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“So, what are you going to do about it?”

One of the most impactful memories of my life occurred somewhere in the late summer of 2012. At the time I was +220 pounds, and I’m about six feet tall, so this was way up on where I should have been. I had just eaten a ton and had the misfortune of standing on the scale, thus depressing myself more than usual.

Anyway, I was in my living room with my wife, sitting on the couch. My wife had completed her own significant weight loss journey a few years prior, dropping fifty pounds, so I knew she would understand my sadness over my weight and where I was.

So, there I sat, complaining to my wife about my weight. She was silent, nodding, as I listed how upset I felt at what I had allowed myself to do to my body. And then, finally, she asked me this question:

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

That was the question that changed my life. I mean, there I was, complaining about how miserable I was, and I hadn’t done a damn thing to make it better. That wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right. How dare I complain when I hadn’t even tried to improve? So, right then and there, I decided to do something.

In terms of weight loss, I got lucky in that my body was more amenable to losing weight than that of many others. I downloaded a calorie tracker from Livestrong and used that, and exercise, to shift my mindset. Staying in my allocated calories became like a game. And, over time, it worked. I dropped thirty pounds and kept them off. I’m in better shape now than I was in my 20s.

Now, that being said, in writing my blog entry earlier this week, I remembered this question and how it applies to mental health as well. That entry dealt mainly with what I wish every “support person” knew about depression and mental illness, and one of the items mentioned was that none of us really want to be depressed, and we’d all love to get better.

Allow me to propose this question then, support people. It’s the question that you may want to ask when the depressed/anxious person that you love is in pain. You may want to ask it in the most non-judgmental, softest way possible. You also may want to ask it in a tough love sort of style, as my wife did to me:

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

Depression sucks. It does. And it’s taken me years and years to realize that it’s not a weakness and not my fault. Indeed, it’s not the fault of anyone who has it. But there is a big difference between not my fault and not my responsibility. All of us who suffer from some sort of mental illness have an obligation to do something about it. That may mean doing little things on our own time, like exercise or meditation. It may mean seeing a therapist or psychiatrist to discuss medication. But above all else, it means managing our disease.

Support people, here’s where you can come in. Ask us this question. If the depressed person you love truly wants to get better, they’ll need an answer. They’ll need to do something about it in order to get better or get through the rough patch they are in. It is a question I have to ask myself from time to time when things get bad. Sometimes the answer may be, “Wait a week and see if I’m this miserable still – if I am, I’m going to see my therapist.” Sometimes the answer may be, “I’m making a call now!” But above all else, there needs to be a real answer.

And, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! How do you ask your loved one or yourself this question. What has your experience with this been like? Let us know in the comments below!

Redemption: Coming out on June 5, and now available for pre-order

Alrighty. I mentioned this one in an earlier blog entry, but some fun personal news to report: Redemption, my young adult, science fiction novel that features a character with depression and anxiety, will be available on June 5. Even better, you can pre-order it for the Kindle here.

Summary below. And more later, or sure. For now, I’m gonna bask in the glow of this one. I worked really hard to make this happen. And I’m so excited that you will all get to read this story soon.

Twenty young people wake aboard the spaceship Redemption with no memory how they got there.

Asher Maddox went to sleep a college dropout with clinical depression and anxiety. He wakes one hundred sixty years in the future to assume the role as captain aboard a spaceship he knows nothing about, with a crew as in the dark as he is.

Yanked from their everyday lives, the crew learns that Earth has been ravaged by the Spades virus – a deadly disease planted by aliens. They are tasked with obtaining the vaccine that will save humanity, while forced to hide from an unidentified, but highly advanced enemy.

Half a galaxy away from Earth, the crew sets out to complete the quest against impossible odds. As the enemy draws closer, they learn to run the ship despite their own flaws and rivalries. But they have another enemy . . . time. And it’s running out.

5 things depressed people want their closest friends to know

I don’t know about the rest of you, though I suspect you feel the same way: I would not be alive today if not for the people who have supported me throughout my +16 year battle with depression and anxiety. The people have shifted, to some extent, be it my parents, girlfriends and then wife, but if not for the people who have been closest to me, I never would have survived. Full stop.

That being said, being a support person with mental illness is really, really, really hard, particularly if it is something you’ve never experienced. I once had a girlfriend whose parents denied the importance of mental illness and didn’t let her see a therapist when she really needed it – as a result, she didn’t know how to deal with my depression. It took a visit for her to my therapist to get her in a better place about how to deal with me.

Being a support person requires a lot of characteristics: Kindness, empathy and a whole lot of patience. And it also requires great communication from both people. So, related to that: Here are five things I think that support people should know.

1) We never expected you to fix us, because you can’t: Depression, anxiety and the like do not disappear just because you have a great wife or an awesome best friend. Heck, I don’t know if mental illness ever really does go away. I have never, ever expected my wife or friends to fix me. It doesn’t work that way, and while the advice from my closest friends can be critical, nothing replaces medication or professional therapy. We don’t expect you to fix us, and if that is the expectation that someone has on you, the relationship needs to be recalibrated. That’s not right and it’s not fair to you.

2) We’re really, really, really sorry: Sadly, guilt is a common symptom of depression, and on this one, we probably feel really, really bad. I cannot tell you how bad I have felt for the pain I have put my wife an others through – the worry. The stress. Having the same conversations over and over and over again. I feel so bad for the things that I have said and done. I’d do anything to take it back.

3) This isn’t intentional. We’d love to stop: I suppose I can’t say this for everyone, but I suspect it is true for the vast, vast majority of us–we wish we could stop. Almost no one wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Hells yeah, I can’t wait to be so miserable I can’t function so I can lean on my husband for the WHOLE DAY!” If I had a magic wand right now and could wave my depression away, I’d so so in a millisecond. No one wants to live like this. And we’d stop if we could. That’s important, because sometimes someone gets so miserable that you almost think want to feel that way. We don’t.

4) Please be patient: Depressed people can be angry, cranky, irritable, lazy and a whole lot of undesirable traits. Please give us a chance to pull ourselves out of the funk. After a time, most of us do. My feeling has always been this – no matter how ill a person may be on a a mental or emotional level, they should be moving towards trying to be better. When I have had moments of severe depression, my wife will say to me, “Okay, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to change your life or seek additional treatment in order to feel better?” If you have an answer to that question, you’re moving in the right direction. And to our support people: If there is an answer to that question, please give us the patience we need to get better.

5) We want you there, no matter what: It’s counter-intuitive, but there have been times I have thought to myself, “I know, darling wife, that I am telling you I’m fine. I’m not fine. Don’t leave me.” We get snappy and rude, and that’s wrong. Depression should never, ever be an excuse for poor treatment of others. But please know that, no matter what walls we put up, we want you there. Maybe not physically, maybe not at that exact moment, but yes, we want and need you with us. We want to know you are a call away.

What about you? What do you have to add? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

A presentation: Social Media & Depression

I had the pleasure of giving a presentation on Social Media & Depression for the Interlace Cultural y Desarollo Integral Mexicano de Lehigh Valley, a Mexican cultural group in my hometown. In the presentation, I talk about the frighteningly strong connections between Social Media & Depression.

The actual presentation is below. But here are the highlights:

  • As you can imagine, social media and teenagers and incredibly linked.
  • The networks that teenagers use are constantly changing, but at the moment, Snapchat and Instagram are the preferred networks.
  • The Hispanic community, as a whole, is overrepresentated on social media compared to other demographics.
  • Social media does make people depressed and social media use is correlated with higher levels of depression.
  • Social media depression can be combated by a change of mindset and by primarily remembering this: Social media is not the real world.

Finding the good in the bad

A sweet moment to share, and one that I hope will give you a little bit of inspiration if you are starting today in a difficult way.

Last week, I had very minor surgery on my hand. Long story short, I had my FOURTH freakin “Trigger Finger” and the third operation for such a problem.

What is a Trigger Finger, you ask? Remember the movie Rookie of the Year? That. In my fingers. It’s not even really all that painful, particularly compared to the surgery or the annoyance afterwards, but you do need to get it taken care of or your finger can get stuck. That’s a terrifying thought, so under the knife I went.

All went well and my hand is now just really sore. It also has stitches in it until Friday, and if you’ve had stitches before, you know what that means: Keep it dry. This, of course, is easier said than done.

One of the biggest problems for me? My puffy, puffy head. Untreated, my hair looks like a birds nest of curls and thorns, and requires copious amounts of gel to allow me to be presentable to the general public. And, with stitches in my hand, this presents a problem. I can one hand it, but the gel is really thick and then gets distributed in a big clump across one side of my hand, leaving me half-froed, half Gordon Gekko.

Gekko
Above: No.

So this is the part of the story where I scream for my five year old daughter, Ayla.

First post surgery day, I get my little girl.  “Ayla!  I neeeeeeed you.” She comes in and mushes her hands up in the gel, giggling and talking about how gross it is. She runs it through my hair, with me screaming the whole time. Then we look in the mirror and I go, “Good job! I don’t look like a train wreck anymore!” A minute or so with the comb later, and I am as ready for the public as I will ever be.

First day we do this, Ayla’s cracking up. Every day since then, she’s looked forward to it. And I realized something: I made a nice little memory for her. And I certainly made a good one for me.

Here’s the point: Every problem creates an opportunity for joy. Every bad experience can turn into something good. In large and small ways, try to figure out how you can turn each annoyance into a great memory.

Climb That Mountain: Celeste, the video game that just made me tear up

As you may know if you have already read this blog, I have previously written about video games and their attempts to tackle the weighty issue of mental illness.  I now have a new game to add to that group: Celeste, an incredible platformer that tells a powerful story.

Warning: Story spoilers below

First of all – and maybe most importantly – Celeste is an absolutely incredible game. It stars Madeline, the pixalated heroine, who is seeking to climb Celeste Mountain. You jump from obstacle to obstacle, beating levels, meeting new characters and advancing to the summit. The game’s mechanics are simple but there is so much meat on it’s bones. The more you play, the better you get, and new mechanics are introduced with each level at a perfect difficulty curve.

As the story progresses, you find out more about Madeline. She is driven to the point of depression and wants to climb the mountain seemingly to prove something to herself. Madeline climbs the mountain, overcoming obstacles along the way, but after a couple of levels meets one of the game’s main villains: The “Part of me” that makes enemies out of friends, alters the environment and tortures Madeline. She has the same avatar as Madeline, just more evil looking. It’s clearly a metaphor for the part of each person that hinders us all, drives us mad and generally is our own worst enemy.

On a different side of the spectrum is Theo, who Madeline meets while she is climbing the Mountain. Theo is on a journey too, but for different reasons. They are yin and yang: Madeline is goal-oriented. Theo wants the experience but seems adrift and lost.

The game breaks up it’s platforming by telling a story via conversation and dialogue. That led to what I would say are the most powerful moments I’ve experienced with it so far, including these snippets of dialogue after Madeline spends a level saving Theo from a monster of her own creation:

IMG_1527

That leads to this incredible description that I know will ring true for many:

IMG_1528IMG_1529

Even more impressively, the story is told via gameplay. At one point, Madeline’s Part of Me stops a gondala, causing Madeline to have an anxiety attack. Theo – who has some experience in dealing with this – makes Madeline imagine a feather that is kept afloat by her exhales and inhales, and the player simulates the breathing via controller inputs – thus stopping the anxiety attack. In another level, Theo – who is a little selfie-obsessed – must be thrown into an eyeball in order to complete a level.

Another metaphor: I’ve never died in a video game more than I have here. In the last level I completed, I died a whopping 335 times. And no, I’m not the greatest video game player in the world, but this is normal here, I swear. Indeed, as the game reminds you at one point, in-game deaths are good! They provide for learning experiences and bring you that much closer to your ultimate goal of beating the level. The message here is clear: Learning comes from pain. Pain brings you closer to where you need to be. And as long as you don’t give up, you can get there.

I’m not done with this game. But the exchanges above legitimately brought tears to my eyes. They reminded me what a powerful medium video games can be. This game made me feel validated as someone who suffers from depression, and I highly, highly recommend that you check it out if video games are your thing.

I never thought I’d care so much about a platformer. This game is worth exploring.

 

College and mental health

A friend of mine was kind enough to share with me this article in Time, an extremely eye-opening look at the massive spike in college students seeking mental health services – and college’s struggles to keep up with the demand. For those of you who are interested in this topic, I highly recommend that you read the entire article, because its a very comprehensive look at the issue.

The summary is this: More college students are in need of counseling services, but many colleges do not have the capacity to deal with these students mental health challenges. This shouldn’t be surprising: 75% of all mental health issues onset by age 24, and college is a time of transition where young adults are cut loose from all their previous moorings and experiences – thus shaking loose a good deal of mental illness, sadly.

Unfortunately, suicides in the United States have been on the rise since 1999, cutting across all demographics, and college is no exception. Even worse is that, many colleges do not actually track suicides, creating a major problem for dealing with this issue.

I will say that this is a deeply personal one for me. In the course of my mental health journey, I think I always suffered, even from the time that I was a little kid. It was my freshman year, however, when all hell broke loose. It was the first time I was away from home, from my family, my girlfriend and everything that I had previously known. I wasn’t ready for college and the experience of basically restarting my life, and I REALLY wasn’t ready for the “party” culture of college. I didn’t party – just the opposite – I was intimidated by everyone who did and didn’t know how to deal. As a result, my depression and anxiety exploded. Freshman year became the turning point for me – it’s the year I first started to suffer, but thanks to the counseling center at Muhlenberg, I had access to a great therapist who helped save my life by helping me develop strategies to deal with my depression and referring me to a psychiatrist who put me on the medication I still take to this day.

This issue is one of the reasons that, in my legislative career, I introduced legislation which would require colleges to develop and disseminate plans on dealing with mental health and suicide prevention. It’s a small step, but one that I think is desperately necessary to deal with this issue.

This is a major issue from a mental health perspective in this country, and one that we desperately need to deal with. The good news is that people are paying attention – and hopefully will continue to do so.

Redemption, by Mike Schlossberg, is almost available!

I just had a really nice moment that I wanted to write about – and for once, nothing that has to do (directly!) with mental health.

Late yesterday, I got the Email from my publisher, giving me the final version of my book, Redemption. I opened it up about an hour ago, and to my pleasant surprise, discovered that it wasn’t final edits – there was just some grammatical stuff – it was ready.  I sent it back, giddy. My book is almost ready!

Redemption was my therapy. I started it a little more than three years ago when my life became more overwhelming than I ever thought it could have. The idea picked up on something that I had dreamed up twenty years ago, when I first thought that I may want to write. More information about the book is here and you can read a summary below.

Redemption, unquestionably, helped save me.  It gave one of the roughest periods of my life meaning and gave me an opportunity to share a story with the rest of the world. It is a young adult, sci-fi dystopia, but I tried to make it different by weaving in the very real themes of depression, anxiety and loss, themes that have punctuated my life and likely yours, too.

I have no idea how it is going to sell – well, I hope – but I do know that this book, like the blog, gave me an opportunity to discuss an issue that I care deeply about, and hopefully inspire others to know they aren’t alone and a better life can be there’s.

As time goes on, I’ll have more to say about Redemption, and I really want to share the writing journey I went through, because I think that can be helpful to others. Art can save.

More info on Redemption below.  It should be available in the next couple of months!

Asher Maddox fell asleep a twenty year-old, depressed college drop-out.  He woke up sixty years in the future, Captain of a spaceship charged with saving humanity.

It’s 2083.  Ash and nineteen other teenagers find themselves onboard the Redemption.  Attacked by an unseen force from the moment they arrive, the crew must instantly bond, learn how to fly and escape whatever is trying to kill them.

Their arrival onboard the Redemption is no accident.  Ash and his crew must stop an alien attack which resulted in the Spades virus wiping out most of humanity.

Each answered question only creates more puzzles.  Why them?  Who are the aliens that keep attacking them?  How did Spades get created in the first place? Can the ship get the various pieces of the vaccine before the aliens attack Earth?  And, most importantly: How can Ash save the planet, when his depression and anxiety won’t even let him save himself?

Coming first half of 2018.

Coping Strategy: Do Something

I was down a few weeks ago when this particular memory bounced into my head.  I was sitting in my therapists office, discussing something – what, I don’t remember.  I think I mentioned to him how I had gone to the gym (unrelated, but hey, exercise can really help depression), despite the fact that I had been really depressed at that moment and didn’t feel like it at all.  And I remember he said that was good, because that moment when you are most down is exactly when you should get up and do something.

It wasn’t meant to be particularly profound.  But it’s one of those things that REALLY stuck with me.  My wife calls it faking it till you make it.  I referred to it as “pushing through,” but that struck me as simplistic, as if you can just willpower your way through depression (sometimes you can; often you can’t).

Imagine yourself as depressed as you have been.  What do you want to do?  The answer there is obvious: Absolutely, positively nothing, aside from this:

depressed on couch

That, as far as I am concerned, is the worst thing you can do.

Please keep in mind I’m only speaking from my personal experience and this isn’t medical advise, but I’ve always found that lying down and swimming in depression leads to one thing and one thing only: More depression.  And guilt.  “I SHOULD be doing my chores.  I SHOULD be hanging out with my kids.”

Is that guilt warranted?  Of course not.  Everyone deserves time to lounge around and do nothing – yes, you too, depressed person. But – and again, this is just my personal experience talking here – sitting around when depressed just leads to feelings of self-loathing and guilt.

This would be my advice to you, dear reader: Just…try doing something.  Anything that’s actually active and engages your mind, body or both.  It may be reading a book.  It may be going for a walk or heading to the gym.  Write.  Play a game.  Do jumping jacks.  Hell, I really don’t care.

What I do know is that, based on my own experience, is that sitting there, doing nothing, in the long-term, can equal a surrender. As best you are capable, get up, get moving. Will it make you feel better? Hopefully.  Maybe.  But doing nothing will certainly continue to sap your hope away, and anything is better than that.

Any specific strategies you want to share? Leave them below!

The Mental Health Danger of Instagram

I’m a weeeeeeee bit obsessed with social media – though I like to think I don’t let it distract from my life too much – but that’s another story.  Anyway, I’m an old fart when it comes to this universe (at 34, I’m practically ancient), and my social media activity has been primarily confined to Facebook and Twitter.  Recently, I finally surrendered and started using Instagram more.  I’m enjoying it – and I hope I’m able to keep it in perspective.

I think there is a huge danger with Instagram: If you lose sight of what it really means, it can be really bad for your mental health.  I’ve written before about how dangerous social media can be for your mental health, but Instagram is the absolute worst.  That’s because it forces you to make unrealistic comparisons about your life to others, provides a mere allusion of connectivity (it’s no substitute for the real thing) and can make people feel more depressed.

Almost immediately, I found myself falling into this trap.  The recent pictures I uploaded: Me at work in Harrisburg, a awesome ice cream sundae, my son and my dog, etc.  Don’t I just have the perfect life? Things not uploaded: Me getting very upset about recent allegations of rape against a colleague.  My living room being so messy that I thought a small bomb of dog fur and toys had exploded in it.  Me wondering how on earth I would ever pay off my college loans.

And that, in a nutshell, is exactly the problem with social media.  I’m very lucky – I have a wonderful life – but it’s not without its problems.  And, if you believe most people’s social media, you would be convinced that everyone else is having more fun, success, happiness and love than you.  That’s because all of us forget this fundamental truth: Just about everyone uses social media to highlight the best in their life, not the worst.

Despite it, I do love social media.  It gives me a chance to communicate with people who I love – and, in my case, who I represent – about what is happening in my life.  I’d encourage everyone who uses social media actively to remember this critical fact: It’s not reality, just a highly curated version of it.  Everyone uses it to show off the best, ideal version of themselves.  Instagram is particularly dangerous at this because we all love pretty pictures and soft filters that make it seem like our lives are perfect.

If you can keep this in mind when you use social media, you’ll be okay.