This isn't me being brave.
This isn't me crying for help.
This isn't me with any answers.
It's just me, David, trying to normalize talking about any struggles you may have with depression or anxiety, like me. Or maybe you just can't get your brain to stop it already.
I live a pretty public life. Partly because I don't want to try to remember what I've told various people (the truth is always consistent) and because my business model relies, in part, on you wanting to work with me—as a person—and not just tap my brain. So far that's worked, but who knows. We'll see after this. :)
Most of you reading this are leaders, and I think that mental health struggles can be challenging for you because of what leadership requires. People are looking to you and following your lead. Confusion or struggle can seem like weakness. In your more paranoid moments, you may even fear that your struggles might be used against you, to discount or even undermine your role.
Mental health is a really shitty subject. I'm going to get to that, but first I'll give you a little history so that you have some context.
I grew up in an environment where mental health struggles were regularly branded a lack of faith or trust in God. Yeah, it was kind of humorous to study Biblical characters who struggled with those things (David, Paul), but the struggles were cast as weaknesses for which more faith was required. They were proof positive that we were lost in ourselves and needed an external power to solve the challenge. They were necessary problems that could eventually be solved, and if they weren't, they were daily slaps in the face of how we didn't measure up.
The solution was to get tips from a wiser (and often older) person who could help us see things the way they should be seen. We could apply some timeless principle with universal applicability. If it didn't happen to work, you might descend further into the quicksand.
I had everything growing up, and I have more than everything now. The work my parents did had us living with a tribe of Mayan Indians in a very remote village in the highlands of Guatemala. No running water or electricity at first, but all the stuff (and more) that a dream childhood was made of: non-stop adventure and exploration. I spoke the trade and the native languages, but I was different. No one else had blond hair and blue eyes and I became a loner. (Who am I kidding. I'd have been a loner if I grew up in Brooklyn.)
Fast forward a bit and life got busy and serious. Engaged at 18, married at 20, kids at 22 and 24. How do I make this happen? How do I provide? A lawn mowing business, then running a foreign language typesetting machine to get through four years of grad school. Then a second shift job at an R. R. Donnelley plant running a trimming machine for JC Penney catalogs while I built the agency during the day. Yes, I started an agency without knowing a single other person or firm in the space. Just trying to survive. Lots of little victories and a few big failures.
There was no time to stop and think. I wouldn't even look for that time to think—the prospect of it just seemed to pose even more unanswerable questions. Besides, I was leading and I needed to be strong and present. There would always be time to slow down and self-reflect.
Then something happened. About ten years ago, it got worse pretty quickly. Everything was a fog, kind of. In some ways I could see things more clearly than I ever had before. I was a mess. I was doing things that weren't "in character" and couldn't run away from myself. I had always been blessed by the ability to sleep well at night, hitting a nightly reset button that led to a fresh attempt the next day. But sleep was elusive. I'd stay up late, late, late, watching every MMA fight I could find. (I still love the sport.) I tried music, woodworking, meditation, CBT therapy, teaching motorcycle racing at the Superbike School, and medication.
Boy did I try medication. Any skepticism I had about pharmaceuticals was shoved aside. If it might help, I was game. Every few months I'd line up at the Walgreens drive-thru and wait my turn to wonder if someone was keeping track on the other side of that bank-like thick glass. "You are trying something ELSE? Are all these different prescriptions from the same doctor?" The side effects were, sometimes, as challenging as the disease.
I began to dread my CBT appointments because it seemed infantile to me. I was in love with the idea that it would surface some amazing secret, but it never did. But quitting something that was supposed to help is its own weird failure.
Even worse was the monthly visit with my psychiatrist. "How were things this month?" The answer, if I was being honest, was always some variation of "Well, I have no frickin' idea, really. All I can tell you is what it's like right now, and I'm not enjoying that question, even though I thought about how I was going to answer it the whole drive over here."
I was falling, and I couldn't reach out and find anything solid enough to arrest my descent.
About to burst, I found Julie up in the bedroom folding clothes and said something like, "Do you have any ideas for me? Any suggestions on managing this depression and anxiety?" She said she didn't, but I had infused a lot more meaning into my question than she knew. It was my "key moment in time" cry for help, but I'm the only person who knew that.
I accepted her answer and packed up. I took some books, some music, and my camera. I gathered some cash, whatever medication I happened to be on at the time, and threw it all in the truck. I said goodbye to Roxy, too, with tears in my eyes, and then told Julie that I would be gone for a while.
I turned right out of the driveway and started the steep climb up a short hill that leads to a main artery in Nashville. But I started crying uncontrollably. It was like a Noah's flood all over again. I couldn't see the side of the road, I was dripping from my nose and draining from my eyes. My scalp itched from crying and everything got redder as I used my hands like windshield wipers.
Just exactly one block from home I pulled over because I couldn't see to drive any more. Apparently I wasn't even any good at running away.
After about 45 minutes of uncontrollable weeping, I sheepishly turned around and drove back down the hill and turned left into the driveway. It was pretty much an admission that my little elementary school like career as a serial runner-away-from-home stopped after one lame attempt.
The next Monday I flew to Duluth, MN, to work with a client. I was effective enough, but that was one of those times where doing business felt too much like I was acting in a play. There was applause at the end, but I went back to the dressing room, grateful that I had an opportunity to make a difference but still tired.
I'm on no medication now, not because I don't believe in it but because I just got exhausted with experimenting. When I see the depression and anxiety rising through the cracks, like always, I get emotional and concerned, but there's a sane me that watches over the real me and keeps me out of trouble. There are days when I feel on top of the world and other days when I can't quite clear the fog. I turn the controls over to the sane me and he takes over while I just give it time. I am a high-functioning, slightly broken individual.
I have more of everything than I need. There is no logic to this. My business is great. I have great friends. I adore my family. I have a platform. The future is bright.
Having said that, I do not have answers for you. Mental challenges aren't always logical. If you struggle with mental health like I do, you probably want someone's attention without their answers. But keep in mind that the people who care about you are just as confused about what to do as you are.
Like I said at the start, this isn't me being brave. It's a lot easier to write this to tens of thousands of people than to talk about it with one person, eye to eye. The biggest advantage I see for myself is that it slaps around my arrogant ass to be more empathetic and curious.
It's okay to be broken. It's okay to not have all the answers. If you need to run away, go for it. Just don't forget the Kleenex.
Be a little easier on yourself, though, okay? We're all alone in this together, and I would gently recommend transparency and gratefulness.