"I pushed through the pain and hid everything under a cloak of smiles and laughs"
I have a few strong passions in life. My family and my work. However, nothing quite touches me like the stigma and challenges around mental health. I guess because nothing has impacted my life more than my battle with mental health. Mental health illnesses are so pervasive and clearly a challenge that requires treatment and empathy. Unfortunately for those suffering, both are often hard to come by. We have made great strides with mental health awareness and equity, however, we still have a long way to go. So, here's my story. There's nothing in my life that cuts this deep, but I am proud to share.
PJ talks about his UNCrushed Experience
I grew up with a great deal of care and comfort. I had a loving family in a suburban town where I was afforded everything I needed, and then some. I am the youngest boy of three born to hard working parents and have sisters who were smart and athletic. I followed suit, competing athletically and in the classroom. My parents always preached to try my best and that was enough, which played pretty well in my brain until about high school. It was then that social anxiety crept up, as it does for many young kids at that age. I really didn't think too much about my anxiety, until I tried out for the baseball team my sophomore year. I had always worried when playing sports. I desperately wanted to impress friends, parents, and just about anyone who set their eyes on me, but try outs that year took things up a notch. It may sound a bit silly, but every time I went to throw the ball I got painfully anxious and the feeling felt awful. The embarrassment from every throw sailing over heads or into the ground felt a ton worse. I came home in tears from my tryout, so very confused and scared. I didn't make the team that year. It was a social cut that stung, but I was just getting a small taste of things to come.
In high school, academics and athletics are what I remember as contributors to my anxiety. Social anxiety came and went, but exams, sports, and being good enough were always number one. I experienced my first panic attack during my Junior year. That evening, I stayed up most of the night wondering what was wrong with me. Was I going crazy? The speed at which my mind moved, anxiety spiked, and thoughts cycled was something I truly could not comprehend.
If expectations felt large in high school, you can only imagine how college felt. I attended a good academic school at The University of Richmond. My sophomore year of college I finally broke my silence and broke down in tears to my parents about the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing. This was the first they had heard about my anxiety reaching this level. They were heartbroken yet supportive. They helped me see my first psychologist, begin cognitive behavioral therapy, and talk to another doctor who prescribed me my first antidepressant.
Things got a bit better in the short term and Junior year I tried out for the Division 1 soccer team at Richmond and walked on. A very cool experience. But during my Senior year, things started to spiral down again. One thing that really sticks out is how I coped with a specific social event. I was in a fraternity and each year the departing seniors would give a talk in front of the other guys. They would tell some stories and get some laughs. It really wasn't designed to be pressure packed. Be that as it may, I was extremely anxious about the upcoming social experience. So much so, that I lied about having an interview out of town. I actually booked a hotel room an hour outside of town and stayed there for the night. This was just to keep up my story about the interview and to avoid having to speak in front of my peers.
When I finished college, I decided to return and get a job close to my hometown. This was not a bad idea considering my bouts with anxiety. However, I came home with no plan on how to manage it or seek treatment. I was very ignorant and unaware of how bad it was. I pushed through the pain and hid everything under a cloak of smiles and laughs. My grades were good, I played Division 1 soccer, and I was personable and outgoing. From an outsider's perspective, what could be wrong? And that's a theme that runs throughout my story. I always pushed hard enough, was smart enough, and was good enough at hiding it… that I got by. I was not a glaring red flag of desperation and despair. I walked and talked like I was living swimmingly, just another 22-year-old moving into the real world. And it played out like that… until it didn’t. Until I could not hide or grit and bear it anymore.
I spent a couple years at a job outside of Philadelphia and eventually felt I needed to "do more" with my life. Be better. In 2008, I took a job in Manhattan with a financial services firm. What happened next was one of my lowest points in my life. Three weeks into my training, I had the worst nervous breakdown of my life. I had to leave training, my parents came and picked me up and I returned home humiliated, scared, and empty. To top things off, I was still paying rent on an apartment in New York City. At home, I took a job at a local Bennigan’s and that St. Patty’s Day I was dressed up as a Leprechaun bussing tables. A couple of years earlier, I was studying finance and playing Division I soccer- what had my life come to? I was Humiliated. Scared. Empty.
Fast forward three years. Three years away from my professional career. Three years moving from one antidepressant to the next. Three years trying multiple psychologists and different types of treatment. I finally made progress that brought me to a more stable place. The goal was to get to a point where I had an appropriate management plan, a better understanding of my mind, and tools to call on. In 2011, I ventured back into my professional career. My focus was getting an interesting job with a good company. I was quite broad with the parameters around the actual role. The position I landed was a fraud analyst with eBay Enterprise. It was entry level, but I stayed humble and simply focused on working hard and learning a lot. As expected, my anxiety and OCD was still something that needed to be managed, but I was in a much better place and I really found my professional groove so to speak. My growth and professional development over the next seven years is something that brings me great pride. During that time, I also got married and became a father to two wonderful boys. I realize that's a short summary for seven years, but I am keen on talking about where I am today.
Currently I live in Atlanta, work at a job I really enjoy, and co-founded a website a year and a half ago. I have met, learned from, and been influenced by a ton of bright professionals in the fraud prevention industry. I supercharged my career development with hard work and perseverance in somewhat of a niche industry. I have a loving family in which I adore. All of this was born from and created by a person with a mental illness. A person who experienced a lot of pain, suffering, and setbacks. A person who literally had to peel himself off the cold ground, drenched in tears… and keep fighting.
As far as treatment, there are a variety of treatments for anxiety and/or OCD. Each person is unique and there is still so much for doctors to learn about these debilitating disorders. What resonated most with me was something called mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is much more of a passive, accepting approach then anything I had ever tried before. It has less of the "problem solving" focus of traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. Instead, it requires you to sit and really let things be. Meditation teaches you to let thoughts and emotions come and go and to view them from a non-judgmental vantage point. With a human brain, we so desperately want to move away from pain and towards pleasure. Part is our biological nature and part is how we condition ourselves throughout our lives. Sitting and just letting unpleasant thoughts and emotions permeate our minds and body without pushing back is super challenging. It’s the exact opposite of what your brain and body are telling you they want. Mindfulness was the first thing to create a little space between me and my thoughts/emotions. A true acceptance of the present moment and an ability to settle into my mind. Now the word "settle" can be misleading because I still experience anxiety and OCD. It's a challenge I expect to have the rest of my life, but mindfulness helps me understand the transient nature of thoughts and emotions, creating a layer of detachment that is quite helpful.
I don't claim to understand what all people experiencing mental illnesses are going through. Nor am I saying mindfulness is for everyone. I am simply here to share my story and in doing so, hopefully connect with some folks and make them feel less alone.
Know there is someone else out there who went through a ton of shit and has kept fighting. Know there is someone who could look great on the outside, while feeling like utter shit on the inside. Human beings are taking their own lives in record numbers because they would rather feel the peace of death than the torment of life. Our society can do so much more to help these people. To break the stigma. To provide empathy and understanding. To quite simply help humans - live.