I’m in the Arctic Circle, looking up at a car dangling 100 feet in the air. The world is in the grip of a pandemic, I’ve been locked away in my home office for a year, and now I’m on a Volvo shoot in the Arctic bloody Circle, freezing my arse off, wearing totally inappropriate footwear, getting daily Covid tests (Swedish nurses are not gentle), but I’m happier than I’ve been in years.
I know. The timing is pretty insensitive, feeling a whole new lease of life in the middle of a global catastrophe, but for many of us this has been a time of profound reappraisal. The world has changed in a way that never would have happened on its own.
In the wise words of Homer Simpson, this is a crisi-tunity. We have a rare opportunity to change the way we work, so that we don’t fall back into old patterns that might not be right for us any more. For all the challenges that have come with lockdown, as a father of twins and an advertising creative, I will come out of this experience a better dad, a better creative, and a generally happier man. That’s why I can never go back to the way things were.
Let’s rewind. Before the madness of 2020. It was summer 2019 and I couldn’t get out of bed. I should have seen the warning signs. It had always been there, lurking in my periphery, waiting to pounce. Depression. The black dog, taking a massive dump on my hippocampus. I hadn’t felt this bad since I was a teenager, sitting on a park bench, watching the river Derwent ripple in the evening light, calmly downing 50 co-codamol like they were Skittles. But here it was again. Twenty years later, but painfully familiar.
I’d been fine yesterday [Fine (adjective): stressed, anxious and unhappy, but capable of going through the motions at least]. Suddenly my one-and-a half-hour commute from Bedford to Farringdon may as well have been a trek through the Arctic, stark-bollock-naked (having now been there, I do not recommend this). A bus. A train. An office full of people. Nope. Nope. Nope. Totally unthinkable. But I couldn’t just not show up for work. It wouldn’t have been fair to my creative partner. So, I had to do another unthinkable thing. Call John. Call work. I stared at my phone for a long time. How do you communicate a universe of pressing darkness with words alone?
"I can’t move, I’m sorry. I can’t. I just can’t," I whispered through the line.
Of course, both John and HR were incredibly supportive. I say “of course”, but at the time there was no “of course” about it. These things can’t be assumed. Not when an evil-goblin lawyer has taken up residence in your brain, committed to making you believe all kinds of unreasonable things with no real evidence.
To outward eyes I probably seemed fine, so where was this all coming from all of a sudden? I was quite sure this phone call was going to have terrible consequences that would affect my whole family and doom my career. The evil-goblin lawyer was very good at its job.
Fortunately, the world is taking mental health a lot more seriously these days; the stigma is eroded every time someone opens up about it, which is why I’m writing this awkwardly personal piece to an audience of faceless professionals. No offence, I’m sure you have a lovely face. That said, I still don’t know whether I’m going to have the balls to hit send. If you’re reading this, you can probably blame half a bottle of Lagavulin.
Anyway, I won’t go into too much detail on the months that followed, but needless to say, I didn’t spend them at work. It was my lockdown before lockdown. The world had changed, for me at least, and I had to find a way to move forward. I had a wife and two children who needed me. I had to get better.
So, for the first time in my life, I took the meds. I attended the free counselling sessions offered through work. I started running. I ate better. And yes, I even delved into the "self-help" books, from The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, to Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig.
After several months of this, I was cautiously optimistic about returning to work, but deep down, I knew it couldn’t last long. There had to be some kind of drastic change, but I was hardly going to be able to change the way the world worked.
A few months after that, Covid happened.
There’s no good time to suffer from depression, but this was a good time to suffer from depression. It prepared me for the challenging months to come, after the novelty of lockdown wore off. By this time, I was already armed with some of the tools I needed to cope with the anxiety and isolation that was suddenly reflected in the world around me. In a sense, lockdown became an extension of my sick leave, giving me more time to put things into perspective. At last, I began to take joy in simple things again.
It seems pretty obvious but being anxious and miserable is not good for the creative process. Thankfully, the reverse is also true. The more I enjoyed life, the more I enjoyed my job. New bosses arrived who were compassionate and ambitious, so I had a chance to cast off this sad version of myself like a worn-out costume and start again. I rediscovered my passion for what I do, which led to better work, which led to greater confidence, which led to more opportunities, which led to two promotions within the space of a year. It was a domino effect that began with getting more of what I needed outside of work.
This is just my experience, yours is probably quite different, but I’m pretty sure we’ve all learned something about ourselves over the past year-and-a-half. Who we are, what we want, what we need, and what can kindly fuck off. Let’s bring these lessons with us as we return to the office, so we can hold onto the things we love, and reconsider the things that are slowly chipping away at our happiness. A bit of flexibility and compassion will make us all better at what we do. So, let’s change things up a bit. This is our crisi-tunity. Let’s not waste it.
Sam Haynes is creative director at Grey London