People are Dying at Your Company. What are You Doing About That?

“If you see something, say something,” isn’t enough when actual lives are on the line.

A creative director named Billy at an advertising agency I freelance for overdosed last month. It's so tragic. He was only 31. Looking through pictures of Billy online, there’s not a single one where he looks sober. He definitely wasn’t new to the game as he died in the bathroom of Soho House, needle in arm.

In her debut memoir, How to Murder Your Life, Cat Marnell tells the tale of how her adderall addiction fueled her publishing career. Her drug abuse was widely known by her colleagues at Lucky Magazine, XO Jane, and VICE, but she was so talented that she was given a pass, at her expense. The magazines got the work they wanted, but it’s a miracle she survived the process.

Her drug abuse was widely known by her colleagues at Lucky Magazine, XO Jane, and VICE, but she was so talented that she was given a pass, at her expense.

It begs the question. Well, more than one question:

Did the companies know that their rockstar employees had drug problems? If his employers knew, what actions did they take? Did they attempt to intervene? Did they simply look the other way? What role should organizations play in their employees’ mental health and addictions?

This topic gets me so heated every time because I was let down by an organization I worked for in 2007.  I reached a bottom with my addictions, was new to sobriety and entering my 4th year of abstinence from anorexia and bulimia. I was just starting to get into my groove, while working in an advertising agency where my only job was to be creative and come up with the craziest ideas possible. I loved going to work every day and found my tribe of creative, outlandish people whose interior worlds were as colorful as mine. I had arrived and was thriving.

On July 25th, 2007, my whole world changed. I was getting afternoon tea on the 13th floor of the agency where I worked when the building started to shake hysterically.  Out of the corner window, I saw billowy smoke. Reminiscent of 9/11 television footage. I thought I was dead.

It was an explosion.

I ran down 13 flights of stairs to 42nd street, kicked off my shoes so I could run as fast as I could to the east river. The explosion was not a terrorist attack, but the case of a rusty steam pipe explosion. One person died in the explosion, several others were physically injured, and who knows how many people were emotionally damaged? I was. I was rocked from the inside. And haven’t been the same since.

So I did the one thing I knew - I went to an AA meeting, I was so sure that the rooms that supported me in my sobriety could help me with this. No such luck. No one in the rooms had experienced the explosion like me. I just got blank stares when I explained what had happened to me. As far as everyone else knew, Con-Edison (NYC’s utility company) had dropped the ball and forgot to tend to old steam pipes. I, on the other hand, had been deeply traumatized with a near death encounter. I was back to work within a week, but I was completely alone in processing this experience. I was barely sleeping, jolting up in the middle of the night and ready to run out of my building. There were very few people that experienced the explosion like I did. All the while being completely sober.

Back at the office, I was relieved to talk about the tragedy with co-workers. There were some emotional support groups, but the demand of agency work quickly took over. I was still scared and had no idea where to go for support. Business as usual took me to a conference in San Diego. That plane ride was the most horrifying 6 hours of my life, thinking it was going to explode at any moment. I never felt safe, and almost took a drink on that plane ride to get some relief. Yet... something divine intervened. When I finally touched down, I was shaking and breaking out in cold sweats from sheer terror.

Overwhelmed, overstimulated and out of touch with my body, I went straight to a bathroom where I stuck my fingers down my throat to vomit the fear that was inside of me. Ahhhhh… the silence that a purge provided was so sweet. It was the relief I needed. For 4 years, I had been in recovery from my eating disorder, proud to be bulimia free, but the trauma begun calling the shots.  I was no longer in charge.

I left the agency for another then another, I could never find safety at any of them. I threw up in all the bathroom stalls of award-winning creative ad agencies. No one knew, or...maybe they did? If they did, why didn't they say anything?

I threw up in all the bathroom stalls of award-winning creative ad agencies. No one knew, or...maybe they did? If they did, why didn’t they say anything?

I made the rounds to psychiatrists' offices getting prescribed every antipsychotic, anti-anxiety, antidepressant drug on the market. I ended up pairing up with a cocktail of Xanax XR. Technically, I was still sober, but was I really?

Today, I stand strong and firm in the belief that companies need to do more to make sure their employees are taken care of, not only their physical well-beings, but in all facets of their lives. Is it really so hard to have more empathy and compassion for your employees and a deeper understanding of what your employees truly need? I would never ever wish what happened to me on anyone else. After all, the well-being of your people are on the line; they're silently suffering. Your employees are your creators, idea makers, and foundation of your entire organization.

That explosion stole a chunk of my life that I can never get back. But I can speak out on behalf of Billy, Cat, and myself on the empathy that organizations should cultivate with their employees. We are more productive, creative, engaged and fulfilled when our minds are right, when we are present in mind, body and soul in our work.

“If you see something, say something,” isn’t enough when actual lives are on the line. There needs to be options and programs for employees to seek the support they might need and a culture that enables support, compassion, and most importantly, empathy. It needs to be encouraged because people matter. I matter. You matter. Billy mattered.


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Aubree Nichols is a cultivator of community, a champion for creativity and catalyst for change. She believes that sustainable transformation happens from the inside out and begins with owning our stories. Her spidey senses enable her to see the unseen. Aubree is currently pursuing her Master's in Organizational Change Management, specializing in organizational empathy and authentic leaders. She is working on her memoir, Me: A Love Story, planned for release in late 2017. Find more on her blog www.aubreenichols.com or follow her on Instagram: @aubree.nichols.