mental health | February 13, 2011

Mental Health Speaker Drew Dudley: Being Called Superman, But Feeling Weak

Below are some very personal paragraphs from mental health speaker Drew Dudley. It’s an outline for his keynote speech on living with bipolar disorder — a powerful, myth-clearing talk about what it’s like to be one of the millions of Canadians who struggle with mental health. Before delving in, though, some context.

Here’s how we came to know Drew: At TEDxToronto last year, Drew stepped onto the stage and delivered a blistering talk. He wasn’t there that day as a mental health speaker. He spoke, quite movingly, about leadership. About how leadership had become something bigger than us, something unattainable. Leadership, he lamented, is now synonymous with saving the world, and nothing else. And as a result, a lot of people — a lot of legitimate leaders — are now wincingly uncomfortable, maybe even embarrassed, with calling themselves leaders. And that’s just wrong. Drew’s talk was six minutes, and it was amazing. Passionate, optimistic, and full of self-deprecating humor. By the afternoon coffee break, we had signed Drew to be a Lavin Agency keynote speaker. 

A few weeks later, at the Lavin offices, Drew revealed to us that he lives with bipolar disorder. Rather than try to hide this fact, he has crafted a presentation about the experience of living with a mental illness. Below is his outline. If you would like to invite Drew Dudley to be a mental health speaker at your event, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

“From dark to light…and back again…and again…and again.” There’s a photograph on my wall that was supposed to be the final one ever taken of me. It’s from early summer 2007, from the top of Kelly’s Mountain in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada.

It’s from the start of what my friends, family and co-workers thought would be a week-long vacation. It’s what I had decided would be my last week alive.

I look happy, relaxed - a great friend on each arm and one of Canada’s most beautiful places rolling into the distance behind me. In my right pocket was a bottle of sleeping pills I intended to swallow my final night. I’d take them sitting on the steps in the quad of my old university, the last place I could remember feeling like I knew who I would be each morning.

One of my students once introduced me as “Superman” at an awards banquet, a moniker many in my life — my girlfriend, my boss, and many friends — stuck me with from then on. It was meant as a compliment I know, a tribute to the kid who graduated with a 99 average from high school, who broke national fundraising records at 23, ran national organizations at 25, started earning standing ovations for his speeches by 28, and had built one of the largest leadership programs in the country by the time he was 32. 

This presentation is about what it’s like to be called Superman and feel weak. What it’s like to have your own brain be your only kryptonite. It’s the story of the fear that comes when those periods of listlessness at the age of 20 become periods of terrifying darkness at the age of 28. What it’s like to be leaned on when you feel you can barely stand.

Bipolar Disorder means never knowing who you will be when you wake up in the morning. Will you be Superman that day — bursting with ideas, energy and the passion necessary to move forward with the amazing things you’ve created? Or will those same amazing things feel like chains tied around you, obligations you don’t want to live up to, obligations you hate yourself for creating?

This presentation is the story of the disease that went undiagnosed - that made me alternatingly a golden boy and a miserable mess. It’s the story of the hopelessness that comes from having a life you know should make you happy, but that for no rationale reason brings only tremendous sadness on some days and not others. It’s the story of some friends on a beach and a nurse on a bus who saved my life without knowing it, and of the struggle to accept that treating the disease properly means perhaps never again being the most impressive “you” possible. It makes you ask yourself whether the gifts you might have to die for are really gifts at all. 

Finally, it’s the story of my realization that telling this story can help others, yet finding many close to me urging me to keep quiet. That no one wants to hear that Superman is less than they thought. Discovering I was Bipolar was like being handed the piece that finally made sense of a life I am both incredibly proud of and embarassed about. It made so much possible but at times brought a tremendous price. It also brought me a new understanding of the struggles faced by those with mental illness, the obstacles to first learning about and then coming to grips with their disease, and the barriers to anderstanding and stigmas that still exist in our society.

They were all hard lessons, but they are lessons I’m glad I learned.

They are lessons that brought me the happiest days of my life. The picture on my wall was supposed to be the last one. In many ways, I now think of it as the first.

Read more about keynote speaker Drew Dudley

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