In his role as a keynote speaker, MC and something of an entertainer, Greg Ward travels the world. But he admits that it can be a lonely experience: living out of a suitcase, operating as a business with just himself and his wife, and being surrounded by people at conferences and dinners but never really being “part of the club” as an industry outsider.
Greg was the MC at the recent National Small Business Summit in Melbourne. It was during a session on wellbeing that he floored everyone in the room — including My Business — by bravely recounting the time last year that he tried, thankfully unsuccessfully, to end his life.
My Business sat down with Greg immediately afterwards to hear more about the stresses that led him to such a low point in his life and exactly how he has managed to turn things around.
This is his courageous story, which he hopes that, by sharing, will help others who may be suffering in silence.
Initial inklings of mental health challenges
Most professional speakers don’t start straight out of school — it is a journey that develops over time, shaped by a diverse array of experiences along the way. And so it was for Greg.
“I started in the military, spent four years in the [New Zealand] Army in military communications. Then travelled around to Europe, spent four years repping around Europe, got signed to a record company while I was over there. Always performed, always have been a musician and an entertainer, even in the early days,” he explained.
“From there, I returned home and got into IT. I’ve been with KPMG in London, did some work with Coopers & Lybrand, transferred to PricewaterhouseCoopers, but I was training as an actor, I was training as an opera singer, did classical voice, three years about that time as an actor and doing improvisation.”
But, as happens for many self-employed people, Greg was dissatisfied with the corporate lifestyle.
“So, I left the company, and started my own business as an events company,” he said.
“I realised very swiftly that my forte was not in the management of events, but more on the stage, and actually fronting events. And it took a while to work out that there was an actual financial market out there, or a commercial market for the skills that I had.”
This was the 1990s, and it was also during this decade that Greg first recognised “some challenges” in his own mental health.
“[I] was in a relationship... in London, and I wasn’t coping; it was not a particularly healthy relationship,” he recalled.
“This girl I was going out with lived on the other side of Tower Bridge, and I found myself stopping in the middle of Tower Bridge contemplating not crossing the bridge. And it was a really sobering kind of moment.”
At the time, Greg took advantage of the workplace assistance program that was in place at the time, having counselling sessions to gain clarity of his thoughts, which he described as “invaluable”.
But having become self-employed in 1998, such an assistance program was no longer available.
“From there, I then began looking at myself again: so, how do I operate? So, I went out and bought a whole series of various self-help books, started delving into what it is that makes me tick. Which helped and there were certain things that I found then, even back in the ’90s, that I still use today,” he said.
‘I’d hit the hotel room, and then it’s open up the mini-bar and away I go’
Life as a performer looks glamorous from the outside, but the truth is very different, said Greg. Add to that the burden of poor mental health, and things really began to take their toll.
“I got into the habit of not showing who I was, not showing how I actually operate in the world, because this is a hospitality role: it’s all about you. And whenever I describe it, I clasp my hands like a bowl in front of me and I place it forward, and I go, ‘How can I help you, or serve you?’... it’s trying to give them the best that I can,” he said.
“And, in the process, I lose myself in that.”
Greg said that he was also struggling through “significant challenges” in his relationship, further making him feel isolated and “getting into the spiral of going down”. Alcohol became more prominent in his life.
“The alcohol side of things was always as if I deserved, not a prize — that’s not a good reason — deserved a ‘I’ve worked hard, so I deserve it’ was kind of the feeling,” he said.
“I had a really cut and dried approach to alcohol, which is, it’s not a performance enhancer, so never at an event, I’d never be drinking at an event. But I’d hit the hotel room, and then it’s open up the mini-bar and away I go.
“It could be 2am by the time I get to bed, and then I’ve got to be up at six, or earlier, 5.30 probably. So, I’ve got to get up and get into the next day, and I’ll put that façade back on, walk out the door and go, ‘Taa-daa! How can I help you? What can I do?’
“And this is repetitive, it’s irritative. I would do a lot of back-to-back events, do a lot of travelling, so all those processes, with no strategies in place, just doing all of the things that [aren’t necessarily healthy] and feeling completely and utterly trapped.”
The crisis point
It wasn’t until May 2018 that Greg hit rock bottom, leading to an attempt to take his own life. Ironically, or in this case perhaps a case of good fortune, it was at a conference on performance, diversity and wellbeing.
“I arrived at the conference the previous night, had a suicide attempt that night,” recalled Greg, adding “it wasn’t successful obviously”.
The following morning, the convenor of this particular conference sought him out for help with a particular session, and back on went Greg’s mask.
“I could see he wanted something and I’m in façade mode, ‘How can I help you? It’s all good’,” he explained.
“‘Greg, can you help me out?’,” came the response.
“I’ve got a piece that I want to do at the end of the conference. I’m going to speak, we’ve got a conference close which is half an hour long, but I’m only going to speak [for] 15 minutes, and I’m going to speak about wellbeing. Would you be able to speak around wellbeing for us for about 15 minutes?”
Greg accepted the request, all the while thinking, “I can’t tell him what’s just happened the previous night”.
The next two days dragged on until the time came for the closing presentation. It was not at all what he had been expecting.
Greg’s public revelation
“He speaks, and it’s beautiful,” said Greg.
“Because what he’s done is, he had a real challenging time; he almost drowned with his son. He doesn’t swim, he was in a surf beach and he got caught in a rip, got pulled out, and it was really touch and go, and from that he got this really bad anxiety. So, he couldn’t sleep... he just found himself in panic attacks.
“So, in secret, he went and got swimming lessons. He didn’t tell his family, because he was also [feeling like he had] let his son down, all those kind of things. He went, did that, and then he invited his son and his wife to come to the conference. So, he’s going to stand on stage and tell the audience from a wellbeing perspective, as well as to his family, what he was doing to help himself.
“And it was so beautifully congruous: he did this piece and then he said, ‘And I think Greg has, you’ve got something to share as well, haven’t you?”
In that moment, Greg threw out the scripted presentation he had knocked up on workplace bullying, and instead began to convey what was in his head and his heart.
“I found myself, as I said, on stage and I instead of actually talking about this workplace bullying, I actually started saying, ‘This is my life, this is how I have these incredibly high highs. I come into an event, I work with a group and that group then take me to a certain level from a performance point of view, it’s high emotions,” described Greg.
“And the group are really comforting — they want me to come with them, but I’m not of them, they are their own group. So, they go off to do whatever they do towards the end of that night, and then I return to the hotel room and it’s just, I’m away from family, it’s lonely... Then I went to the drinking and so this spiralled out [of control].”
He admitted this was a “cathartic moment” for him, being on stage in front of a large number of people revealing such personal insights into his own state of being. But it was what happened next that has clearly left a lasting impression on him:
“I walked off stage, walked into the crowd and... I felt this touch on my arm and I turned, and it was a young lady. And she just said these words: ‘Thank you for sharing. I thought I was the only one’.
“And it was one of those blinding moments where you go, ‘I’ve had some worth for someone’. Not in a sense of the hospitality role, or the MC role: it’s actually had an impact on somebody by me sharing that.”
A new outlook on life
According to Greg, this young woman’s 11 words to him have helped to transform his life, and with it, his business.
“Since then, my whole process has been: Be truthful, be who you are, talk. And I’ve completely morphed the business, so I’m still MC-ing, but I’m now focusing more as a speaker,” he said.
“What I’m doing now is, I’m looking at my personality and all of the traits that I have, because I’m one of those that you would never know, and it’s the ones that you never know, that do go on and complete suicide. And I don’t want to, I’m certainly not going to be there again.
“But there are so many people who do. So, I’m now working on myself and looking at it from a psychological standpoint, doing the research on it; how can I take my experience and make a better outcome for others?”
Developing a mentally (and physically) healthy routine
That’s not to say that everything is now 100 per cent, 100 per cent of the time.
“My life is not perfect... I’m not at the stage where I go, ‘It’s Zen bliss’,” Greg explained.
“I still have the same stresses, I’ve got the same issues. I come to events and they’re very long and they’re tiring and challenging, and there’s a lot of stress that goes with them.
“And then, of course, there is the marketing and sales that you’ve got to do prior, and I know if I don’t do some marketing or sales in one week, then in nine months’ time roughly, there’s going to be a hole, and that can get really challenging, especially when you’re busy.”
However, Greg’s wellbeing, productivity and business have all benefited from his implementation of a much healthier routine to follow, to which he admits to now being quite disciplined.
That routine, he said, involves regular exercise, managing his diet, sleeping well, making time for pleasurable activities as well as for being grateful for positive things, taking vitamin B6 supplements and avoiding alcohol.
“Do what makes things work,” he said.
“Exercise, [I] aim for five, do three at least, half hour sessions in the gym [each week]. I do about 40 minutes or more at the gym.
“[I’m] careful with the diet, the five-two diet works really well: fasting two days — where you take about  or 600 calories on those two days, the rest of the time, do what you like.”
He also has adopted a zero-alcohol policy, because as he stated, “alcohol is a... we all know it’s a depressant, but you don’t think of it as a depressant”.
“[And] vitamin B6 has clinical signs that it improves anxiety, so it’s a really valuable thing. While I don’t know 100 per cent of the efficacy, I’m going to do it because it’s part of the process: sleep, mindfulness and gratitude.”
Greg also said that he still reads a lot about mental health and wellbeing, and has been studying the work of American psychologist Martin Seligman.
“[He] came up with the concept of positive psychology, after a process of looking at psychology as being, usually, it’s used to just treat illnesses. He said in his whole career as a psychologist, he never got people past zero. He could fix them to zero, but he couldn’t make them happy,” said Greg.
“He started looking at what it would be, what it would take, to make people happy. He came down with three different forms, three areas of a life: The good life, as he calls it, which is around pleasure. So, you do things that give you a fleeting buzz of pleasure, it’s good because it makes you feel good.
“Then there’s the engaged life, like when you are in flow, when you are really involved in something... like athletes, when you’re just doing something really amazing, but there’s not a lot of pleasure in it because you are in the moment the whole time, so it’s pleasurable but it’s not the fullest.
“And then the third aspect is the meaningful life, where you are doing something that’s more than just for you, and that process is both flow and pleasure at the same time. To get to that point takes a lot of introspection, but it also means doing something outside of yourself.
“And I feel that I’m getting closer to that with the work that I’m doing and the sharing that I do.”
At such a low point in one’s life, managing even the most basic of tasks can seem like a daunting and overwhelming challenge. So, just how did Greg manage to get a start on this self-help routine in the first place?
“That’s a really good question actually,” he replied.
“In some way, I’ve always had these answers, I think everybody has... it’s just whether or not we choose to focus on them and what importance they have.
“The process of going through this near miss was it showed me the importance of those processes. That’s what it took to get to this point to actually go, ‘You have to do this’. It’s not something you just play with and just go, ‘Oh, you know, whatever’.”
Greg admitted that knowledge is one thing, but action quite another. And as such, he recommends breaking even the most simple of tasks into micro tasks, or baby steps.
“I would find myself unable to get out of bed in the morning, and so I tricked myself into getting out of bed by doing these little, tiny, micro, incremental moves,” he said.
“I’d wake up and I’d go: ‘Well, if I’m awake, I might as well open my eyes’. Okay, so I’d open my eyes. ‘Well, seeing as your eyes are open, you might as well just turn your head to one side’. Okay, I can do that, it’s not hard, so I’d do that. Progressing all the way through to: ‘You might as well put your feet on the floor. And if your feet are on the floor, you might as well stand; if you’re standing, you might as well put some clothes on’. So, I put some clothes on etc. etc. until I’m out the door.
“And what I found is that by these tiny little incremental steps, I was able to actually beat this giant weight that was hanging over me, and I would find myself exercising, and as you’re exercising the endorphins start to come in.”
Greg said that even now, he still catches himself smiling at reaching that point of self-satisfaction.
“I know that that’s the moment, and it might be six minutes in, it might be 17 minutes in, it might come at 40 minutes in, but wherever it is, it’s that moment where you just go, ‘Yeah!’ And it’s another reminder that you’re on the right path, and on the right track, just keeping up those processes.”
Advice to others
Having faced such a challenging period and making it through the other side, Greg offers advice to others that is as sincere as it is insightful.
“My speaker coach says this, and I think it’s really valuable: never say anything from the stage, or never speak anything from the stage, that you have not yet claimed victory over. Otherwise, you are simply using the stage as a therapy for yourself, and that’s not a healthy position to be in,” he said.
“Be yourself. Tell the truth. Truth is good, truth is wonderful, because you only have to tell it once. If you tell a lie, you’ve got to tell it over and over again. Tell the truth, tell it once and that’s really cool.”
Greg is also a big supporter of mental health awareness campaigns such as the annual R U OK? Day, which falls on 12 September this year. But he said that anyone asking this question needs to be prepared for a wider discussion.
“Yes, we want to ask people, ‘Are you OK?’ It’s a really good question. But it also gives a yes or no response,” he said.
“R U OK is a concept about talking, it’s about having the opportunity to speak to people and go, ‘What’s happening for you at the moment?’ Asking questions that are going to elicit a bigger response and using our natural ability to talk with people in a way that gets the answer you’re thinking that you’re probably going to get to.”
For Greg, the future looks much brighter than it did only a year ago. And he credits much of this to the love and support of his wife throughout their 18-year relationship.
“She is my rock and has held fast through all my wild ups and downs. It’s only recently, with far more clarity than I’ve ever had, that I have come to realise this, and try hard every day to honour and acknowledge her amazing support.
“I feel really comfortable with where I am and what I’ve gone through, and if I can in any way have an impact on other people, then that’s really what I’m attempting to do,” he said, beaming.
If you are suffering from depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts, or you’re worried about someone else and feel that urgent professional support is needed, contact your local doctor or one of the 24/7 crisis agencies below:
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467