Summer is in full swing! It’s time to find out if months of waiting and planning will pay off to make this summer one to remember! Like an over-reviewed blockbuster, sometimes summer can be overhyped. I know for me, while struggling with anxiety and depression, summer would sometimes become an anxious scramble to have as much fun as everyone seems to be having 110% of the time. After all, their Instagram feed clearly makes it seem like they are enjoying adventure after adventure.
However, things are rarely what they seem – I can attest to that after having hidden the worst of my suffering from depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and ADHD to maintain a “tough guy” persona, a mask to not let others in. Well, this summer I am speaking out, I am measuring the success of my summer by my own standards and most importantly, I am keeping the levels of self-care at an all-time high. I have learned that whenever my mental health is strong, everything else in my life follows suit.
I often share when I am out speaking that I never thought I would be in a place to be able to share my story and discuss some of the more challenging aspects of my experience with others, much less on a stage. For me, it has helped undo years of wearing a mask, of pretending to be ok, of suffering in silence. The stigma surrounding mental illness can be debilitating, particularly for a male who feels they are supposed to be strong, tough, and a protector for his family and friends. This stigma is deeply rooted, sometimes ingrained in us as children, to hide our feelings and to tough it out. In my case, to not let others see what you are feeling. It was overwhelming.
To say I was bottling up my emotions is an understatement because I couldn’t keep it all in. Instead, these emotions surfaced as anger, resentment, and hurtful actions towards my friends and family. I wasn’t being myself and yet, the guilt I feel now for some of the things I did is real. Today, I make it up to them by taking care of myself, by helping others whenever I can. I pay it forward by sharing my story so others who may be experiencing some of what I was feeling and who are keeping it hidden can overcome the stigma. I hope to inspire others to reject the need to be “tough” on the outside, and instead be tough by seeking help and talking to someone.
However, seeking help is easier said than done when you are in the worst of a bought of depression/self-medicating/anxiety. For that reason, my recovery has now become a two-way street. I look after myself and those I care about as best as I can – which means I do so within the limitations of my own mental health. Maintaining healthy boundaries is important here; mental health is similar to being on a plane and making sure your oxygen mask is on first before you help others.
June is Men’s Health Month and yet with the recent loss of both fashion designer Kate Spade and Chef and TV Host of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain, I find it difficult to articulate how I feel in a way that would do justice to these two amazing people who touched so many lives. The sobering reality of both of these tragic losses is that you never know who may be suffering. As a boy, growing up with the stigma surrounding mental illness and the pressure from society to be “tough” and “cool,” I exhausted myself in trying to not let people know how bad I was suffering. The loss of these two icons helps us realize that mental illness or mental health issues can affect us all, no matter what race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or other identifying group, we all have ups and downs. It is never too early to ask for help and it is always worth it to check in with someone you are concerned about.
Starting the summer off with Men’s Health Month gives us the opportunity to consider the ways we can continue to break down barriers and learn to live without wearing a mask. Forget the summer bod; instead, embrace the summer mind that is ready to break down the stigmas that may affect others by leading by example and taking care of yourself. Most importantly be kind to yourself; breaking down stigmas, practicing self care, and seeking help are all challenging things that can become counterproductive if we allow the toxic, unrealistic standards that we hold for ourselves too often in day-to-day life take control. As challenging as it may sound, I find that I often have to accept where I am before I can realize where I want to go and how to get there. And so, although summer is sure to have its ups and downs, I am looking forward to taking it as it goes, having good conversations, taking care of myself, and surrounding myself with people who make me smile. I’ll see you out there!