three questions. one of you.
Periodically, I will be asking a friend three questions about his or her experience with mental illness. This person might be a guy who deals with mental illness or someone (like my wife) who is a supporter. Over time, the 31U series will show how men of all sorts, with all backgrounds, and of all personalities can be inflicted in a variety of ways and how loved ones can better understand and support them. The hope is that this series will serve as a reminder for those in darkness that we are not alone in this fight, and that it will be a helpful resource for supporters.
I met this Dave (different Dave from last week) through a pretty laid-back indoor soccer league at a warehouse building that today functions as a furniture store. We have been nothing more than Facebook friends since and vague memories to each other of the time we shared a small turf field with a bunch of old guys. Not until conversation sparked between us through Dadding Depressed did we realize that we are still on the same team.
I’m incredibly grateful for Dave’s story and his willingness to share it. He is a husband, father, attorney, and a fan of literature and soccer (two of my greatest loves). Without further ado, here’s Dave:
When and how did you realize you dealt with a mental illness?
I was blindsided by an anxiety disorder in October of 2015. It was, hands down, the single most terrifying experience of my adult life. I am also a recovering alcoholic with 12+ years of continuous sobriety.
I realized that I was in trouble when I had what I can only describe as a nervous breakdown. I knew I was stressed, particularly after the birth of our second child, but I definitely did not see the subtle and not-so-subtle warning signs leading up to that event. It began with shaky hands that I could not control and aggressive insomnia. Within a week, I had completely lost the ability to think straight, and I was in a constant state of confusion with added confusion regarding the confusion. Once it began, I sought medical help and received a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis.
I sought psychiatric help at that point (once stabilized I threw myself into weekly intensive therapy with a licensed clinical social worker for over a year). I had to take a month off work, and during that month, my inability to think straight was so bad I couldn’t even watch TV (let alone read a novel, one of my passions) because I could not follow a storyline. My brain was overwhelmed and completely shut down.
I became obsessive about timing. In my professional life, this is important, but I became obsessive about arbitrary timing in my personal life too. If my wife and I talked about leaving to go out to dinner at 5:30, I would obsess and stress about getting everyone out the door by that time. Even when we were running on time, I could not relax until we were in the van and on our way. I even obsessed about our daughter’s nap schedule to an unhealthy level. We had an app that allowed me to remotely see when she went down for nap and when she got up. I would check the app constantly throughout the day even though, for almost all practical purposes, it didn’t really matter when she went down and when she got up.
The other more subtle manifestation was anger. I found myself getting unusually angry and overreacting about trivialities. The anger and timing obsession often went hand-in-hand. For a period of time before my nervous breakdown, I truly became an insufferable asshole.
What have been the most valuable tools, resources, or strategies that have helped you?
I was in such dire straits after my nervous breakdown, I really had to throw myself into recovery, using almost every tool recommended to me. I can honestly say that my mental health maintenance is a daily practice with a host of components I’ve used to completely realign myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I take daily medication for anxiety now and am comfortable with that. I engaged in intensive talk therapy with a wonderful licensed clinical social worker on a weekly basis for over a year.
I have a daily mindfulness/meditation practice which helps me to observe the goings on in my own mind, recognize my thoughts and emotions, gain perspective, focus, and relax. When I feel anxiety bubbling up (which thankfully is rare these days I believe due to my daily maintenance practices), I use breathing exercises and other mindfulness exercises.
I focus daily on things for which I’m grateful, this includes making gratitude lists and a daily gratitude exercise with the family in which everyone identifies at least one thing they are grateful for that day. I try to practice acceptance of the things I cannot change and try to realize that, even if things don’t go precisely as I want them to, everything will truly be just fine. I try to stay in the moment and realize that, even if things might not go how I want them to in the future, everything at the precise moment I am in is just fine. And, even when things don’t go as planned, when I am in that later moment, everything will probably be, again, just fine.
I have a spiritual practice which helps me to feel love and compassion toward everyone and everything (This is, of course, a virtually unattainable goal, but I’m trying!). I have been blessed with a wonderful fellowship that has grown up around me with respect to my family, my coworkers, my soccer teams, and my fellow travelers on the road to recovery. I find that sharing my experiences with them—putting myself out there and being vulnerable—has led to deeper human connections that I previously thought possible. These connections, for some reason I do not understand, assuage my anxiety and keep it at bay. They also assist me in my attempts to practice gratitude, acceptance, love, and compassion.
Finally, I exercise and take naps. I play soccer a couple times a week in a couple of fairly competitive leagues. My time on the pitch is one of the few times that I am completely free of all the babel and running commentary in my head concerning all of life’s trials and tribulations. And, when I need to rest, I do it. I used to just power through all obstacles. It was exhausting. Now, if I’m feeling burnt out at work or at home, I’ll close my office or bedroom door, set a timer, and meditate for about half an hour with the understanding that it’s really going to turn into a nap. These power naps, or whatever you want to call them, are refreshing and generally clear out from my mind the anxiety-producing thoughts that were stressing me out.
What gives you hope in the now and for the future?
What gives me hope is that I went through a harrowing mental-health crisis and came out on the other side a substantially better man, husband, and father. I got through it and I have tools to address it should I find myself in crisis again. And I am now more aware of the workings of my mind and the ability (sometimes) to recognize problematic or uncomfortable feelings or thoughts and deal with them. I have hope because I now have an abundance of tools for the daily maintenance of my mental, emotional, and spiritual condition, which I can see bearing fruit in my life today. I have hope because of the amazing support from my family and friends. I have hope because the extreme pain I went through spurred me to make significant changes in my life to be a better person.
My advice to other men is seek treatment. Be open and vulnerable (within reason) about what you are going through. I do not broadcast at work (or in other forums) that I have a general-anxiety-disorder diagnosis, but my experience has been that, without exception, when I do choose to share with someone, the response is always gratitude and empathy on their part and a deepening of that relationship.
This too shall pass.
Can you relate at all with Dave’s story here? If so, what helped you? Maybe you are in the midst of a dark season now? If so, consider taking a first step toward wellness by reaching out to somebody, just perusing through Dadding Depressed, or finding a counselor.