Mad Men: the reality show

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year it’s themed around the idea of ‘Connecting‘. It’s when some of the smartest people in our industry do amazing work to help us better understand mental illness. But when it comes to understanding, the real heavy lifting is usually achieved through conversation. So, as someone who’s lucky enough to be relatively successful in spite of mental illness, I thought this may a good place to kick-start some chatter. 

My name’s Michael and I’m bipolar. Technically, I have a ‘mild-cyclothymic mood disorder’, but let’s just keep it simple and say I have some history of wigging out. Now, I’m not usually a t-shirt-wearing, flag-carrying poster boy for mental illness, but I’m not ashamed of it either. And I’m lucky enough to work in the best industry on the planet, especially for people like me.

The advertising industry loves people like me. I’m a big picture thinker, I’m creative, I have confidence, some charm and a brain that can spin things around and make connections that few people can. When I’m on fire, it’s like all of those things are running at triple-time. One of my most-awarded pieces of work was written at the bus stop on a scrappy piece of paper I found in my bag. Another was banged into my laptop at three in the morning in a flurry of insomnia, madness and creativity. It can be handy.

The downside is the downside. As a general pattern, I spend three months of the year being incredibly creative and another three months where I’m flat. The rest of the time I’m just like anyone else: consistent, normal.

So why is this relevant to advertising? Do a quick Google search of ‘manic behaviour’ and you’ll see symptoms like fast free-flowing ideas, grandiose thinking, extreme self-confidence and various other behaviours that make our industry what it is. When under control, my ‘problem’ is perfect. And if you look around your business, or think about your agency partners, you can probably see why.

Of course, it’s not always like that. If I do slip ‘off the wagon’, I can lean toward self-destruction. I won’t bore you with the detail, but I think of an ‘episode’ as like driving a car at 200kph. If the road’s straight and there’s no one on it, it’s kind of fun and no big deal. But there’s usually someone else on the road.

I’m lucky. I was hospitalised at 25 and clearly understood that my future was all about staying in control. So far, touch wood, I have. I’ve also been blessed to work in some amazing agencies with incredible people—and I have a finely tuned system to keep me safe. In the past, when I started somewhere new, I’d take a couple of people aside and tell them the rules. “If I do this, this, and this, please talk to me. And If I can’t or won’t listen, call my wife.” It works. In 12 years in the industry I’ve only had to play the ‘mental health’ card once. After one inexcusable outburst, my job was on the line. So I called time out, got a doctor’s note and took a week off on stress leave. It saved my job and stuffed my career at that agency.

And that’s the point. In spite of the great work being done to change perception around mental illness, there is still enormous stigma. Can anyone really trust a nutter? Before sharing this, I got advice from some good friends, mentors, my brother and my doctor. All of them had reservations. As Dr Russell so eloquently put it, “It’s admirable Michael and may be useful to someone—but you can’t un-ring the bell.”

He’s right. And that’s wrong. So consider the bell rung.

If putting my heart on my sleeve and telling my story helps one person to better understand a colleague, or themselves, it’s certainly worth the risk. More importantly, I have two kids who will grow up and go to work themselves one day. Sadly, the laws of genetics suggest that at least one of them may share my brain chemistry. Maybe, by then, it’ll be okay to say “I’m a certified nutter,” just as we acknowledge physical disability, sexual preferences or any of those other ‘outside the normal’ things. If I don’t do my bit to help that happen, I’m not doing my job as a dad.

So that’s my rant. It’s personal. But it’s also professional and this seems like the perfect week to see if it starts a conversation. I think it’s an important conversation in our industry. Mad people are attracted to advertising, just as advertising is attracted to us. We need each other. We also need to break down more barriers, re-judge our judgments and give ‘odd’ people a break. It’s on me to keep my brain in check and make sure I stay within boundaries. But it’s on you to accept that I’m just like you are—even though, sometimes, I’m not.

My name’s Michael. I’m bipolar. ‘Know me before you judge me’. And if ever we’re working together and I’m over the top, obnoxious and more of a dick than usual; it’s okay to ask me if I’m okay. I’ll probably thank you for it. And if I tell you to get fucked because I’m Superman, call my wife.

  • Michael Goldthorpe runs a small strategic and creative shop called Hunch. Check out some more of his musings on marketing here

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