Story No. 2 | Real People, Real Stories Series
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Recently, I reached out to a number of my clinical colleagues for their thoughts on the state of suicide prevention, especially in light of world events of the last couple years. Larry Berkowitz, Ed.D, shared the following:"Increasing numbers of courageous people, like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, are starting to model that it is OK to talk about our emotional struggles and to reach out to others for support. Many of us encounter struggles in our lives and find ways to manage them, but sadly, few of us share those stories so that young people and others see models of how to cope through difficult times."
Unbeknownst to Larry, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own personal experience with mental health struggles, and his words resonated deeply with me. Earlier in the pandemic, I wrote about dealing with depression and anxiety, and the importance of a supportive workplace to my behavioral well-being. Now – in the spirit of encouraging all who feel comfortable to share their stories – I’ll tell mine.
I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at 19. I’d been struggling with depression – and understanding my sexuality – since at least the seventh grade. The two were so intertwined within my adolescent brain that I did not speak a word about either until I came out to my best friend in my first year of college. Even then I swore him to secrecy. It took a spontaneous heart-to-heart with my mother the following summer to get me to even consider asking for help.
I was driving my mom to a doctor’s appointment in another city, a couple hours from my hometown (she could drive, but her disability made her nervous about longer trips). Somehow the conversation led to me admitting that I felt pretty down most of the time. We were in fact driving to my mother’s psychiatrist’s office (I hadn’t asked, my teenage self not wanting to know any details of my mom’s medical care). That car chat led to the promise that I’d speak with a therapist – a promise grounded almost entirely in deference to my mother.
I did not like that first therapist. I was upfront enough about my feelings but refused to engage any deeper. I wasn’t looking for another label, gay was already more than I could handle. But I agreed to continue therapy at the college counseling center when I returned in the fall.
I found a new therapist and began weekly appointments that would continue for the rest of my undergraduate life. Despite a good rapport, I hid behind a wall of “I dunno”s rather than attempt to truly look inward. I wasn’t making progress, I wasn’t feeling any less depressed, and I was still thinking about death far too much.
"Despite a good rapport, I hid behind a wall of “I dunno”s rather than attempt to truly look inward."
There’s an image stuck in my head. It’s a dark winter evening. I’m driving my dad’s old ’86 Camry to the dining hall with my best friend. My wrist is in the air, turned out towards the passenger seat – “I’m not going to do anything, I just wanted to see if I could,” I can hear myself saying. My heartbeat quickens and I feel more fear now remembering this moment than I did at the time – perhaps because at the time I had a hard time feeling much of anything.
Soon after, my best friend scheduled an appointment for us both to meet with my therapist. I was deep enough in my own feelings of despair to be blindsided when he told her about the incident in the car, about how dark my moods could get, about how he feared for my safety.
I remember feeling shocked and betrayed. But also relieved. For better or worse, it was all out there now, and even I had to accept the truth of myself. This moment marked a shift in my approach to my mental health. If I was going to feel better, I needed to put effort in, too. Up till then, I viewed physically showing up to counseling sessions as the extent of my involvement in my own mental healthcare.
"If I was going to feel better, I needed to put effort in, too."
My therapist and I worked out a plan to keep me safe if I felt the urge to harm myself again, and I began the messy work of addressing my depression. I made myself be present in my therapy sessions. I agreed to speak with a psychiatrist about medication. I learned to be honest with both my therapist and myself.
My friendship with my best friend – who I now believe saved my life in college – survived another strained year but ended in estrangement. It’s taken me nearly twenty years to recognize the extraordinary act of friendship he showed me, and to be grateful for it.
Real People, Real Stories Series