As the month of May is about promoting discussion on Mental Health I’ve been itching to write my own thoughts on recent experiences with my own mental health.
To give you a bit of background my undergraduate degree was in human development across the life span, as well as dabbling in communications and family violence/dynamics. I’ve also studied anatomy/physiology/neuroanatomy, psychology, interpersonal communication, anthropology, and paleontology (I also have my own collection of plastic dinosaurs). I’ve worked with individuals who are recovering from substance abuse, homelessness, addiction, oncology, and incarceration. I’ve interacted with individuals who have autism, mental disorders, physical disorders, sensory disorders, and developmental delay. In my personal life, I grew up with a grandmother who suffered from schizophrenia. Having eight years of formal education as well as five years of practical experience in the field, I consider myself a complete novice in a lot of things and am in no way an actual expert in any one thing.
That being said I have a story to tell, and a viewpoint that I am somewhat terrified to share.
Rewind seven years ago. I was loosing some of my freshman shine in my second semester of college. Having been recently married and pretending to be a responsible adult I found myself in a Psychology 1010 class. On that day my professor stood up in front of the class and said, “Each and every one of you will fail in their life at one point or another.”
The lecture hall filled with uneasy laughter as our professor paused for a minute.
“No, ” he said, his smile having fled the scene, “this isn’t a joke. You all will fail.”
I remember thinking, ‘Well that’s kind of bleak, don’t you think? Where is he going with this?”
He continued, “Failure is a natural part of life. Each one of us has experienced it, and will continue to experience it at some point in our life.”
The hall grew quiet as all of our attention zeroed in on this professor. I could feel tension rising from every body in in the room, including my own.
“It may not happen to you today, or tomorrow but at the end of the day you will fail, you will screw up and it will be big.”
As a student in a somewhat ‘high-brow’ university, paying out the nose to attend over-populated classes, you don’t want to hear that you will fail. Having been conditioned from an early age to always look to success, each student paused. At that given moment our collective blood pressures could have shot the roof off of the building. We were in this race to win it, we were in this Hunger Games style arena aptly referred to as, ‘college.’
Pins could have been dropped a millimeter from the carpeted ground and you still would have heard them. My professor pushed onwards, “But you know what? That’s okay. It’s okay to fail. That’s how we naturally learn as human beings. We make mistakes, we make poor judgements, and in the end we find ourselves with the wrong answer. And it’s okay.”
“We learn by goofing up, failing papers, and getting the wrong answer on the first try. That’s because we are programed and designed to learn step by step, pace by pace.”
The words of his lecture fade from my mind even as I type this, but I remember feeling a vast unease swallowing my mind. I left the lecture hall thinking, ‘Pssh, that won’t happen to me. I’d rather be buried alive than fail.”
Now fast forward to May 2016. I was half way through a master’s program I’d already dedicated 5 years of my life to getting into and completing. I gave up a career in oncology work, disappeared from my friends’ and family’s lives. I was a ghost of a father and husband staying up to obscene hours of the night, every night.
I was a shell, a husk of a man. My wife would look at me every night before going to sleep, as if to say, “Who are you?”
And I found myself not knowing the answer.
It was finals week and I had finished my last final of the Spring semester. It had been a challenging semester. My brain was beyond mush. So when my phone buzzed notifying me of an email it took quite some time before I understood what as going on. It was an email from the chair of my program, never a good thing in my book.
I had had my struggles with the program. Having had to sit out for an entire academic year to retake a course, I constantly found myself on the back-burner of the faculty’s “what-do-we-do-with-him” list. I knew my grades were suffering, and that I wasn’t doing the best in some of my class, but I wasn’t doing the worst. Or so I thought.
“Please meet with me at the end of this week. Thank you.” was all that the Chair wrote to me. What little emotions I had left inside my brain stirred with unease. The meeting was scheduled for the last Friday of the semester. And I watched everyday before hand as my grades dropped lower, and lower, and lower. Feedback from my professors grew more and more negative, and I found myself balking at the bluntness of their responses to me.
“What’s going to happen?” My wife asked, in a small voice as we laid in our bed staring at the ceiling one night.
“I’m going to be kicked out.” I said. Feeling what little of me remained crumble to dust. The morning of the meeting I called back my old job and asked if they had a position for me. And with an air of dehydrated anticipation we left for the meeting.
The building was low and ugly as we walked towards it, arm in arm. Windows stared at us, black frames foreboding in their place. The walls were gray, blending into lifeless carpet. As we took proffered seat, the Chair’s desk before me lay piled high with a disarray of paper. A stern face held a look of bored resolve as the Chair fingered an envelope.
“I’m sorry we have to meet like this, but your grades have slipped below the line. Your teachers tell me you don’t listen to feedback, you don’t make changes, and you don’t demonstrate the ability to function within this line of work. So you are hereby dismissed from this program.”
It was so abrupt, so devoid of human emotion. They could have slapped me in the face and I would have preferred it. I wanted to scream. ‘I have a family you know?’ I wanted to throw all the messy piles of paper off the desk in front of me. ‘I have children that don’t see me for weeks on end.’ I wanted to blame it on the lack of investment I had seen withdrawn from me.‘I have a wife that was hoping to stay home with the kids next year until they grew up.’ I wanted to blame the department, the not-to-code architecture of the building. ‘We wanted to move away and buy a house.’ I wanted to blame the utter lack of empathy and understanding that one who had already experience this program should give to a student. ‘I wanted a meaningful career.’
Never mind the life-altering experiences I’d been a part of with countless patients and clients. Never mind to those working professionals that all but begged me to contact them the minute I graduated for a job.
“You are hereby dismissed.”
I failed. I failed big. Even with my wife at my side, I found myself alone and with no one to blame but myself.
What happened in the intervening months is almost too hard to put into words. I quickly fell into a depression as everyone I knew and loved asked me what happened. Not a day went by when someone would ask, “How is school going?” “Oh dear, whatever happened?” and “That’s just too bad.”
For the first time in my life I felt the sliding arms of a dark depression wrap around my mind. It was almost like that feeling you get when you knock the wind from your lungs, and try as you might you just can’t fill them fast enough with air. I couldn’t feel the happiness of having two beautiful children vie for my attention. Nor could I feel the anguish and fear that had made my wife’s radiant smile dim.
Books no longer held any pull to me, and I would often realize, mid bite, that I was eating something. Work was work and I performed it robotically. I was depressed and I didn’t want to do a damn thing about it.
There were only two constants through this period. My wife and kids, and writing. My wife is a saving grace. She knows what it’s like, feeling the darkness, the sliding sensation of a pathetic apathy towards life. It’s almost like you are a tiny muppet, trying to control a huge mechanical body. You know how it’s suppose to go, you know the body is functioning at peak capacity, but you lack the energy and understanding of working the controls. She knew what I was feeling and did her utmost to be understanding, and not angry with me, although I beat myself up everyday about it.
I didn’t keep a journal, like you’re always suppose as a writer. Instead I found myself typing down stories in the dead of night. Some of them were horrific. Some of them sad. Other’s contained hope, joy, and laughter. Some came straight from my life. I found a part of myself, separate from the pain, depression, anger, and sorrow that was my mind. And I nurtured it.
“Maybe you should start a blog.” My wife said one night. She was no stranger to my writing habits of the previous six years. I had started a blog and stopped it with the intention of never returning to it ever again. She knew of my obsession with reading and dreams to be a published author. She had heard some of the hundreds of stories that waited to be released through my finger tips.
“Really?” I replied, quelling the spark of hope I felt in my chest. I had shared the thought with her some time back, but had immediately stopped any and all efforts towards it.
“Yes, try it.” She looked at me. For the first time in months I was able to look her in the eye. “Maybe you should stop doing all your other social media stuff while you’re at it too.”
And thus this blog was born. It’s been one of the most challenging years of my life. No, I have no diagnosis of depression, nor have I formed any disorders. I haven’t suffered from chronic depression my entire life. But over the past year I have felt my mental health crumble, and rebuild.
I am me. Incredibly imperfect and awkward in so many ways. I still feel the fingers of depression press in on me when more of life’s challenges come. I find myself in a trough of life, stuck between two waves as I watch friends and acquaintances move forward to the dreams I once thought I needed to be me.
I “failed big,” this last year. And now I have picked up the pieces of my life and am learning how to live. In this span of time I’ve come to some realizations about life and myself:
- I can no longer judge someone by the mistakes they make in their life.
- Depression deserves understanding, no matter what.
- Failure promotes growth.
- I cannot afford to waste time on being negative towards others, especially to those who fail. Everyone deserves to be understood.
- Why judge someone when you can learn from them?
Now, a year later I find myself satisfied as I watch my boys play knights and Star Wars with each other. I relish those moments when they pause and say, “I love you daddy.” I’ve never been as close to my wife as I am now. We’ve known one another for more than twelve years and now I feel like we finally understand each other. I’ve never been happier with my work as I help patients with their recovery. I write daily, well I should say nightly. And with this blog I’ve posted over 100 pieces. These pieces have in turn, reached over 50 different countries world wide. I’m entering pieces of work into global and international competitions. There have been many kind and constructive words passed on to me by wonderful followers. In short, I’ve never felt more triumphant with my life than now.
There are times where I feel a darkness pass over my eyes, and my mind grow heavy with remorse. Memories from the past still haunt me, and may continue to do so for a while. It’s part of this experience we call life.
So if I can impart any kind of wisdom to you after writing all of these words, it’s this:
In this day and age, I feel our society doesn’t necessarily acknowledge that we have to struggle and fail. It is when we break down and make mistakes that we actually grow. With modern advances of social media and our ability to be constantly observed and in contact seems to demand perfection in our every day lives. But real life doesn’t work like that. We have to fail to become better.
Right now I find myself in a good area. I know hard times will always come and go. Life will present me with more challenges that may bring my depression back. I can’t say I know exactly what someone else with mental health challenges is going through, but I can say that my experience has taught me to have more compassion, respect, and understanding for those people who do.
When you come across another person, remember they are struggling through this day as well. We are all failures of one sort or another, imperfect and not without our blemishes. It does no one good to further that tarnishing. Just as we ourselves deserve kindness and light in our lives, so does everyone else.
And to finish, here’s a song I adopted a while back as my theme song. Happy listening.