By Michelle Tenzyk – For many years I have been thinking about corporate and professional women – the increasingly difficult paths we have forged for ourselves by “leaning in” just a bit too far at times. The seeming lack of open, honest support structures. Having my own personal struggles with an often-stigmatized illness over 20 years of my career – and never feeling safe about speaking up about it – got me thinking that there had to be a way to create a conversation, a discussion for women, especially senior executive women, to find hope by hearing other women’s stories of adversity while holding prestigious and coveted titles and positions. I wanted to pull back the curtain of shame and embarrassment that some of us feel from these struggles. I wanted to make it ok. I wanted other women to not feel so alone as I had when I was suffering the worst of my illness and there was no one coming forward for me to relate to. How do you keep climbing the proverbial ladder when something so dark and difficult seems to be enveloping your life?
I was Tiffany & Co.’s global director of training and development when I was hospitalized for a crippling depression. The real truth was, a suicide attempt forced an involuntary commitment to a psych ward. This was followed by being admitted to a longer care facility. It was the beginning of a 21-year period where (depression) has been the undercurrent of my corporate and business life. Two more suicide attempts would follow, accompanied by stays in not the nicest of psychiatric facilities in the New York area. Both of these words – depression and suicide carry such a deep stigma no matter how much we hear of them or read of them in the news. As a high-achieving, and subsequently high-ranking corporate executive, being able to talk about my illness openly and freely was fraught with challenges – so I chose to keep it private. I only shared it on a need to know basis.
“Mental illness has no boundaries – no one is immune.”
At my lowest points of my illness – it is literally like walking with a 1000-pound bag wrapped around you. The heaviness is hard to describe. There is no joy, utter fatigue, memory issues, no appetite, no enthusiasm, crying easily, and wrestling with suicidal ideation almost daily. I am not able to make any personal plans or commitments – I usually can’t show up for anything (except interestingly enough, my jobs). I lose interest in most everything and can sit for hours at a time staring into space. I lose incredible amounts of weight. At work I need to be deliberate. I stay focused on one task at a time. I deal with comments that I’m not friendly or open. I keep to myself and hide in my office. I take rigorous notes so I don’t lose track. Being high-achieving has saved me – as I somehow pull off the miraculous and manage to get by in my jobs. I have taken long leaves of absences – sometimes up to a year to cope with the stress and unending heaviness of depression.
Living with that much darkness and in that kind of pain, while still having to perform as a high level executive and not having the freedom to share what I was going through created enormous pressure. I have lived with this for years and it has become “me.” You become your stress, you become your illness, and you become your darkness. For me, suicide and depression just is. It is like a form fitting glove – I know it well. It slides on easily. I know how my brain works. It feels like living two separate lives – at the same time. I call it the “bad Michelle” and the “work Michelle”. And now, after years of working with my doctors it has become the “bad Michelle” and the “good Michelle”. What I mean by that is – the Michelle that wants to live and the Michelle that doesn’t. The Michelle that wants to live has strengthened. She hasn’t won, but she is stronger. I ask for help from people who can help me. I don’t keep secrets as often.
Over the years, when I would interview for particular positions – I often felt like a fraud. There were gaps in my employment or questionable departures, but I was good at talking through them. I knew the true story though. And when most people look at me or hear me speak, they just don’t associate an illness such as mine with their perception of what someone with depression and/or suicidal thoughts might look like. And that makes me sad. Mental illness has no boundaries – no one is immune.
“As high-achieving women, we often ‘go at it alone,’ as if making our own way demonstrates strength.”
About two years ago, I met Kelley Black, the Founder of Balancing the Executive Life™ and a member of Women on Fire (we met through this group). Kelley had her own powerful story and felt as strongly as I did about supporting women more fully in the corporate/professional world, especially considering the work she so passionately does. But we both wondered, how? Fast forward to November of 2013 when I was one of Susan Rocco’s radio guests for her program, Women to Watch™. With Susan leading me along during the interview, I told my story, admitting for the first time publicly that I have lived with my illness for 20 years and how it has impacted my corporate career. The puzzle was starting to fall into place.
I asked Kelley and Susan to join me in continuing to crystallize the idea for this dream of mine, which I believe, as do they, can and now is the beginning of the movement I founded, The Truth Behind Our Titles™. It’s my vision for a collective effort of sharing stories, stories marked by strength, hope, and resilience, while finding relief in conversation. No woman (or man) should feel alone and without a life-line of support for their professional journey. We need to pull back the curtain on these struggles and provide practical strategies and solutions to manage the ever-complex professional lives we lead. None of us, I believe, wants to “lean in” any more than we already have. And as much as we all want to “Thrive” as Arianna suggests, we may need to do so our way.
The more we can shatter the belief that in order to be professionally successful, we need to hide or disguise our inner struggles and difficulties, the better. I truly believe it is quite the opposite…our greatest challenges are often the key, and the door, to our greatest successes.
“Our greatest challenges are often the key, and the door, to our greatest successes.”
I am often asked what advice I have for those of us struggling, especially in the corporate environment. Here is what I say:
- Ask for help. As high-achieving women, we often “go at it alone,” as if making our own way demonstrates strength. This has many truths to it – but the real truth is, strength comes from asking for help – and regularly. We have many different sources – from those who have expertise you don’t, the same expertise that I do have for better insights, from people with different POVs, and those more junior to my experience, more senior – you get the picture. In doing so it makes us more efficient, productive and happier. Often, our strength stems from support.
- Confide in trusted friends and colleagues. This pattern must be broken. Whether it is someone internal to your company or external, but someone who is not only a good listener, but a great listener. Someone who is willing to give you input and objective guidance. Someone who is genuinely empathetic and compassionate. As Brene Brown says, “someone who really has your back, no – really has your back”. Hope, once found, is one of the most powerful tools.
- Utilize support systems. Whether you go to HR, your EAP (employee assistance program) or an external group; find a group of like-minded, kindred spirits where you can share your struggles and challenges openly and honestly. This could be just 2 of you or 10 of you. But a group with whom you can share the truth without fear of repercussions or stigmatization. Resilience is born from the realization that you are not alone.
And what about my life today? I am treated successfully for my illness and I am educated about my symptoms. I lead a full and vibrant life. My last serious bout was in 2006. This is the first time I have gone this long without being hospitalized. I pinch myself! I run my own company. I work with senior leaders, CEO’s, business owners regularly. I love what I do. My company’s tagline is “when people thrive, business thrives.” I came up with it because I know when I thrive I can help others thrive. And I am thriving. My movement, our movement, The Truth Behind Our Titles™, will help us thrive, one story at a time. I firmly believe it. I hope you will too.
About This Contributor
Michelle Tenzyk is the President of East Tenth Group, a boutique consulting firm providing strategic HR consulting, leadership development and executive coaching services. She has over 25 years of experience in human resources, maximizing leaders’ effectiveness across multiple industries. East Tenth Group is fiercely committed to helping leaders and their businesses thrive in today’s complex environment. Michelle is also the proud Founder of The Truth Behind Our Titles™.