CEO & Founder, East Tenth Group
Living with depression and anxiety

Looking at Michelle’s resume, one can easily identify her innate levels of determination and high-achieving nature. What her work portfolio doesn’t show is her 25-year struggle with depression that has been the undercurrent of her corporate business life. Now leading a full and vibrant life, Michelle strives to shatter the belief that “in order to be professionally successful, we need to hide or disguise our inner struggles and difficulties.”

Michelle’s Story

How has your condition impacted your life?  When were you first aware of it?  What was your most difficult time? 

I was Tiffany & Co.’s global director of training and development in 1994 when I was hospitalized for crippling depression. The truth was that a suicide attempt forced an involuntary commitment to a psych ward. This was followed by a longer-term stay in a psychiatric facility. It was the beginning of a 25-year period through which 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 about 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.

At work, I am deliberate. I stay focused on one task at a time. I deal with comments that I’m not friendly or open. 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 absence, sometimes up to a year, to cope with the stress and heaviness of depression. Living with that much darkness and that kind of pain, and feeling trapped alone with it, while still having to perform as a high-level executive created enormous pressure. I have lived with this for years and it has become “me.”

What is your life like now?  What does success/living well look like for you?

I hope we can shatter the belief that in order to be professionally successful, we need to hide or disguise our inner struggles and difficulties. I truly believe it is quite the opposite; our greatest challenges are often the key, and the door, to our greatest successes.

I am being 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 could pinch myself! I do have periods of depression, and last year was one of those. I know much better today how to manage through these more comfortably.  I run my own company. I work with senior leaders, CEOs, and business owners regularly. I love what I do. I have been married for 7 years to my amazing husband, Joe. We are good, solid, and loving. 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.

What do you do to manage your condition and stay healthy on an ongoing basis?

  1. I am mindful of my triggers and symptoms, and I make adjustments in the day, week, or month to help them. This includes always a warm, sunny vacation between January and March. Setting rigorous boundaries, saying “no” when it is just too much, and planning for downtime when I have become too busy.
  2. Running. I took up running almost 3 years ago and it has been life-changing. I run outside all year long – which gives me extra sunshine and fresh air. I belong to a running group, which gives me camaraderie, support, and love.
  3. I have regular appointments with my psychiatrist.
  4. I take my medication as prescribed.

Are there positives that have come from having a mental health condition?  If so, what?

  1. Being more empathetic and understanding in my leadership work of anyone who is struggling with whatever they might be. The human spirit and despair can be deep and shattering. I have been there and intuitively understand without ever having to reveal myself.
  2. Sharing my story, which went viral on LinkedIn, and realizing there are many professionals who are hurting and need to know they are not alone.
  3. Becoming a safe place for friends, family, and colleagues to confide in when they are hurting and knowing I just need to listen and share my experience (not advice).

How has your condition impacted your work and your career? 

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. Meanwhile, I knew the true story, the truth behind my title.

Today, now being public with my story, I no longer must “make up” what my journey has been. There still are times where I have not been able to attend the social functions associated with my role – as it is too overwhelming. Fortunately, my company’s clients and our colleagues have not questioned my abilities due to my mental health – they have welcomed my sharing about it. However, I will say that running my own company has given me the ability to set my own schedule and manage my interactions and commitments, which all helps me better manage my mental health.

What words of encouragement would you give to someone struggling with a condition similar to yours?  

  1. Ask for help. As high achievers, we often “go at it alone,” as if making our own way demonstrates strength. While independence is an aspect of strength, strength also comes from asking for help—and regularly. Often, our strength stems from support, and we have many different sources. Speak to those who have the expertise that you don’t, and those who share the same expertise, who can help you develop better insights. Speak to those with different POVs – those both more junior and more senior. Reaching out can help you become more efficient, productive, and joyful.
  2. Confide in trusted friends and colleagues. Trust itself exists for this very reason—to help us navigate life’s darkest storms. That trusted person can be someone internal or external to your company, but that someone must be a great listener. Someone who is willing to give you input and objective guidance – someone who is genuinely empathetic and compassionate. As Brené Brown says, you need “someone who really has your back—no, really has your back.” Hope, once found, is one of the most powerful tools.
  3. 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 you can share your struggles and challenges with, openly and honestly. This could be 2 of you or 10 of you, but it must be 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.

What motivated you to join The Stability Network?  What do you hope to get from it?

I came across the network a few years ago in my continued research on bringing down the walls of stigma in the corporate and professional environment. I was compelled to reach out and join to help bring these walls down. I hope to learn more from others, whose suffering and survival has allowed them to live their best lives.

Are there resources (books, videos, websites) that helped and/or inspired you that you would recommend to others?

  • Darkness Visible by William Styron
  • Any book from Brené Brown – especially Daring Greatly
  • Melody Beattie’s Daily Reflection books