Episode 3: I’m Living Proof: Young Men Can Heal Too

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I'm Living Proof Episode 3

Dear Johnny,

At age 15, you don’t have the words yet to describe the things that you are feeling. Please know you are not to blame. What you don’t know yet, but that will one day become abundantly clear, is that you live in a world where stigma against those with mental health challenges is interwoven into the systemic framework of our society.

The perverseness of this prejudice will do something to you that it has also done to countless other humans for time immemorial. It will leave you, still as a child, left to navigate a life-or-death health challenge largely on your own.

This is not your fault. In fact, the shame and guilt you are feeling are not your burdens to bear. Rather, these emotions, displaced upon you, represent the insecurities of a world denying its vulnerability. This is especially true for you as a boy. Culture will tell you that you are not to know yourself emotionally. Boys, it will be said and insinuated, are to do everything in their power to mask their weakness, lest risk being labeled as “unmanly” and “unworthy”. You should not take these social constructs to heart. They will soon be found to be outdated, hurtful, and dehumanizing.

The depression and anxiety that you are feeling in this moment are completely normal reactions to the circumstances you are facing. The year is 2006: You are a sophomore in high school, an active athlete and performer, and you have just been delivered a health diagnosis that will change the trajectory of your life forever.

At first, you will navigate confusion. Crohn’s Disease will be described to you by some of the world’s leading doctors as an autoimmune disorder solely affecting your digestive system. What you will learn on your own is that this prognosis was far too limited in scope. There will be days where the battle for your mind will feel far harder than the battle for your body. In fact, you will come to find this distinction is mostly meaningless. It will become evident that the psychological exists in a symbiotic relationship with the biological and environmental.

The journey you are about to embark on will, at times, feel incredibly isolating. Yes, you will have your loving and supportive family, but the depth of your despair will be largely hidden and left to metastasize in your young, still-developing brain. No doctor will suggest that you undergo routine mental health screening and monitoring, depriving you of early interventions that may have allowed for much needed course corrections. No school counselor will proactively reach out to you, limiting your ability to intellectualize and verbalize the psychological storm you are weathering. Unfortunately, the mental health infrastructure in the time, place and culture you are living in, is riddled with holes and you, at no fault of your own, will slip through the cracks.

College will not, as the saying goes, be the best four years of your life. Sure, you will have your fun. You will make lifelong friends, grow academically and mature into young adulthood with fond memories to last a lifetime. But your mental health will be pushed to its limits. You will struggle with the lingering effects of Crohn’s Disease, surrounded by peers seemingly in the prime of their lives. You will feel fragile and broken, at a time when your friends feel strong and desirable. You will tell yourself you are irreparably sick and fundamentally ugly. You will feel entirely unworthy. And, due to a non-existent culture around mental health wellness, you won’t tell anybody. Lacking know-how, you will seek to cope in all the wrong ways. Please do not blame yourself for this. You were doing the best you could with the skills that you had.

Shortly after graduation in 2013, the sudden loss of a romantic relationship will push you over the edge. Years of unchecked mental illness will culminate in a perfect storm of agony. The proverbial bottom will fall out and give way to unrelenting psychological and physiological pain. For six months, every waking moment will be marked by a feeling that your brain is on fire. Your entire body will be turned into an amalgam of despair. The simplest of tasks, whether it be getting out of bed or stringing together a coherent sentence, will feel like herculean endeavors. The personality that defined you, the one that used to come so effortlessly will seemingly evaporate, leaving you feeling vacant. You will spend many nights wondering if you can ever get back the part of your soul that made you feel human and alive. You will search years for that answer. Suicide will cross your mind. You will speak this thought into existence to the people you trust. Some will not understand. But the ones who do, will be the heroes of your story.

The storm will last far longer than you thought possible, but you will survive. At times, contending with the guilt of having a mental health crisis, and how you behaved, will feel like the most intransigent obstacle on the road to self-forgiveness. You should fight like hell to dislodge yourself from this psychological trap. It’s simply depression masquerading as morality. But most importantly, with all this confronting you, you will do something profoundly courageous: you will take your recovery into your own hands, you will find your voice, you will pour your heart and soul into recovery, and the day will come when you are far better than you ever thought possible. For this I am, and will always be, so incredibly proud of you.

The needle will slowly inch forward each week as you go into therapy. Week in, week out, for years, you will work with your therapist to steady yourself on the road to recovery. Healing will not always happen quickly or in a linear fashion and that’s okay. True healing doesn’t fit into the parameters of a culture predicated on duality. That said, the most seismic shifts in who you are as a person, will come, when you start running.

In 2015, when you are 24, as both a challenge to yourself and others, you will sign up to run the Chicago Marathon on behalf of Erika’s Lighthouse – a nonprofit focused on addressing adolescent depression. It is both the boldest and smartest decision you will make in your life. Having never run more than 3 miles prior to that year, the training regimen will test the limits of your mind and body. But within this crucible, you will greatly grow your capacity for discipline and resilience. Not only will you complete your first race, you will go on to run six more. Throughout this process, you will feel psychically and mentally stronger each and every year. There will, of course, be bumps along the way. But with time, the bumps will become far less disorienting, and the overwhelming trajectory of your healing process will move you forward.

As you grow into your late twenties, a sense of stability, once lost, will begin to creep in. You will also be blessed by a few surprises. The decisions you will make for your body, including radically changing your diet and overall lifestyle, will culminate in your doctor doing a biopsy and finding your health condition is in deep remission. You will seek out more cutting-edge mental health treatments which, once complete, will make you feel like you have a new and improved brain. And through all of this, you will learn some important lessons.

You will learn that the oft repeated phrase is true: it does get better. That said, you will also learn that the road to better needn’t be so excruciatingly hard. For more than a decade, you will get to look at the infrastructure of wellness from the outside looking in. What you will see is a system that is not only in disrepair, but intentionally designed to marginalize those who struggle with mental illness. And in that, you will learn to take your anger, and translate into action. Because you will feel, as you look around at your support network, that you were one of the lucky ones. That you, by mere happenstance, had privileges that millions of those struggling with illness do not. And you will feel that this simply cannot stand. This cannot be the way things are.

So, as you step into a new and better life, please do not stop fighting for those who cannot. Speak out. Get involved. Play your part in advancing the movement for a better mental health future. And do not stop until everyone knows that indeed, it does get better.

Your older self


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I’m Living Proof Archive

I’m Living Proof created to share inspiration for young adults living with mood disorder. These archival posts represent the stories shared between 2015-2020.

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