A couple of days ago, I published a post titled “Oh Captain, My Captain” to, pay tribute to Robin Williams only a few hours after learning about his apparent suicide.
I had known for years that Robin Williams suffered from severe depression and anxiety but I didn’t want the post to focus on those subjects. The post was written to pay tribute to a man who was not only a famous comedian, but also a very talented runner, and a great human being with a loving heart. The outpouring of grief we have seen on the news and on social media show us just how many lives Mr. Williams made better through his God given ability to make people laugh. My post reflected on how of some of his performances helped me in my own life. Hook, helped me escape to my own ‘Neverland’ when I was 11 years old and living through my mother’s second marriage. Mrs. Doubtfire’s final monologue gave the best answer you could possibly give to a young child or teenager that is suffering through their parents divorce and asking themselves if they have lost their family. The comments that the readers of my post shared were 99.9% positive. They shared what Robin Williams movies were their favorite, YouTube clips of their favorite Robin Williams jokes, and some shared specifics on how Mr. Williams comedy had personally pulled them through a dark time in their life. However, one reader, felt the need to share the comment below.
“Nobody with a brain will be sorry for this death… what a coward… life gave him so much and he killed him self… coward! ….oh coward, my coward, I should say.”
My blood started to boil when I read this comment. Yes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but this man’s opinion is hopelessly based on an unsound understanding of mental illnesses like severe depression and anxiety. The man that made this comment is obviously lucky enough to have never suffered from a bout of serious depression or anxiety; if he had, he would know that, even though life had given Robin Williams so much, he was not a coward for killing himself. Katie Hurley, a psychotherapist from Los Angeles has said, “suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming. Feeling like a burden to loved ones, feeling like there is no way out, feeling trapped and feeling isolated are all common among people who suffer from depression. Until you’ve stared down that level of depression; until you’ve lost your soul to a sea of emptiness and darkness, you don’t get to make those judgments.”
What is it about the protective veil the Internet provides that makes people feel that they can say or do whatever they want to without any consequence. Zelda Williams (Robin’s Daughter) was harassed so badly after news of the suicide went public, she deleted her social media accounts to protect herself from the hateful messages and images being sent her way. Some deranged individuals even went as far as to send photoshopped pictures of her father directly to her accounts depicting his suicide. The people sending these images are the real cowards, hiding behind the anonymity that the Internet provides them.
Sadly, America has received, yet another, wake-up call to create a stronger public dialogue about helping those that suffer from mental illness. I can’t stress enough how much this needs to happen. If you are physically ill, you go to a doctor. Hell, in America, if you don’t like certain aspects of your face or your body, you go to a plastic surgen for a nose job, face lift, and some liposuction and everyone raves about how much better you look. However, in many parts of the country, if you admit that you are seeing a therapist, or are being treated for depression, people regularly respond, “Why don’t you just choose to be happy? Everything you are saying can be overcome with the power of positive thinking.”
I have shared a lot about my personal struggles within the posts of this blog. I have particularly focused on my life long battle to keep my weight under control. As the news of Robin Williams suicide is, once again, sparking a national dialogue about mental illness, I feel inclined to pull the curtain back a little further and to write about my own struggles with obsessive compulsive thoughts, severe anxiety, and depression.
Let me start by saying that, my life, although not perfect, has been more blessed than most. Yes, I was subjected to three divorces by the time I reached the age of 13. Yes, I attended six different schools from Kindergarten to 8th grade. Yes, I was the overweight kid that was subjected to school yard bullying. However, these scenarios are now the norm for a large portion of children in America. My childhood struggles, in hindsight, were not that bad at all. My family, never wanted for money. We never had to wonder if Santa Clause was going to come on Christmas Eve or how we were going to keep a roof over our head and food on the table. The man that commented on my “Oh Captain, My Captain” post may well have said to me… “life has given you so much, what do you have to be anxious or depressed about? Just make a choice to be happy.” I would reply to that gentleman, “I did just that for my entire life. Even through the darkest times when I felt like I was losing my mind, I told myself that if I just thought positive and filled my head with good things, the cycle of anxiety and unwanted obsessive compulsive thoughts would dissipate.” They didn’t. I just continued to limp through life because I was too proud to ask for help.
My first serious battle with my mind occurred during the final months of my senior year of high school. My mind fell into an obsessive compulsive spiral of dark thoughts and it simply would not let go of them. I would later learn that the clinical term for what was going on in my head was called “brain lock.” I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my mother or grandparents about what was going on in my mind, so I self-medicated myself by running additional miles each day to wear my body out so I would be as near complete exhaustion as possible when I went to bed at night so I could sleep. I had been raised in a religious family and it is this experience that finally led me to start praying every day. Things improved after a few months of my mind putting me through Hell, however, my anxiety level never returned to the level it was at prior to this incident. The obsessive compulsive thoughts would return from time to time with varying intensity, but I told myself that I had survived these thoughts before, and I could survive them again, because I had taught myself how to deal with them.
At the age of 22, I learned just how much I had been fooling myself by believing I had taught myself how to deal with my OCD and anxiety. My mind, once again, sprialed into a endless cycle of dark thoughts that I did not want and entered into another episode of “brain lock” that made what I went through as a senior in high school look pleasant. At this point in my life, I weighed 260 pounds, so Instead of self-medicating by running myself to exhaustion, I would stay up until 1am – 2am every night watching movies that I had seen countless times until I fell asleep from exhaustion. Listening to the movies in the background helped me to not focus as closely to the thoughts that were incessantly running through my mind. It was at this time that I had my first warped thoughts brought on by the OCD thoughts, anxiety, and depression. I became so sick of the continued unwanted thoughts and had become so worn down mentally, that I remember thinking to myself, I would rather die that have to continue to deal with this. That thought scared me to the core; however, I was still too proud to ask for help. What would people think of me if they knew that I had thought to myself I would rather die that have to continue to deal with these thoughts? This spike lasted about five years without many moments of significant respite. At end of this five year period, it was my older brother Matt who noticed how worn down I was mentally and physically and convinced me to talk to someone. He had been seeing a therapist for a few years and arranged for me to do a session with her.
The opening minutes of my first therapy session were a wake up call. The therapist took one look at me and said, “you’re exhausted.” I told her that I was. I didn’t sleep well. In fact, I had been pinching myself on the cheeks on the drive to her office to stay awake. As I began telling her a little bit about my past and the challenges I faced with obsessive compulsive thoughts and anxiety, the therapist frankly told me that if I stayed on the path that I was currently on, I would be dead within two years based on the physical and mental symptoms I had told her about. Statements like that one tend to be a wake-up call. I began seeing the therapist twice a month and I began to telling her in detail my struggles with obsessive compulsive thoughts and crippling anxiety. Details like how far back I remembered having these issues, as well as trying to identify what was triggering the thoughts themselves. It took some time, but finally talking to someone about what had been going on in my head for over a decade helped me to start feeling better, for no other reason than I was no longer dealing with these issues alone. Early on in our sessions it was suggested that I try taking medication to help regulate my OCD and anxiety. I refused. I still felt that taking medication to help seemed like the equivalent of throwing in the towel and giving up. I still remember when the burden that had consumed me for so many years began lifting. It was like seeing a blue sky for the first time in over a decade. I still had issues with my anxiety and my OCD but the intensity finally felt manageable again. I remember thinking to myself I will never go through something like this again. If I had to, I don’t think I would make it. I would rather die.
Therapy was enough to keep the worst of my obsessive thoughts and anxiety away for a couple of years. Any time I felt my mind regressing back to where it was when I started my therapy, I would schedule an extra session and tackle it head on. This all worked fine until a couple months before my wedding at the age of 30. I worked a high stress sales job in the financial industry (in hindsight, a bad choice for someone with my issues) and the great recession had taken its toll on the company I was working for. As the stress from work began to grow, my mind started racing and my anxiety became unmanageable. Dark thoughts began racing through my mind and I could not get them out no matter how many therapy sessions I did. In the past, it took nearly a decade to for me to reach a place of complete exhaustion. This time it only took two months. The brain lock became so bad that I started thinking of breaking off my engagement because I didn’t want to put my fiance through living with someone in the state of mind I was in. The warped thought of preferring death to struggling with the anxiety and obsessive compulsive thoughts in my mind returned and occurred with greater frequency. It was a co-worker that came to my rescue this time. He noticed that something was going on with me and asked me to go talk with him privately in one of our offices conference rooms. He asked me to tell him what was going on and I finally broke down and told someone other than my therapist what I was dealing with in my mind. My co-worker looked at me and said, “Nick, I know you won’t believe me, but I know exactly what you are going through. I know because I have been there myself.” It turned out that my co-worker also suffered from severe OCD and anxiety. He suggested three things, first to schedule immediate appointments with my therapist and my doctor. Second, ask the doctor about taking a temporary medication to get me through this current flare up of my anxiety, and finally, tell my fiance what was going on.
I readily accepted the first two challenges. I knew the extra therapy session would help and I was willing to explore the temporary use of medication because I just couldn’t take what was going on in my head anymore. I declined his suggestion to tell my fiance about my mental struggles on the spot. He asked me why and I told him it was because I was certain she would end our engagement. My perspective was, who in their right mind would want to marry someone with these types of mental problems? My co-worker assured me I was wrong about that. In fact, he made me stay with him in that conference room until I agreed to talk to my fiance. When I finally left, he committed me to call him when I pulled into my fiances driveway. He knew that I would need one last nudge to go through with the commitment I had made to him.
I picked up my fiance and drove to an empty parking lot where I could tell her what was going on in my head. We sat in silence for about 15 minutes until I finally started talking. I told her about everything. The obsessive compulsive thoughts, the severe anxiety, the warped thoughts that I would rather die than have to continue to deal with what was going in my mind. When I finished talking, I was prepared for the worst, but my fiance just looked at me with and said, “OK. Is that it?” I wondered if she had been listening to everything I had just told her. She said it would take a lot more than that to get her to walk away from me. She said that she noticed that things had been off with me and that she knew that I would tell her when I was ready. She also said that she knew that I would be OK.
Just like that, my support network had gone from one person (my therapist), to three people. Having people that knew about my mental struggles did not relieve any of the symptoms but it gave me some much needed strength knowing that a few people knew and cared. It was at this time that I finally told my mother, a life long sufferer of depression, about my own issues. She immediately became an much needed source of strength. Even with a growing support network of individuals that knew what I was battling, this was, without a doubt, one of the darkest times I had faced in my life. In the weeks leading up to my wedding, I lost my job due to the recession and the thought of going into my marriage unemployed only exacerbated my condition. I think that anybody would be a little depressed by these circumstances but combining the depression with my anxiety and the OCD thoughts brought me to the edge of what I could handle. I had followed through on my co-workers suggestion to seek temporary medication, and that medication was the only reason I was able to get any sleep during this time period. I remember asking my fiance to stay at my house at night and to hold me until the medication I was taking kicked in and I could sleep.
Within the first couple months of our marriage, my OCD thoughts died down and my life became more manageable. I no longer thought that it would be easier to die than deal with the struggles in my mind. My nagging anxiety was still a constant, but without the intrusive racing thoughts, it was something that I felt that I could manage on my own. My OCD flared up on occasion, leading me to accept the help of temporary medication to rest, but overall things were light years better than they had been. This period of relative calm lasted for about three years.
In December of last year, just before Christmas, my mind went in to an uncontrollable spiral of obsessive compulsive thoughts. Coupled with the anxiety that had never left, I found myself mentally and physically exhausted within 48 hours of the obsessive thoughts starting. The recurring thought that I would rather die than deal with this again entered my mind almost immediately. I was scared by how quickly I reached the point of complete exhaustion. When these issue first entered my life in full force, it took nearly a decade of constant fighting with my mind to reach a point of exhaustion. When the I experienced my first major relapse after a period of relative calm, it took me about two years to reach the point of complete exhaustion. This time, it was two days. I had finally had enough of the fighting. I knew that I could no longer fight this on my own. It was time to accept the fact that my mind worked different than a healthy persons and that there was nothing noble about torturing myself by trying to be strong and fight these issues alone. I sat down with my wife and I told her that I was finally ready give up trying to fight the anxiety and OCD on my own and to accept the help of full time medication.
It has been eight months since I started taking medication for my anxiety and OCD full time and I cannot begin to express how happy I am that I finally made the decision to get help. I have not had a recurrence of the horrible racing thoughts that have crippled me so much in the past. Just as exciting is the fact the the anxiety that has been my constant companion as far back as I can remember has faded to a point that I barely notice it. Over the past couple of months, I have found that with my new healthier mindset, I feel like I can accomplish anything. I am able to take the mental energy that I used to spend combatting my mind and my anxiety and put it toward more rewarding things like my family and progressing in my career. I find myself wondering how much different the last couple of decades would have been if I would have had the courage to confide in a few trusted people and accepted medical help when I first realized I had a problem. At the bare minimum, what has been a very blessed and enjoyable life with the exception of facing these challenges, would have been even more blessed.
I made the decision to write about my personal struggles with OCD, anxiety, and depression, because I know that there are others out there who are struggling with these mental illnesses in their own lives. They are trying to fight their issues alone because they are scared or ashamed to admit that they struggle. They don’t want to be a burden to their family and friends. They don’t want to be told to “just think positive and it will get better.” To all those that struggle with mental illness, I wrote these words to let you know that you are not alone. There are more people struggling with the darkness of depression, debilitating obsessive compulsive thoughts, and severe anxiety than you know. Mental illness does not discriminate by social class, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy. Please don’t be afraid to ask a trusted family member or friend for help and to seek the counsel of a therapist. If your therapist or psychiatrist recommends putting you on medication, please don’t reject their recommendation because you think you are mentally or spiritually strong enough to deal with these issues alone. I promise you, combatting your mental illness with a trusted support network and, if necessary, medication will be the best choice you ever make. You do not have to suffer alone.