Taking Control of Mental Health: Acknowledge. Accept. Act.

Kishwaukee River in Sycamore, IL, Winter 2019. I took this photo as a memento during the hardest period of my life.

“Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” – Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

It’s been a few weeks since I sat down to type for the blog. A lot has been going on, personally and professionally! Forgive me as I take a stroll down memory lane… this is a long journey. I hope you’ll come with me. I need to get this out there.

My hope is someone who needs to read this will read it and be inspired to find help. Even if it’s one person. That’s more than enough for me to know this is the right thing to do – even though is scares the crap out of me.

My favorite Walt Disney movie is Aladdin, due in large part to Robin Williams. Williams’ Genie is one of the all-time great voice acting performances. The heart, the soul, the humor are all delivered with spot on accuracy and energy. To this day, I love watching the Genie do his thing while singing every word to Never Had a Friend Like Me and Prince Ali!

There are bands that explode on the scene and change music, or at least challenge the musical dynamic – even if briefly. One such band was Linkin Park. In 2000 the band dropped their debut album Hybrid Theory, and everyone my age (and many others younger and older) was obsessed! In particular, I loved the voice of Chester Bennington. It could change from raging scream to hauntingly beautiful harmonies on a dime. In the end, it doesn’t even matter if you like them or not. Chester Bennington’s voice was a voice of a generation. In fact, I’m jamming Hybrid Theory as I type and loving how fresh it sounds 20 years later.

I’m obsessed with cooking shows. Since I was in high school, I’ve loved seeing world class chefs show you how to prepare amazing cuisine. Anthony Bourdain, however, was a little different. He was a world class chef, who rose up from poverty and was deeply influenced by a punk ethos. He took those rebellious, non-conformist roots with him – a “fuck you” attitude he used to expose corruption and shed light on injustice and impropriety through food and culture. Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is a beautiful show. I highly recommend binging if you can.

All three inspired me. I am, in some part, who I am today due to their influence. All three of them also share another trait. They all fought through mental health challenges and lost. All three couldn’t rise above the darkest depths of their torment and committed suicide.

I will never forget where I was when I heard the news of each one of them. I was shattered. In some ways, I am still shattered.

Shattered because… I share their torment. I’ve felt it, too. Thankfully, so far, I have been able to stave off the hand of uncertainty and not sink to a level from which I cannot return. It doesn’t make it any less painful. Painful because I fear one day I may sink too far and not come back.

Seeing heroes of mine fail so spectacularly gives me a deep seeded anxiety that I may one day fail. It’s a reminder that my battle may ebb and flow, but it is never over. It’s something I will carry with me forever. Everyone who battled mental health in some way or another knows this truth.

I have carried that battle with me silently, much like Williams, Bennington, and Bourdain. Until their deaths, was it common knowledge that they all had inner demons that tormented them? No. Williams, in particular. Here’s a man who spent his entire life making other people happy. He was a jokester, a (seemingly) happy, energetic person! How could he take his own life???

It makes no sense, except it makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense to those who share the demon.

Suffering in silence… most wouldn’t know. It’s why I have decided to be more vocal, and it begins with naming the demon… depression.

I’ve been wanting to write this for years – prior to ever having started the HR Philosopher. Yet, I held back. I continued suffering silently, alone. Fear, anger, hate, suffering – all these things kept me from writing what I wanted to, as well as helped me down the path to the Darkside.

Thankfully, I got a push from a friend. Osasu Arigbe wrote a blog series in May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month. She asked me to be a part of her series, Let’s Talk About Mental Health. It was the first time I ever publicly discussed that I was challenged with mental health issues. In fact, it was the first time I was even open about it with anyone outside of my wife and maybe three or four others.

Interview with Osasu Arigbe, an amazing HR professional and mental health advocate!

For as long as I can remember, I avoided talking about it, acknowledging it, ESPECIALLY to myself. I hid from it, hoping it’d go away. But it never did – it never does. It just goes into hibernation, much like a bear. It sleeps from time to time, but always wakes up hungry and angry. The bear comes back and goes on a devastating bender.

Thankfully, I came to the realization that as painful as it is, as uncomfortable as it is, as awkward as it is, talking about one’s mental heath struggles is necessary to move forward and regain control of one’s life.

It began with acknowledging that depression was a part of me. It is as much a part of me as my blonde hair and brown eyes. Acknowledging it is only step one. The next step was accepting it. It’s one thing to know something, but it’s another to agree that this knowledge is true and unrefutable. Once you accept it, you have to act. By act I mean take the reigns and intentionally working in ways and doing things to live peacefully with depression.

I came to this understanding after a long battle of depression – the longest and most painful of my entire life. It started in the fall of 2018, and I didn’t come completely out of it until winter of 2020. It nearly debilitated me personally and professionally. Thankfully, I have a wonderful wife, without whom, I may not be writing this now!

I admitted my struggles and came clean with her. It was something we worked on together. And she never wavered while I was a tattered flag in a hurricane barely hanging on by what seemed like a few threads.

During my lowest points, I journaled. It was one way in which I could act. I am glad I did. I chronicled my journey. It gave me something to look back on to realize how far I came, how much I learned, and how much I grew.

Originally, I wrote it for myself. However, I feel sharing it here could potentially help someone else. So, I share the following from March 6, 2019 when I was home desperate for some semblance of “normalcy.”

What have you learned so far?

  • I have learned that you can hit a new rock bottom. You can fall further than previously thought.
  • You can, however, always choose to get back up, every time!
  • Your condition doesn’t define you.
  • You are NOT your job. Sometimes a job is a job. It doesn’t need any other meaning other than a means to provide our loved ones with what they need.
  • Being your own best friend is hard but necessary for sustained wellness.
  • Those who truly matter always reveal themselves, as do those who don’t matter.
  • Internal validation is a key to wellbeing. External validation is fleeting and poisonous.
  • You are always making decisions. It is best to be present for them.
  • Consistency comes with practice. Practice comes with discipline. Discipline comes when your mind is locked in.
  • Quiet is the ultimate equalizer. Sitting in quiet while smiling is even better.
  • It is OK to not be OK.
  • Happiness can be found here, now. You won’t find it anywhere else.
  • At the end of the day, you must be your own best friend. You won’t be a friend to others if you don’t.
  • Being vulnerable is a gateway to true understanding. Open yourself up to the world. Shutting it off, running or hiding, or worse, ignoring challenges, only makes suffering worse.

Being vulnerable? Ugh… I am uncomfortable when vulnerable; however, that uncomfortability saved me in many ways. Shutting myself off, closing myself in armor (not being vulnerable) was slowly causing me to rot. It didn’t help my depression go away. My depression will never go away, but being vulnerable gives me the power to understand my depression – to harness it to make my world better around me for myself, my family, and the community.

I wrote the above in the middle of the worst depression of my life. I wrote the following as I was coming out of it… near the end. On January 17, 2020, I wrote:

What has a year and a half of depression taught me?

  1. Acknowledge and accept. Then act.
  2. Acknowledging you have a mental illness is hard and someone akin to coming out of the closet, in that, for a period of time I hid who I am – even from myself. I have come to greatly respect anyone in the LGTBQ community who is fully out and loving who they are. I admire it so much because it’s something I haven’t been able to do with myself for less stakes.
  3. Greater empathy for the African American experience. I felt discrimination due to my condition. I felt the sting of being treated differently due to being different. Obviously, it pales in comparison to the African American experience, but being discriminated against (even on a minute level) opens one’s eyes – experiencing injustice changes your perception. It makes me mad at how wronged Blacks have been.
  4. Great appreciation for FMLA. Had it not been for FMLA and my understanding of the law, I may not have been able to keep my job.
  5. There is no where near enough support for those with these challenges. One clinic and took 4 weeks to see a doctor.

Middle. End. What about the beginning? On 11/04/2018, I wrote:

“Stop looking for happiness everywhere else than where you are.”

That’s a sobering, grounding thought. Happiness can be found right where you are. You won’t find it anywhere else. You just won’t. It comes from within. That’s why depression sucks. If left completely unchecked, it robs you of logic, emotion, and your future (at its worst). I knew what to do, but I couldn’t do it.

So, past and present, but what about future? My hope with being so transparent is to allow myself the opportunity to move forward – stronger. Coming clean is so liberating. Accepting what you are is power. I hope by following Tyrion’s advice, I can be open and honest about my experiences so they can no longer control me.

I was always fearful of being open due to people using my story to hurt me. I wouldn’t get a job, I would lose friends, I would be ridiculed and made fun of. All of that may happen, but I learned that as long as I accept myself as I am, nothing anyone else does can hurt me – unless I let it. I can’t allow that anymore.

Brené Brown uses the analogy that being vulnerable is taking armor off. Tyrion uses the analogy that being vulnerable is putting armor on, in that, if you openly admit what you are – in his case a dwarf and in Jon Snow’s case a bastard – that’s like putting on armor because no one can use it against you. Your acceptance and openness are vulnerabilities that lead you and others to greater understanding and strength.

“You’re a dwarf bastard?!” “Yeah, I know.”

“You’re depressed and suicidal?!” <awkward look emoji> “Yes, I know.” <smile emoji>

I no longer feel the need to desperately hide my history of depression or my experiences. It feels good to let it go – even if scary.

Acknowledge. Accept. Act.

I hope to one day meet Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, and Anthony Bourdain. I want to tell them what they meant to me and how their deaths – particularly how they died – deeply affected me. They helped me gain clarity that they, perhaps, never had. I wish they were still here, but if there’s any good that came from their suffering – it is that they helped save me.

Chester was wrong on one thing, though. In the end, it DOES matter. Life matters. Just keep swimming. Be here tomorrow because I promise that this too shall pass.

If you or someone you know is in need of help, please know there are millions of others who have gone through or are going through similar challenges. They understand. They feel it, too. Getting help is not a sign of weakness. Getting help is a sign of power. Keep swimming for yourself and for others in your life. Just keep swimming. I got the following information from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website: suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. 1-800-273-8255.

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