Movember gains traction during the month of November as men forgo shaving in support of men's health. The organization raises awareness and money for the support of research surrounding prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health. I have a personal connection to mental health as it is something I have struggled with and I felt compelled to involve myself in the Movember movement, focusing on raising awareness for men's mental health. These issues reach far past one month and I intend on exploring this subject outside the confines of facial hair.
Something I wish to accomplish with this project is to simply share the experiences of others. I want to do my best to support, but not speak for anyone. However similar these experiences may be- we are all individuals. I hope that the stories shared in this project can help push the conversation for the conservation of mental health forward- especially for men. If we simply acknowledge alternative experiences in a way that validates, doesn’t commoditize, and supports- we can hopefully all live lives that are more fulfilled.
"Anxiety and depression have derailed days, weeks, months, and years of my life. I have experienced indescribable pain in the lows of depression that have made me feel helpless and alone. Every day for the past eight years I have struggled to temper my thoughts and channel my energy into something positive.
I have since recognized that the choices I make on a daily basis directly impact how I feel mentally and physically. Change is neither instantaneous nor universal and the smallest of changes can have the most significant impact when compounded. I have discovered that it is far better to pursue happiness then to try to attain the things that may make me happy.
I've made a lot of changes in my life in the past couple years. I have changed jobs, overhauled my diet and have surrounded myself with people who inspire me to chase my dreams rather than escape to them. I am thankful for my struggles because they have led me to a place where I wake up every day and know that I am as happy as I have ever been.
I choose to grow this mustache to start a larger conversation and show others struggling with mental illness that they are not alone."
- Joe Magliano 26, New York, NY
"Movember is a great time to consciously reflect on different aspects of men’s health, specifically cancer and mental health. Cancer sucks, an obvious understatement. The disease thrusts people into battle. It’s an understandable response to support and admire the incredible courage of those who face it. I have admiration for my brother, who battled cancer and has been in remission for over twenty years. Though maybe not as straightforward as cancer, poor mental health can leave a person just as toxic. I’ve watched my father deal with bouts of depression, stress, and all consuming anger that would manifest in him physically. Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with similar experiences throughout my journey, feeling too proud or too fearful of rejection to speak up. I still struggle with myself, however, I no longer try to do it alone. I’m thankful for the last few years where I’ve been able to talk about some of my root struggles and fears and siphon some of the junk out. My father thankfully has too, but why didn't he start earlier? I've experienced a shift from a lifetime of "keep it all in," "suck it up," and "be a man" - to having pride in asking for help. The result is a much healthier, happier life. Slowly but surely, movements like Movember can help release the stigma attached to "manliness" and let people know there is no shame in saying, “I need an assist.”
- Adler Roberts 25 , Philadelphia, PA
"I spent much of my life in a place of emotional isolation, guarding my every word and action. I was struggling with depression and anxiety, I was concealing my sexual identity, and I was trying desperately to do it all alone.
Eventually, when I was at a breaking point (and when I felt it was safe enough), I gathered all my courage and looked for help. I found a therapist, and very slowly I started putting words to the feelings I was experiencing. I leaned into friends and family I felt I could trust.
At that time, my greatest fear was that being vulnerable meant I wasn’t “man enough.” Real men don’t struggle like this. Real men can’t be weak or hurting or scared. Real men don’t ask for help.
I now know that I get to decide for myself what it means to be a “real man,” that vulnerability is a sign of strength, not weakness, and that there’s nothing wrong with being weak in the first place.
I’ve learned that nothing is quite as scary once I get it outside my head and look at it, and that there are actions I can take to aid my mental wellness: exercise, journaling, therapy, phone calls, prayer, meditation, creativity. I’m also prescribed medication, which has helped me in such a subtle yet foundational way (and which was another stigma I had to confront and push aside).
What I believe today is that there is hope and there is help, and that shame is a liar. These challenges affect people of all gender identities, and all people deserve the help they need. As for me, I am a man who struggles with my mental health, and I am so very grateful I don’t have to do it alone."
- Justin Randall, 27, New York, NY
"Growing up in Utah where the religious and social climate is such that any taboo topic is typically off limits, discussing my mental health as as a young man was never an option for me. I’ve struggled with OCD, anxiety, and bouts of depression my entire life, all while tying to understand my sexuality as a gay man with no help or guidance. Any attempt at open and honest conversation surrounding my complicated, often difficult state of being was shut down with statements like, “Be a man.”, “You’re fine, suck it up.”, “Stop whining and go pray.”, and the old favorite, “Don’t cry. Boys don’t cry.”
I’ve been forced to learn on my own that my feelings are valid, that my being a man does not eliminate my ability to feel complex emotions or to struggle with my mental health.
I really do hope for the sake of my nephews and many other little boys being raised in similar environments that the vulnerability of men as emotional beings becomes something people can talk about freely and openly. It’s time to remove the stigma surrounding men’s ability to talk about their mental health. Frankly, I should not be applauded or called “brave” for telling people that I’m in therapy every week."
- Jayson Speters, 26, New York, NY
"Aesthetically I might fit the mold of the guy’s guy, the alpha male who plays it cool, always gets the girl, and wins at the end of the day - a traditional model of masculinity. However, for many years I was crippled by an inability to deal with emotions and feelings which has contributed to many personal failures in athletics, my career, and relationships. And that’s okay, because failure is a part of life, and I’m aware of it now. I know that that is now a part of who I am, and that by continuing to work with a therapist and by taking time to work on myself, I can learn from what has happened before. I can face my failures and my victories, and put myself in a better position to succeed in the future and I can be better prepared to face failures or disappointments when they inevitably arise.
I remember being ashamed of having to see a therapist when I was in elementary school, because I thought it meant there was something wrong with me. If I can do or say anything so that young boys and young men don’t feel ashamed to see a therapist, work on their mental health, or share how things make them feel, I will. That is a big reason why I’m participating in this project. Being a man and dealing with mental health is nothing to be ashamed of, if anything I proudly wear that as a badge of honor, in the hope that somehow by doing so, I can help someone else struggling with their mental health. ”
Men historically have a tendency to hold things in, to suck it up, to be cool, to not show emotion. For most of my life I’ve followed this deleterious tendency, and in some way, shape, or form have been in therapy trying to deal with the impacts. When I was a child my therapy was court ordered as a result of my parents divorce. In high school it was parent ordered as they saw me struggling to form healthy relationships. Once I got to college and then graduated, I started to understand the benefit of therapy and went periodically of my own free will. For a bit I thought I had figured things out and didn’t need it any more. In the last few years I realized that we never have it all figured out and that I am much happier, more present, connected to my emotions, and honest with myself when I am actively working on my mental health regularly with a therapist.”
- Jared Prudoff-Smith, 34, New York, NY
"I consider my head a war zone, constantly at battle with itself, trying to meet expectations, trying to fit a square peg into a circle hole. In my square experience, circles don’t get judged, they get ahead in life, and circles definitely don’t get assaulted on the street. It obviously goes without saying that constantly dealing with your mental health is emotionally exhausting, but it also manifests itself physically- I wake up every day exhausted and it doesn’t matter how well I tried to take care of myself the day before or how much sleep I got. Even living in the affluent, liberal bubble of New York City, it is incredibly difficult to shed learned behaviors and societal pressures to be a certain way. That, along with battling anxiety, depression, or what have you in private can be incredibly debilitating. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to continue to talk about mental health openly and continue to fight gender norms that are so often the product and cause of the toxic masculinity that oppresses so many. There’s hope for healing when there’s openness."
- Michael Brown, 27, New York, NY
"For as long as I can remember, I have always questioned myself, while welcoming others’ opinion of me. I grew up in a community that put a lot of weight on what it means to be a man. I became very aware of my femininity and my masculinity, and how it affected how I stand, walk, talk, sit or even think. I grew up under a microscope, where everyone freely gave their opinion on who I was, or who they thought I would grow to be. Other people's’ opinions of me are something that I have allowed to shape me. Being awkward, and quiet kept me in the middle. Not feminine not masculine. Not moving not belonging to one side or the other always afraid of not being accepted. I guess I grew up on the border in more ways than one.
I am someone who is filled with a large amount of happiness, the result of things that I have worked hard for, but also a strong sadness. As I put these words together I realize that “balance” is the struggle, and even that thought is a daily realization. At times I fall but I always pick myself up, there is no other choice but to continue to learn to balance; to celebrate and embrace me, and my individuality. Every day I work on kindness and acceptance of myself, and of others. I’m not always completely successful, but everyday I try to find the “balance.”"
-Edgar Contreras, 39, New York, NY
"I’ve been seeing a therapist, off-and-on, since the 4th grade. Depression is something that runs in my family, and unfortunately I have seen all my immediate family members struggle with mental illness in some way or another. For years I have struggled with trying to meet the expectations that one might consider to be “normal”. There was a fear and a stigma of seeing a therapist and taking medication. There have been times when my attempts to be open about these things have made people uncomfortable, in a way that they wouldn’t if I were speaking about a physical illness. I’ve encountered people, even those that care a lot about me, who think there must be an easy fix or that I just need to “change my mindset”. What I hope can come out of this project is the understanding that there is no such thing as normal, and that mental illnesses are just as valid as physical ones. I also hope that people can understand that what works for one person may not work for another. Reaching a point of stability takes a lot of effort, and, for many, professional medical assistance. A support system is necessary to get someone through the ebb and flow of depression but you can’t rely on friends alone- I’ve learned through the years that change only comes from within. If the stigma of seeing a therapist and taking drugs was lifted, I believe a lot of people would seek help and become more mentally healthy people."
-Billy Ennis, 27, New York, NY
"Struggling with the judgement that comes with being in a relationship with someone who lives with mental illness has been difficult for me. We had just moved in together when Billy fell into one of his darkest periods of depression. We not only had to learn how to live together as any couple does, but we were also faced head-on with how to navigate our relationship in regards to Billy’s struggles with mental illness. There can be a pressure to be a “perfect” couple- and somehow anti-depressants don’t seem to fit into that picture-perfect box. Being in this relationship, I’ve realized I’ve had to work out my own stigmas about mental health, and remember that what other people think isn’t important. I don’t need to “prove” to other people that I’m in a great relationship- I know that I am, and thats all that matters. I’ve now seen how damning the stigmas that effect mental health can be- and I know now that the more we all talk about it, the better things will get.
The most important things I have learned in this relationship are that first, I must still be an individual and make sure my own personal needs are met— for me, this meant seeking out therapy on my own, and having a social life that Billy is not always a part of. The second thing I have learned is that I am a partner in my relationship, but I can’t be more than that— there is nothing I can do to “fix” Billy, love is not the cure as some seem to think. I know that Billy will have his ups and downs, but that in the end he can work through things himself, with me as a support by his side."
-Alysha Caine, 27, New York, NY
"Honestly, I had trouble coming to a satisfactorily concise opinion about my own mental health and mental health in general while writing this. As I was prepared to finish it, a friend of mine committed suicide. We were co-workers on an educational Shakespeare tour and for that time, friends. It was not the first encounter I had knowing someone who had chosen that, and I unfortunately know it won’t be my last. It scared me. It made me altogether sad and angry; my system of processing it and the others before it has been admittedly flawed. My tendency to disassociate in light of death caused me to manifest some troubling feelings and thoughts.
Coping with mortality, and our second-to-second decisions to remain complicit with it, can make things you enjoy seem infinitesimal. Though it had nothing to do with me, the personal responsibility I felt to have tried harder to connect seemed no less vivid. I regressed in a way that I had been starting to before he passed, and had allowed more room for corruption of thought as I repressed my feelings about him dying. I won’t make any assumptions about him, but it was clear he similarly struggled with channeling his feelings clearly and being open about them. There was a silent knowing that it was all best left unsaid. I regret that, like many things I wish I could reassemble in my memory. However, connection or commiseration rather, can only extend to the limit of what the two parties will allow, and if there is a reticence to discuss it, it cannot be forced. Mutual honesty becomes an integral tool to combat the alienation we who carry something impose upon ourselves. There is a nascent will within us to seek companionship and to share pieces of ourselves.
Though solitude can feel intoxicating, it will serve as a platform for the delusion that you can do this all by yourself. No great thing was ever done alone. No man is an island.
Living in disorder and obscuring it can kill you. Mental illness itself is elusive. It’s quiet, and it’s often indefinite. I have personally
been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, bipolar I, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Over my multiple diagnoses, the medical professionals I have talked to have often been unclear about the validity of each in respect to one another. This can be frustrating, and leave you feeling helpless and a bit out of control. It has for me at times. What has inspired me despite has always been my continued curiosity about how my mind can more clearly operate, and the unconditional openness and kind acceptance of the people with which I’ve surrounded myself. Allowing a self-talk that befits such open people helps to establish a gentler, more understanding personal history when your first thought about yourself usually tends to doubt.
Being kind to yourself will always help you learn more about yourself, I’ve found. I personally believe based on the historical actions of this nation, mental illness and trauma are inextricable from the American experience and therefore a systemic problem with specific, deep roots. It will take
our continued excavation of those roots and a refusal to be silent about our own experiences with it to form the language for combating its rampant, negative effects on our way of life. As art evolves and the human’s intelligence for story expands, I err on the side of hope that a conversation will also ferociously, and courageously continue to evolve.
Austin Blunk, 26, New York, NY
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I believe my habit of comparing myself to my siblings, friends, family, and what I saw in the media is where my depression found roots. I convinced myself that I would never measure up to these people. I would never be as smart as my siblings, or as talented as my cousins and friends, or as beautiful as the people I saw in magazines. I thought: “Maybe I can try and be funny.” So I adopted a self-deprecating sense of humor, which turned into a defense mechanism - make fun of yourself before they can make fun of you. When I thought I was being humble in an effort to avoid becoming over confident or too cocky, I was actually laying the groundwork for depression. (Not to mention severe body dysmorphia, which plagues me to this day.)
I have struggled with my mental health for as long as I can remember. Some years I have felt strong and well-balanced, and some years I have felt like I didn’t see the outside world for months.
It’s interesting to be a part of this project and write this piece as a female when it was originally created for men’s health awareness. It made me curious about the role that gender plays when discussing anxiety and depression.
Society teaches men that it is un-manly to cry and that expressing their feelings is a sign of weakness. Personally, being a proud feminist striving for equal rights and equal treatment, I put pressure on myself to take on this “responsibility” of the patriarchy. I felt that I had to hide my sadness and struggles because I didn’t want to be seen as a weak woman and validate the thoughts of the men who believe women are too emotional (“Oh, she’s probably just on her period”). I felt that my struggles would not be taken seriously if I told anyone about them.
Fast forward through years and years and years of not accepting compliments and trying to make my self-deprecating humor charming, I found myself in need of a therapist. As we had a few breakthroughs and I learned more about the person that I actually wanted to be, I realized my mental health was a more serious issue than I thought. It was a daunting realization. It was a depressing realization. I slipped into an uncontrollable sadness, unable to leave my bed most days and, if I did, I experienced crippling anxiety. I ended up isolating myself and I called it loneliness. I convinced myself that people didn’t want to spend time with me for a myriad of reasons when, in reality, it was because I shut them out - literally and figuratively.
Eventually, I found myself crying in my therapist’s office more often than I’d like to admit, and she said “It’s time we think about medication.” I immediately responded, “No, no, no, it’s not that bad. I must be PMS-ing. It’s just a rough patch, I’ll get over it. And I’ll buy you a new box of tissues.” She didn’t believe me and I reluctantly made an appointment with a psychiatrist.
I was extremely hesitant to accept medical help. I am not someone who accepts help well in general. I am a fixer. I am stubborn. I pride myself on my independence. I felt that I was giving up, that I was validating my own toxic thoughts that said that I wasn’t good enough or strong enough to fix this on my own. In actuality, it turns out I just didn’t have the tools to do it on my own.
Eventually, I had a conversation with my brother about my situation, and he explained it in a way that finally made sense to me. He said, “The chemicals in a diabetic’s body are imbalanced, so they take medicine to survive. The chemicals in your body are imbalanced so you need to take medicine to survive. There is no difference. You don’t judge a diabetic for taking insulin to manage their illness, so judging yourself for taking anti-depressants to manage yours is just silly.”
The people with whom I surround myself are enormously important in this journey. No one can overcome their mental illness alone. My tribe has quite literally saved my life. They are understanding and helpful, and they made me realize that asking for help is admirable, not weak. They listened when I explained how scared I was to lose this part of myself. My anxiety and depression had become my only constant companions, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t know how to function without them.
I’ve been on anti-depressants for a full year now, but it took a few tries of different types of medication. It rarely happens that the first medicine you try is the exact right kind your body needs. It is a long process, and patience is a virtue when it comes to treating depression and anxiety. Anti-depressants are not a magic cure-all by any means. My meds have helped turn down the volume of my sadness, and raise my baseline mood to a certain level that allows me to get out of bed. However, I still have to do the work to make sure that I put one foot in front of the other every day. The medicine will only take me so far, and the rest is up to me.
One doesn’t develop depression overnight, so we can’t expect it to be eradicated overnight. I am still working every single day to get to a point where that volume knob is turned even lower. Where my toxic thoughts become light whispers, and my positive feelings drown out anything else.
It feels good to know that I am a badass caretaker of myself. A proud feminist who is open and honest and starts essays by quoting Theodore Roosevelt. I’m putting in the work to get better, to keep the comparisons to a minimum, and it doesn’t hurt that I have an incredible tribe cheering me on through it all.
Miranda Stevens, 27, New York, NY
I was diagnosed with depression as a kid, but I didn’t find out until much later. So the intense mood swings that I was having on a daily basis, being happy-go-lucky to totally devastated with despair, I didn’t understand. I didn’t go to ‘formal therapy’ - my mom’s best friend, Tia Kelly, was a psychiatrist and I started spending more one on one time with her. I think this was my parents’ way of giving me support and help without freaking me out. Perhaps, because it runs in my family, my parents sought to fight the battle for me and protect me from the hardships that come with living with a mental illness. They taught me to be strong and soldier on in the hope that I could overcome it on my own. An unexpected result of this is that it’s hard to admit, especially to myself, even sitting here writing this, that I do have a mental illness. I feel guilt attached to claiming mental illness as part of my day to day reality. I believe mental illness exists on a spectrum of experience and mine can seem light and conquerable in comparison to others I‘ve encountered which feeds my guilt and anxiety. However, I have recently lost five too many friends to their noble, yet secretly held, battles with depression and mental illness, and no struggle is too small to share if it helps release our society from the stigma that clouds the conversations around the subject.
My experience with depression and anxiety is, frankly, a hot mess. I say that with all the compassion for myself I can. One minute I feel great and nothing can get me down, then 5 minutes later I feel ‘in a funk.’ I can’t understand why I feel this way, but I suddenly just want to be away from people and I feel entirely consumed and overwhelmed with immovable sadness, then I feel guilty and ungrateful for feeling that way and start to blame myself. I call this my ‘below the line’ place. My anxiety is such that I play out every scenario that could make things go wrong in my head - constantly - and it’s draining and sometimes debilitating socially. I am a highly sensitive person, which is great for my profession as an actor that requires a great deal of empathy. However, it is often the leading cause that takes me to my depressive below the line state. This feels like I’m throwing a lot of basic ideas of my experience on the page but if I could concisely describe it all I’d say it’s an extreme and constant swing that is utterly exhausting.
I am still in the process of accepting that it’s not my fault that I feel this way and that mental illness is a real thing, that there is nothing to be ashamed of. I have gotten by, even thrived with the help of the incredible people in my life; my parents, my boyfriend, and my dear dear friends. Journaling has been one of my most trusted lifelines since I was 9 years old and exercising and moving my body (solo dance parties) have saved my life. The most important action I’ve been able to take is simply talking about it. I started going to therapy this year and it has been a huge game changer. Once the Catholic in me realized that therapy wasn’t a confessional, I could release my guilt and actually work through my shit. Beyond that, talking about my experiences or feelings with a few very close friends, is proving to be a healthy release for me.
I definitely don’t have any answers and it’s a daily practice of choosing to get up every day and (to be totally cheesy and quote my favoritest character ever) “Just keep swimming”. One breath at a time, one step at time, asking for help, and learning by not just soldiering on but allowing myself to feel or not feel and go through it with compassion for myself.
Amaia Arana, 25, New York NY
Death holds a tight grip on the throats of my brothers and sisters
Skepticism is the fist clenched tightly around our voice
Silenced by the tears of guilt and reason
Reason beyond a doubt of an understanding that tries to present itself equal
I fear for the lives of my brothers
I fear for the hopes of my sisters
I fear for the dreams of my children
My hands are up!
Will I ever be allowed to taste the sweet dew of morning without the salt of another crying mother?
Another yearning lover?
People feel and talk but unity isn’t real at all
Until there’s blood and a call
For injustice to End for US all.
As a Black man in America, I find it difficult to often talk about where I’m at. It’s hard to share my feelings without feeling like I’m a threat to someone, so I’d hold them in. It wasn’t until I began to lose people close to me to suicide that I realized just how important it was to talk about where I’m at in life. About two years ago I began spending my days striving to be happy.
Faking it til I make it.
I started to live a life where I told myself being happy would be contagious and if I just kept searching for the optimism in everything that I do, somehow I wouldn’t have those sad moments anymore. I thought that staying busy or having accomplishments to boast about would fill that void. Suddenly my appearance wasn't enough. I started working out, thinking that my body would fill it. When it didn’t, I became obsessed with projects. Then it was jobs. Then it was social media validation. Before long I found myself not eating, constantly working, and all around being isolated. Yet nothing changed. Nothing was enough. Not only was I not fulfilled, I was exhausted, spending nights alone crying and going through the most extreme mood swings of my life.
After a series of significant emotional events, I knew I needed to do something. Thanks to the advice of a older mentor of mine, this year I started taking spontaneous trips out of the country. I’d leave social media and unplugged from most of those around me to spend serious time praying and meditating. I’d been pushing so hard to be “Happy” that I wasn’t open to the actual experiences that shape my everyday life. So no matter how much “success” I was having, I’d always be unfilled. Nothing was ever enough. Somehow I had lost sight of the most important lesson of life: SELF-LOVE. When I re-discovered what Joy really meant, I knew I could take the steps forward to heal. To be Joyful is to be internally satisfied with Self. It doesn’t rely on the validations of the outside world, nor does it ignore the current “feelings” you’re experiencing. I gave permission to Self to feel what I feel when I feel it.
It’s in that I discovered and began to really understand why I place the tag #BLACKBOYJOY on everything I do. It doesn’t just represent the good times, or the highlight reel of life (which, as a believer in God I say life is a highlight reel!) but also a little reminder to self and others that striving to be joyful means to take up space, assume my brilliance and trust that if I’m open about where I’m at, I’ll actually be more present and able to share my joy with others.
Doron Mitchell, 26, New York, NY
Depression is isolating in a way that almost defies explanation, but those who have felt that level of silence inside their heads know how dark it can be. A trash silence that achieves the opposite of meditation.
I’ve suffered from depression since I was 16, but I didn’t have the language for what I was going through until I was almost 26. I spent nearly 10 years entrenched in a silence that I couldn’t explain, but one that affected every single aspect of my life. There are entire years of that decade that I can’t remember because my mental illness was so profound that it blocked out everything else.
The amount of time it stole from me is staggering.
When I started taking medication two years ago and my depression started to lift, I ironically felt an intense sadness as I began to realize the amount of time I’d lost and the amount of life I’d missed out on. It very nearly broke my heart. I spent those first few months of my reintroduction to my life waiting. Waiting for the depression to come back, waiting for the anxiety to overcome me, waiting for this newfound sense of self to disappear. That’s one of depressions tricks, making you distrust everything you’re thinking and feeling because you never know if it’s you or if it’s your mental illness. I still have days and weeks where I have to mentally fact check what I’m thinking and feeling to ensure that it’s not a lie my brain is telling me. If nothing else, depression forces me to have a level of introspection I didn’t previously think possible.
Recently I've started to wear a nameplate necklace that says, “Depression” instead of my name, and people love to ask me why. Some people ask because they’re looking for connection, some people ask out of bewilderment, and some people ask because they think it’s stupid. No matter the origin of the question, my answer is always the same: because even though I’m always working to distance myself from my mental illness as much as possible so I can live a life I love it’ll always - always - be a part of who I am. And accepting that part of myself is just as important as everything else.
Christina Mueller, 28, NY, New York
Shortly after my dad passed away, I started going to Bible study classes to prepare for my First Communion. I remember at the time trying to connect everything I knew of the world to the idea of God. I became incredibly superstitious — odd numbers related to the devil, if I thought bad words I would be punished by a greater power, I had laid out intricate systems of hand movements that protected me from harm. Sometimes I imagined that closing and opening my eyes was a way to “wipe myself clean” and begin again. I once told my mom that it was a relief to shower because I felt my sins being washed away; she told me that this was ridiculous because I had no sins. I practiced these crazed but also creative mind games — what my therapist would later call “magical thinking” — and kept them secret because they kept me safe.
I was incredibly resistant to start therapy at the end of high school. I went because my anxiety had become completely unmanageable; my systems of self protection were totally unsustainable. I would go the bathroom twenty times a day for fear of losing control of my bladder; I took every precaution to avoid illness including obsessive hand washing and checking food dates. I compulsively counted things out in even numbers and repeated other daily rituals and systems that had come and gone throughout my childhood.
Going to therapy was the best thing I ever did for myself. A narrative of a kid who was incredibly fearful of death and sudden abandonment and loss of control started to reveal itself to me. There was also a deep need in me to execute tasks and day-to-day life without fault so as not to burden my overburdened mom. For me, anxiety and depression were so normal and modeled to me so young. My grandmother existed in a constant state of fear and displacement; to her either she or my brother and I were on the brink of death at all times. I have so many images of my mom, too, sitting in silence at dinner or reading to us at night and suddenly stopping for no apparent reason looking detached and distant.
A big piece of what I’ve learned in the last few years is that feelings move through us of their own accord. I wake up some days and feel like the lens I’ve been looking at my life through has been switched out — like looking through those sight-testing machines at the doctor — someone has clicked the view finder overnight and suddenly everything is totally altered. A lot of my work now is recognizing that change is inevitable, and eventually, whatever state of mind I’m in will pass. Another piece is learning to care for myself when I’m on the low end of things or when the world looks impossibly dark or pointless. That can mean calling my therapist, sleeping a little longer, distracting myself with a movie or work, or sometimes just sharing feelings of unease and letting it pass through me. I think it’s hard for an obsessive or anxious or depressive person to feel that it’s actually ok to be obsessive and anxious and depressive. You can’t beat your brain into submission though, and you have to treat yourself with as much empathy as you would treat someone else.
I never thought I could be in the place I am now. I am so much less scared now than I used to be. It’s not impossible to learn to talk back to your own fear and sadness and unease, but it’s kind of like dealing with the little kid inside of yourself. I try to treat my younger self with patience and kindness everyday.
Madeline Rouverol, 24, New York, NY
My exposure to mental health challenges began one morning when I had my first, full blown, completely debilitating panic attack. I was 26. I had never experienced anything like it before, and didn’t really know much about depression or what a panic attack really was.
I had just gone through a painful breakup, felt frustrated in my career, and wasn’t taking the best care of myself. I woke up hung-over one morning, drank two coffees, hopped in the shower and suddenly felt my heart tighten up, my breath shorten, and my mind begin to race. I had a woman over who I had just met the night before, and I had to awkwardly tell her while soaking wet with a small foot towel around my waist, that I thought I was having a heart attack. She wasn’t sure whether to leave or try to help. I called my parents, who were on the road to Connecticut for the weekend, and told them the same thing, I thought I was dying. They were sympathetic but also didn’t really know what to do. It was one of the scariest, most humbling experiences of my life. I’m a surfer, and I can compare it to those select times when the ocean just takes you over and leaves you completely at its mercy.
I went to the doctor a few days later, after trying to unsuccessfully exercise off the feeling for a few days, and when I explained to him my symptoms and said that I thought something might be wrong with my heart he replied in a familiar, comforting tone “oh, you had a panic attack, welcome to 20% of America, my daughter has them too.” There began my new relationship to depression and accompanying anxiety.
How do I cope? I think everyone benefits from cultivating habits that serve their well-being, and I think people with mental health challenges maybe benefit even more, because they can be more sensitive or vulnerable to the stimulus of the world and people around them. So, for example, in the most basic sense, I’ll drink two large glasses of water first thing in the morning every morning, maybe squeeze some lemon in one of them. Gets me hydrated, energized and lifts my mood every time in preparation for the day. Exercise is also a big one - I know it is for lots of people - but taking a hard run three days a week followed by a circuit of pull-ups, push-ups, dips, squats, etc. allows me to let it all go and gives me a feeling of confidence and well-being. And on a larger, more existential scale, I’ll often remind myself of principles or thoughts that help keep my perspective in line. For instance, lately I’ve been thinking about how our life in the total span of the earth, of what came before and what will come after, is a tiny blip - a nanosecond if that - and so you should do what makes you happy as much as you can.
David asked me when we spoke if as a man I felt embarrassed or ashamed of my mental health stuff. I don’t and I never really have. I think I’ve always been a guy who’s been comfortable talking about vulnerable or potentially embarrassing stuff that maybe other men weren’t as comfortable with. I’m grateful for the challenge of having to deal with depression and anxiety because it allows me to have a greater understanding and empathy for others who may be going through the same thing. I started taking hemp CBD oil about a year ago and found it so helpful in dealing with anxiety, mood and general well-being, that I wanted to share this feeling with others. I wanted to also make it feel especially accessible to men who as a whole may feel more reluctant to talk about these issues or look for a solution, so I started my own brand of CBD products called Aurelian, named after a little known Roman emperor who was referred to as “Restorer of the World” and whose ancestors were the sun gods. I don’t know if I would’ve ever done that if I hadn’t gone through my anxiety challenges. And so if I can help start a conversation about it with someone, where they know there’s no judgments and instead lots of empathy and first-hand experience too, well then really, truly, it’s all worth it.
Nick Hoge, 36, New York, NY