. So I just put my phone and laptop away, took a shower, got dressed, and I could hear my phone buzzing, buzzing, buzzing, buzzing. I thought, oh my goodness, that’s it, I’m getting nasty messages from trolls and everyone else. But when I finally decided to look down at my phone, I was amazed to see hundreds of messages and alerts people supporting me, people cheering me and people sharing their story.
By the end of the week, just a few days later, I had over 25,000 reactions to my story and over 5 million views. And I thought, oh my goodness. If 25,000 people reacted to this and 10,000 people direct messaged me about their personal journey, imagine out of that 5 million, how many people read it, but didn’t feel comfortable sharing their story.
I decided at that moment to read every single message. I read so many messages that shared the same story that I did about themselves, or about their loved ones. And what you noticed on that common thing was that mental health affected everyone. It wasn’t regulated to just certain races or genders or socioeconomic statuses or titles or demographics or geographic locations. There was a common thread throughout every single one of us here on this globe. Either we suffered from a mental health struggle or someone we knew.
As I reflected on that, I reflected on my work in the DEI space, the diversity, equity, and inclusion space. I’d done so much work around race and gender and other disparities, even physical disabilities, but I had not done any work around mental health.
We knew that toxic work environments impacted our ability to be able to succeed in the workplace. I knew that bias against other diversities, that dimensions of diversity, impacted our ability to succeed in the workplace. I knew that homogeneous workforces and leadership teams impacted our ability to succeed in the workplace, but what I didn’t acknowledge is the importance of our mental health.
I didn’t realize that on top of being black, and on top of being a woman, that I had now a new dimension of diversity, something else to be discriminated against. Something else to be seen as different. I thought about my different layers of diversity, and I thought about other people’s layers of diversity who have this hidden layer that we are often silent about, but that we need support. We need advocacy in our workplaces because of it. And it was in that moment that I decided to turn my pain into purpose, and I decided to continue to be, not just the face of bipolar disorder, but to be the voice, to be the face, to be anything I could be for those who suffered from mental health conditions.
From then on, that has been my journey, to cultivate cultures of mental wellness in the work. We’ve already done the same as a leader of HR. And as I dealt with DEI issues, oftentimes we related our physical health with our ability to be well at work. We made that correlation of being well at work with, again, being successful, meeting our goals. But a lot of times we just focus on the physical attribute. We only focus on gym membership discounts, and step challenges, and nutrition programs.
But what we’re doing for mental illness, when we think about employee wellness, it’s more than what we can measure in an exam room. It’s about an employee’s wellness as a human right, individually and corporately.
So if I thought about that, and that intersectionality of the work that I did in terms of DEI and in terms of mental wellness in the workplace, think about this. A strong abdominal core is useless if you’re under psychological attack from a manipulative or domineering supervisor. A trim waistline is more of a curse than a blessing when you’re continuously being objectified and harassed with little to no accountability from the offenders. An excellent nutrition program is nothing more than a teasing insult when your pay disparity makes it difficult for you to be able to meet your basic human beings.
We are not machines, and we deserve better as humans, as people, as humanity in the workplace. When we think about our psychological safety, the ability to show up, speak up, and stand up for what’s right, we’ve done that in terms of other dimensions of diversity of DEI, but we must do that for our mental health.
We are a social human beings. We are relational, and we need you to be able to create safe spaces for dialogue about our mental health, about our struggles and the resources that we need. We are spiritual human beings, meaning however you understand it. There is more to life that what we can see under a microscope and without the peace of God, or the universe, or whatever it is, you struggle to find meaningful purpose in holistic wellness.
We have to have that. I am still on a journey of my mental health, and I’m doing that through a foundation that I created. I’m doing that through partnerships, and I’m doing that by being vulnerable and transparent about my mental illness, because it is a part of my identity. And to be honest, I’m proud of it. I am proud that I can stand here and bring my whole authentic self to you and to workplaces. And I hope that be bringing out the worst of me brings out the best of you.