Episode 6 Transcript
Bigger Than Depression
1:06:54 | August 2022 | Leadervoices.global
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:00:07):
Hi, I'm Dr. Sadhna Bokhiria, and this is LeaderVoices, a show about leaders and their infinite ability to change the world.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:00:23):
Leading an organization while simply navigating one's life is often difficult on its own. Now, imagine charting those waters while dealing with feelings of anxiety, apathy, hopelessness, guilt, irritability, fatigue, general discontent, and even thoughts of suicide. Sounds like a lot to deal with while juggling what we call life. But for those who live with depression, these are some of the symptoms and challenges they deal with on a regular basis. My guests today invites you inside their worlds with an all-access pass to their candid accounts of what it's like to live and lead with depression.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:01:08):
My guest today has an impressive background ranging from politics to modeling, to founding Bigger Than Depression, which is an online community dedicated to not only surviving through depression, but actually thriving. Please welcome Elsie Ramsey to LeaderVoices.
Elsie Ramsey (00:01:26):
Hi Sadhna, it's so great to be here and talk with you. It's such a pleasure and honor.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:01:31):
Well, thank you so much. I'm so excited to talk to you. You have such a diverse background. I don't think we've had anybody on the show that's been in politics, modeling, advocacy. Tell me a bit about that ride. How did you get from there to where you are now?
Elsie Ramsey (00:01:51):
Well, I'll start off saying, because I think there's probably a lot of other people who can relate to this, at every stage - as you say, modeling, politics - I thought I've made the wrong decision and I'm stuck. So I just want to start by saying it wasn't until I was 37 that I actually found my calling and I started graduate school at 39. So, we go through these periods in our lives where we may feel stuck in a rut, but eventually I think if you are open to re-inventing yourself, you can always find a work life that's more satisfactory. So I dropped out of high school - I was a high school dropout - in my junior year and I was shipped off to Milan to start a modeling career and very quickly decided I'd made a big mistake, but there I was and I was a young girl and I felt committed.
Elsie Ramsey (00:03:02):
I'm asked all the time, people are interested in the fashion business, I would not recommend it to people. On the other hand, it was what I wanted to do at the moment and my parents couldn't really have intervened because the agency, whoever's signed you, takes responsibility for investing and financing. So they bought my plane ticket and I was in their hands.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:03:24):
And how old were you?
Elsie Ramsey (00:03:26):
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:03:28):
Elsie Ramsey (00:03:29):
Yeah, I was really young. So, do we make great decisions at 17? Generally not. And this was no exception. However, I did grow up in the sense that I was traveling internationally by myself and being on sets and trying to advocate for myself in a very, very, very tough business. In fact, sometime in the early 2000s, there was a class action lawsuit against a number of agencies in New York, one of which was mine, for price fixing. So they all got together and agreed that they were going to take a 25% commission. I don't know, ignore the number. So I actually got some money back. But all the things you might imagine about an exploitative industry and being a young woman was present. However, I was lucky because I didn't suffer any major trauma. I had no me too moment that altered my life, but it was being objectified and appreciated and understood for one thing and one thing only, which was the way I looked.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:04:58):
I have a question. So many things are going through my head. So you're in high school taking probably typical high school classes. Next thing you know, you're in Milan as a model, which sounds like a dream for someone who's 17, any 17-year-old. I can't imagine that not being very, very exciting. But also understanding that as someone who is associated with traditional beauty, many times people expect you to behave and encompass a certain aspect of existence based solely on what you look like. I know that a lot of research shows that even things as simple as Disney, they always show the princesses are very virtuous and beautiful and pure, and they behave in a very specific way that's been traditionally designed by patriarchy.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:05:54):
So I wonder - thank goodness you were not abused or experienced trauma, which we hear a lot about, but you still experience the dark side of what you were supposed to be like. So talk to me a little bit about, as a 17-year-old, what that must have felt like for you while you're still trying to even figure out who you are? I don't even know who I am and I'm much older than 17.
Elsie Ramsey (00:06:24):
Yeah. So it's funny. I would say it's the anti-Disney princess that the business, the photographers, the agents want to see in a young woman. So that means being sexually free, very comfortable with your body in a way that most 17-year-olds aren't, but quickly happened for me because when people are always taking your clothes off and putting them back on like you're a mannequin. Engagement in nightlife is encouraged because there are people whose business is to get models into nightclubs and get paid by the head, so we would have promoters who would find out where the models' apartments were and just hang out and buzz our apartments and call again and again. And the agents were fine with it because the idea is like, you're a fun person, you're open-minded, maybe you'll do some networking out there, but it's beauty for sale.
Elsie Ramsey (00:07:33):
So in any way that that can be reinforced, that you're a product and you're selling yourself - certainly virtue was not part of the package at all. And I was this very, very innocent kid. I didn't have adult experience in the ways in which maybe they hoped I did or was open to having. So there was a real conflict there. It was interesting also being in Europe, there were maybe a few Americans, but there were a lot of women from Europe. And then there were a lot of women from Eastern Europe. Some of those models were coming from economies that were really suffering. And so maybe modeling was the be-all and end-all, maybe it wasn't, "I'm going to go back to college," which was always in the back of my mind. And so through no fault of their own, it pushed the industry in a direction where maybe it was a little bit less…there was less oversight and maybe more willingness to engage in activities that were more adult than were appropriate for people our age, because there was always pressure.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:08:56):
Sure. Yeah, I can imagine if you have a young girl from an impoverished Eastern European country where this is in her mind rooted as her ticket out and maybe extremely limited in her options compared to someone like you, who luckily in the back of your mind knew that college was an option. So perhaps you had more of a safety in terms of your agency and understanding the power that you hold. Would you say that the modeling industry was a catalyst to your depression?
Elsie Ramsey (00:09:34):
It certainly didn't make it any better. So I was already depressed - it's part of the reason I wasn't working hard in high school. I had always been a good, good student, and I'd been fortunate enough to go to private schools. And so there were so many school changes through the moving and stuff going on in the family, so I was clinically depressed. The modeling, I would say, yeah, I got to Milan in the winter. It was gray - like Paris, beautiful city, but your model apartment is in the ugliest part of town. I remember there being graffiti everywhere, and no one cleans up after their dog like you have to in New York and you're on the subway all day, going to these... You have to find your way around a city. If you know Milan, it's all circles, piazzas, and it's lonely.
Elsie Ramsey (00:10:27):
And just to go back one second around this assumption of being from a disempowered situation I remember talking to the head of the agency, Lorenzo Petrini, who I not too long ago found out was in Epstein's black book, so gives you a sense of the unsavory nature. But I remember sitting down, he ran the agency and I was saying, "I want to go home." And he said, "So you want to go home and be beat by your husband in a trailer? Or would you like to stay in Europe?" And I was struck speechless because I'm not super privileged, I paid for college myself, but this idea that I was coming from poverty says a lot.
Elsie Ramsey (00:11:25):
It says models are coming from a place of desperation or there's enough of them that are, that such a broad-based assumption could be made. So yeah, it added to my low self-image. I was, as I said, objectified, and what I think everyone does in that situation is shut down - power down a little bit is how I describe it. So that my body is not - it wasn't sexual anymore, it wasn't part of my humanity - it was like this... It's hard to describe, but as I was doing photo shoots in lingerie or whatever I was doing, and I'd be handled, and people would be touching my face and my body not even saying hello or knowing my name. You never are not a girl in the modeling industry. Anyone who's watched any of these Tyra Banks shows, you can be in your 30s or 40s, and they're still going to call you a girl.
Elsie Ramsey (00:12:33):
So that tells the story better than I could. So you're, being put through the paces, so it didn't help. So at 23, I retired and I took a step back into what would be considered more standard life by going to school. I got into psychotherapy at 25 and one of the things I had to work on was these feelings I had about men and sex. And I didn't have a fantastic relationship with my father growing up. So it just - exponentially the issues grew. But diving into the psychotherapy at 25 and I'm still in therapy, I'm probably a lifer just because even though I'm in maintenance mode now, I think it's a part of self-care and I really think everyone should, to some extent, engage.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:13:32):
Sure, I absolutely agree. Do you mind talking a little bit more about your depression? When did you first realize that you had depression?
Elsie Ramsey (00:13:44):
I talk about my depression for a living, so I'm more than happy to do it. I find it's very healing for me to be able to be given an opportunity to share it publicly because we spend most of our lives hiding it. So I have decided I have a narrative now that is my own and it's different than the one I heard growing up. The one I heard growing up was that when we moved to the Boston area and I was three or four, and I was in preschool in Cambridge, the teachers - it was a very touchy-feely preschool - they sat down with my parents and they said, "Elsie is not the hale and hearty kid that her peers are. She holds a lot in." And so my parents put me in therapy instantly. And I had some really wonderful therapists who would I remember playing Candy Land or whatever, Chutes and Ladders and enjoying myself, being with these very gentle adults who had a very loving presence.
Elsie Ramsey (00:14:52):
I think at that point, at that very young age, I started thinking of myself as different or weaker or more fragile or less able to negotiate life. And so as the school changes continued, I'd change schools in first or second grade and I would get a handle on things. And then I'd change schools again. One of my diagnoses was that I had this pathological shyness. Now, if I rewind and think of myself as a two-year-old, I was a kid who would jump in the deep end and crawl out, taking a nap, crawl out of the window, across the street and go over to the zoo myself. So I would say I was not a fearful child. I think it was very intense for me to move across the country and be thrown into a new environment and then continue to do so. So it compounds itself.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:15:51):
Elsie Ramsey (00:15:55):
Middle school comes and seventh and eighth grade - we're in California, yet another new city. And I would say that's when it became really clinical because I just remember this feeling descending on me. I remember walking around campus in eighth grade, I was in a really competitive private school and feeling like a zombie. I'd never had that experience before. And so I think sometime maybe in sophomore year of high school, another move - my parents put me in therapy with a psychiatrist who prescribe me medication. So at 16 I went on Prozac or another antidepressant. And that was my beginning of psychiatric or pharmaceutical drugs as a support to talk therapy. And I have been on medication since. But it took me until I was 25 and got into a therapeutic relationship as an adult to really start to unpack the things that were holding me back and my deepest pain.
Elsie Ramsey (00:17:12):
And that took, there was at least a year where I couldn't quite go there because it takes tremendous bravery to participate in therapy. I say, participate, because it's cooperative. You're not a passive person while the doctor's doing the work. And it takes bravery because you're going in there and you're not only willing to experience pain, but you're talking about things that are very, very private. And in my case, it had to do with men and sexuality and things like that. And I had a male therapist. I think my family thought that that was a good idea because I'd always had women. My issues were with men, so it took about a year of trusting enough. And then I started laying it out and the healing started to begin. And the healing, I'd say in therapy is, because people say a lot to me, "Why do you think it's helpful to relive trauma and talk about experiences that have been painful? That doesn't sound productive to me."
Elsie Ramsey (00:18:22):
And I'll say, "That's not what it is." It's the relationship with the therapist. It's the alliance, it's the connection that helps free you from your prisons. It's a very affirmative personal relationship if you find the right doctor.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:18:41):
Sure. And I've done some research, Brené Brown talks a lot about what ingredients are necessary for individuals to feel shame, and secrecy is one of them. Secrecy, I think isolation, judgment. And so how did you go from recognizing your own depression to creating a platform for others to really free themselves from the isolation and secrecy and shame, really?
Elsie Ramsey (00:18:11):
Well, I think that I'd always felt that it was very healthy to be able to connect with others around having a mood disorder. So in modeling again, anti-Disney princess, everyone was on anxiety drugs or antidepressants. So we could talk about it openly. It was part of the deal. I had a booker one say the crazier the model, the better the model. So we were all right. Then I got into to politics and I would've been a liability, I imagine this - I was working for the presumptive next mayor of New York, and so shut down mode, right? But in those moments in modeling, one of the bright spots was being able to talk and talk to people. And often I've always been so into doing all the research and reading all the books has been part of my way I felt like I had some control. Those conversations really meant a lot to me. And often people would come away grateful that I'd shared maybe something that was useful to them.
Elsie Ramsey (00:20:26):
But take many, many years later and my father died. Out of the blue, he had a heart attack and I'd just moved to Austin for a couple years to decompress from New York. And I inherited a small amount of money. And it just gave me a little bit of time because I was someone who went from college to job to job. I never had the luxury of - I think many of us don't with student loan debt, of thinking through really strategically what our next professional move. That's a huge luxury and I hadn't had it. So for the first time I was able to just exist and think, and I was also grieving. I think grieving opens up this space for you to do some introspection, because you're grieving a loved one, but you're also thinking about the fact that you're alive and what your place in the world is and how you're engaging with the world and are you happy?
Elsie Ramsey (00:21:24):
And I wasn't. And I started to think, "What would I do if I could do anything?" And the first thing that came to me was sharing and writing and communicating and hopefully helping people who felt isolated and lonely in their pain, because I did too. And I thought this is something - I wanted connection, so it was self-serving as well.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:21:52):
I notice on your website when I go on there, and I understand I think a little bit better now because of your background in modeling, but the photos of you, they encompass a boldness and a confidence, but almost, I want to say it's the fighting feeling. I see it in the image. I think of all the messaging and branding with Beat Cancer, and you see it. I see that on your face in those images. And I've read some research about how a lot of people are using photography and art, especially self-portraits specifically to battle depression. And I wonder if that was your tactic or your intention, I should say, in some of the ways in which you designed a wonderful site?
Elsie Ramsey (00:22:53):
So that's a great question and you're really hitting on something that was a big part of this process. So I often think of modeling as this wasted vacuum of years where I should have been in school and should have been doing a lot of other things. And then I started to do this work and at the center of my mission is to disrupt people's expectations of what depression and mood disorders look like. Because part of the stigma is this idea that mentally ill people are screaming on the subway or not making sense or violent. And the actuality is depression is the biggest condition for disability in the world. So a lot of us - the numbers are with us. And what does it look like? It doesn't often look like someone in a psychiatric hospital or someone who is talking to themselves. And so I made this careful decision after a lot of thinking to bring some of the modeling stuff into presenting my story because I thought people are drawn to glamor naturally.
Elsie Ramsey (00:24:15):
And I've fought against that through my professional life. Please don't judge me based on my appearance. Please look at my mind, please listen to me. So I feel like I've often been kind of objectified. The minute I talk about modeling, it's never been on my résumé, but finally I was like, "I'm going to use the fact that I'm comfortable in front of a camera, that I can do photo shoots that are - I know what I'm doing in front of a camera. And if I use images and whatever part of me does feel comfortable with glamor, to reach people and help them understand in a very basic way that depression is something that is present in people of all walks of life, and maybe people you idealize or look up to or think have lives that are vastly more exciting or better than your own." But it took me a while to get there because I have so many years of feeling, in New York, it's all about your brains.
Elsie Ramsey (00:25:27):
And I wanted to focus on my intellect and I had to hide kind of like high school because people are like, "Ooh, really? You're a model." And it's like, "Yes, but I'm broke. And I'm also a nerd." So it's such a powerful thing. People are so kind of drawn to it that they write off everything else. Anyway, I decided this can be useful for me now. So I'm glad that the images express agency because that's what I'm going for. But I'm also obviously fully made up and they are...
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:26:07):
Fierce. I would say fierce, is the word I would use.
Elsie Ramsey (00:26:13):
And do I look that way when I'm depressed? Probably not. But the point is sometimes I do look that way when I'm depressed and you wouldn't know, because this is the performative part of mood disorders.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:26:27):
Elsie Ramsey (00:26:28):
In that way, I think it's hopefully effective and I'm glad you gave me that feedback.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:26:32):
Yeah. I felt it, there was a fierceness. That's the word I would use in that the way in which you, you think of glamor and high fashion and there's this projection of fierceness, boldness, confidence, that's usually associated with an object or a design or an item of clothing, whatever it is, jewelry. But when I saw the images and it didn't click to me until we had this conversation, that's what I see. I see that fierce, bold confidence while you are really saying, "Hey, I struggle with depression. I've always struggled with depression and this is what it looks like." So I appreciate that very much. I have a question for you in terms of, a lot of research nowadays is really focused on vulnerability, specific to leadership. So leading with authenticity, leading with vulnerability, leading with, I want say a new-age twist to poking the holes of what professionalism means. So when we're talking about depression and leadership, leading as a leader fighting depression, and then leading others who are fighting depression, what can you speak to with regard to that challenge?
Elsie Ramsey (00:27:53):
Well, first of all, I'm so happy that all of a sudden we're in this environment where heads of health tech companies, because I'm starting to work in that world, are coming out and saying, "I didn't become a leader until I became vulnerable." A founder of the health tech company who recently wrote a very personal note that he put on LinkedIn that was to the board of his company saying that he was someone who had trauma in his life and used work and overwork possibly to push down the pain. And finally it had caught up with him and he was suffering from depression and needed to take, it was something like six months off, and he really appreciated the support, but he wasn't going to be engaging on social media. And he was going to be away a while.
Elsie Ramsey (00:28:47):
And it was so brutally honest and it addressed this topic, which now highly successful people are starting to talk about - that some people deal with depression by overachieving. It's certainly a way to keep yourself feeling validated and distracted. And to see CEOs now coming out and saying, "When I let my team know, I opened up this whole new layer of trust and intimacy with my team and started a dialogue. And now we're working so much better." This is the environment we're in right now and that feels so, so good. So it's obviously not something I'm alone in stressing. I became the manager and the leader I wanted when - the first job I had where I managed a team, I decided to be the person I had wished for in my other jobs when I would be completely ignored and not mentored.
Elsie Ramsey (00:29:56):
And I thought I'm going to be present for the people who work for me. And so I did performance evaluations and one-on-one weekly meetings. And I wanted them to feel that I was trying to foster their growth and support them. And it's interesting, all of us who are leaders, because there's a tension between being an authority figure, but also feeling connected and there being an element of friendship. You have to do both. And if you're successful with it, you're going to produce some wonderful work together because they believe in the mission, they believe in you, and everyone's more productive. I have never worked in an office setting since COVID, we're all doing this virtual stuff. So anyone that hires me now and I do fair amount of consulting and writing for other companies knows because it's all over LinkedIn, it's all over the web. This is who I am. So it's not something I could cover now. So that's nice going into interviews, knowing that won't be held against me.
Elsie Ramsey (00:31:14):
When I was in more traditional office settings, I was not talking about my diagnosis, but I was living it by expressing vulnerability when I felt it and when it was appropriate. I also learned...
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:31:33):
Talk to me about the appropriateness.
Elsie Ramsey (00:31:34):
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:31:35):
No, I'm sorry. I'm interrupting you, but I'm curious. Talk to me about the appropriateness because it's so challenging and it goes back to vulnerability. I've interviewed a lot of standup comedians and one in particular comes to mind where she said, "If you ask a comic, how was your day? And they're battling depression, they'll turn to you and say, 'I'm having a really bad day. My depression is really, really hard right now.'" In a traditional office professional setting, whatever that means today with COVID and the shift to virtual, we ask people all the time, "So how are you today?" And many times we don't really want to know. So where's the appropriateness? What does that mean? Knowing that you probably don't know because who knows?
Elsie Ramsey (00:32:32):
No, and it's different in every situation. But one of the silver linings of COVID has been that we are now talking more about, when we say, "How are you," we mean it a bit more. So we are maybe expecting an answer from someone, especially when we were in lockdown, it was like, "I'm really having a hard time with children right now." We're being more honest when we ask that question. And I've written extensively about how I really hope that carries over as we return to a more quote-unquote normal structure, because it's so healthy. But beforehand if you work in business and politics and in more conservative office settings, especially if you're managing people or even if you're not, you could jeopardize your authority, could mark yourself as someone who is potentially unreliable or won't perform, can't be counted on to perform consistently.
Elsie Ramsey (00:33:50):
When I applied to graduate school - again, the cat's out of the bag, so I don't really have a choice about disclosing it, but I was worried. I was applying to John's Hopkins and I was worried that talking about my depression would maybe make the admissions committee think, "Maybe this person won't be able to make it through the program?" And I've never had trouble doing that. But if you hear someone has clinical depression, that wouldn't be an unreasonable assumption. So I think expressing vulnerability, you have to wait for your moment. With my teams, I once had someone working for me who had a tremendous amount of anxiety and that surfaced when I'd have her go into the city for something work-related. And she disclosed to me that it was a post-9/11 trauma around taking the subway into lower Manhattan.
Elsie Ramsey (00:34:48):
And so at that point, she discussed with me because she wanted to be able to not have to do this part of her job. And we had a very honest discussion where she said, "I have very serious anxiety." And then I got to talk a little bit about it and talk a little bit about my own challenges. And it was in my office, it was private. And I think it, if anything, it reinforced our relationship while we stayed intact as manager-team member. So the point is oversharing or too much disclosure would undermine, I think, like the orderly atmosphere in an office. It's not a therapist's office. On the other hand, when the opportunities present themselves - and they always do, you work with people, you get to know them - I think that those conversations should be had and that they should not be shied away from.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:35:50):
Sure. No, that's an excellent example of a very safe conversation that really, I imagine, cemented your connection even further by both of you sharing very human experiences. And throughout my experience on this podcast alone, I've learned so much about the evolution of traditional leadership and the ways in which this traditional leader and this image of this person, who's really more robotic than anything, no longer exists. We don't want leaders like that. We want leaders who demonstrate and really live life with an emphasis on humanity. And I think understanding those boundaries and also understanding that it's okay to push them a little is very powerful for developing authentic connections.
Elsie Ramsey (00:36:46):
Yeah. And you have the private sector now fully recognizing that mental health is a workplace issue. When you look at turnover and absenteeism, those research shows that those are things that are causally connected with mental health issues like depression, anxiety. Those things cost organizing lots of money. So you see these companies like Ginger and Lira coming and making this huge splash where employers are purchasing software that will give their employees access to mental health support that is best-in-class. And that movement is also a wonderful indicator of this change and how we think of the workplace and what the boundaries of the workplace are.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:37:57):
It's a great shift to A, having authentic conversations or pushing the desire to have authentic conversations about mental illness and mental wellness in the workplace. But the other thing is actually providing employees with resources to support. So what advice would you give listeners who want to be great leaders, but struggle with depression?
Elsie Ramsey (00:38:26):
Okay. I'm going to say, first of all, your depression is an asset. It is 100% an asset when you are going into the workplace and you're going to be climbing up the ladder and becoming a leader. And I'll tell you why. Those of us who have lived with depression and survived it and thrived through it, we know the dark side and we've been in the trenches and we've won against a foe that is one of the toughest out there. And in those moments in a therapist's office, or when we're by ourselves or when we're with friends, we've been fighting. And that, just like exercising, has created these emotional muscles that are very strong. And being in a workplace and being a leader is largely interpersonal. It's how you navigate relationships. It's being diplomatic. It's being able to present ideas from an angle or perspective that could solicit sympathy from people who don't agree with you.
Elsie Ramsey (00:39:54):
So all of the work you've hopefully done in therapy, all of the fighting you've done, this is part of your war chest. And if you're coming into the workplace, sadly, a lot of people still haven't been in therapy maybe because they've... If you don't have to, you usually don't. And so it gives you an edge. It really does. And I didn't realize that until I started to feel more empowered in my depression. So don't feel that it puts you at a disadvantage, feel the exact opposite way and pull on resources that it has given you. And then I'd also say, the other gift you have is that you have a tremendous amount of ability to empathize. You have a really big heart, you understand suffering, and you can look at your team, or if you're a politician, your constituents, whomever you're serving or leading and feel connected in a way that's more than skin deep.
Elsie Ramsey (00:40;58):
You just understand suffering in a way that's not just intellectual. And that connects you with your mission and with the people who you are, as I said, leading if it's a movement or if it's an office. So feel accomplished, feel that it's given you great tools to use on your journey.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:41:28):
I appreciate that answer so much - depression as an asset. This is fantastic. I can't thank you enough for inspiring me for sharing your wisdom with our listeners. I think it resonates with more people than we can even imagine. And as time continues and we are really spending more time focused on not having shame and secrecy around depression, we're going to notice that everything that you're sharing is really front and center to more people than not.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:42:08):
My next guest today has a dynamic background. He's an extraordinary example of thriving with depression. He's one of the top up-and-coming comics in America today. And I am pleased to welcome Tristan Bowling to LeaderVoices.
Tristan Bowling (00:42:21):
Hi, how we doing?
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:42:24):
Fantastic. Tristan, welcome to LeaderVoices. Let's just dive right in. So tell us about your life. You are a young man, extremely talented standup comedian, and I think anyone who's ever seen you would agree that you're gifted. If I remember correctly, you hit the comedy scene at age 15.
Tristan Bowling (00:42:44):
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:42:45):
Tell us about that ride and how you got to where you are today.
Tristan Bowling (00:42:48):
It was weird. Doing comedy at 15 isn't easy. And the first place I ever did standup comedy, Standup Scottsdale, rest in peace, I had to bring my dad every single time I went because I wasn't allowed in the club. So I'd basically go from after school on Wednesday, sit there for two and a half hours so I can choose when I wanted to go on the list. The first time I ever went, I showed up when the list was out. So I was 22nd on a Wednesday performing for my dad, the host, and one other guy, and the bartender. After a while I got into the rhythm of it and then just haven't stopped. It's weird just because thinking about how long I've done it, April makes seven years.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:43:38):
Whoa, I got to cut you off. So rewind. So you're 15. What grade is that?
Tristan Bowling (00:43:41):
I was a sophomore in high school.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:43:43):
So you're a sophomore in high school and one day you just wake up and you're like, "I'm going to go and do standup"?
Tristan Bowling (00:43:48):
No, I had a theater background and stuff like that. I always loved performing. I was in plays and I love musical theater. I was doing that a lot. I just loved being on stage. Me and my dad would go on walks at night around our local community manmade lake. And we would just talk about - just me just riffing with him essentially, just trying to make him laugh. And one day I was at a drama club after-party from one of the play and I was just telling stories by the fire and someone's like, "Hey, you should try doing a standup." And I'm like, "I think I'm gonna," and then I just didn't stop from there. I saw people that, I know that Bo Burnham started when he was really young too. So I'm like, "It's not impossible."
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:44:34):
That's incredible. It must take a serious amount of courage, especially at that age to just get up. So what was the first time like?
Tristan Bowling (00:44:42):
It was eh. The first time ever for doing standup for everyone is never that great. And even if it is, it is followed by... No one just starts off killing and then doesn't stop. For my first time, I just told a story about how I pooped my pants at Disneyland when I was 12, which is too old to poop your pants.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:45:06):
Tristan Bowling (00:45:08):
And it was just me telling it to four people. And afterwards I'm like, "All right, so I did it once. Now I know what I need to do. I need to get here earlier. And then I do it again." And then it just like, "Okay." So then next time is building and working off of every single set, just trying to tweak stuff and get more comfortable with being on stage and just going around. I've done so many shows in this Valley, in Phoenix, it's ridiculous. All the way from - I just moved out to Phoenix recently with my chick. Shout out my chick. Previously to that, previous to five months ago, I've been living in the West Valley the entire time. And so when I would go over to Mr. Ricky Boy's, Mr. Ricky Boy's house of Hoo Ha Laughs, it would take 50 minutes just to get there because I'm in Goodyear. So it's nice to be able to somewhat be centralized, but also have a general idea of where everything is. I know the highways around here way too well.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:46:21):
Right, right. So let's talk a little bit about the relationship between depression and genius. We know that research indicates that there is a correlation between depression and creativity and specifically there's research that suggests that gifted children are more prone to depression because essentially a heightened awareness and perpetual feeling of not really fitting in.
Tristan Bowling (00:46:41):
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:46:42):
Tell me about how you discovered that depression was part of your life. Is there a moment where you know that it's a significance?
Tristan Bowling (00:46:50):
It's always been with me. I've always had negative self-esteem. Ever since I was a little kid, my mom will attest. I would be like a little kid, I'm like, "Hey, do you want to just throw me in the garbage? I'm sorry, I'm annoying." She's like, "No, what are you talking about? You're my son." And I'm just like, "Yeah, but I suck. I'm sorry," and I'm seven. And I haven't never really shaken it. I don't know if there's ever been a turning point where my ice cream falls and I'm like, "Oh God, life is terrible." But it's been something that, most recently within the past couple five, six years, I've been trying to properly medicate it, stuff like that. Just figuring out because I've had some no good times in the past, every day it fluctuates. Depression isn't something where it's just, you can clock it in on a schedule where it's like Monday through Tuesday, you have depression three times on Thursday. No, it comes in waves.
Tristan Bowling (00:47:51):
For instance this past Saturday wasn't doing that great at all. It's just every day is the ebb and flow, peaks and valleys. But as long as you have somewhat of a good unit around you, which I feel like with the Phoenix comedy scene I have, and especially just with my friends. I don't have a lot of friends, but I have some and they are the ones you need. Like Joey Diaz, it is just like, you don't need 50 people. You can have three people who are down, you can take over a country. It's weird, especially because I know my family doesn't understand it really. They're warming up to it just because they've been dealing with it for so long. And because I've been in the situation where I'm like, "Oh, I'm done. I'm like, I want to take myself out." And my parents just don't understand that. It will come to the point where I have to explain and I'm just like, "Listen, I know you don't understand this, but my brain is wrong. And I can't really control it."
Tristan Bowling (00:49:11):
And it's nice to know that somewhat that's correlated with genius. That is a upside. I wouldn't describe myself as that, but I'm a little goofy boy, but I do my best to be smart in some ways. But every day is a spectrum. It's a process. And I feel like a lot of it is medication. I haven't been to therapy in a long time. I need to because I'm still working through stuff, have my hard days. Yesterday morning sucked so bad and just got better throughout the day. Did a set, had a good set, hung out with some friends. It was just a good time. And you will think back to the beginning of the day, it's just like, "Oh, I wanted to like self-harm. I wanted to do that," all that jazz. And it's crazy, just be like, "All right, you can take a step back." And then later on throughout the day, it's like if I did that earlier in that mind state, I would feel like such a like bag of poop right now.
Tristan Bowling (00:50:19):
And it gives you perspective. It just being like, "Oh, that was kind of something that wasn't the proper state of mind, to say the least, but wasn't an actual thing that you need to drive yourself crazy over."
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:50:33):
Sure. Do you think that the role of comedy is therapeutic as an outlet?
Tristan Bowling (00:50:39):
Yeah. I remember when COVID first started, I had a whole weekend of shows planned. I had trips planned. I was working at the Renaissance Fair. And then one day in March, all my stuff got canceled and I got fired and then it was just like, "Oh, comedy doesn't exist anymore until the foreseeable future." And that really sucked. I started getting heavy into little drinky boy Tristan, which was like, I'm just sitting at home playing Call of Duty all day. In December, I got COVID - December 2020, I got COVID. And so I was getting paid from home and stuff like that. I was just chilling out and I'm just like, "All right, I can drink half a bottle of vodka day. I'll take that as a challenge." And that stuff sucks because depression and vices go very well together.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:51:37):
Sure. I'm sure it's isolating.
Tristan Bowling (00:51:39):
Oh yeah, it's super isolating. And part of you, at least in my perspective, I crave the isolation. I just want to go in a hole and put a rock over it and just sit and play video games and just disappear from everyone. I want nobody to talk to me. I just want to be gone. And then my friends will text me and they'll be like, "Hey, we haven't heard from you in three days. Are you dead? I'm thinking about coming over to your house." And I'm like, "No, I'm chilling. I'm just sad." Yeah. But it's nice to have the people around you that drag you out of that because I could've just stayed. For a good portion of last year, I was just like super nihilistic for probably a good solid eight months. I'm like, "I don't want to talk to people. I don't care. I don't care. The world doesn't care about me so why should I care about anything?" And just super self-destructive.
Tristan Bowling (00:52:35):
And luckily I've been able to work somewhat my way out of that. And comedy really does help. When it came back, I was getting so nervous before I went on stage. I had to get a prescription for Xanax, I was barfing before every show. Even open mics, places I've been before, I was just so anxious and scared of just being, "What? I haven't done standup comedy in five months. This is the longest I haven't done standup comedy during the career of me doing standup comedy." It went from me taking one week off maybe if I'm just feeling super overwhelmed into the just 4, 5, 6 months just racking up and I'd go to a Zoom show and it doesn't feel the same.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:53:23):
Right. I was just going to ask, the virtual comedy Zoom room. That sounds terrible.
Tristan Bowling (00:53:29):
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:53:30):
Because you don't have that live validation.
Tristan Bowling (00:53:32):
Yeah. It just stinks to high heaven. It sucks so bad. 75 people all in their own thing. It's funny just because you'll be sitting there and it'll be a big Zoom show. Oh my God, everyone's excited. There's a hundred people from all over the country. And then you just hear someone who has their stuff not muted or not muted properly and they're just like, "No, I'm watching a comedy show. No, it's online. Yeah, it's an online comedy show." It's like, "All right, I'm trying my best. You guys want to talk about Wikipedia? What's up?" No, I'm very happy it's back.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:54:12):
So talk to me about the role of authenticity in comedy. So compared to a traditional nine-to-five career, how do you feel that being a comedian allows you to be authentic in your depression, and to a certain extent it's really an asset - depression is an asset in terms of enhancing creativity?
Tristan Bowling (00:54:34):
Yeah. You have to be honest with comedy. You can't just go up there and just be like, "Hey, I'm 6'4 and the coolest guy you'll ever meet." No one's going to laugh at you. You have to be honest with every single aspect of it. And that's what depression makes you. In an odd way, it makes you a tad bit introspective where you can see just being like, "I'm going to go look and just see the world in the perspective of, 'Hey, it's not going to give me anything.'" Or you'll say things how it is and if I get something from it, well boy, isn't that cool. But just being a conscientious observer from the outside looking in, just being like, "I don't care about me, man. I'll just look at stuff."
Tristan Bowling (00:55:18):
But that yields well to comedy, because it lets you look at things in a different perspective and take a different look at it in a way that other people wouldn't have the kind of hindsight. If you're thinking about just how much you suck all day and they're just like, "This sucks, too." It's like, "Well, not as bad as me, but I could figure out how much that sucks." It adds a little creative touch and plus, self-deprecation is funny. People dig it. It's being like, "I stink", and they're like, "Oh yeah, you're right." It's funny.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:55:59):
So do you feel that you have more of an accepting community in the comedy world in terms of being authentic and discussing depression?
Tristan Bowling (00:56:09):
Oh yeah. Basically every comic that I know has some form of depression where like my buddy Andrew Ariana, who he's a super funny comedian, we were talking one day and I just overheard him say, "I don't think I can quit standup comedy. I can kill myself, but I don't think I can quit standup comedy." And he's like, "It'd be easier just to off myself than to quit doing this." And I'm just like, "Yes, yes, queen! I feel that."
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:56:37):
Tristan Bowling (00:56:38):
Yeah. We're not generally a happy group of people. And I feel that is a part of the authentic side because you see Kevin Hart and it's just like, he's talking about his family, because that's all can he can talk about. You ever drive a Bugatti to the Rock's house? And it's like, "No, we can't relate to that." It's like, "Isn't it crazy when the chick who you pay to come to your house just to make you a smoothie in the morning?" No, no one understands that. He's had such a different plane of existence that it's almost like people like that need humbling. And I feel depression humbles you in a sad way. It's not great. There's not a lot of benefits to depression.
Tristan Bowling (00:57:29):
If being a standup comedian is a benefit just being like, "Oh, that helps you," I would rather not be comedian than be like, "Oh man, I can just enjoy every day, go throughout life without needing to put serotonin in my body because my brain doesn't make it because it doesn't like me." But at the end of the day, you deal with the cards you're dealt and it's weird because my parents semi-understand it. They don't have it as bad as I did, which I don't know what my mom did - I don't know if she just ate too many Coco Puffs or whatever when I was in the womb and it somehow affected my brain chemistry with all the B5 or whatever. But it takes a while when people are more neurotypical to understand where you're coming from. And luckily I've been through it so much that they do understand. But at the beginning, like everything, it's tough.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:58:29):
Sure. Yeah. What about writing? You're writing all the time?
Tristan Bowling (00:58:33):
I try to. That also is a thing that while depression yields, in its favors, it also has its cons because it's just unmotivated. I don't want to write. I want to write, I have to write. When I start writing, I'm happy about writing. But just the act of doing it. The act of actually sitting down, I have to be super strict when I'm writing. It's silent. I can't have stuff playing in the background because I'm super ADHD. I'll just tack onto that and not be able to pay attention to what I'm actually writing down. And just have to sit and write and just be by myself. And I don't want to do all of that. I'm like, "I can just chill out." But no matter what, whenever I'm doing it, it yields well and it's good for my career. It's not hard to sit. When you think about it introspectively, it's like you clocking into work is you sitting down and writing in a notepad. Wow, so hard. Boohoo. Just do it.
Tristan Bowling (00:59:37):
But at the same time you're like, "Oh," the depression guy sitting on your shoulder is like, "Oh, I'm tired. I don't want to do that. I'll just have a White Claw at noon and then take a nap."
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:59:49):
Writing is hard, though.
Tristan Bowling (00:59:51):
I know, it's so tedious.
Sadhna Bokhiria (00:59:53):
It takes a lot out of you.
Tristan Bowling (00:59:54):
But it's worth it. No matter what, at the end of the day it's worth it. Especially for comedians, it only yields well. It only helps in your favor.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:00:05):
How do you handle it when you're on stage and it doesn't go as well as you wanted it to go?
Tristan Bowling (01:00:10):
Oh, I just go into the audience. I'm just like, "You didn't like that? Well, what's wrong with you?" I'm like, "I'm trying my best. You try this, you silly." But that happens a lot. The thing is, at least with the way I do stand up is I'll have certain jokes that I know will do well. And I can just pepper them in there. So I'll be like, "All right, old joke, old joke, new thing I'm working on, old joke, new thing I'm working on." So no matter what, it's not always a bomb, which sometimes it is and that sucks. That just eats your heart and it stinks so bad. But no matter what, it gives you motivation to get on stage again. And if you bomb again, then woof. But most of the time you learn from your mistakes and try to do a little bit better. You definitely go in with a little less of a, "Oh, I'm so funny," attitude. You're just like, "All right, it's game day. We're in the locker room. We got to get ready to make these people at a bar laugh."
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:01:14):
It's like each day is a reset.
Tristan Bowling (01:01:16):
Oh yeah. It's so weird giving so much care, just caring so much about the show, when people who are sitting there, first of all, didn't even know there was going to be a show happening, just are eating chicken fingers, don't care that you're there. Like open mics, it's insane. And then you go there, you're like, "This is my craft. I've been working on this all day," and they're just like, "Yeah, it's all right."
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:01:42):
It's extremely vulnerable.
Tristan Bowling (01:01:44):
Just completely unaffected. They're not going to remember it later on today. They're going to be watching Deal or No Deal, straight-up hand in Funyuns, not giving a good old care while I'm sitting, breaking my brain about why that dog joke didn't work. Why I didn't make that person laugh? It's a completely lunatic mindset if you think about it, but hey, it's a living.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:02:08):
You're quite young too. You're only 23?
Tristan Bowling (01:02:10):
Yeah. Yeah. 24 in May.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:02:14):
That's incredible. So your brain isn't even fully developed. What do they say, 26?
Tristan Bowling (01:02:19):
I have no clue but that sucks. I want to be done. Just develop already. What else could I learn? I learned enough. I went to school and such, not well, but I did it. I did school.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:02:33):
So tell me about advice you have for other people who have depression as part of their life, other comics.
Tristan Bowling (01:02:40):
First off, obviously I'm not some sort of... The person you had on before I in this podcast, probably way more qualified to give advice. She's like, "I have a foundation, I'm a rocket scientist, I treat depression in space," and I'm just sitting here I'm like, "Hey, I'm doing open mics all week. What's up? I had to ask my mom for gas money." And it's very ebb and flow. But no, I'd say advice, typical advice that you hear - you're not alone. Everyone goes through some sort of it, and it's just today. It's not going to be every day. And if sometimes it's two days in a row, look forward to the third day. And then if it's still the third day, it's all about taking things one step at a time. The past is the past and the future isn't written. So you can try to do something.
Tristan Bowling (01:03:37):
You can do 10 jumping jacks tonight and hell, you could brag about that. If you want, flex, put it on Facebook, just say you did 100. Nobody knows - they weren't there. But just find something you love. It's hard because it's really hard finding something that you can dedicate yourself to and be bad at in the beginning and want to work harder to get better. It's hard to be sitting there. I'm sure every woodworker didn't make a fricking bookshelf first day. It's like, no, you got to work at stuff, and eventually that helps with depression. In a way it's, like say if you love RC planes, you sitting tinkering with stuff, gluing a wing to whatever, that's therapeutic in a way.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:04:26):
Tristan Bowling (01:04:27):
It lets your mind focus and sit at ease and just the tiniest escapes that, like me, I personally need with standup. I need standup. I don't know what I would do without it. I think about it if standup wasn't real and I'm like, "I have to go to college? This is terrifying. What am I going to be? A marketing man? That's scary." And I'm so happy it exists. And people just need, at least in my situation, need to find their standup. It doesn't have to be standup. It can be writing stuff - you can just write blogs. If that really gives you gratification, hell, you can make a job out of it eventually.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:05:08):
Sure, find your passion.
Tristan Bowling (01:05:10):
Yeah, find your passion and just try to pursue it. Just don't put yourself in a box because that box rots very quickly and it sucks. And just have something to look forward to even if it's like, you're at your typical nine-to-five and you're like, "Man, I can't wait to go home and knit or whatever I do that I love. I can't wait to go home." Something constructive obviously. It's not like, "Oh, I can wait to go home and huff paint." No, it should be something healthy and constructive. But yeah, I'd say that's the best advice I can give.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:05:45):
I love it. I love it. Find your passion - work to make it better.
Tristan Bowling (01:05:50):
Yeah. Yeah. You can only go forward.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:05:53):
Well, wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining us on LeaderVoices. It's such a pleasure. I've seen you perform and you are extremely gifted.
Tristan Bowling (01:06:00):
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:06:01):
You're incredibly humble. And I hope that you know when you're on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert you'll remember us at LeaderVoices.
Tristan Bowling (01:06:10):
I don’t want Jimmy Fallon - he sucks.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:06:12):
Whoever your favorite guy is.
Tristan Bowling (01:06:14):
I'm just going to go on YouTube.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:06:16):
I like his Ben and Jerry's flavors.
Tristan Bowling (01:06:18):
Oh yeah. If the best part about your comedy is your ice cream flavor, then that doesn't bode well with your comedy.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:06:27):
Well, wherever you end up, we look forward to stalking your career.
Tristan Bowling (01:06:30):
Yeah, hopefully, hopefully it will go somewhere. My parents are praying for that. They want a house. They have no retirement plan. It's me.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:06:40):
Well, I believe in you, so thank you.
Tristan Bowling (01:06:43):
Thank you so much. Thank you. LeaderVoices, thanks.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:06:54):
I'd like to thank both my guests, Elsie and Tristan for speaking so candidly with us about a subject that many find difficult to disclose. It's interesting that both Elsie and Tristan conquer their depression by helping others. To learn more about Elsie Ramsey, please visit biggerthandepression.com. And to learn more about Tristan Bowling, please follow his tour dates. See you next time on LeaderVoices.
Sadhna Bokhiria (01:07:29):
This show is brought to you by the American Express Leadership Academy Alumni Network, the Arizona State University Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation and leaderstories.org. I'd like to thank all the people who make the show possible. Rick Bronson, my producer and co-writer; Caitlin Johnson, our engagement and associate producer, Michael Chang, our project and operations manager, and the good folks at Drift Compatible Productions, specifically our audio engineer, Buck Newman. Without their help and my incredible talent, this show would not be possible. See you next time on LeaderVoices. I hope that what you heard leaves you inspired to lead the way. For more information and to be in the know about the show, visit us at leadervoices.global.