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Life Lessons From An Idiot
Lesson #5 - The Stigma Of Mental Health Issues

This is a tough life lesson to write because of how personal it is. In fact, I’ve been working on this post in some form or another for almost twenty years. For those of you who know me personally, a lot about my personality and who I am is about to make sense to you. A neighbor the other day asked me what my New Year Resolutions were. I responded with, “being more positive and a better person”. She laughed and said, “You are one of the most positive people I know.” In my head, I said to myself, if she only knew what it takes to be me.

By all accounts, my life is good. I have a wife and kids that love me unconditionally. I have a roof over my head that gets paid by a mortgage I can afford. My friends describe my job as, “living the dream.” I have great health insurance. There is food on my table. Mmmmm food. Good food. I have loads of friends all over the world.

So why can it be so hard for me to be happy?

You see… I have a trio of mess with your head mental health disorders. I suffer from severe ADD, bipolar depression, and anxiety. Yes, I am on medicine. It makes a huuuuuuuge difference. But it also doesn’t last 24x7x365. Nor do I take my cocktail every single day. I slip up. I am human.

My life has been shaped by these diseases both mentally, physically, as well as my interactions with others. I was diagnosed with ADD in my twenties. Both of my brothers were diagnosed as children. I’m fairly certain my father has it and that his father had it too. Unfortunately, at least one of my kids has it. Fortunately, I knew what to look for and my wife is an expert in the field so we provide him with the support he needs. He’s crushing the things I failed at so I am thankful for the way things have been handled this far. I often romanticize about what life would be like if I had been diagnosed young like him. Regardless, life has turned out fantastic for me and no one reading this (especially my parents) should feel bad. In fact, if it wasn’t for my ADD, there is no way my journey through life would have granted me all the experiences I have had. And, I have had A LOT. So, maybe, it is a blessing in disguise. Regardless, it permeates all aspects of my daily life.

People often ask me what it is like to have ADD. It is hard to describe. I forget things. I hyperfocus on tasks. If I am “in the zone” I can blink and 10 hours have gone by and I don’t even realize it. Watching TV and playing video games is soothing and allows me to focus on one thing. Everything around me fills my eyes, ears and brain with distractions. Being at parties or with large groups of people is murder on me because of all the audible noise. I have learned that I have to do things multiple times to remember them. Repetition is a way of life for me. A coping mechanism. I also process information more slowly than most because of my ADD. It sucks because I see how others are, I know I'm different, and I have to work harder just to be average.

I’m not the only one my disease impacts. God bless my wife. It can't be easy being married to me. My wife has her own coping/support mechanisms. Thankfully, she has an expert level understanding on the topic of ADD. Still, she has a cross to bear that she didn’t ask for. But she has the tools to be able to deal with it unlike most. For example, when she asks me something, she ends it with, “Can you confirm you heard me?”. Again, repetition. I think it’s also why working from home works so well for me. I can set up my environment for maximum productivity and no distractions.

But wait… there's more…

My second illness, Bipolar Depression, is something I was diagnosed with fairly recently but have had for decades. It is discomforting to be admitting this in such a public way. But, I’m admitting to it because there is a stigma surrounding mental health issues that need to be busted and to raise awareness. I realize now that I am not a failure. I am not broken. The world isn’t as bad as it seems at times. I have an illness. I realize now that it is that simple.

Sadly, it is too late for some of the people I admire most in life. At the time of writing the most recent version of this post, I learned that Anthony Bourdain passed away -- from suicide. He suffered from depression too. The news of his passing stings a lot. If he could succumb to his own demons, the same ones I have, what chance do I have?

I never met him, but like many, I related to him. We both dropped out of college to pursue our passions. He seemed to love all kind of music as I do. Tattoos? Yup. Like me he was paid to travel the world and interact with people, to hear their experiences, create his own, and learn from them. We both like food and realize the power of sharing a meal with someone. Lastly, I am often told that I have, “the dream job”. Something that in his passing, people say he had as well. No matter the success. No matter the positives in life -- we both have/had the shadow of depression looming over us.

As Bourdain said once, “There is a price to pay when your dreams come true.” Unlike most, I know what he means. Depression doesn't care what your job is or how happy people think you should be. You can have thousands of people adore you and still feel isolated and alone. It makes you think things that are untrue. It grabs you deep and rarely lets go. Living with depression is hell. It is painful. So I ask again, if in the middle of doing what he loved, with his best friend at his side, enjoying all the success of life that he could want he couldn’t find a sliver of happiness and gave in to the depression… what hope do I have? I feel doomed.

For those not in the know, bipolar depression is different than general depression. With bipolar depression the lows are really low but the highs are extremely high. These are called manic episodes. With general depression there are no manic high points. With bipolar depression the swing between the two can be an otherworldly experience. Going from low to high is almost euphoric and like smoking some Jack Herer (Google it). On the other hand, going from high to low… well… for some people that can be fatal. When I experience manic low episodes there is usually one thing that helps -- my family. Unconditional love and my wife's expert level support is a powerful force. Something I don’t even have to ask for.

However, if I’m ever feeling down, you likely won’t know it. You’ll just think I’m being quiet and the resting bitch face I have atop my 6’4” 235lbs frame that is void of a smile likely means you won’t approach me. I hear the whispers. I know the conclusions you are jumping to. You'll treat me different than my brother, my neighbor, my coworker and I get it. I wouldn’t approach me either. I look angry or perturbed a lot. But what you don’t know is that I’m dying inside. I'm begging for someone to say something and strike up a conversation. I am desperately hoping to feel like things matter and have a purpose. Don’t judge a book by its cover. You have no idea what the other person is going through.

Lucky for me, and similar to Bourdain, my job is a constant source of positivity. I love my job. Why? Because I’m exposed to amazing stories of humanity, achievements, and personal experiences on a daily basis. It's why I give so much of myself back to my job. So when I need to chip away at feeling low I turn to my family -- but also to work. Thank you Ingress players for providing me with a source of positive energy. Thank you for writing letters, trading bio cards, and being so welcoming when we meet in person. Bangkok to Anchorage, Alaska, the reception strangers offer me is always warm and friendly. I have a trip coming up to France, Spain, and the UK that I am looking forward to. I can’t wait to meet new people and have new experiences.

The previous two illnesses I mentioned are exacerbated by the mixer in this mental health cocktail -- anxiety. What are some of the side effects? To start, I get crippling migraines so bad I need to carry around syringes with medicine to inject myself with to hopefully stop them or at least reduce them. I have GI issues as well. Severe heartburn and… things that impact the other end of the gastrointestinal tract. Nerves. I get nervous easily because I perseverate on little details. I sweat the small stuff and in general I sweat a lot. I no longer have night terrors. But when I was a kid - holy crap. I would be afraid to be alone in my room. If I am being honest, I still have little panic attacks when there is no one in my house but myself.

Looking back on episodes of my life, I can clearly see how these three things had a major impact on my life. Why did I fail more tests than pass even though I understood the content? My anxiety. Why couldn’t I understand multiplication tables at the same age as my friends and had to be held back in math? My ADD. Although I’ve never attempted to hurt myself, I won’t lie, I’ve thought about who would be impacted if I met an early fate and how it would play out. That was my bipolar depression. Sometimes they act together and it makes for really rough times. Sometimes they surface independently and only cause minor irritations. But these shadows have always existed and influenced my life. But now I'm casting a light on them. Being imperfect is normal.

A silver lining in all of this is that if you have an illness you can be treated and likely get better or at least have a fighting chance at mitigating the impact they have. But you have to seek out help. Don't be afraid to ask. Anecdotally, I feel most people are afraid to go to a psychologist or psychiatrist because of the stigma attached to these services. You are not a broken person if you have a mental illness. You are not a partial human being. You are you. Pride can often get in the way of many things that might be in our best interest. Don’t let it. Seek help. You aren’t being a hero or strong person by just dealing with it. In fact, you are more than likely impacting other people’s lives in a negative way and you may not be aware of it.

Please, if you even suspect something, seek out a medical professional. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be an idiot like I was and let the stigma of mental health almost destroy you and make you wait as long as I did to get everything diagnosed. Life is too short as it is. If anyone ever needs someone to talk to, just hit me up. You are not alone. We are all imperfect human beings.
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