What Lies Beneath

This week has been Mental Health Awareness week. What’s unfortunate is that this is now Friday, and I only just found out. Me, someone who people complain is attached to his phone and social media constantly, only just found out.

Yesterday, my friend Andrew took to Facebook Live and recorded a video (linked below) where he spoke about his own experiences with depression and anxiety. It is raw, rough, and from the heart. If you’re going to watch it after reading this, I will warn you that he doesn’t censor himself.

It got me thinking about a revelation I had this week, and about how I have prepared for the almost inevitable interview question “what’s your biggest weakness?” and what it really all meant. As of writing this, I only moments prior had watched a video that was posted about the effects of anxiety. All of this prompted me to decide to sit down and write this out.

I’ve only actually completely explained all of this to a small few people. This is the first time that I’ve talked about my story on a large scale. But I hope that with more and more stories like my friend Andrew’s and my own being put out into the public space that it will inspire more and more people who share our experience to seek help, or possibly speak out to show the world that depression and anxiety and other mental health issues are a lot more prevalent than people realize.

So here’s my story.

In 2010, I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression.

When the diagnosis came in, it was a complete relief. It explained so many things that I had been experiencing. So many thoughts and thought processes that had moved through my brain suddenly had a recognizable source.

But they all also had a cause.

I am lucky to have a family who are incredibly supportive. They always tried to encourage me to do things that I wanted to do. Always supporting me in following my dreams, whatever dreams they may be. However, I am the only child in my family. Not by choice, however. Because of this, and because of why I was the only child (which I won’t elaborate on because it’s not my story to tell) my parents (especially Mom) were very protective. Even now, we all agree that there were times where it was excessively protective. But hindsight is always 20/20.

This protectiveness resulted in some social difficulties. Also compounding the issue was that I was never a big fan of sports. While I wasn’t overweight (I was still an active child) I wasn’t exactly “in shape” as far as being successful at athletics required, and much of my class were very athleticically minded. This resulted in many, many years of being one of the main targets of bullying.

Thinking back, the bullying started around the time I was 8 years old. No matter how supportive my family was, my social environment went out of their way to tell me how worthless, useless and stupid I was. I wasn’t completely innocent of things that likely turned some people away, no one ever truly is. We all make mistakes, especially as children. However 5 straight years of this environment set the stage for what would haunt me the rest of my life.

I went to a different high school than most of my elementary school classmates. A fresh start, and the possibility of meeting a larger variety of people was exciting. However many of the same habits and mistakes found their way to my side yet again, as the initial damage had been done. Again, not being athletic meant settling into a niche that was a popular target for bullying. Being beat up in grades 9 and 10, down to having a small container of syrup thrown at my head, hitting me in the face during a Shrove Tuesday event when I was in grade 12 that earned me the nickname “Syrup Beard” (at 16, I had grown a vandyke goatee, which I still wear today). The nickname became so pervasive that while on a trip to New Orleans members of the school concert band (which I was part of, but didn’t go on the trip) took syrup and wrote “Syrup Beard” on a sidewalk. The nickname would even get yelled at me from a car while I was in my second year of college (my first foray into post-secondary schooling.)

Again, super-supportive family, but many, many voices all telling me how useless, worthless, stupid, and pathetic I was. Hard to get that refrain out of one’s head.

The black dog would continue to haunt me all through my first attempt at college. So desperate for validation from other humans, especially the opposite sex, I completely tuned out of my classes, often completely skipping the majority of the semester. What should have been a full diploma in three years became a part-time certificate of completion in four years. All because I sought but could not find validation from others.

I met my first wife in college. We were on again, off again for a while, then decided to just make the jump to marriage when she discovered that she was pregnant with our first child. My failure to complete college firmly railing at me from the back of my head, and desperately needing to look after my family, I ended up taking the only full time job that would be offered to me. A call center position. Decent pay, with benefits. It was what I needed to do for my new family.

My first wife and I were never great at being more than friends. Nearly two years after tying the knot, after much struggle and fighting, we separated, and later divorced. All while she was pregnant with our second child. It wasn’t a pretty situation, and we both agree now that we were a little uglier to each other than perhaps was necessary. But even still, I had failed yet again. That spectre kept getting fed with each failure, no matter how big or small.

The call center I worked for has a reputation in our city of taking a number of people in, chewing them up, and spitting them out. But I persevered. I took everything thrown at me, shouldered it, swallowed any shred of pride that had survived thus far and pushed on. It was here at this call center that I would meet the woman who would become my second wife, and the longest relationship I’ve had to date.

We were together a total of 8 years, between dating and marriage. For seven of those years I continued to work at the call center. I was working 40 hours a week, striving to put in my absolute best work. I was recognized by my peers as being competent and capable in my position, but struggled to move up in the company. For 9 years I struggled and clawed to gain some form of recognition, only to eventually be pushed back down, told that no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many goals they would set for me that I would over-achieve, nothing was good enough to advance in my position.

During that time, shortly before our wedding, my then fiancee began to show some signs of changing in how she dealt with things, especially me. She would become more cynical and critical. Suddenly, we would stop spending time with some people outside of work for some reason or another. We would get more and more sequestered. Over the remaining 5 years in our relationship, it would only get worse, as I would hear more and more about how nothing was done around the house, or how I wasn’t doing enough (despite being the only breadwinner in the last couple of years of the relationship), and being spoken to like I was less than she. The affection waned (quickly) to the point where the only affection shown was instigated by me. I was treated like a burden, a servant. My friends weren’t good enough for us to spend time around, and me wanting to have time with my friends was always a scheduling problem. More and more as I looked back, it has become clear that I was being emotionally and mentally abused. Reduced to nothing more than someone to make sure her life was as comfortable as it could be, and my needs and wants were not even secondary, but almost a complete afterthought. It got so bad between work and my wife that I considered taking my own life. Repeatedly. On a weekly basis. My children were what stopped me. I couldn’t leave them without their dad.

The final straw was after I had left the call center, and decided to change careers by going back to school. I still remember what was said;

“Are you sure you want to apply for OSAP? Because that’s an awful big debt to pay back when you don’t finish.”

… when I don’t finish.

I stayed in that relationship for three years longer than I should have, because she contracted an autoimmune disease called “mixed connective tissue disease” and I didn’t want to be “that guy who left his sick wife.” But after that, and then a few more statements made that simply cemented my resolve to go, I knew that the time had come. I moved out the September 1st before my first day back to college.

I am a survivor. I made the choice, and got out. If you’re reading this right now, and are going through something similar, know that you can get out too. You’d be surprised how many people around you will support your decision, and help catch you if you fall.

Fast forward to today, three years later. I did finish school, and sit here with an advanced diploma in Advertising and Marketing Communications Management. In fact, this very blog is a product of my first year of school. I won’t lie and say it was easy. I struggled from day one, and never looked back.

However …

To this day, the spectre of all of those years haunts me. I wake up nearly every morning with this overwhelming doubt that I’m going to get any further away from feeling worthless, useless, and pointless. I am 39 years old, and for 31 of those years I have had people surrounding me telling me what a piece of garbage I am. More voices telling me how pathetic I am than the ones telling me how amazing I am. It’s a struggle to hold my head high and tell myself that I’m worth every dream I’m currently chasing. Some days I don’t do so well. But I keep on.

You can too. If any of this sounds familiar to you, if you can relate, and you haven’t sought help yet then I encourage you to please, please do so. There is help and resources out there for you. There are people in your life who will support you, and catch you if you falter.

Here’s my friend Andrew’s video. Please share this if you can. I’ll say again, this is uncensored.

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