Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Disadvantage as Advantage

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Use your disadvantage to your advantage.

That last statement came from Jon Akwue, global client managing director at Engine, just this afternoon. I’m currently part of an incredible programme called Livity Advantage, run through Livity UK and led by Google, and through their amazing 8-week Digital Expert course I, along with 14 others have had, and will have, the chance to meet with, talk to, and learn from outstanding industry experts and forerunners such as Jon, and it was our meeting with him earlier that got me thinking, non-stop, all the way home.

The notion of disadvantage is a broad one, and perhaps a sensitive one, but the idea that you can use what makes you different, makes you you, (your ‘Unique Selling Point’) even if it’s perhaps been in the first instance less than positive, is an incredibly powerful one. Jon’s point really drove home that in almost every sense of the word I’m actually advantaged, in so much as I’m not disadvantaged. I’m incredibly lucky in most respects, in that I’m white, lower middle class, and come from an incredibly supportive family who were also able to live near a decent school. I’m not the standard model when someone says the word disadvantaged, because in most respects I’m not.

Here’s where it gets tricky, or perhaps interesting, never mind the fact that it’s been going round and round my head for about 5 hours. My ‘disadvantage’ is exclusively mine to disclose. With the best will in the world, ethnicity, just for example, or some disabilities, is not necessarily something you have a choice about disclosing when walking in to a room. But is that a good thing, or not? It struck me today just how right Jon Akwue was with his statement, and how much people who’ve seen both sides of the coin have to offer in that respect, but also, just how much my frankly incomparable ‘disadvantage’ is a silent burden, as at face value, I am, well, advantaged.

I went to University, I stayed for 4 years, but I didn’t get a degree. On paper, I wasted 4 years of my life and have very little to show for the massive amount of debt I’m in because of those years. In reality, I had some of the best experiences of my life, but also lived through the worst, darkest days of my existence. As a consequence I learnt so much about myself, and about the world around me and how things impact each other that I am now in fact a stronger, no, better person because of what I experienced, and have a completely different angle on life and the way I work and tackle things because of it.

My newly-acquired angle is the USP I bring to the table, but the problem I face is that of deciding, or perhaps knowing when and sometimes even if, to disclose. I have the benefit, or perhaps advantage of being able to disclose my ‘disadvantage’ at will, but then there are all the pre-conceived notions that accompany what I’ve been through which often take a lot more than a conversation at interview to dispel, while it is what I’ve been through (loosely) that is the reason I am right for the job and could bring so much to the role. Tricky, no?

I know what I have to offer, but my next challenge is proving it to the people I want to work with, in spite of what’s in the past.

If at first you don’t succeed and all that.

Challenge accepted.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Black Dog Obedience Training

Depression. Even the word is heavy. It presses down on you, on your life. It impedes movement both physical and metaphorical, and smothers you to the point of almost suffocation.

I could wax lyrical about the poetic darkness of depression, and the viscous, black hold it can have over people, but on World Mental Health Day of all days, and at the point in life I currently find myself it feels pertinent to make the simplest but truest of statements:

It gets better.

Not now, not tomorrow, maybe not straight away, and not necessarily forever, but there are places and people who can lift the load, and tighten the leash, and you will stand up straight and breathe deeply again: I promise.

There have been times in the past few years where even just reading that statement would have elicited vicious, unbelieving laughter, so please; bear with me. There will also be those of you who have never experienced mental health issues who may wonder why it’s even worth giving such a widely and (dangerously) naively assumed notion the time of day.

To you, I say that it gets better, not because depression is some "temporary indulgence of the weak," but because it has to. In the most basic of senses, when a person hits rock bottom the only way they have is up, and even what may seem, or sometimes even feel, to both them and others like the smallest of advances should not be diminished. Clich├ęs become so due to an element of universal truth, and the adage that we are our own worst enemies is most certainly true. Who else has such absolute power over you? Who else knows all your shameful, hateful secrets and exactly what it is about those secrets that scares and haunts you? Who else knows exactly what to say to ruin your day? When fighting with yourself, with what’s inside you, there isn’t the luxury of being able to put distance between you and the problem. When you are the reason you can’t bear to get out of bed in the morning, or leave the house for fear of having to interact with others, or pick up the phone because you’re scared of not knowing what to say to the person on the other end, then refuge is hard to find.

It gets better because having been through depression, I know that I understand myself so much better as a person and actually, that without having been to hell and back I wouldn’t be the stronger, more informed and together person I am today. When in the depths of depression I sought help through what I saw as weakness and desperation, but as I’ve progressed both through and upwards I’ve realised that there’s an incredible strength in even feeling able to reach out for help, and I know that it is the power I have gained over the illness that has enabled me to feel strong enough to recognise the signs and understand myself better while putting in place the support network that I know I can utilise if ever the same thing starts to happen again. I realise that it perhaps sounds to an outsider that I had a charmed, easy ride with my depression which, for one, I don’t think is physically possible, and is a dangerous idea that should be quickly dispelled. Make no mistake: I have fought to be where I am today. I have battled myself, negative stereotypes and stigma, and not to mention the god damn depression itself, and I have encountered stumbling blocks, setbacks and colossal great snakes that have sent me all the way back down to the start, both within my own mind and from outside influences, but though the road is long and winding, let me tell you: the view from the top makes it all worthwhile.

So yes, it does get better, but at different rates and with different definitions of success for different people.

Better is completely subjective when it comes to mental health, and there are so many groups and organisations out there waiting to help, just as soon as you’re ready to let them, so do.