Check On Your Strong Friends

I watched the movie McQueen recently and felt compelled to write this article. The movie is about the deceased, genius, fashion designer (Lee) Alexander McQueen. It was mostly autobiographical, detailing his journey as a punk kid, son of a London taxi driver, who started his career as a tailoring apprentice on Saville Row and became one of the most respected (not necessarily loved) fashion designers in history. His garments were equal parts dark and beautiful. They were controversial, but if you looked past the obvious subversion you could see tailoring that was second-to-none and an eye for design and detail that was purely unique to him.

But he was a mess. He was abused by an uncle as a child. His personal life was always consumed by his work. His meteoric rise in the public eye, though great, only exacerbated issues from his past that he'd never made the time to resolve. And the darkness from where most of his genius creations were derived led, ultimately, to his undoing.

The recent high-profile suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade shined a very sobering light on the mental health epidemic experienced by millions around the world. It's something that is very real, over medicated, and widely misunderstood. And, sadly, still remains a source of shame to those suffering in the shadows doing their best just to make it day-to-day. 

I'm not a mental health professional nor do I have the desire to post a bunch of stats and figures to validate my point of view. Instead, I'll give you a little personal insight into my own struggles with being one of "the strong ones" with hopes that someone will read this and understand that they're not alone. 

I've managed to build a business and a die-hard audience of fantastic Executive Assistants around the world via the articles I've written and the classes I've taught over the past two years. While I am grateful for the love and proud of achieving exactly what I'd set out to accomplish, it all comes at a cost. Giving and giving to others each day both personally (as an EA myself) and publicly (as an EA advocate and coach) often leaves me with nothing left in the coffers to give myself. Who I portray myself to be online is exactly who I am in real life. On paper, that's great. But, in practice, my kindness, approachability and desire to help others is often taken for granted and over-consumed by those more interested in what I can provide to them for their specific needs than developing any sort of understanding of who I am as a person. They'll often read an article or two (of the 60+ I've posted on LinkedIn), relate to something I've written, and automatically assume that they know me on some pseudo-deeper level. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, multiply that by 50+ people per month who reach out, unsolicited, asking for (often demanding) my time in a one-sided transaction that benefits them with little regard for me. At first, it was something I felt I could adjust to and roll with as part of a growing online presence. But it eventually turned into the source of a pretty gnarly depression that included thoughts of suicide...exacerbated by the suicide of a personal hero, Anthony Bourdain, another perceived "strong one" whom I'd idolized as a rebel, truth teller, and rule circumventor like me.

The Executive Assistant role is one of professional martyrdom. Daily. While it is one of the most interesting, rewarding, and ever-changing careers in business, it's one full of complexity and constant anxiety, rife with low-key abuse and condescension, and easily the least understood and under-appreciated role in any organization. It takes a specific kind of person to be able to succeed wildly in this role. Those who are led by emotion will quickly flame out. Those who are too logic-based and analytical will become frustrated with the lack of consistency of the role. Those who don't have a strong sense of self will never be able to tune out the idiots who have no respect for the role and, resultantly, have no respect for those in it. And those who are supremely confident and a little too passionate will often be accused of overstepping their authority, not knowing "their place," and will be ignored, deleted from meetings, even mistreated by other EAs who feel they've been upstaged. 

I say this because as a 26-year veteran in this role I've been through every stage mentioned above. It hasn't been easy, but I'm still here. But, let me be clear, it has taken a toll. My personal relationships have suffered. My familial relationships have suffered. My health has suffered. Sure, I'm well compensated for the insane amount of work that I do on a daily basis. Yes, I know that I've helped to build tremendous wealth, save relationships, and create calm in the lives of the execs I've supported. Yes, I've been able to build a reputation as one of the best out there, have met all of my tech/finance heroes, my favorite celebrities and even worked with a couple of billionaires you might know. But, again, it has come at a tremendous personal cost, that as I get older, I feel less and less compelled to pay.

In November 2015 I was proposed to, on a beach, by a good friend whom I'd known for 17 years. It was easily one of the happiest moments of my entire life. One that I had already accepted would never happen as a career-obsessed, career Executive Assistant who'd run off every previous relationship, including a 2-time Olympic Gold medalist, with my ambition and insane work ethic. So, I gave up my dream job in LA, moved north, found a new job and began planning the most beautiful wedding on record. Then the bottom fell out. 2 months later my grandmother (the woman who'd raised me) died. Two weeks later, I quit my new job with a CEO who I discovered was drug addicted and defrauding the company. And two days later my betrothed called off our engagement with the line, "Let's revisit this in 6 months." It was a level of devastation and humiliation I had never experienced in my life before. But, I'm one of the "strong ones." So I cried my way back down the 5 behind tinted windows so no one could see. I locked myself in my bedroom for two straight weeks, only emerging long enough to score something to eat. I quickly found a new job and returned my life to some version of normalcy, but failing to reconcile all of the hurt, loss and disappointment. Instead, I painted on a smile, hopped back on the horse -- shiny and new on the outside, but completely broken and wounded on the inside. Because I'm one of "the strong ones."

The funny thing about not dealing with the collateral damage of your past is that it will eventually circle back and bite you square in the ass. It comes with no warning sign or invitation. But it will come. And I believe this is why some people simply check out of life. It's too much to deal with in the moment, akin to drinking from a fire hose, with no (viable) quick fix. Even in our "okay" moments of being able to successfully mask the pain, we still feel it bubbling just below the surface fully aware that it will eventually blow like a volcano and expose us for who we really are: emotionally exhausted, broken, incomplete, lonely, and (still) in immense pain. 

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I found help. And I've been able to talk through all of the disappointment of my failed engagement, the death of the woman who raised me, the tremendous financial loss I incurred with two moves in three months, even reconcile the emotional damage my absentee father had created, to finally find an emotional balance and coping skill set that had eluded me for years to the point of wanting to end it all. However, I've lost more than a handful of friends and colleagues to suicide. And I know for a fact that more than a handful are suffering in the shadows with mental health issues, falling in and out of deep depressions, yet painting on the same smile I did all those years just to get through life as best they can. Getting help is a personal choice. And it's the ultimate vulnerability. But it's a decision that has changed and, likely, saved my life. 

I grew up in the South. I (used to) love to say that I have a Masters Degree from Figure It The F*ck Out University. I avoided any sort of therapy or counseling for decades thinking it was a sign of weakness and an opportunity for a complete stranger to mess with my ability to figure shit out for myself. However, what I've found is that simply getting it out in the open, talking through all of the narratives in my head, and allowing my therapist to ask the tough questions that actually debunk some of the myths I'd created has helped me tremendously. No mind trickery. Nothing sinister like in the movies. Just consistent, honest conversations that help me be okay in my daily life. And, low key, it's a huge exhale knowing that I have someone who understands me and gives me their undivided attention each week. For an hour. For 90 bucks.

So that's why I say, "Check on your strong friends." Invite them over to hang out. Give them a call if you haven't heard from them in a while. The strong ones are usually the ones who help others the most, often to the detriment of their own mental health and without much reciprocity because people automatically assume that since they're strong they have it all figured out. I'll tell you this: we don't. We're just as human. We also need attentiveness and a shoulder at times. We're some of the most sensitive people on the planet. And, sadly, we're some of the loneliest, as there aren't enough of us to go around. Sometimes just hearing a friendly voice or laughing uncontrollably at something stupid or simply taking a walk with a friend makes life that much more worth living. Those simple gestures of kindness and attention, that aren't transactional, could be the one thing that keeps a strong one from doing something impulsive and final during those times of emotional overwhelm. So check on your strong friends. And check again. FaceTime instead of text. See them eye-to-eye at every possible opportunity. And give them your undivided attention. It could literally save their lives. And it's free.

Phoenix Normand