Once upon a time, there was a boy who had everything a boy could ever want: a loving family, plenty of friends, a roof over his head, food on the table, clothes on his back. And he was happy. More or less.
Sure, he worried a lot, mostly about things he couldn’t control — he worried about loved ones dying, or his house burning down. But everyone worries about those things, right? Perfectly normal.
That boy grew up. And as a young man, still, he had everything a young man could want: an amazing wife, two fantastic daughters, a series of interesting jobs. And he was happy. Wasn’t he?
I mean, why wouldn’t he be? He had the world by the tail. Only an ungrateful idiot wouldn’t be head-over-heels happy with this life. So he put a smile on his face and soldiered on. And it was fine, everything was fine.
And yet, the worries he had as a boy grew with him. They were bigger and stronger and they consumed more and more of his life. Were his family members safe and healthy? Was another round of layoffs around the corner? Which expectations was he failing to meet today? And what were those expectations again? And why was he such an ungrateful idiot, anyway?
You probably guessed that I’m the guy in this story. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety in 2000. I’d like to say everything has been rainbows and unicorns ever since I got my diagnosis and meds.
Alas, people can’t defeat depression and anxiety. They merely learn to manage it.
For too long, there’s been a stigma attached to mental illness in the United States and elsewhere. It’s especially bad for men, who are supposed to solve problems in this git-’er-done society of ours. Feelings? Fears? We’re supposed to swallow those, keep them bottled and buried. If they start to fight their way to the surface, you’re supposed to drown them in alcohol or play five rounds of golf every week or shut yourself away from family in your workshop or man cave.
In my case, I often found myself wrapped in the virtual world — social media, blogs, message boards, video games — anything to distract it and run interference long enough to at least temporarily overpower the chaos swirling in my head.
That escapism is a key part of avoidance. Guys like me are supposed to do anything to ignore the nagging, persistent voice that says, “This isn’t normal.” And we’re definitely not supposed to answer to that smaller voice, the one telling us it’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to confront things that might make us uncomfortable. It’s OK to deal with issues head-on.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Meds have been a godsend for me. Getting a good therapist helps, too. But there are still ups and downs. I went through a particularly nasty valley last fall and finally yanked myself out by realizing I needed to focus more on self-care. Nobody else can do it for me. It’s got to be a part of my life every day.
My personal mental health regimen involves sleep, exercise, regular time outside or with my SAD light, and being more mindful about what goes into my body. That means striving for eight hours of sleep per night, frequent walks around Lake Nokomis or Minnehaha Falls, limiting alcohol and trying to squeeze as many fresh fruits and vegetables into my diet as possible.
I’ve also found an incredible support group in the Face It Foundation. It works exclusively with men who are living with depression. Being around that group of guys gives me strength and purpose and a lot of hope. Plus, it provides an outlet to do exactly what society tells us not to do: talk about our problems with other men who are walking the same path.
Also, I got my first tattoo in January. It’s a lyric from a Jason Isbell song that is particularly meaningful to me.
I thought that I was running to/What I was running from
I still remember the first time I heard it, how it struck me like a sledgehammer. At the time I thought, “Man, that Isbell can write!” But the lyrics spoke to me on a deeper level as I heard them again and again over the next year.
The lyric captures everything I used to do to make myself temporarily feel “better” — eating, drinking, staring at a computer rather than going to the gym. I figured at least I could savor these moments of pleasure in a crappy world. Little did I realize the cost, that these actions were preventing me from discovering true happiness.
Putting the words inside my left forearm, where I’ll see them multiple times every day, serves as a reminder that “carpe diem” doesn’t mean “do a bunch of crap you’ll regret tomorrow because it feels good right now.”
And I know that people will ask me about the tattoo, forcing me to talk about mental illness and breaking down the stigma, one conversation at a time. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but this conversation needs to happen every day of every month.
I’ve realized I can’t wait for tomorrow. My words can help someone today.
Patrick Donnelly is a children’s book editor and freelance sportswriter who lives in south Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter: @donnelly612.