Not that long ago I was sitting in the waiting room, waiting for my father to get out of his quadruple bypass surgery. It had been a pretty stressful week and in many cases I was able to handle the stress. That is, on the outside when people would ask how I was doing. When asked this question, I default to two answers: “I’m doing well” and “busy”. The only accepted negative feelings that I feel comfortable enough to share are when I say something to the effect of “I feel like crap.” Or “my body really hurts”.
These responses are mostly a culturally learned response. At least that is the way I understand it from many hours of reflection and some therapy. As I grew up in a rural town in Nebraska, it wasn’t common for men to walk around talking about how they felt. How they were depressed, anxious or sad. I always felt like a pretty emotional kid and learning how to stuff those emotions was part of growing up. The four most prominent methods that I saw people around me use to avoid their feelings were:
1. Religion. I learned that being sad, anxious or depressed probably meant you were not faithful enough and needed to simply trust that God would take care of you.
2. Alcohol. Self medicating with alcohol is something I became good at pretty early, especially to manage anxiety related to social settings.
3. Being busy. If I had time to worry and be sad, I began to feel guilty that I wasn’t being productive enough. Time should be spent more wisely than worrying about things.
4. Anger. While it is an emotion, it’s not an incredibly productive one. It is however an emotion that was tolerated for the most part. This is especially true if it was in response to some socially supported endeavor such as responding to an athletic event as a player or fan.
The reason that I share all of these lessons is to set up an exchange I had the week that I left for Kansas, which had me feeling guilty for weeks. I had a local runner reach out to ask when the spring training group was about to start. It was a fair question, however given my stress levels, I responded by laying out all the emotional baggage I had been storing.
I shared that since Thanksgiving I had been dealing with the decision that Nikki and my separation was permanent and moving forward with the divorce, unsuccessfully finding new employment in a health related field after the Bootcamp, starting two new companies to pursue this new career and was preparing to leave for Kansas to be there for my father’s surgery. I summarized all the issues, by stating that I was currently overwhelmed and hadn’t been able to get everything together.
It felt good for a minute or two after I pushed send. Then I began to feel incredibly guilty and anxious. I felt guilty because it seemed highly inappropriate to share all of these issues with her, even if I had known her for nearly six years. I felt anxious because I worried how she would respond. Would she want to trust me as a coach? Would she think less of me?
Generating my own fake news:
Through the reflections and self inspection over the past year, I have come to realize that I am really good at generating fake stories by responding to people the way I do. I respond in the ways I do, for all the reasons mentioned above, but it clearly is not always accurate or true. In this way, I realize that I am good at generating fake news regarding my own life. I imagine that I’m good enough that, at times, I begin to believe the false narrative myself.
I create these narratives through Facebook posts, Instagram photos, daily interactions with friends and random responses to strangers. In many ways, I justify this process because I see it as a necessary part of ‘branding’ myself as successful, healthy and happy. It fells necessary to get a new client, fit into social circles and to relieve awkwardness of tough conversations. The challenge is that by creating this false narrative, I never open myself up to friends and family, who can provide support when I need it.
When the narrative needs to be managed.
I have never been diagnosed with depression or anxiety. I have never been prescribed any medications by a professional to alleviate a depressed mood or state of anxiousness. But then again, due to the stigma associated with both of those, and based on the cultural learning that “Boys don’t cry” I have never been willing to seek out any help when I’ve had periods of unhappiness. Almost two years ago I started seeing a counselor to understand my unhappy marriage, and I can say with strong conviction, it’s one of the best things I have ever done. I wish I could have had the courage to seek out a therapist years ago to just deal with things I’ve wanted to deal with, along with uncovering the things I didn’t know I needed to.
If there’s one lesson in this whole story that I hope you take away, it’s that the stigma associated with depression and anxiety is nonsense. It’s a real issue and seeking supportive environments is always worth the effort. Much better than trying to self medicate and self manage.
I can recall a few times in my life where things felt like they sunk into a deep, deep pit that became difficult to climb out of. The one time that is the most prominent in my memory started in 2011. I have spent a lot of time contemplating, reflecting and stumbling over the reasons why it happened. I have some theories on why this period occurred, but the more important piece to this story is not about the cause, but the response. At the time, I was actively seeking a job. I had been working on Endurance Base Camp for around 5 years and it was doing ok, but with Nikki returning to school, it wasn’t sustainable. Part of that situation was that a majority of the revenue was brought in through personal training clients at Fitness Plus. One truth about falling into a depressed state and increasing anxiety is that the last thing you want to do is spend all day talking to people, specifically when they expect you to be the energetic, motivated and happy person they need you to be.
Having a life full of good fortune, I became very lucky. I was able to get a job at Retrofit as the Lead Exercise Physiologist. In so many ways, it was the job I wanted. It allowed me to pursue and understand the technology side of fitness and wellness more deeply. I was able to join a team of people who wanted to change people’s lives and create a great company. This was a big difference to the years of being a one-man executive team. It also was my first experience working with a startup that followed the traditional investor and venture capital path of startups. Everything I had ever done was bootstrapped.
I went into the position with a lot of hope, that a new job, a change in daily routine, a steady source of income and a new challenge would allow me to: “wake up”. The reality was that for months after I joined Retrofit, things got much worse. It became really easy to find ways to create an environment that only increased the depressed moods. At Retrofit, I worked remotely with occasional trips to the home office in Chicago. This meant that I lived in my basement for many hours a day, with some days having no human interactions with others, which wasn’t done via Skype. Many days the only person I would talk to would be the barista at the drive through coffee shop that Kelty and I walked to. During this time, Nikki and I developed very different schedules. She had school, where she’d be gone by the time I woke up. I had work and would often leave my office after she’d gone to sleep.
At the time, I thought this isolation was a good thing for me. I of course didn’t have the awareness at the time to realize this was happening. In the moment, I found myself just telling friends and family that I was “busy” with my new job. While there may have been an element of truth to the story, I also used it as cover to avoid nearly all social gatherings. This was despite Nikki and friends trying to get me involved in various activities on a regular basis. Here are some pretty obvious things that happened during that time that I can now look back on that are examples of this period:
- After training for and racing in triathlons for over a decade, I stopped. I used the excuse that it was too expensive and I didn’t have the time to appropriately train. Deciding to quit triathlons removed a lot of my social interactions. I no longer had group rides nor swim lanes to share.
- I stopped taking most phone calls. I still don’t like talking on the phone, but it became a standard to never have my ringer on or return a call. I’d often ask people to text or email.
- I kept a couple personal training clients early in my time at Retrofit, but I ended up stopping all training within the first 6 months.
The biggest issue with this period is that I was able to hide how I really felt and how big the hole really was, by creating my own fake news. If you look back on my social media posts during this period of time, it’s unlikely that you’d find anything that hinted at my mindset. I painted a picture of being happy, healthy and successful. When I look at my life at that time, I would love to be able to go back and ask, “Why are you not happy”. Everything that a person might want in life was present: family, friends, challenging work, interesting hobbies and financial stability.
Asking the question, “Why”, is a natural response that I would have when someone is depressed or anxious. I used to think that it was the central question to ask when someone was feeling this way. Once we know the reason why, we can get busy trying to fix it. My reasoning was that if you are feeling depressed something is wrong and when things are wrong we should make them right. That is what I used to believe.
I do not want to make this reflection to become an analysis of why I became depressed. I also do not want it to become a self help discussion, where I share the various activities and methodologies I used to finally break free. The truth is that any observation would be a retrospective analysis, where I would have to make meaning out of actions that more than likely are not associated with one another. For now, I’ll keep those theories to myself.
What I want this to be is a simple reflection upon a time period in my life where I was depressed and anxious.
I started the reflection with one question: “When is it ok, to not be ok?” In various conversations over the past year, I have heard people make strong statements about others who open up about their negative feelings on social media. I will admit that I also feel uncomfortable when I read a status update where someone shares their sadness. I also see the courage it takes to willingly share these emotions. I have come to the conclusion that if we are going to accept Spring Break photos, vacation get-a-ways, sporting events, engagements, graduations and all of the happy moments in life, then maybe we should also be a little more accepting of someone sharing the challenging moments also.
My only hope is that a person that feels this way finds additional supportive environments and people to engage. Identifying these emotions and sharing them is a great place to start, however I do not know of any support systems that effectively help people manage depression and anxiety via social media as the only channel.
Sometime around November of 2012 I started to come out from under the cloud. When I think back to this period, I remember a co-worker asking me what I did to handle the work stress in a much better way than I had been the previous 5 months. I recall my response at the time, but I think it was wrong. I believe the answer was that I had finally started to shake free from being in the depressed mood. I do not know if that is a good analogy, to ‘shake free’, but that is what I recall it feeling like. Responding to life’s daily stresses and challenges becomes more manageable when there isn’t an underlying depressed mood.
By spring of 2013, I was finally in a place with a stable mood. That being said, the period did not end without a variety of side effects. The habit of responding to people with “busy” did not stop. It actually is one habit that may have became more common place. Recently, one of my best friends asked me: “Did I do something?” He was referring to the fact that we had historically talked very frequently. The calls were often long meandering discussions about all of life’s activities. However, the last few years we’d only talked a couple of times.
The after effects are something that will likely take time and forgiveness. The forgiveness that is most needed, is not from others, but from myself. An understanding that this period was not a failure of character or something to hide from. It was something that I went through, that has made me a more complete and better person today because of the insights I have gained from it. I only hope that should something similar happen in the future, that I will be less ashamed and more willing to share those emotions in the moment.
I have the same wish for others. If this is you, that you feel less shame and thoughts of failure regarding how you feel, and an openness to share those emotions. I am confident in saying that no matter how challenging the moods are to manage, no matter how alone they make you feel, there is someone that has empathy for your situation. There is someone who cares.