I've written about how I got into speaking on mental health, but never so much why. So why did I decide to put myself out there for others to get to know something that many consider a deep, dark secret?
I've always been somewhat of a confessional writer. In the early 2000s I published my horrible poetry and free-ranging rants on my music website, Action Attack Helicopter. I knew I wanted to share thoughts and ideas with others--I thought it might help someone although I'm not sure why. I suppose at some point I got some encouragement here or there from a friend and a few positive words of feedback. That was enough to keep me going.
Over the years I've had some zines and blogs and they also received very limited but honest praise. And I also didn't know what else to do--I felt there was a need to express myself. It's part of being a writer; that idea implanted in one's mind that one must share their thoughts.
It didn't seem too awkward, then, to transition into being more direct and honest about my mental health issues. No longer did I need to mask it in poorly written poetry or adequate prose. I wrote not only of my struggles but also of answers. I spent hours of time online and researched solutions to issues related to loneliness, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
It's not only about writing, though. It's easy to do that behind a computer, tucked away in my apartment. Yet, I want to speak about loneliness and depression. There are a few reasons why I actually get in front of crowds and speak.
1) I like the immediate reactions. It's wonderful to see people smile or laugh at what you say. Or it's an acknowledgment through a nod that they understand what you're saying. The ability to try and connect with others--and to know you're connecting--is a rewarding feeling.
2) It's a rush. Speaking makes me nervous and I imagine it always will. Yet when you know your topic and can channel it into energy when you speak, it's quite a high.
3) I can see the direct effect of lives changed. It's encouraging and rewarding to have that immediate validation afterward. It's awesome when someone tells you that what you said spoke to them and they can identify with it. That confirmation of what you did and that it had a positive impact on others signals to me that it was a job well done.
I'm not going to lie: it's validating to know I'm changing lives and affecting people. It makes me feel good. But that's something we all seek in our lives. We want to be happy about our existence. So yes, some of this is about what I get out of it. But if I'm going to feel good, I can't think of any better reason than because I'm helping others with my words and speaking.
How does one go from feeling nervous about public speaking to presenting a 35 minute talk on loneliness? Should you accept the challenge of becoming a public speaker your experience will vary, but here are the steps I took.
In high school I was in a couple of plays but always had small roles—just a few lines. I sang for my friends’ hardcore punk band on occasion, too. It was a real rush to feel so many people with their eyes on me. After that my performing life went dormant for a long while.
In graduate school in 2009 and 2010 I began to present at academic conferences on my masters thesis subject—1970s Christian scare films. Despite small audiences (as is the case at almost all such events), I discovered I enjoyed being in front of others. I liked sharing information about a subject in which I had an interest.
In 2014 I decided to break myself out of a depressive spell by taking a stand-up comedy class. I have always enjoyed watching stand-up and thought that I could do it. I performed at about 15-20 open mics and did a showcase for my class, too. While I didn't take to the comedy scene, I did know I liked being on stage with people watching me. In such a situation, I found it created a nervous ball of energy and anxiety that pushed me to perform with great passion.
The next year, 2015, I looked into giving historical tours. I took a class through a non-profit that offers such tours and learned a bit more about the history of Boston. After six weeks I graduated a docent and began practicing. And practicing. And practicing. I walked my tour route in Boston's North End many times. I practiced out loud in my room. I followed nine different guides on their tours so I could see what they did. I gave three practice tours to friends. When my time finally came I did all right. It wasn't the best thing ever but I enjoyed it. As long as I felt comfortable with the material, it went okay.
After doing that tour for three years I started working for another company giving a different tour. I learned to handle horrible situations: down-pouring rain, bratty children, fist fights, and drug addicts around me as I tried to tell tales. These situations built character and resilience.
I started going to Toastmasters about this time, learning the fundamentals of giving speeches. I realized I already had most things down well. I used Toastmasters to try out some ideas, though, including my first speech on loneliness. After about a year I left, knowing that I had gotten what I could out of it.
During this same time I made a goal to enter one storytelling event. I practiced my story to my cat and my mirror a dozen times or more. And when it came to my first story slam, I won the audience choice award. For the second event, I entered I won the entire story slam! It's taken me years to work on my self-esteem but I can finally say that this is something at which I excel.
When it came to learning how to understand the speaking business and find gigs, I listened to The Speaker Lab. It's a podcast for speakers and those who want to speak. I also read a lot of articles. I took a copious amount of notes.
I've learned that moving in a stair-step approach—taking on things one at a time—is also helpful. I can't imagine going from no public speaking to giving a 35-minute presentation. But adding one challenge and then another enabled me to build confidence. I may not be the best public speaker but I'm doing what I can to share ideas and help some people along the way. It didn't happen over night but the journey has been well worth it.
It’s so easy for me to stay in a rut. For weeks on end my life may consist of work, the gym, grocery shopping, watching dumb videos online, sleeping, eating, and then repeating that sequence. I often don’t realize I was in that repetitive place until I’m out of it.
What can often snap me out of that funk is travel. It doesn’t matter where I go: it could be a day trip visiting friends in the suburbs, or a vacation to a foreign country. Experiencing different things and seeing new, or even familiar, things in a place that’s not my usual routine is transformative.
Often times, though, the ability of travel to readjust my mind can do more than get me out of repetitive daily actions. Travel can help with my mental health. When I get away from home I go outside of myself. I’m forced to interact with others and look at new things and people. I observe what’s happening around me as it’s different than what I’m used to.
Even the times when I go to places I’ve often been, such as my hometown, it’s not the paths I trod on a regular basis and that’s important. When I go places I have a connection with in the past, it gives me perspective in that I can see how much that place and the people I know there have changed. That, in turn, causes me to realize how much I’ve changed as well.
Traveling to new places has been important to me as it provides a means by which to see how others live. In doing so, I am forced out of my brain and into realizing that there are others who deal with the same issues as I do, as well as many different ones. I can place my anxieties and problems in perspective. They’re not as fierce as what many people are going through. Or, I’m dealing with things many others are also dealing with. This can help build empathy in my life.
I do find that my return home provides me with a new perspective and renewed energy to see situations that may have been problematic. It’s like a reboot of my emotional and mental state and one I welcome each time. It’s also something I recommend to do as often as you can.
I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the United States (but not as much overseas as I would like) and meet some great people and see some beautiful sights. In doing so, I’ve found incredible benefits for my mental health. It’s important to attempt to make travel a priority to get that reboot one can use with their own mental health.
So, if you have the opportunity to get out of your regular routine, go! Challenge yourself with new people and situations. You may be surprised how it can help with your mood and mental state. It doesn’t solve all my problems, but it certainly can put them in perspective and create new ways of me to look at them. In doing so, it can often lead to solutions to both momentary problems and those I’ve been working on for some time.
Over the past few years I've engaged in mental health advocacy. During that time I’ve noticed there are two avenues by which to tackle issues associated with mental illness.
First, there are steps involving awareness. This includes using our experiences with mental health issues to let others know they’re not alone and that life can get better. Also, awareness can include a discussion of how to deal with making mental health a priority in the community and in our lives. This is primarily what I’ve done and continue to do.
The second way to spread the word of issues with mental illness is in regards to making changes in our society to better assist those in need. This may include working on passage of legislation to provide better coverage of the mentally ill. It may also mean being a therapist and working in the field. Or it could be that you start a foundation or organization to develop better mental health.
I’ve seen a few organizations that focus on the entire package (National Alliance on Mental Illness). But it seems many groups and individuals take on one or the other. It’s difficult to combine both in a way that is coherent and effective. For most people and groups, it’s far too large to both spread awareness of an issue and fight for economic and legislative concerns related to it.
I have done my share of speaking out for good mental health. It’s important to spread the awareness of hope for those in dire straits. When lives are on the line, we need to move.
Yet the lack of affordable insurance coverage, the price of medications, and the need for greater mental health services in many areas are all representative of foundational issues that need attention. The handling of these struggles are best done at a larger societal and governmental level. It’s this lack of change on these issues that amounts to placing a band aid over a much larger wound.
While I’m aware of the need to save lives, it takes individuals with knowledge of this system to fight for the rights of the mentally ill at governmental levels. At this point in my life as a mental health advocate, these skills are something I haven’t attained or spoken up about much. Yet they’re key if we want to move forward and stop with temporary means to grand problems.
There are simple ways we can, as a society and as individuals, act to make systematic changes. We can start by challenging our legislators. We can ask them where they stand on issues related to mental health, and more importantly, what they’re going to do about it. We can ask them to support and propose legislation that will fight for the mentally ill.
We also need to not hesitate to elect legislators who are open about their mental illness or have close connections with the mentally ill. Unfortunately, for many politicians, it’s only when they have personal experiences with an issue that they are prone to act.
It’s a tough fight for the mentally ill, but it’s only through this combined effort of awareness and action that we will see gains made for our community.
After any incident of suicide in our society, a common refrain is, “Get help.” But beyond calling a mental health hotline (800-273-TALK), what’s one to do?
It isn’t easy to find resources to help with mental health. Therapy is expensive and it’s become more frequent that therapists don’t take any insurance. That’s not always the case but it is alarming. Even when therapists work with sliding scale, it’s rare they will go down to levels that are affordable for many clients.
This is distressing in light of the many cases of mental illness playing out amongst celebrities and in crime statistics. Too, there is a great deal of reporting about how rates of depression and suicide are rising in the United States and many other parts of the world.
So say you can’t afford therapy and are in need of mental health help. What are some good resources to turn to?
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) – There are lots of groups out there working on mental health, but NAMI is the most well-known in the United States. Their website has all kinds of resources to guide you to find help and understand issues related to mental illness.
Mind Over Mood – This workbook helped me out a great deal during my beginning years of my depression. It teaches cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). At its’ root this form of therapy is about changing the way your mind works when confronted with unpleasant situations. If you’re dedicated to practicing CBT, this book can help.
Feeling Good – If Mind Over Mood doesn’t work for you, you may want to try this book by David Burns. It also deals with CBT, but is considered the classic on the subject.
The Mindful Way Through Depression – This book taught me a lot about mindfulness. Being aware of what’s going on around us (and in our head) can make a big difference on how we approach life and the struggles we face. For so long I tried to snap out of my depression and then felt guilt when I couldn’t. This book showed me there was another way to handle these situations.
Also, doing a search for the words “depression self-help books” (not as a quote) can yield some positive results. It may seem there are prohibitions that money may cause in our journey to better address our mental health. But, there are still options out there if we’re dedicated to finding them.
When your thoughts are out of control or you feel very harsh toward yourself, it’s easy to let fears run amuck in your brain. But these often don’t come to fruition. Yet, it’s still hard to let things go and think positive. Still, given the time to stop and reflect I admit that my worst fears about my mental health didn’t come about.
Before my hospitalizations in 2011, I feared placement in a hospital was amongst the worst thing that could happen to me. I worried that I would get put in there and never let out. After being in the hospital twice I’ve come to understand that this isn’t the case. In fact, my second time in the hospital was a positive, helpful experience. The idea of finding myself locked in a psychiatric facility and never let out is a throwback to times past, when such fears may have been possible. If this happens today, it’s a minute percentage. In a world of insurance and too few beds for too many people, you’ll be lucky if you spend a week in a psychiatric facility.
My point is that this fear—the worst I could imagine—didn’t come to fruition. And that is true for so many of my fears: being stuck in a job I hate, failing a test, or not reaching a goal I’ve set for myself. The fact of the matter is, we’re adaptive creatures. Even if our fears do come true (and they rarely do), there are positive ways to cope with these occurrences. Depending on the situation, it may even turn out that our worst fears coming to fruition can actually end up being a good thing. For example, I felt scared to go to the hospital and what that would mean for me, but it turned out to be quite helpful and positive.
Through confronting my fears I’ve learned that it’s good to take a step back, put things in perspective, and educate myself on the reality of a situation. More often than not, these mental health fears don’t come about how we expect. And on occasion they end up placing us in a position far better than we imagine.
I've rarely had a job I enjoy. Sad to say, but my favorite job was the one I had when I was 17 and 18. I worked in a record store by myself, got to do whatever I wanted (usually my homework), and listen to whatever music I cared to. This was in the golden age of CDs in the mid-'90s and business wasn't bad. My friends came by and spoke with me and I met some cool people, too. Yet the things I liked about that job then wouldn't be what I want today.
I find that my mental health often suffers at a job. For most of my life, I've had a difficult time with work. I've found it makes me depressed to have a job I don't enjoy. It weighs upon me to do mindless work. I'm most productive and successful when I'm on my own. I also work best when I do something that gives me meaning. It's taken me a long time (much longer than I would have preferred) to realize what I desire to do is to help others dealing with mental health issues. I want to do this through writing and speaking on my issues with mental health.
It's important that we do things that make us happy in our lives. I know it's not always possible that our work is in our dream field. Life has complications: health issues, family concerns, or geographical impediments. (If you want to be an actor but are stuck living in Alaska, it's hard to achieve that dream of the silver screen).
Yet, if I've learned much of anything from suicide attempts and mental illness, it's that life is short. Far too short. So I've been willing to set aside what may have been a "traditional" life to achieve my goals as they come to me. Attempting to find happiness and meaning is such an important desire. So much so that I was happy to forego a typical career, stability, and a regular relationship in the hopes I could find them.
It's hard for me to rest if it means that I am not close to my career goals. It means that every minute I'm at a job that doesn't bring me satisfaction is another moment I'm away from something that provides me with some meaning.
It's not always easy to find the energy to take up the struggle to meet my goals. Some days I would rather watch Netflix and sleep. But I keep pushing on because I yearn for something where I come away from my work day feeling happy and upbeat about what I've done. Which, in my case, means making a difference in the lives of others.
My hope is that if you are not doing work you enjoy, you will find ways to get to a place where you can. Sacrifices, moves, and time spent trying out a myriad of possibilities are worth it when you find the thing that makes your heart beat a little faster. They're worth it when you find happiness knowing that you're doing work that brings you meaning.
Besides writing my own blog, I follow the work of others who deal with the topic of mental health, including depression and loneliness. Here are a few I want to highlight.
Jordan Brown – Jordan is a recent graduate in social work who is one of the top mental health writers on Medium. He writes encouraging, thoughtful posts that come from a very personal place. Jordan truly has a heart for helping others with their mental health and it shows in his posts.
Mike Veny – Mike’s message is a powerful one about how he’s overcome suicide attempts and being expelled from schools as a youth. He’s now a top mental health speaker and someone whose success as a speaker I admire. He works to overcome the stigma that all too often comes with depression.
UnLonely Project - The UnLonely Project has been featured on the Today Show and in Psychology Today for their work on combating loneliness in our society. They also have a streaming film festival of short films that deal with the topic at their website. Their work seeks to give tools to those dealing with loneliness and tie it in with the arts as a means to combat the issue.
NAMI Blog – This blog for the National Alliance on Mental Illness covers a range of topics on mental health. These include insurance, depression amongst teens, and self-care. The blog is updated multiple times a week with posts that are easy to understand and which are quite helpful.
The Lonely Hour – This podcast is an examination of loneliness and solitude by host Julia Bainbridge. It’s not a bummer, though. Through interviews she explores various aspects of loneliness: whether it’s brought about by the loss of faith or a life of addiction. It’s an honest and thought-provoking exploration of loneliness.
Once someone gets to a point of sharing about their mental health, others can assume, “Well, they’ve got it all together. They’re on top of things.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. In my case, I am stabilized enough to share my experiences with others, but I'm not to a place where I no longer suffer from mental illness.
I am diagnosed with bipolar II and the symptoms associated with that are fairly well under control. I’ve also made a great deal of progress on my anxiety and self-confidence. They’re miles above where they once stood and allow me to function well, without allowing doubts about my self-worth.
But here are the things with which I still struggle:
I get depressed. This is usually related to feeling stuck and bored with what is going on around me. I’m often impatient about the changes I want in my life. When they don’t happen it leaves me disappointed. A lot of my depression is about that disconnect between where I am and what I want my life to be like. This primarily means I want to be in a situation where I can speak and write about mental health. I’m working on changing that.
2. Existential depression
This article pretty well describes that situation. But to summarize, I have, for much of my life, felt like I don’t know what it is I’m here for. This can often lead to feelings of worthlessness and pointlessness with my existence. This is slowly changing as I find that speaking out about mental health has helped me find purpose. But I still have my doubts.
3. Suicidal ideation
I’ve written about suicidal ideation for an article at Medium. This can be a real tough one to handle. When I am stuck I revert back to feeling as though suicide is a proper way out. But I’ve seen time and again it’s not.
So, what about you? If you’ve made improvements in your life, what are you still working on?
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.