TRUTH TELLER: Marcus
Caught in the Riptide
Cold tile pressed up against my cheek as I laid there on the floor, puzzled, fixating on the tears streaming down my face. What is happening? I’m not sad, or am I? Curled up, crying on the bathroom floor - that was the moment I realized: I am no longer in control. How did I get here? I’ve sustained nine medically diagnosed concussions over the course of my life, but in reality I’ve probably had closer to eleven or twelve. While I cannot conclusively say this was the cause of my mental health issues, my doctor and I are fairly certain it’s definitely the root of my problems. It was while in my first year of college that I established that connection.
February 2013, I’m trying to load something onto a USB for school and it wouldn’t work. The next thing I know I’m throwing chairs and punching anything within reach: my desk, my pillows, dismantling anything in front of me. It’s a feeling that can only be described like as a riptide that catches you and before you know it you’re drowning at sea. A few weeks later I went out with my friends, drinks flowed, and I made out with a cute girl several years older than me at the bar (when you’re 19 you think this is a big deal). The next afternoon I did colour commentary for an American Hockey League game, which is an incredible accomplishment for someone my age. All in all, one of the best weekends of my young life. However, when I got home from the gym that Sunday night my mood dropped. I found myself with my face against the tile, crying on that bathroom floor. Why? I couldn’t understand why I was upset - I was happy, yet my body was telling me the complete opposite. Something was wrong and I knew it. These mood swings had started a while ago and would happen every once in awhile. Now they were becoming a reoccurring issue. Waking up and not wanting to go to move or even eat. I can recall being at the gym mid workout and losing every ounce of motivation to do any further exercise, dropping my weights and walking out. It was disrupting my life and crying on the bathroom floor was the tip of the iceberg.
I was struggling and despite it all, I didn’t want to share that with anyone for the fear of being seen as weak. Men are told to hide their vulnerabilities and any display of vulnerability is considered a weakness. It is not readily accepted and often is judged. Although I bought into the stigma, I knew that if I didn’t do something about my mood swings I would end up hurting myself or worse, someone else. I went to the walk-in clinic and as fate would have it, my doctor who was from the same area as me, actually took the time to have a discussion about my life and went more in depth than the simple "depressive symptom checklist”. At the end of my appointment I had my diagnosis: depression, anxiety, and emotional dysregulation.
The hardest part for a lot of people is reaching out when they are struggling. It’sintimidating and uncomfortable. For men in particular, we live in a culture where they often feel pressure to conform to an unrealistic ‘tough guy’ image. Our perceived masculinity seems to decline with any expression of our vulnerability. We would rather push through our pain to avoid appearing weak. We are told that real mean are not supposed to be weak, break down, or certainly not cry. We idolize Superman for his unbreakable and invincible persona. Except, just like a superhero with his kryptonite, real men are only human.
I’d love to sit here and tell you once I shared my struggles with the world that everything got better and I regained control of my life. That was not the case. What ensued was some of the most miserable months of my life. When you hear people speaking about living with mental illness they will tell you about a ‘mask’. I mastered wearing mine very quickly -- appearing outgoing and energetic while I slowly slipped into a numb state of not feeling anything.
I've written several suicide notes. I've asked myself, "Am I going to use that bottle of booze to have a few pre-drinks with friends, or am I going to down the whole thing with a bottle of pills and end this intolerable numbness?” I've sat in my fourth floor condo looking out over Allan Gardens with a kitchen knife sitting held to my wrist. But, I could never do it. Thinking about suicide and depression, its not that you want to die, its just you don't want to continue existing in a painful misery.
I went from being sad and unmotivated, to just not feeling anything at all. I became a robot monotonous in my movements, completing the bare minimum of what was expected of me and then simply, checking out. After months of ups and downs I decided to give medication a chance.
I was prescribed Sertraline, also known as Zoloft, which is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). In layman terms, SSRI is supposed to help correct the chemical imbalance in your brain that are associated to mental illness. I was one of the few percentage of people who’s first attempt of a medication worked — eventually. It took months of upping my dosage and experiencing continual suicidal ideations and feeling like I consistently had the flu before I got there. With medication you aren’t expected to notice any positive effects or improvement until after the first 3 to 6 weeks. Those first few weeks can be absolute hell. I lost my appetite and along with it 15 pounds. Once my body had adjusted to the meds, I didn’t notice an immediate difference in my mood which can be discouraging for anyone seeking help through prescription. It felt like I had endured so much for nothing. It’s an absolute crapshoot. It’s really hard to know what’s going to work for you and what won’t.
But eventually, I went from being numb to feeling sadness, which in a fucked up way was actually nice. I could feel emotions again. It wasn’t a great improvement, but one nonetheless. We continued increasing my dosage and eventually I found a happy medium. I later experienced happiness and started to feel more like myself.
Movement is Medicine
Hands down the most beneficial tool for my health has been mindful movement. It started when the doctor that initially diagnosed me recommended I try yoga. I had a practiced it a bit before but being a student, cost was an issue. Then I discovered the Blu Matter Project. They provide recipients who are dealing with a diagnosed mental illness the opportunity to practice free of charge at a partnering yoga studio. It was here that I rediscovered myself on the mat. Something as simple as moving my body anchored my mind when things got rough.
While medication certainly helped, nothing has improved my quality of life more than regular movement. Whether it’s going to a yoga class, completing one flow and laying in savasana for the rest of the practice, or running 10km: you don’t need to be a better version of yourself. Just show up, be you - that’s enough. Respect your body and it will reward your mind.
It’s Okay to Not be Okay
Sometimes, we simply cannot change the curveballs that life throws at us. Sometimes, we just need to stuff our face with ice cream, cry to Taylor Swift songs and embrace the feels. It’s not possible to be perfectly happy all the time, and you know what? You aren’t the only one feeling that way. You are not alone.
I hope by reading my story you can find comfort in knowing that if you’re going through the same struggles I have, you’re not alone. A lot of the time we tell ourselves, “If I say
this out loud people are going to think I’m crazy and nobody is going to want to talk to me," and let me tell you, that is far from the truth. People appreciate transparency. No one is perfect, we all struggle with one thing or another. Being able to show your perceived “weaknesses” to someone allows you to become closer.
If you have a friend who confides in you, you may not know what to say and perhaps you’ll feel overwhelmed with something so heavy. But, just know you don’t have to figure out the cure to your friend’s mental illness. Just be there for them. Listen. Show you care. That’s it. You don’t have to have the answers. Depression tells us that nobody cares about us, that we don’t matter. The moment you show you do, you’ve already helped.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or are in a crisis, please go to your nearest emergency care centre, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For those looking for more information on communicating with loved ones who may be dealing with mental illness check out Right By You for more tools to talk. If reading is more of your thing, I would highly recommend checking out The Mindful Way Through Depression.
Marcus van Herk is a community coordinator and key leader with Lululemon. When he’s not trying to pet every dog in Toronto, you can find him writing at different coffee shops in search of the perfect latte. An avid runner, Marcus leads Run Club at his storeevery Thursday night. Stop by and visit him any time, just don’t forget to bring your dog.