Guest Post: Be Accountable

Be Accountable

It’s often too easy to place the blame on others without truly recognizing that we each play a role in the outcome of every situation. Taking responsibility for our words and actions frees us from being a hostage to our mistakes. It allows us the opportunity to accept the consequences, demonstrate our integrity, and move forward focused on what we hope to achieve rather than being distracted by the worry and fear of what might catch up to us. When we are accountable we are refusing to be burdened by conspiracies, and we’re empowered to speak from our hearts and to take action in a way that reflects the good we wish to accomplish.


Growing up one of six kids, it was easy to get away with mischief. My mom often blamed anything that went wrong in our house on the ghost who had clearly taken up a long standing residence. I’d like to think that of all my siblings, I was the good one, but even with that being said, I’ll admit that I might have conspired with the household ghost from time to time.

I now have two girls of my own and it’s important to me that they understand the power of being accountable. Over the years I’ve learned that my fear of being accountable doesn’t compare to the pride I feel when I take responsibility for my words and actions. I’ve also learned that the more I’m accountable the more positive outcomes I experience in the long run.

To give an example … A few years ago, I nearly ripped the rear passenger door off of my car because I was in a hurry, worried I was going to be late for an appointment, and feeling too impatient to simply wait for my daughter. In my haste, I misjudged how much space I had to back out of the garage knowing that my daughter had left her car door partially open while she ran back inside to get something she’d forgotten.

After my mistake had been made and the damage had been done, I suddenly became very aware that I had two options in how I could handle this. I could completely lose control and blame my daughter for all the stress and angst I felt that morning. I could go further and blame her for leaving her homework causing us to be later than we already were. I could go even further and blame her for leaving the car door open causing me to hit the garage wall as I backed out.

Or I could be accountable for my actions. I’m grateful that in that moment I recognized that both of my girls were rattled by what had happened and scared of what was going to happen next. I looked at both of them, took a deep breath, and apologized for rushing them. I admitted that I had not planned well for our departure time that morning and as a result we were all scrambling to get out the door. I apologized for not being more patient and for trying to speed things up, and in doing so, I did something stupid which resulted in the car getting damaged.

I then made two phone calls. The first one was to Ricky, my car service guy. Fortunately, he and I had a great rapport which gave me comfort as I explained what had happened. He assured me that we’d get everything fixed and he encouraged me to focus on the fact that no one was hurt and that the garage itself wasn’t damaged. I then called Chris, my husband, and told him how sorry I was and that it was completely my fault. I could hear the frustration in his voice, but his words were kind and supportive as he agreed to meet me at Ricky’s shop.

After getting my girls to school, I met Chris and Ricky. The two of them inspected the damage and poked fun at my mishap. Ricky then directed us down the road where he had a friend who specialized in auto body repairs and who just happened to owe Ricky a favor. My stomach had been in knots all morning as I anticipated the cost of the repairs. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when we finally got the estimate and learned that we were only going to be charged $100 to realign the door.

While the cost of the repair was much lower than what I had feared, that wasn’t the most powerful aspect of the positive outcomes I experienced from this situation. Taking accountability in that moment strengthened my relationship with each of my daughters. Can you imagine how they would have felt if I had blamed them for what had happened, and what the long-term impact would have been on our relationship?

This situation also acted as a powerful life lesson, not just for my girls, but also for me.

In the days that followed, I felt proud of myself for taking accountability and for teaching my daughters the importance of owning our mistakes, and with that pride came the recognition that while it was obvious that I should have been accountable in that moment, not every situation is so black and white. This incident occurred during a time in my life when everyday felt like a battle. Most of my relationships were strained, nothing was going right and I’d forgotten how to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. I believe this was the wake up call I needed to realize how my own words and actions were playing a role in my state of despair. I began to understand the importance of owning how I was going to show up, how I was going to respond to the world around me, and how I was going to engage with others.

If you can relate to feeling like it’s you against the world, I’d encourage you to take a moment to reflect and ask yourself what role are you playing in all of this and then have the courage to Be Accountable.


Jenny Landon

Blessed│Wife│Mom│Friend│Founder of GOOD│Author│Public Speaker│Golf Fanatic

It took me years to find my voice and even longer to learn how to use it so that I’m creating GOOD rather than just fighting the bad. Now I use my voice to heal myself and hopefully others along the way.

Sending love to all those who struggle with mental health and/or have lost a loved one to suicide.

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His Suicide Saved Her Life – How Jenny Landon Found GOOD in even the Darkest Moments

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Nearly fifteen years after losing her dad to suicide, Jenny Landon was asked by a friend to write a letter of hope letting others know that healing is possible. Three years later, what started as a letter became a published book called Growing Through Grief. Jenny’s life experiences and her passion for helping others have compelled her to be voice of compassion and authority on suicide awareness, healing, and wellness.

After graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree inPsychology, Jenny worked as a crisis counselor and public educator on suicide prevention. Over the last twenty years, Jenny has endured losing her dad to suicide, supporting loved ones with mental health struggles, as well as overcoming her own depression and state of being suicidal. Through this she has learned effective tools for healing that are rarely discussed with mental health.

Jenny now travels to speak to audiences large and small about the importance of intentional living, authentic healing, and meaningful connections, and how understanding these three concepts lay the foundation for living a life of hope, wellness, and gratitude. Jenny speaks from the heart as she shares her personal journey and offers hope to her audience while empowering them to ask questions, explore options, and take action.

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Guest Post: The Mathematics of Hope

(Note: If this article looks familiar to some of you, it was published earlier and taken down at the request of the author. He has again allowed me to post it. Also, please note that Paul was a guest on The Depression Files podcast. Hear him share his story and much more here).

BY PAUL CURRINGTON

A lot of people say they’d die for their child. I’ve never heard anyone say they’ll show them what it takes to live. The truth is, when life is overwhelming, we justify all kinds of unhealthy behavior. We eat a doughnut when we’re sad. Smoke a cigarette when we’re stressed. Have a few glasses of wine after a hard day at work. Because we all get overwhelmed, we forgive ourselves and we forgive others.

Except when it comes to suicide. Especially if you’re a parent. Years ago, after a lifetime of depression, I tried to end my life. In the months and years afterward, I discovered that as a parent, when you cross the line from thinking about suicide to surviving suicide, you end up having to answer one question for the rest of your life. “You have a child. How could you have been so selfish?” Everyone seems to assume that we didn’t think of that when we made our attempt, but from my own experience, and my conversations with other survivors, I know many of us did think of that and came to the conclusion that our children were better off without us.

That’s the insidious nature of depression. When you’re deep in it, all the lies you tell yourself make perfect sense. I call it The Calculus of Despair. No rational argument or past experience can make you believe otherwise. No matter what you’ve accomplished, you still feel like a failure. You could have a hundred voice mails in your phone and still feel unwanted. You could be holding a handmade birthday card from your son and still feel like he’d be better off without you.

Depression doesn’t give you choices. It gives you ultimatums. It convinces you that nothing will ever change and the only way out of this pain is to get out of this life. If your depression leads you to end your life, it doesn’t mean you haven’t thought about the consequences. It means you put everything in your life into the spreadsheet, did the calculations, and discovered that ending your life was the best thing for everyone. You didn’t decide it, you discovered it using the upside-down mathematics of depression.

If you’re lucky, you survive. Someone stops you. You stop yourself. Maybe you just miscalculate and wake up on the floor of your bedroom in a fog, not sure if you’re if you’re angry or grateful. What happens next shapes the rest of your life. When I woke up the day after my attempt, I realized I had a choice to make. I could keep living the life that had brought me to my knees or I could do everything in my power to change how I lived. If I ended up a year later in the same place in the same state of mind, at least I would know that I went down swinging.

I decided to go down swinging.

For the next year I committed to doing everything my therapist and doctor told me to do. If they said take a pill, I took a pill. If they said eat healthy and exercise, I made a salad and went to the gym. I did everything I was supposed to do so that in the end, if nothing worked, at least I could say I did my best.

But it did work. After a while, I could see my life changing. More importantly, I could see my outlook changing. I slowly started to see where I had gone wrong in the past and how my new habits were helping me stay on course. I stopped isolating myself. I started asking for help when I felt myself slipping. I swallowed my pride and joined support groups. All of these things together helped me achieve the emotional stability I never thought was possible.

The most helpful thing of all however was my decision to reveal to others that I struggled with depression. I was tired of keeping it a secret, and the longer I held it, in the heavier it became. Shame gathers momentum in silence and I didn’t want to give those feelings a chance to grow. I figured if I told my story as a survivor rather than a victim, people would see me as strong instead of flawed, tough instead of fragile.

A year-and-a-half after my attempt, I started telling people outside my close circle of friends what I had been through and what I continue to deal with. I didn’t do it all at once and I didn’t do it online. I just slowly revealed, one-on one and in person, that I live with depression and that some of the things I do, eating healthy, not drinking, doing more walking than driving, are things that help me stay happy and centered.

But before I shared my story with too many people, I knew I needed to speak to my son. It was time to tell him that his father had crashed and risen, and that for the rest of my life I would have to rise again at the beginning of each day and do the things that keep me alive. He was 22 and not living with me when I made my attempt. It had been easy to keep my recovery a secret from him because he was off living his own life and I didn’t see him every day. But I knew that if I wanted my story to help others he needed to hear it from me first.

So I sat him down in the place where we always have the hard talks, the car. There’s something about being side by side that allows us to say things that we couldn’t if we were staring at each other. I drove all over town and the surrounding woods before I found a way to bring up the subject. To my relief, my son was grateful and supportive. He shared with me that he had his own struggle with depression and had once considered suicide. That talk turned into other talks. Those talks led him to finding a good therapist and working on making healthy changes in his own life.

It’s been three years since that talk in the car and I’ve never regretted it. My kid still sees his therapist and isn’t embarrassed about needing one. By admitting I have depression, I showed him that his dad is just as flawed as anyone else. There’s no mythical bar that my son has to live up to now. When he feels sad and lost he doesn’t have to add shame to the emotional equation. He knows his father has also felt sad and lost.

When I shared the real reason I go to the gym, get enough sleep, and spend time helping others, I wasn’t just sharing my story, I was showing him how to get through his own rough times and the ways I’ve found to get around the awful, twisted logic of mental illness. Depression tells me 1+1=0. What I tell my son is this: 1+1=whatever you believe it to be. It is the simple addition of days filled with small purposeful steps forward that we see our way through.

The greatest gift I ever gave my son was to stop pretending I had it all together. It gave me a credibility with him I never had before. When I share with him the things I do to stay alive he knows they work because I’m still here. If you want to teach your kid the mathematics of hope you have to show your work.

A storyteller and TEDx speaker coach, Paul Currington decided to start sharing his own story of his “lifelong friendship with depression” after an attempted suicide. He sought help and also began treating his depression like an addiction. Today, he says his life “has never been better.” Even though he still has an occasional bad day, he doesn’t let himself fall into a pain spiral. He says instead of wishing he was happy he now does things that make him happy.

Note: This story was originally posted on The Stability Network.

Note: Paul was also interviewed on The Depression Files podcast. Click here to listen to this very intriguing interview.

Helping a Friend Through Depression: A Memorable Day During a Bout of Major Depression

As an advocate around mental health and, particularly, depression, I often get asked the question of how one can support a friend or family member who is struggling with depression. Actually, I had no idea how to answer that question when I was in the midst of my own major depression.

I had invited two of my best friends to my house the night before I checked myself into a partial hospitalization program in order to let them know what was going on with me…and to request their support. Of course they asked, “What can we do to support you?” While I really didn’t know a good answer, I asked them to check in with me via texts once in awhile. I also asked them to invite me out for a coffee, alone, without a group of friends, now and then. My last suggestion was to ask one of them to reach out to an acquaintance of his who worked with men and depression and to ask him how they could support me.

My wife wanted to help me. She, too, asked, “How can I help you?” I really didn’t know what she could do for me. I asked her to join me at a therapy session or two, which she did. This was comforting to me, although I’m not so sure how much it supported her in helping me.

One of my most memorable times in which a friend helped me out happened to be on a bitter cold Minnesota day. My friend, Dan (one of the two I had mentioned earlier in this post), called me up and said, “Get dressed, I’m coming over and we’re going out with our cameras”. He arrived to my house and, as is common for many when clinically depressed, I made as many excuses as I could to stay inside the house and on the couch. He persisted. He even brought some extra, warm clothes for me in order to eliminate the lack of warm clothes as a possible excuse. Dan happens to be a professional photographer and, as a very close friend, he knew of my passion for photography, as well. We’d been out to shoot on several occasions prior to this.

We geared up, long-johns, Sorrel boots, hats, gloves, wool socks, the works! The weather was frigid. I trudged my way from my house door to his car, feeling that my body movements were slow and heavy due to the depression. As close friends often are, I was comfortable with Dan and knew that I could be silent, sad, or simply emotionally numb and he wouldn’t judge me for it. He drove the mile or so to the Mississippi River. We got out, each with a camera in hand, and made our way to the slow moving, nearly completely frozen river. The air was incredibly crisp and sun was shining brightly. It was actually a beautiful day and the frigid temperature actually, in some odd way, was refreshing and even invigorating.

I still remember that day like it was yesterday. We walked up and down the banks of the river exploring through the lenses of our cameras. The reflection of the sun off of the ice and water was just beautiful. It allowed me to get outside of my head (and out of my house), even if just for a short couple of hours. I got exercise, I had social contact with a trusted friend, I had fresh air, and I was able to enjoy one of my hobbies for which I had lost interest in during my depression.

Was I cured from my depression? Absolutely not. Did it give me a glimmer of hope that is so crucial to recovering from a major depressive episode? Absolutely! Lessons learned: Ask for help, accept help, use every ounce of effort possible (dig deep) to find any bit of energy to do something!

As with all of my posts, I encourage and welcome comments!

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My friend, Dan, at the Mississippi River on the frigid day described above.

Guest Post: 7 Mental Health Podcasts You Should Check Out!

I was really excited to see that a guest from my podcast, Charles Minguez, included my podcast, The Depression Files, in his post regarding seven mental health podcasts to check out! With his permission, I’ve included the post here in my blog. You can find Charles’ bio and a link to this original post at the bottom of the page. Thank you, Charles!

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 8.11.48 PMIn an age where information is available to us with a simple touch or click of a button, we can easily connect and learn from others through the wonderful world of podcasts. Have you subscribed to these mental health podcasts?

In the past, I’ve written about how our phones can control our lives. I’ve even confessed to you my addiction to social media. However, the supercomputers we carry around with us don’t have to be disruptive to our health. They can contribute to cultivating robust mental health.

Check out these seven mental health podcasts

Anxiety Slayer | 4.5 Stars
Created in 2009 by Shann Vander Leek and Ananga Sivyer, Anxiety Slayer is more than just a podcast. The dynamic duo of Shann and Ananga offer content to combat anxiety in the form of the podcast, best-selling books, and even music.

Listen or Subscribe Here

Happier with Gretchen Rubin | 5 Stars
I first heard of Gretchen Rubin from another podcast, Live Inspired, but you may recognize her name from an interview with Oprah. Gretchen is also the best-selling author of three books including, The Happiness Project.

In the Happier podcast, Gretchen along with her co-host and sister Elizabeth Craft discuss happiness and good habits.

Listen or Subscribe Here

Happy Place | 5 Stars
Happy Place is a continuation of Fearne Cotton’s book, Happy. Fearne pulls from her own experiences of both happy and not-so-happy times. She also interviews inspiring guests and shares advice from experts giving listeners both hope and steps to work through the blues.

Listen or Subscribe Here

Mentally Yours | 4 Stars
According to co-hosts Ellen C. Scott and Yvette Caster, Mentally Yours, “is a weekly mental health podcast where we chat with guests about their brains and stuff.” This podcast is a fun and refreshing look at the world of mental health issues.

Listen or Subscribe Here

Terrible, Thanks for Asking | 5 Stars
Wow has Nora McInerny been through a lot! A few years ago, and in a matter of months, she lost a child, her father, and husband. Nora has written two books about her experiences, “No Happy Endings” and “It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too)”.

The podcast isn’t all about McInerny, however. In the series, she asks others to open up about all the uncomfortable stuff, to get honest about what they’ve been through and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Listen or Subscribe Here

The Depression Files | 5 Stars
Al Levin has been working in public education for over twenty years. He also has recovered from a major depressive disorder. Using his education experience as well as his experience with mental illness, Al created the Depression Files to educate, inspire hope, and to help minimize the stigma around mental illness.

Even though the Depression Files focuses on interviewing men who have dealt with mental health issues, there is valuable information in each interview for all people.

Listen or Subscribe Here

The Shek Check | Brand New!
I first learned of Erez Shek after seeing a video he posted about bipolar disorder on Twitter. It was immediately apparent that Erez was on a mission to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

The Shek Check, which begun as a YouTube series is now a Podcast where Erez continues the mental health conversation with a combination of inspiring monologue and guest interviews.

Listen or Subscribe Here

About Charles Minguez: Charles is practicing Buddhist and meditation teacher sharing his experiences fighting depression to give you hope that you can fight it too! Learn more at or follow on Twitter at @charlesminguezYou can also hear my interview with Charles on “The Depression Files” by clicking here.

Suicide is NOT Selfish

Let me be crystal clear: Suicide is NOT a selfish act. It is not an attention-seeking act. Anybody who says differently is perpetuating a very dangerous misunderstanding.

I have heard many stories in which someone stated that they would never take their own life because of their family, yet they end up dying by suicide. After having been in an incredibly deep, dark place of major depression, a place in which I did not feel myself and was not thinking logically because of the illness, I have a much greater understanding of how one may tragically come to end their life.

Conversely, I can understand how one who loved someone who died by suicide may feel as though the act was selfish. I would imagine there may be deep feelings of anger by a loved survivor of one who died by suicide. This is typical of the normal grieving process and I would imagine one’s anger is exacerbated when grieving the loss of loved one who died by suicide. I also believe it would be normal to wonder, “Didn’t the person consider me or our family when they decided to take their own life”, thus eliciting the feeling that the person who died by suicide must have been selfish for not even thinking of how the act would impact me/our family.

As a person who had four young children (between the ages of two and seven) when I had planned my suicide, I can attest to the fact that I had not developed a plan out of selfishness. I truly believed that I had become such a burden to my family that they would be better off without me. I no longer believed that I was a competent employee, father, or husband. I was going through an incredible amount of indescribable pain. The depression had become excruciatingly debilitating. Other than uncontrollable crying bouts at night, I was emotionless throughout the days. I was numb to all feelings. I could no longer read expressively to my kids or find joy in playing with them. I could no longer take care of the easiest of chores at the house. Every small task at work felt like a new summit had been placed on top of the peak of a mountain of responsibilities. I felt deeply helpless and hopeless. I did not intentionally develop a plan for suicide. The thought came into my head, I would push it away, and it would be back in my head less than an hour later. I couldn’t stop the thought from coming to my mind. One evening, I dreamed of going through with the plan. This dream scared the hell out me and was the impetus for me to urge my wife and sister to join me for an urgent appointment with my psychiatric physician’s assistant (PA) to advocate for more support.

I was very thankful they were with me, as it took their insistence to finally convince this PA that I needed something more. I made the difficult, yet lifesaving, decision to leave work for three weeks in order to check myself into a partial hospitalization program.

As I was on the verge of acting out a plan of suicide, it was not based on selfishness whatsoever. It was the pain of the debilitating depression and not knowing if or when I would ever get better.

Friends and loved ones need to somehow provide those who are suffering with a sense of hope. Suicide is not the answer.

As with all of my posts, comments are welcomed and encouraged.

Guest Post: PTSD & Cancer

The following is a Guest Post from a fellow advocate of mine. Bob McEachern is an advocate for Follicular Lymphoma. You can find much more of his writing on his own very popular blog “Lympho Bob”. In this post, he describes how one going through cancer may likely face symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This topic interested me greatly, as I have met advocates of many different chronic illnesses and have often wondered how receiving the diagnosis of a chronic illness and living with a chronic illness may impact one’s mental health. I now have a first-hand description.

 

 

PTSD and Cancer

Recently, a friend posted a link on Twitter. Like me, she’s a cancer survivor – breast cancer for her, Follicular Lymphoma for me.

The link was for a study of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) in cancer patients. The researchers began with a simple assumption – that a cancer diagnosis is a traumatic event (I’d say that’s a good assumption). They interviewed patients when they were diagnosed (their exposure to the trauma), and then again at 6 months and at 4 years after diagnosis. The interviews focused on their possible PTSD-related symptoms – intense fear, horror, or helplessness at diagnosis, and then later re-experiencing the event by avoiding it, or feeling numb or detached, for example.

They found that, 6 months after diagnosis, about 20% of cancer patients experienced some form of PTSD. That’s more than 3 times the rate of PTSD in the general population.

The PTSD rate was in line with the general population at 4 years, but there are plenty of cancer patients who relive their experience, even years later.

My own diagnosis was as traumatic as many others. I was 40 years old, the healthiest I had ever been, and had three young children, aged 10, 8, and 6. After the diagnosis, I spent a week doing blood tests, a PET scan, and a bone marrow biopsy, trying to figure out what I was dealing with.

After all that, I went to see a Lymphoma specialist at a nearby research hospital. For the first time, in the waiting room, I was surrounded by other cancer patients, and my reality started to creep in. I picked up a brochure and saw the 5- and 10-year survival rates for Follicular Lymphoma. It was all overwhelming. I spent the next two weeks breaking into tears every half hour or so, wondering, Will that be me? Will I be a statistic? And wondering what would happen to my kids. It was the darkest time of my life.

Fast forward 9 years. My wife needed some testing done at the same hospital. We went up to the second floor of one of the building, and as she was checking in, I got a strange sense that I’d been there before. The building is kind of pyramid-shaped, with one wall completely made of glass windows. In the middle of the waiting area, there was a large planter full of ferns.

I knew those windows. I knew that planter. This was the waiting room that I had been in before.

As my wife sat in the nearly empty waiting room to be called in, I looked around for a directory, to see if this was actually the Hematology section, and not the specialty she was being tested for. Before she got called in, I told her that I thought this was the same room.

She went in for the tests, so I sat by myself in that waiting room, for the 3 hours or so that the tests took. I had brought a book with me, but I couldn’t focus on it. I got up and walked around, still wondering if this was the same room. Sure enough, I found a bronze plaque that had something to do with an important donor and Hematology. This was the place. I also found a big Andy Warhol-type print of a local personality, his face repeated like Marilyn Monroe’s, hanging on the wall. This personality had blood cancer, too. It’s funny — one memory of that bad day was seeing him in the hallway, when he must have had an appointment. This was most definitely the old Hematology department (which I later realized had moved to a new cancer building).

Lots of feelings came flooding back to me. It’s a strange sensation, reliving something so vividly, nine years later.

I don’t know if what I felt would be classified as Subsyndromal PTSD, as the researchers in the cancer study call it. But it’s easy for me to believe that cancer patients can experience those symptoms, even years after they were diagnosed.

One fascinating finding from the PTSD-Cancer research that really stood out for me: patients with all types of cancer experience PTSD at 6 months at a rate higher than the general population, except one: breast cancer patients.

The researchers think that this is the case because breast cancer patients have so many more support resources available to them than patients of other cancers.

Another conclusion from the researchers that stood out: many cancer patients who do experience PTSD symptoms have the belief that going it alone is a sign of strength, and they should just gut it out when they have emotional problems.

It’s not an easy leap to put those two things together. Breast cancer patients (about 99% of them are women) have more support resources, but are also more likely to use them. In general, men are less likely to seek out help.

My two experiences, nine years apart, were very different. After diagnosis, when things went dark, I kept everything inside for two weeks. I needed to “be strong.” I remember watching TV with my wife and kids, turning off the lights “so I could see better,” but really trying to hide my tears from them. Things only got better when I finally opened up to my wife. She was and still is my rock. She listened, let me cry, and let me know that whatever happened, we would go through it together. Nine years later, after revisiting the same office and feeling the same feelings, I didn’t make that mistake again. We talked through it all right away.

The researchers conclude that more support for cancer patients’ mental health is needed. Even a doctor taking time to debrief a patient’s emotions, right from diagnosis, can help. A doctor’s willingness to bring up the issue can go a long way toward finding a problem.

And patients need to be willing to seek help. Being silent is not a sign of weakness, they say. In fact, it’s a sign of strength – it takes courage to seek help.

That’s a good reminder for all of us.

 

Reflections from the NAMI National Convention (2018)

During the last week of June 2018, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) held their annual national convention. This year it was held in New Orleans, Louisiana. There were nearly 1,700 total attendees with representation from every state, including Puerto Rico. Half of the attendees at the convention were first-timers. The theme of the convention was, “Live, Learn, Share, Hope”. Each of these themes resonated with me in a different way:

Live:

The theme “Live” makes me think about how I need to live my life to its fullest. The phrase, “Live each day like it’s your last” came to mind. I have become more mindful in the past few years. To some, “mindfulness” may just seem like a buzz word. To me, being mindful and living in the moment is critical in order to be fully present. I now naturally catch myself when my mind is wandering and pull myself back into the present.  This is important because much of our mind wandering has been shown to be negative. One study found approximately 80% of mind wandering to fall into that category. A recent example of mine was when I was playing a board game with three of my kids. I caught myself starting to think about work and things I needed to accomplish around the house. I quickly stopped those thoughts and intentionally focused on my kids and the game we were playing. Of course, everybody’s “fullest” will look different, and that’s okay. Regardless, if we want to live our lives more deeply, learning to be present will always be part of that formula.

Learn:

Much of the NAMI national conference is about learning. I learned about some of the policy and advocacy work that NAMI is doing at the national level. As the nations largest grassroots mental health organization, NAMI has done an extraordinary amount of work in shaping the national public policy in an effort to support both those living with a mental illness and their family members. NAMI has also educated hundreds of thousands of people giving them information and the resources they need in order to support themselves or others.

In addition to learning more about NAMI, I learned about the difficulties and opportunities in mental health research faced by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). I was able to learn more about new medications, new therapies, and how to become a better advocate. I learned more about the unique challenges faced by people of color who are living with a mental illness. The learning opportunities at the convention were endless!

Share:

Sharing is about connecting with others. I was able to connect with so many dynamic, caring people at the convention. People were open to sharing their own personal experiences of living with a mental illness. Others shared  about supporting a loved one with a mental illness. People shared how they advocate for more awareness and better policies around mental illness. Many were there to share their valuable resources. This sharing “culture” was one that allowed for people to connect and learn from one another in a very authentic, caring way.

Hope:

Hope permeated the NAMI convention. Hearing many stories of those living with a mental illness who have made incredible strides, such as Jeff Fink, Lauren Burke, and Lloyd Hale from the movie, “Beyond Silence”. Each of them overcame inconceivable  challenges of living with a mental illness. Learning from others about how they live incredibly meaningful lives full of contentment while managing their mental illness created an immense feeling of hope.

In the end, this convention was both inspiring and educational. It allowed people from all walks of life to connect with one another and to learn from one another. NAMI is an organization that provides a wealth of resources and information to so many. I would urge anybody who has any interest in mental illness to attend a NAMI national, or even state, convention.

Guest Post: Depression–A Cancer Survivor’s Story

On my testicular cancer awareness blog, A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, I have written extensively what it’s like to experience depression as a cancer survivor. I eventually recognized the signs, asked for help, and went on antidepressants. While I am happy to say they are definitely working, I only knew to ask for them since this wasn’t my first time battling depression.

I’ve alluded to this in past writings, but I fought with clinical depression during my sophomore and junior years in high school. However, I’ve never written a full account of this trying time, and in the wake of the unfortunate events with Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and countless others throughout the past decade, I’m ready to take that leap in hopes of letting someone else know to ask for help.

For context, I grew up in an upper-middle class family. I am the oldest of three kids and my parents are still together. I was in the gifted program since third grade, participated in a number of sports, and school came rather easy to me. In essence, I was the definition of privilege and from the outside, I had no “reason” to be unhappy.

It started slowly enough. Around the start of sophomore year, I realized I was increasingly feeling sad and hopeless. Nothing seemed to bring me joy and I always managed to find the negative in every situation. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening, but I felt too ashamed to open up, since I had a pretty good life. However, there was a lot of pain inside that I just didn’t know how to manage.

I turned to self-harm to try to let out some of this pain. This is the first time I am publicly admitting this, and before this writing less than five people in the world knew I did this. I didn’t want to cut myself since that would leave marks, which would make it hard to keep under wraps. I had done a stunt previously where I sprayed Axe body spray on my hand and lit it on fire. It didn’t cause pain if you did it as a stunt, but if you let it burn long enough, it hurt like hell. I did this a handful of times. It didn’t seem to help, yet it became a habit.

I suppose I subconsciously wanted to let some of this struggle out. I remember one day I put up an “Away Message” on AOL Instant Messenger that was beyond the scope of the normal, teenage angst. When I returned, one of my friends (who I later found out had depression himself) had said, “Um, Justin, you might be depressed.” Even though I was self-harming from time to time, I didn’t believe that I could be depressed. Again – I had a good life; what right did I have to be depressed?

At some point, this internal pain began to be too much. I began thinking that I just didn’t want to live anymore since it was too hard, even though nothing external was “wrong.” I started experiencing thoughts of suicide.

While I never actually attempted it, I had concrete plans on how I would do it. It’s still hard to walk past the area in my parents’ home where I was planning to do it. My little sister is what ended up saving my life. She looks up to me and I didn’t want to let her down. My love for her was stronger than my hate for myself.

Reaching this point was a pivotal moment. I finally admitted something was wrong and I needed help. Yet, I didn’t know how to ask. I decided to stop wearing a mask of being ok on the outside. I moved a little slower. Sighed a little bit more. Smiled less. One day, I flopped down dramatically on the couch and my mom finally asked if I wanted to talk to a therapist. Even though I was most likely weeks away from taking my own life, I couldn’t directly ask.

I agreed to get help and began seeing a therapist. I continued harming myself throughout the first first few sessions and thoughts of suicide still lingered. Eventually, I admitted both of these to the therapist and we decided to start me on a course of antidepressants.

Initially, my dosage was wrong and I experienced a panic attack not too long after beginning them. I freaked out because my mom told me to go to bed and I wasn’t ready yet. I locked myself in my room and began hyperventilating. My dad literally kicked down my door and carried me outside to get fresh air. I calmed down, the doctors adjusted my meds, and the meds took hold. I continued going to the therapist and this one-two punch of medication and therapy helped raise me out of depression.

I don’t remember exactly when I got off of the medication, but it was an uneventful process. I did not slip back into depression, and had no problems coming off of them.

While this experience was probably the hardest in my life, and that’s saying a lot since I faced testicular cancer at 25, it ended up helping me recognize the symptoms early on during my survivorship phase of cancer.

I know that that having depression at a young age puts me at risk for a recurrence later in life, and this study from 2017 that said about 20% of cancer survivors experience PTSD symptoms within six months of diagnosis. The CDC also reports that cancer survivors take anxiety and depression medication at almost twice the rate of the general population. Basically, it was a perfect storm of risk factors and I’m glad I knew these figures.

This time, I asked for help and antidepressants. I’m happy to say I am still on the meds and not feeling effects of depression. Experiencing the episode in high school helped me advocate for myself earlier before it got worse.

In addition to being a testicular cancer survivor, I am a fourth grade teacher. I noticed one of my students seemed very upset, distant, and prone to tears. I requested a conference with his parents to discuss these episodes and tried to recommend they take him for a further evaluation. They told me that they give him everything they wanted, love him unconditionally, and he has no reason to be sad. In a moment of “I’m not sure I should do this,” I shared that I what I had experienced (leaving out the self-harm and thoughts of suicide parts), since I had “no reason to be sad” too. I saw something change in their eyes and I hope it may have paid off.

You can’t always tell if someone is experiencing depression from the outside. Like I said, I had a prime life and no real reason to be upset. Depression is a chemical imbalance in your brain and it’s always influenced by external factors. Asking if a person is feeling okay won’t always work, either. They might not even be aware of their own feelings or may hide it out of a certain feeling of stigma. My best advice is to be there for that individual and to be non-judgemental. In 2018, we should be treating mental health as a serious issue and stop the stigma surrounding it.

I hope by sharing my story, even one person realizes that it’s okay to ask for help and doesn’t feel they need to suffer in silence. I compare taking care of mental health to needing chemo for cancer or a cast for a broken arm. No one would blink twice about treating either of those conditions, but why does society not have the same attitude towards mental health?

About the Author

Justin High School.jpg

Justin, in his high school days, with his favorite teacher

Justin Birckbichler is a men’s health activist, testicular cancer survivor, and the founder of aBallsySenseofTumor.com. From being diagnosed in November 2016 at the age of 25, to finishing chemo in January 2017, to being cleared in remission in March, he has been passionate about sharing his story to spread awareness about testicular cancer and promote open conversation about men’s health.

In addition to his work through ABSOT, Justin’s writing has appeared in Cure Magazine, I Had Cancer, The Mighty, The Good Men Project, Stupid Cancer, and more. His work with awareness of men’s health has been featured by Healthline, Ball Boys, and various other organizations. In 2017, ABSOT won an award for the Best Advocacy and Awareness Cancer Blog in 2017 and Justin was recognized as one of 15 People Who Raised Cancer Awareness in 2017. He was also one of the selected attendees of HealtheVoices18.

Justin also serves as a member of the Strategic Advisory Board for the Cancer Knowledge Network and as a board member of the Young Adult Cancer Survivor Advisory Board for Lacuna Loft.

Outside of the “cancer world,” Justin is a teacher, amateur chef, technology aficionado and avid reader. He lives in Fredericksburg, VA with his wife, cat, and dog.

Connect with him on Instagram (@aballsysenseoftumor), on Twitter (@absotTC), on Facebook (Facebook.com/aballsysenseoftumor), on YouTube, or via email (justin@aballsysenseoftumor.com).

A Mental Health Survey for Public School Educators

I have felt quite strongly that there is a great need for more mental health support for educators. When I started to research the topic, I was surprised to see that not only was the profession of teacher/educator not on any of the top ten lists for jobs with the highest suicide rate, but they weren’t even in the top twenty (CBS News: These Jobs Have the Highest Rates of Suicide).

I researched further and found several articles that described the mental health needs of educators in England. This only strengthened my belief that England is much further ahead in the world of advocacy around mental health. The recent Project Eighty Four is just one example in which Calm brought the topic of male suicide to the rooftops (quite literally)!

I decided to put together a survey of my own to prove a hypothesis that I had developed: I believe there is a very high number of educators who are struggling with their mental health. I believe that, particularly in the urban settings, many staff members are dealing with students who are going in and out of complex trauma on a daily basis. This includes the type of trauma in these young people’s lives that I cannot even begin to fathom. The fact that many of them have even made it to school is mind-boggling. Even students who are not going in and out of trauma are, often times these days, facing mental health challenges as seen by the data. In 2016, suicide was the second leading cause of death for groups aged 10-14 and 15-24 (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml). Many of our students cannot get the medication they need because of various reasons, including a lack of insurance. Others are on month-long waiting lists to get a proper assessment or to find a bed in a facility because they are suicidal. Yet, with all of these challenges, we expect our students to show up to our schools, sit in their chairs quietly, and perform well on our standardized tests (or we could have detrimental repercussions from the federal government, such as the loss of public funds). There’s a shortage of school social workers and school counselors. Not only does this create an unrealistic student to social worker/school counselor ratio adding to their stress, but it also puts classroom teachers in the situation of having to ‘play’ counselor or social worker. Many times our school nurses are dealing more with psychosomatic symptoms than anything actually physical. Building administrators are faced with deciding on consequences for students who they know are facing incredible life challenges. They are also dealing with parents or guardians who are often times dealing with their own life struggles and mental health difficulties.

So, this brings me back to my survey. I created a survey to send to public school educators (staff of any positions in a public school system in the United States). Just prior to making my very brief, confidential survey of eight questions public, I bumped into another survey that had revolved around the mental health of educators: the 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey. This was a 30-question survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Badass Teachers Association (BATs). Some of the key findings that stood out to me from their survey results were:

  • Teachers reported having poor mental health for 11 or more days per month at twice the rate of the general U.S. workforce. They also reported lower-than-rec-ommended levels of health outcomes and sleep per night.
  • In response to the question “How often is work stressful?” nearly a quarter of respondents said “always”.
  • Educators and school staff find their work “always” or “often” stressful 61 percent of the time, significantly higher than workers in the general population, who report
    that work is “always” or “often”stressful only 30 percent of the time.
  • Educators are much more likely to be bullied, harassed and threatened at work than other workers.
    • 43 percent of respondents in the public survey group reported they had been bullied, harassed or threatened in the last year.
  • Teachers and school staff are significantly more stressed than other U.S. workers:
    • Respondents to the public survey reported an…average of 12 days in the last 30 that their mental health was not good
    • 21 percent of educators in the random sample characterized their mental health as not good for 11 or more days in the last 30, significantly higher than U.S. workers generally, less than 10 percent of whom reported poor mental health for 11 or more days in the past month, according to national data from 2014.
  • Educators’ physical health is more likely to suffer than other U.S. workers

My first thought was that since a survey had been recently completed, perhaps there is no need for my survey. However, after further reflection, I decided that the fact that the AFT and BATs had such a survey was acknowledgement that perhaps my theory had some validity. In addition to that, my survey is quite different. None of the eight questions that I ask were a part of their survey and my questions, I believe, are much more direct in getting to the mental health of educators.

In the end, once the need is made more apparent, my goal is to advocate for a much better system of support for educators. I believe that districts can do much more than simply hand a brochure to a struggling staff member and offer a few sessions of free, confidential counseling. United States public school educators are dealing with an incredible amount of stress in what is arguably one of the most important roles in our country. We can do better…we must do better… to support them!

If you are a public school educator in the United States, please consider taking this very brief (eight question), anonymous, completely confidential survey regarding Mental Health.

As always, comments to this post (and all others) are welcomed and encouraged! Thank you!

Guest Post: Progress with Prozac

The following is a piece written by fellow advocate, Justin Birckbichler. I had the privilege of meeting Justin recently at an incredible conference for online advocates of chronic illnesses, HealtheVoices. The conference was sponsored by Janssen, the pharmaceutical division of Johnson and Johnson, as a way for them to give back to the communities for whom they serve. Justin advocates for testicular cancer. He is an incredible advocate who is knowledgeable, funny, supportive, and caring. He helped me further the work of my own advocacy, as well. Justin also happens to be a teacher!

Read more about Justin at the bottom of this post.

Please note: if you are a man, please consider taking his very short survey for his research on the topic of testicular cancer. A link for the survey is included in his bio.

For now, enjoy this intriguing piece of writing:

Progress with Prozac 

Around the five month mark post chemo, I realized something was not quite right. It wasn’t my new fascination with discussing balls at every opportunity; it was more than that – my mood was not what it should have been. At first, I thought it was just the stress of returning to work and transitioning back to being a normal person instead of a cancer patient.

Upon closer inspection, I realized I was still feeling down, but it was summer, so the job reason didn’t make sense. If you’re not at regular reader of A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, I am a teacher, and teachers don’t work in the summer – that’s the main reason we chose this, duh. (If you’re my principal and you’re reading this, please understand that this is a joke.)

However, a new school year began, and I noticed that I was feeling off and just not as enthusiastic as I once was about teaching. It wasn’t that I hated my job; it was that something internally wasn’t quite right, and it was having an impact on my ability to teach to the best of my abilities. My students were still learning, growing, and seemingly enjoying themselves, so they didn’t appear to notice my internal struggle. Nor did my administrators, who are awesome and amazingly supportive of me, or my co-workers, who are also pretty great and put up with endless ball puns during team meetings. Regrettably, we don’t teach about spheres during the geometry unit.

In addition to feeling slightly off at work, I also realized I was feeling irritable and was much quicker to get angry at home. In October, I experienced a full on panic attack while watching an episode of Stranger Things on Netflix on the eve of my orchiectomyversary. Overall, hobbies like reading and cooking didn’t bring me as much pleasure as they once did, and I just felt generally pretty flat.

As I’ve alluded to numerous times through my writing on ABSOT, I battled with depression in high school. However, since my only job at that point in my life was to be a student (and school had never been a struggle for me, since I was in the gifted program), it didn’t have an impact on my “job.” It dawned on me that I was now feeling some of the same effects I did back them.

Knowing that having depression at a young age puts me at risk for a recurrence later in life, I decided to look into research about cancer survivors and PTSD/depression to fully understand just how stacked the cards were against me. It didn’t bode well when I first typed “cancer survivors and…” into Google, and “PTSD” and “depression” popped up as the first two suggested results (followed by “alcohol”).

As I researched more, I found this study from 2017 that said about 20% of cancer survivors experience PTSD symptoms within six months of diagnosis. The CDC also reports that cancer survivors take anxiety and depression medication at almost twice the rate of the general population.

After finding this information, I decided to ask for help, specifically in the form of antidepressants at my follow up visit in December. Dr. Maurer agreed to prescribe them, and I thought it would be all pretty rainbows and fluffy unicorns immediately.

However, about four weeks later, I felt no different. I knew antidepressants could take up to six weeks to show major changes, but I wasn’t feeling even slightly better. Perhaps I even felt worse, as I had these “happy pills” and I still felt down. Maybe something was just wrong with me – beyond the missing testicle.

I’ve learned to be open with my health and feelings, so at my med check up with NP Sullivan, I basically said, “Hey, I don’t think these are working.” Since I am obviously super medically qualified (read as: not qualified at all), I supported my theorem by saying I was on the same dosage I was in high school, and High School Justin was about fifty pounds lighter and ten years younger (and had a terrible taste in hairstyles and girls, but that’s a different story for another day).

NP Sullivan actually agreed with me and decided to increase my dosage. I wish I could say that this was the end of my frustration, but it wasn’t.

However, this new struggle wasn’t internal – it was externally driven towards insurance companies and American healthcare in general. If you’re an international reader (and I know you’re out there, since according to Blogger’s data I have readers on every continent, except Antarctica, which is a shame since it’s cold as ball(s) there), appreciate it if you have a better healthcare system.

When Dr. Maurer first prescribed the pills in December, my prescription was denied, since the pharmacy needed to get “pre-authorization” because apparently, a doctor’s orders aren’t enough. This wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but I was going out of town for a week and wanted to start the pills immediately. Out of desperation, I ended up paying out of pocket for that first fill. About two weeks after starting the pills, the pre-authorization came through, just in time for my dosage increase.

And just in time for another claim denial. Apparently, my original pre-auth covered me only for the original dose. The fact that insurance claims can be denied through an automated system by non-medical professionals is ridiculous to me. Insurance companies, do better.

Long story short, the insurance claim handlers at Dr. Maurer’s office are awesome, and I got pre-authorized for the new dose. (Maybe my mini-rant on Instagram story helped too!) This new pre-auth lasts for a year, and hopefully, I won’t need any more increases.

To be honest, I don’t think I will need it. I’m not really sure when I noticed that I was feeling better, but when I wrote my “12 Months Later” post in late-January, things were definitely looking up. I was getting more into the swing of lesson planning and teaching, minor things didn’t bother me as much, and I didn’t find myself complaining as often. I wish I could say that colors were suddenly more vivid, but I’m colorblind and colors don’t ever look bright.

It’s now the end of February, and I feel so much better than I did in September. (Side note – I really feel like Christopher Nolan with the amount of time jumps in this post. My bad.) While I would never say I hated work, I definitely have a better attitude when I walk through the doors of Room 31. Exercise, writing, reading, and cooking have become more enjoyable again. While writing this post, I realized that this one has a better feel and tone, as compared to some of the posts I wrote between September to January, even though it’s about depression, I feel more like myself on a day-to-day basis. I haven’t resumed any sort of formal therapy program, but I know that is definitely recommended while on these pills. It’s on my to-do list to look into in the future.

My biggest takeaway from this all is to ask for help if you feel you need it. There seems to be such a stigma around mental health and this post is an effort to be open and transparent to help dispel it. Sometimes, mental health isn’t even viewed as a necessary thing to take care of or treat as a serious matter. We treat our bodies and help them to heal when we are sick or injured; why should our mental health and brains be different?

The debacle with the insurance company and preauthorization helps to underscore this issue. When I had “probable strep” in January, although the test came back negative, the company had no problem approving amoxicillin, even though it probably wasn’t necessary. Any other prescription for my myriad of side effects during chemo was filled without an issue. But needing antidepressants? I had to jump through hoops to get those.

I recently saw a Tweet that said, “Depressed people don’t need Prozac. They need running shoes and fresh air.”

That’s a damaging narrative. I tried that, and continue to exercise, but it wasn’t that simple for me. If that’s your opinion, fine. Go run or whatever else works for you. But don’t shame other people for trying what might work for them. Just as I’m not going to fault you for trying homeopathic medicine, don’t go throwing crystals at me for what I’ve chosen. Positive thinking just isn’t enough sometimes.

I hope that this dosage continues to keep my mood elevated and on the upswing. I have no idea how long I’ll need to be on the antidepressants, but I’m not worried about it. What matters to me is that my emotional healing is beginning to catch up to my physical healing, the disparity between the two being something that has been nagging at me since I was cleared for remission.

However, this is something that I should have seen coming. They removed half of my “lower brain” and left my upper brain fully intact… no wonder it’s taking twice as long to heal!

About the Author: Justin Birckbichler is a fourth grade teacher, men’s health activist, testicular cancer survivor, and the founder of aBallsySenseofTumor.com. From being diagnosed in November 2016 at the age of 25, to finishing chemo in January 2017, to being cleared in remission in March, he has been passionate about sharing his story to spread awareness and promote open conversation about men’s health. Connect with him on Instagram (@aballsysenseoftumor), on Twitter (@absotTC), on Facebook (Facebook.com/aballsysenseoftumor) or via email (justin@aballsysenseoftumor.com).

Currently, Justin is running a research study based on males of any age who have had a physical exam done by a doctor and their experiences related to testicular exams. I

This six-question survey is brief. All responses are anonymous, and all information is kept completely confidential.

If you’re a male, please visit bit.ly/absotdoctorsurvey to help further the research. If you’re not an owner of testicles yourself, please share the link to help maximize the reach. Thank you in advance!