The Story of the Darkest Year of My Life
As I reflect on another year of my life, I can’t help but think about how difficult and rewarding 2019 has been for me. I celebrated two years at my job, finally finished my bachelor’s degree 10 years after graduating high school, met cool people I look up to like Casey Neistat, and was selected for HBCUvc’s 31 Under 31. From the outside looking in, I should have been hopping out of bed like Michael Scott doing parkour through the office of Dunder Mifflin. But instead, I was severely depressed.
A year ago, I started battling deep depression. Many things contributed to it, including circumstances that I won’t talk about in this post. While I’m doing better now, I still have moments where the feeling of depression permeates my mind like drops of rain before a storm. Instead of following this dark storm of despair, I’ve learned to fight for my mental health and manage those feelings in a healthy way.
I debated sharing my story because it’s so personal; the last thing I want to be is superficially vulnerable. My hope is that it will help at least one person to keep going and not let depression defeat them like it nearly defeated me earlier this year. When I was in the deepest depths of my depression, it helped to learn about other people who had gone through the same and to know I was not alone.
In life, it’s difficult to accept what you can’t fully control. After years of unexplained pain, my wife Jeanna (pronounced Gina) was finally diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease last year. It was a sigh of relief because now we knew what we were working with. Jeanna is in pain every day, she needs to spend a majority of the day in bed, has chronic fatigue, and needs my help to care for her. After teaching 4th grade for six years, she had to quit her job because the pain got so bad, and that isn’t even the half of it.
The disease affects our everyday lives so severely that normal things like grocery shopping, riding in a car, or visiting with people will cause Jeanna severe pain and make her so fatigued that she’ll need to lay in bed for the rest of the day or several days. We’ve been together for six years now and have been married for two. I’ve known her to be sick for 5 ½ of those years, and I don’t know a healthy version of Jeanna. That is a harsh reality. It can feel like there is no hope.
As if battling a chronic disease isn’t difficult enough, in February, Jeanna started to experience horrific pain in her face and couldn’t function because of it. It got so bad that we had to take a trip to the ER where we learned that she had trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that’s nicknamed “the suicide disease” because of the excruciating pain.
It was so damn hard to see her go through all of this. For months she only got zero to two hours of sleep because of the pain and associated symptoms. Thoughts of why us and life isn’t fair would come over me like strong ocean waves. They hit me hard and I’d fall underwater, not knowing which way was up. Jeanna is a true warrior and is doing much better these days. The trigeminal neuralgia is behind her and though she is still not fully healed from her Lyme disease, her symptoms are less severe than before.
From the outside looking in, I should have been hopping out of bed like Michael Scott doing parkour through the office of Dunder Mifflin. But instead, I was severely depressed.
On top of this, I had my bachelor’s degree to finish. It’s embarrassing for me to put this out there, but I failed out of school after trying for 4 ½ years to complete a cellular biology degree. That was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. After that failure, I had to start from scratch to work towards a business degree, and unfortunately, biology credits don’t exactly count towards a business degree. Back in 2014, when I was just beginning to pursue my business degree, I remember playing pickup basketball with some old high school friends. I was telling them about this situation of needing to start over, and one of them scoffed saying, “You’re going to get a business degree now? Well, that sucks... ” The tone of his voice and look on his face may have well screamed, “You’re a complete and utter loser.”
It took years of part-time to full-time course loads to finish my business administration degree. As I approached the end of my coursework this year, I nearly reached the breaking point — trying to manage school on top of all my other responsibilities.
I’d spend nights and weekends studying. One Saturday morning after breakfast, I sat down to review my coursework for the day. A feeling of paralysis rushed through my body, and I had a mental breakdown. I’d continue to have these paralyzing, recurring breakdowns for months — rapid heart rate, visibly shaking, crying, anger, not being able to think properly. I felt so helpless and hated myself for not being able to manage my responsibilities with more ease and grace. What I didn’t realize was that I was burning out from the weight and stress of my life.
On top of caring for Jeanna, pursuing my degree, and managing the rest of life, I was also working to excel in my career. In tech, we are constantly striving towards success — whatever that may mean for us on an individual basis. We see headlines of raising rounds of funding, raising venture funds, exits, major hires, etc. We love to talk about it on Twitter. I love Twitter and am a Twitter addict. I wouldn’t be at my current company without it, but I also know I fall into the trap of constantly comparing myself to people on Twitter:
I’m not as smart as this person.
They are more successful than me even though they’re younger.
They seem to spend more time honing their craft than I do.
I wish I knew more about X like they do.
Why didn’t they like my tweet response? It must sound stupid. I’ll just delete it.
This constant comparing was beyond exhausting and terrible for my mental health. It was, in essence, self-sabotaging. My friend Arlan once told me that, “You can’t compare your chapter one to someone else’s chapter seven.” Isn’t that the truth? Even more, everyone has something they’re going through that we can’t see, even when it seems like they have it better. Well-meaning people envy my role at work, and that prompted me to feel guilty for being depressed. I’d hear some variation of, “Wow, you have the dream job!” Yes, I agree with you, but why I am so depressed all the time? I shouldn’t feel this way. I’m grateful and thankful for where I am, but I shouldn’t be so down like this. What’s wrong with me?
It finally came to the point where I knew I had to get help and tell the people that care for me what was going on. Jeanna and my family urged me to begin seeing a therapist, which was one of the best decisions I was forced to make. My therapist taught me how to fight my depression while managing my anxiety, thoughts, and emotions. We talked through my life experiences, and he helped me develop a framework to take care of my mental health. I began to learn things about myself that I didn’t previously know or realize.
I learned through my therapist that perspective can help alleviate the weight of crushing internal dialogues. We’ve all heard that life is a marathon, and while there are times to sprint, we conserve our energy by strategically moving through life focusing on being the best versions of ourselves. If someone passes us, who cares? You may (or may not) pass them on mile 20. Playing the long-game now helps me focus on my pace, endurance, and will to keep going — even when the immediate daily challenges feel huge.
Gratitude played a pivotal role in helping me through my difficult circumstances. Jeanna and I tried to help each other practice gratitude as a way to cope. No matter how bad it got for her, there were glimpses of things in our lives to be thankful for, like morning coffee dates with our dogs via the Starbucks drive-thru, a loving family, and knowing it could be worse. Some people with chronic Lyme can’t get out of bed, are in a wheelchair, and/or need someone to bathe them. We are thankful this isn’t the case for Jeanna.
Jeanna also taught me how to develop a stronger mindset. We send each other affirming Instagram posts, remind each other that it will be okay, or jokingly talk about “the story I’m telling myself is... ” — thanks to Brené Brown’s The Call to Courage Netflix documentary.
Cultivating and fine-tuning our mindsets has given us both armor to cope with the difficult circumstances we’ve endured and continue to face.
One of my biggest learnings this year has been that taking care of myself is not selfish. Growing up, I believed that any focus on self was wrong. It’s selfish of me to think about myself. I should be thinking about serving others. When I choose to care for my mental health and overall well-being, it ends up benefiting others, and I’m able to be the best version of myself. If I don’t take care of myself and practice self-care, I’m not only doing a disservice to myself but to those I care about as well.
I am so glad that I decided to open up to Jeanna and my family earlier this year about my struggles. They pushed me to seek professional help and to keep fighting for myself. I don’t know where I’d be without them. Shedding light on depression was a big step in moving towards my healing.
Thank you for sticking with me and reading about my journey. It’s not easy to be vulnerable, and my desire is to be an encouragement to those (including my future self) who may be in the midst of battling depression right now or in the future.
Keep fighting for yourself. The world needs you.