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.
Being depressed sucks all around, but there is one aspect of it that I despise more than any other: irritability. With all other aspects of depression I am the only one who feels bad. Yes, it can affect others when they see me feeling sad or withdrawn, but it’s not a feeling of being under attack. It’s a passive feeling.
Yet my irritability affects not only me but also the individuals around me because I often lash out at them over minor things. I grow frustrated when things don’t go my way or aren’t how I planned them to be. For example, on a recent Sunday I wanted to do my laundry and then go to the public library and work on some writing. But my partner and a family member asked me to come to brunch with them. We discussed this idea earlier in the week but I hadn’t heard anything so I assumed the plan wasn’t happening. Based on that assumption I came up with another idea of what I was to do with my day. I knew I had agreed earlier to do the brunch but the change in plans left me irritable.
As I rode the bus to meet my partner and her family member, I grew annoyed and frustrated. Beneath that, though, was a level of concern: would I have the opportunity to do my laundry? I wanted to work on my writing because I set a deadline for myself for edits on a book I’m working on. But these were both self-imposed deadlines. There was nothing wrong if I did these things in the time schedule I had given myself. The world would not end, no one would find themselves disappointed.
I tried to walk myself through this line of thought to calm myself down. I wanted to get to the point where I wouldn’t find myself annoyed at my girlfriend or her family member. This time I was able to do so, although it did leave me depressed. While I exchanged one emotion for another, I was able to get my laundry done and I still have time to finish the writing. My irritability didn’t help anything—it didn’t allow me to be more productive or make anyone happy.
Irritability is still something I struggle with, more than anything else with my depression. It’s a side effect rarely discussed in mental health circles. But it’s something I want to focus on more as I move along in my mental health journey. I wish to do so both for myself and the family, co-workers, and friends who are on the end of my occasional foul mood.
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.
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.