When Nicole Gibson joined me for a drink at Mandala’s recently, I was so excited to see her again. It has been nearly 10 years since we attended the same school, though we didn’t know each other well then. Nicole has been someone I have avidly followed on social media as she has grown and achieved so much in such a short period of time. I had high hopes for our interview, but little did I know it would turn into the most magical afternoon of conversation I’ve ever had.
Nicole began her not-for-profit organisation, the Rogue & Rouge Foundation at the age of 18 after 5 years of living with Anorexia Nervosa. By the age of 20, Nicole was a finalist for Young Australian of the Year and soon after received the Pride of Australia medal and was listed as one of Australia’s 100 Most Influential Women. Nicole has since completed multiple tours both nationally and internationally, and become the youngest ever Commonwealth Commissioner for Mental Health.
On the cusp of launching her first book, Nicole shares her story.
MJ: I remember vividly one afternoon when you came to the school office as you were about to be picked up by family. You would have been in Year 11 and I was working part time in admin at this stage. You were clearly in so much pain and I had no idea what I could say or do to help. At the time I had no understanding of what you were going through, but saw a young woman I admired suffering and had no language for the situation at hand. Can you tell me about that time?
NG: I guess at that point it had been a long term problem but that’s when it had hit a climax. Because the principal intervened there was a spotlight on me, and that pressure and stress… The feeling of being watched but not supported. That was really hard to come to terms with. People could only see the illness and not me. I feel like I had to reach a place of knowing my power and my worth even when no one else could see that. That felt like the reality for me at that time, even though I’m sure that wasn’t true. Like you said, when people don’t know how to acknowledge you, don’t know how to have difficult conversations… You’re battling with your mind. It’s hard to explain to people who have never had that experience, but to be in an invisible battle with yourself is a very difficult thing to make sense of. Mental illness is a lot more than I think awareness campaigns can capture. It’s cool to understand that people suffer with depression & anxiety but it’s another thing to understand what that is genuinely like.
John [the school principal] was the first person that stepped in and said this is clearly a problem. There was something in his approach with me that I’d never experienced before, which was so loving but so firm and direct and assertive. “I can see that you’re not ok, and I’m going to put some strategies and boundaries in place to make sure you are ok.” I didn’t even think that that was possible. I didn’t think that leadership like that was possible.
MJ: I believe while we were at school there were others suffering in similar circumstances to you. As students the discussion surrounding what you were going through wasn’t had. How did you get yourself from that point to realising you had to be that driving force behind positive communication? Was there a catalyst?
NG: I really think that we value what we lacked in our childhoods, our teenage years, our development years. We put a high value on what we didn’t have. There were definitely lightbulb moments where I felt a calling to do what I do now. More generally it was identifying that I didn’t want any other 16 year old girls going through what I went through. The reality is that suffering was unnecessary. So much of that suffering could have been alleviated. I think without the stigma there would have been so much more space and safety to overcome what I was going through. The shame, when you’re already vulnerable is so difficult. One of the big things for me was witnessing John, even in his uncomfortability, be so willing to put himself out there.
It’s vulnerable to be the person who approaches someone to have that conversation. I’d never seen vulnerability like that before.
My family don’t value vulnerability at all, and like you said, I think a lot of my peers weren’t educated. We weren’t taught. That word wasn’t something that was commonplace, let alone learning affective communication or how to hold space for people. So that became a significant driver for me. Thinking, if John can be that for me, then I can be that for other people. Through that journey and that process there were a lot of moments. The illness got to a point where I literally had to make a decision; am I prepared to die for this illness or am I going to turn my life around? And I just didn’t want that pain to be in vain.
MJ: This is a massive realisation for a 16/17 year old people to come to, particularly during a period of time where you didn’t have the support networks that are available now. Many of which still aren’t where they need to be. I hope you are really proud of yourself. How did that then lead to the Rogue & Rouge Foundation?
NG: When I started to believe that recovery was possible, which in the darkest points of the illness I didn’t ever think there would be a day when I wouldn’t have that plague me. So when I started to believe it was possible, it opened up the world to me, including the fact that it could also be possible for other people. I think, spirituality played a really big part in my journey as well. That wasn’t something that I sought out, but I feel like the process of healing myself became a very spiritual experience, a very spiritual journey.
I was connecting to a deeper sense of my purpose and I found so much of my healing in giving.
Being in that mental illness for 5 years, it’s so self absorbed, so introspective. When you’re in that state of paranoia, that pain, you think everyone is looking at you, that everyone is judging you and there is no perspective outside of that. So I started to realise that my healing pathway was to actually not make it about myself, but to make it about other people and look at my privilege, my gifts, my intelligence and do something constructive with that and not destructive.
MJ: So after that very introspective way of life, how did you then go living in a van for so long on your first national tour? How did it feel being by yourself for that long?
NG: It was like a crash course in meditation. I’m a big big believer that meditation is the pathway out of a lot of our pain. To be able to be in your aloneness and be with that energy. Call it God, call it the universe, whatever you want to call it. Anyone that has been alone to that degree will tell you that they’ve had an experience of not being alone. Especially for me, I was travelling through the desert, through some of the most remote parts of Australia and on one night in particular – I was trying not to drive at dusk or dawn because of ‘roos, but I wasn’t going to make it until the next road house by sunset so I decided to sit on the van and watch the sunset. It’s so beautiful, especially when you’re out in the desert. So I sat on top of the van and it was literally dead silent. I couldn’t hear cicadas, I couldn’t hear wind. It was still, deadly silent. I was watching the sunset over the horizon, the red cliffs and sand dunes, and had this immense… My whole body was covered in goosebumps, tears streaming down my face at this feeling of deep reverence. How worthy life is and how lucky we are to have this experience. I mean, just that shift, after so many years of self-hatred to being able to learn a different vibration like gratitude and reverence. It was such an amazing experience for me. I had no comfort zone because there was no consistency. The biggest part for me in the mental illness was control, and here I had no control. I had zero control over anything, including many breakdowns. There’s no shortcut to making the unfamiliar familiar. To breaking your comfort zone. Everyone has a cliff that they have to stand on at some point and the only way through that is to jump.
We see the world through the filters that we place. It still shocks me when I say to my audiences have you ever thought that you actually choose what you tell yourself? You choose your self talk, you choose your belief systems. You have choice, there’s a free will in that. That has never occurred to most people. Just the possibility, and it’s so simple that it’s almost ludicrous, that when you finally understand the pathway to liberation, that it’s a state of mind. You can travel the world and still feel trapped. I have experienced that. You can’t run away from yourself. To really find that liberation is to discipline your mind, and refine your mind to really become aware of what goes through your mind.
MJ: I was watching one of your YouTube videos and you spoke about giving yourself the permission to think in a certain way or feel a certain way. The people in that room didn’t realise they could until you told them. To be able to give yourself permission to love yourself or believe in something or be ok with something. It’s ridiculous how something simple is so profound.
You’ve seen both national & international audiences over the last couple of years. Is there a difference between how people react to things you have to say depending on where they are?
NG: I like to think that it’s all quite similar because the message is fundamental. I have put so much energy into my belief that we are all connected and that innately all humans want is love. There is so many different ways of expressing that and so many different forms, but we just want to be loved and want to love. We want to be able to give and feel worthwhile. If you have that flow of giving and receiving in your life then it eliminates suffering. We discover ourselves and I think every human knows that. There are definitely cultural nuances. Different cultures have different humours, but I think when you’re inspired and show people your vulnerability, for the most part I see them be receptive to that and get it. Even it they haven’t had those conversations before.
MJ: When looking through your work, and I guess we all end up comparing things to our lives and where we are at, I was excited by your work with Start Up Apprentice. I wish we had that when we were that young! Can you tell me how Start Up Apprentice became a part of your world next to Rogue & Rouge?
NG: I had just moved back from Melbourne and a few people had tried to connect me with the two founders before but it just didn’t align. It finally did when they were going through a restructure. I was really happy to help them, to facilitate a few sessions, because I really believed in what they are doing. I think mental health awareness and emotional intelligence is so important, but when you combine and partner that with critical thinking, problem solving and an entrepreneurial mind set, that’s a killer combination. By that point I had a lot of relationships with schools, and I feel like I was so supported and guided in my journey that I didn’t experience any of the road blocks that other people in the space have experienced. The amount of people who have said to me, “How did you work in so many schools, it’s so hard to break that market.” I never experienced that. But it’s a belief thing. I never believed that I would be rejected because what I had to offer was so genuine. My way of going about it, I guess, was very unconventional. It wasn’t hard selling, it was just showing up and being real and just trusting that it would be received. Plus it was a genuine need so why wouldn’t it be well received?
So I think that was when the two founders of SUA (Start Up Apprentice) were like, we’ve never looked at business in this way. After 6 months of working with them as a coach and facilitator, they asked if I would like to be a CEO of their organisation. I said I couldn’t lead two organisations independently but, was there a way for the two to come together considering we both have the same demographic and the same market? So we did that for a year and a half. We don’t work side by side anymore, but that was an amazing year and a half. I learnt so much about the benefit of training young people. For me, watching kids go through an accelerator like Start Up Apprentice, what it showed me more than anything was the comfortability that they gained in failure, and in risk taking and putting themselves out there even if it didn’t go right.
You can’t fail unless you quit. Failure is just an opportunity to learn. Once upon a time failure and I had a really toxic relationship. It was very toxic and debilitating. It controlled me, that fear of failure. Whether it was a number on the scales or whatever, I realised I can actually redefine what that relationship looks like. I realised that my relationship with joy was, “I’m not worthy of that.” and that wasn’t anything that a therapist taught me. I guess I started asking myself the right questions, to gain that awareness. As humans, we exist in a relationship to all things. I have a relationship to you, to that table, and my fundamental philosophy is that everything is neutral until we paint our perception over it. There’s the connection in the objective sense, and then there’s my relationship to it. This is actually something I can control. That’s something I can work at creating or framing in a way that serves me. Ultimately bringing me happiness and joy and learning, rather than negativity and pessimism and all of these other things. To get to that place in your mind, there’s no shortcut. You have to do the work yourself.
MJ: For many people, age places imaginary barriers on their abilities. It’s wonderful to hear your story because it blows these fears out of the water. For every milestone you have hit, you can place a ridiculously young number, your age, next to that. We probably already know the answer to this, but have you ever felt age was a roadblock for you?
NG: Well, I met death, you know? You become pretty ageless when you realise that at any moment death could be a possibility. So what does it matter? I’m going to put myself out on the line, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? I get rejected? So what? This isn’t forever. We’re going to die one day. It’s inevitable. For some people that must sound incredibly morbid, but for me it’s liberating. We become a product of what we put our focus into. That’s a universal law. It’s not bound by anything. Not by gender, by age, by race, by sexuality. It’s our creative force. There’s no exception to that rule. When you really understand that then you stop looking at those barriers. I have a real thing about minority groups and the way they often marginalise themselves. That’s a pretty controversial thing to say, but I think they exacerbate it by putting so much energy into the fact that they feel marginalised, and if they’re the ones who do feel marginalised they are the ones with the awareness to educate. If they hate the other side, what makes them any better than the people they are fighting against?
Humans are attracted to what they want for themselves. We’re attracted to confidence, to execution, we’re attracted to ambition, to conviction, vision, creativity… So if you embody those things, you could be the weirdest, most unlikely character and you’ll become extremely loveable, magnetic and attractive.
We all want that, it’s primal. When you go back to our psychology in our primitive state, in tribes, we were attracted to the alpha because they were the ones who would keep us safe. You’ll see it, the person who exhibits the most confidence and articulation and charm in a room is the person that everyone wants to be around. It’s not a coincidence, it’s for a reason.
MJ: Your journey obviously began by yourself, but you have a group of people you work with now. I read a little bit about them on the website, which is quite a great read actually, but could you tell me a bit about your team?
NG: I think relationships, and I understand this more and more, are so fundamental in our lives but also to the success of a project. Finding the right people is one of my strongest values as a leader. I think it’s a constant journey of understanding what makes a good team. I’ve had different teams over the years. When I first started the foundation I had an executive committee of seven people and volunteers. I said to them, I don’t want to operate the way we’ve been operating, I want to tour and actually do some pretty massive primary research. All of them said it was a terrible idea and basically quit. Then I secured my first sponsorship, which was really interesting. So many highs and lows. For them to say this isn’t the right thing to be doing, and this isn’t the thing we have bought into. Then to secure 100K as an 18 year old for your dreams to become a reality, I then had the ability throughout that journey to recruit. By the end of the tour we had a team of four. We were working with the corporate marketing and PR team who sponsored us. That was a cool team. It taught me a lot about team because we were in each other’s pockets, obviously. It taught me a lot about appreciating, and about accepting differences. I think it’s one thing to talk about that and another to be in the middle of the desert with three other people for weeks on end. That really teaches you about working as a team. You need each other, so even when you’re hating each other, you need each other. That was really cool.
Then I came home, and from all the research I wrote two programs for the foundation based on what we discovered. One middle school program called, “What’s The Point?” which is a 9 week program to help people discover purpose. Instead of looking at “What’s The Point?” with a negative connotation. Then, “Get Real” which is a leadership program. We went through the process of putting together a new committee for the foundation, and then trained two program managers as facilitators of the programs. We then trained a team underneath them. This was really really cool, and I started to notice that my journey, whilst in the beginning was so much about the kids I was working with, started to become about the team I was nurturing. One of my best facilitators, who was actually one of the participants in a program, in her interview she was so nervous but I could see her potential. She’s so beautiful. I’ve watched her come into herself and hold a space, she’s now one of the best facilitators I know.She still works for the foundation now. To see that journey, for me, that’s one of the best parts of leading a team.
As I’ve gone through the last year building my new body of work, that’s been a really cool journey too. There’s been more scope through the community that I’ve built to draw upon them for support. My best friend works for me, and that’s kind of a dream come true right? When you can really work with your family. Some people are really big believers in leaving your professional and personal lives separate, but I think when you do the kind of work that I do, it’s impossible. It is personal. Especially when you’re going on trips with people you’re working with, they need to get you. There needs to be that feeling of family, and my community is my family. I really mean that. They have my back so much now.
You said I started the journey alone, and I really did. It was a big dream and I was like, “There is no evidence that I’m not insane. I could be totally deluded and this could be the craziest idea ever.” To now having this community of people who will call and say, “What can I do to help?” “Can I proof read your book?” Can I sell some tickets to your event?” That I have that engagement and support from friends is such a beautiful thing. Everyone can find that but there’s a lesson that comes with backing yourself first. If we wait for other people’s support and commitment, permission and validation, then we never get there. It’s a way of disempowering yourself.
MJ: You mention your new project, your book. I won’t lie, I’m a bit excited to find out what LOVE OUT LOUD is! Is there anything that you can share about that?
NG: Totally! I’m pretty excited for it. I went through a really really hard breakup at the end of 2016, and it was really interesting to be back in that place. It definitely spiralled me back to that place of vulnerability, but experiencing vulnerability in an unsafe way. That heartbreak again. It really challenged me, and it’s always easy to say this in hindsight, but there were so many gifts in that.
I was so in love, so deeply, madly in love. To be forced to let go of that has strengthened me in ways that I didn’t know was possible. It allowed me to almost slow down the process that I take other people through, through my own lens.
It was very synchronistic. I took a trip to Europe in April to go to a conference. I was meditating on the beach in Spain, it was about 4:30am my time. I meditate with a headband that connects to my phone, so I had headphones in and my roaming was on. I didn’t think anyone was going to call because it was about 7pm here, so I was meditating and I asked in my meditation, “What’s next?” I was grieving, and I’m processing this really massive… like, this is going to change me as a person. I am an artist in a way, I like drawing from my experiences. It’s not even a like, I have to express in that way! The Foundation [Rogue & Rouge] was going well, it didn’t need me to be so operational anymore and things were changing. The majority of my work was starting to be speaking, and there was a lot of freedom in that. So I was asking, “What’s next?” Then my phone starts ringing. I answer the phone and no shit, this chick from Melbourne is like, “Hi Nicole, my name is Catherine. Sorry if this is a bit violating for me to call you out of the blue. I’m a book coach and I’ve been following your journey for the past 5 to 6 years and I’ve just really had this strong, intuitive feeling to call you and encourage you to maybe think of writing a book.” I was just silent. I then said to her, “Right now, I’m on the coast of Ibiza. It’s 4:30am. I’m sitting in a meditation and I’m asking the universe what is next for me, and literally as I was in that, you called.” She got mad goosebumps.
From then on, it was like this body of work has been creating me. I didn’t write it, it wrote me. In every single module, every chapter. People have said so many times through this journey, when are you writing a book? It never really… it wasn’t a thing for me. It was so clear though how I wanted to write it. It just came with so much clarity. I guess when you have that ability to really see something… Just like a visual artist is able to translate what they see. I’ve really had that with this body of work, and it’s been so incredible to experience.
It’s 9 chapters, the book. The body of work is the book, and then an online course that is modelled off the book. The framework I use in the book will become the framework I use in my seminars and retreats, which I’m really excited about. Previously I’ve used a framework called, “Rights of Passage” which looks at transformation. What is required for transformation to happen. 3 main elements, including separation from comfort zones: So something will occur in your life that separates you from your comfort zone or in the instant of facilitating a space, you need to be able to separate people from their comfort zone in order for their minds to be open enough for change to be possible. Then you go through some period of challenge, where you’re not who you were but you’re also not who you are becoming. You’re the caterpillar in the cocoon before you’re a butterfly. That’s a really crucial, potent part of the journey. You’re asking questions like, “Who am I?” “What do I value?” “How do I relate to things?” “What do I want?” And this is where we go wrong. The way we relate to change in society is, we want to save people from that period. It’s scary and it’s vulnerable and we don’t know how to be in that discomfort. So my job is to literally facilitate that in between space for people, which I love, and then help them transition out from that challenge into a reintegration. I believe acknowledgement plays a really important role in that. When you can acknowledge the challenge that someone has been through and really honour that, it really helps them integrate back into themselves, into their world. When you go through a period of difficulty and it’s not acknowledged, it can be quite a fragmenting experience because you don’t know how to relate.
People experience it when they go traveling a lot. They go away and have these amazing experiences and come home and feel depressed. There’s a scientific explanation as to why we experience that. Tribes and civilisations through history have always had really well facilitated Rights of Passage. What’s our equivalent? Schoolies Week! We have no Rights of Passage that are well facilitated and intergenerational and really draw upon the wisdom of our communities to hold that space. So that became a blueprint, but I wanted to break those three elements down into something more digestible, more understandable. It was the process of my healing, but I could see it mirrored in so many of the clients that I worked with over the years.
The separation from comfort zone, I’ve broken that into three chapters. Belief, so believing that anything is possible. Honesty, actually being honest with yourself. Asking yourself, what is it that I really want, not what should I want? Then acceptance. Going through a process of accepting the truth.
Challenge is broken down into death, so the shedding of an identity. From that, purpose. Discovering your purpose. Then after that death and shedding, there will be a phoenix that rises from that which is creativity.
The final three chapters for the reintegration are acknowledgement, gratitude and service. It’s a cyclical model which brings people back to themselves. It’s amazing because as I wrote each chapter, I was deeply tested on my own integrity and my own philosophy. I think everyone should write a book, even if you don’t publish it. Around your own philosophy of life, your way of thinking. The writing process demands precision. It helps you structure your thoughts so that you become so clear.
MJ: It’s going to be an amazing read because no matter who you are, where you are, it will resonate across the board. There isn’t anyone that I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from reading that, and it would be applicable no matter the situation. Everyone is obviously going through change or scared of going through change.
NG: My hope for it is to help change our relationship with uncertainty, because it’s our growth. In the book I talk a lot about tension. We need tension and we actually seek tension out. That’s why we want to change things if we’ve been in a stagnant relationship for too long. There are so many examples of when humans experience that complacency. We crave that tension in a relationship, between mystery and stability. We need both. The ultimate tension being life and death is when your realise that this isn’t forever. What do I have to lose? You can relate to life in a different way. When you accept that your life becomes so much more full, because you’re not attached. What’s it all going to matter? Think about the final moments of your life when you’re reflecting back on your life. All the spirits of the past are there with you. All of your memories. What is really going to hold significance?
I feel so grateful because I feel the work I do has given me an insight into people of all ages and their reflections on life.
Nothing is more haunting for me than to sit with people in their 50s and 60s who are riddled with regret, and the reality is there is nothing they can do other than work at letting that go and utilising what they have here and now to create the life they are really wanting for themselves.
If you can bring that perspective into the smallest moments… that awareness is never not there for me. Things that people get so hooked up on really decreases the quality of their life. If you have that awareness you can ask, is this really worth it? What is the significance of holding this grudge? Why do I have to be right? Would I prefer to be right or prefer to be happy? Would I prefer to be right of prefer to be loving? If you can have that dialogue with yourself you make better choices. Be honest with yourself.
To book your tickets for Nicole’s upcoming book launch in March, follow this link – LOVE OUT LOUD. I will see you there! For more information on Nicole and her work visit her website, and find out more the about Rogue & Rouge Foundation.
All photography by Morgan Smith for the Morgan Journal and Nicole Gibson.