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Is Mental Illness the Price of my Guilt?
I know you’ve subscribed or clicked here to read about baseball. For just today, I hope you’ll indulge me on a different subject. We’ll be back with an Andrelton Simmons breakdown tomorrow.
Thursday is international Bell Let’s Talk day.
According to Wikipedia:
Bell Let's Talk is an awareness campaign created by the Canadian telecommunications company, Bell Canada, in an effort to raise awareness and combat stigma surrounding mental illness in Canada. It is notably the single largest corporate commitment to mental health in Canada. Originally a five-year, $50 million program to help create a stigma-free Canada and drive action in mental health care, research, and the workplace, Bell Let’s Talk was renewed in 2015 for another five years with a target of committing $100 million. In 2020, the Bell Let's Talk initiative was again renewed for a further 5 years, and a commitment of $155 million. The most prominent part of the initiative is “Bell Let’s Talk Day,” an annual one-day advertising campaign where money is donated to mental health funds based on the number of social media and communication "interactions" that include the branded hashtag, #BellLetsTalk, or its Canadian French equivalent, #BellCause.
In short, the goal is to help remove the stigma of talking about mental illness while supporting treatment initiatives.
People who know me fairly well know I’ve had my bouts with depression and anxiety. People who know me fairly well also know I was in a devastating car accident when I was eight years old.
I’ve always assumed the two were related — who wouldn’t? — but I was never able to put my finger on quite how.
Before I understood depression, I thought about it like I suspect most others do — mostly some sort of sadness. I didn’t realize it was — at least for me in my personal struggle — a large feeling of emptiness or lack of a desire to do anything, achieve anything or be anything.
I felt powerless, unambitious, fearful and at the very worst I was becoming a monster to live with.
Let’s talk about the accident for a second.
Only July 17, 1994, I woke up at a friend’s house in the trailer court I lived in and walked home to get ready for a family trip to the lake. I was an atypical eight-year-old boy. I loved baseball — normal enough — but also studying the phone book, reading encyclopedias and watching Saturday Night Live.
My six-year-old brother Cody and I were baseball fanatics. We played in our yard from dawn until dusk, with the neighboring trailer serving as our fence and trees serving as our bases. Our neighborhood games with our friends were legendary, filled with ghostrunners, home runs and more often than not, hurt feelings.
On this July Sunday, my family — my stepdad Scott, mom Becky and brothers Cody, Taylor and Tanner — were headed to the lake for a day trip to visit some relatives who spent a large portion of their summers there. Competitive as we were, I have to imagine there was a race to the minivan to see who would get there first — but I can’t remember for sure.
On the way out of town, we stopped at the grocery store to grab a few things for the day, and I remember our stepdad pointing out the rides being trucked out of town from our county fair which had wrapped up the day before.
That was the last thing I remember from that day.
Somewhere about an hour from home and I think about halfway to our destination, a car slammed into us. My stepdad was killed. As it became clear a collision could not be avoided, he leaned over my mom and his eight-month-old baby son Tanner to protect them. Neither was injured seriously (at least physically).
In the second row of seats, the seat behind Scott was unoccupied. Ordinarily, it would have been occupied by my five-year-old sister Kati, but she’d left with my grandparents the night before and the seat was empty. She’d almost certainly have died if she’d ridden with us.
Cody and I — the big boys, as we grew to be called — were in the back. If we did have that sprint to see who could get to the van first, somehow Cody — 20 months my junior — won that battle and sat on the driver’s side of the back seat.
The car that hit us, as you might have deduced, hit us on the driver’s side. It threw our brother Taylor — in the middle, right seat — clear from the car with a broken hip and a collapsed lung and left Cody with a broken neck and no sign of breathing.
Someone in one of the cars nearby raced over and performed life-saving measures on him, and he’s still here to this day as a 33-year-old quadriplegic.
I had a broken spine and intestines crushed beyond belief — thanks to a lap belt that, while doing the damage most certainly saved my life — and apparently cursed a blue streak at the first responders who were using the Jaws of Life to get me from the wreckage.
I don’t really remember much for a while after that. I have a vision that I’m not sure actually happened but I was wheeled into my brother’s room and saw him hooked up to every machine imaginable with a halo vest drilled into his skull. Google it. It’s awful.
I remember just bawling my eight-year-old eyes out. What had happened to us?
Neither of us made it home for Scott’s funeral a few days later. I think I went home about two weeks later and my brother didn’t return to our hometown for about six months, as I recall. He convalesced in St. Paul — about seven hours from home — at Gillette Children’s Hospital until reasonable accommodations for him could be made in our small hometown of about 2,500 people 10 miles from the Canadian border.
For what it’s worth, we had a pretty normal upbringing after that, I thought.
My mom remarried and ended up having seven kids — at the time of the accident, she was pregnant with her sixth, though I didn’t know it then — in total. You don’t really know what is or isn’t normal as it’s going on — and seven kids adds another wrinkle to that as well — but I wouldn’t say I lament my upbringing in any serious way.
I do, however, wonder when my mental health issues fully manifested. Initially, I thought it was after my maternal grandfather passed away in early 2015. I think that heightened my symptoms, but I think I began feeling them explicitly in the late summer of 2014.
I changed jobs right around the time of my 10-year high school reunion, and with it came a new rhythm to my day. For years I’d started my day with work, came home and ate dinner and went about my evening as most normal adults do.
Now, I was working at night with little reason to jump out of bed in the morning. I lost interest in working out. In playing video games. In doing anything other than laying on the couch, counting the hours until it was time to go to work.
I was depressed, but I didn’t really know what that meant yet.
And if I was depressed then, when did it actually start? I’ve found that having a rhythm to my day — in addition to adequate self-care and medication — helps greatly with my symptoms.
To that end, I think I actually had depression much earlier than that but it never really explicitly had set in.
And it wasn’t until recently that I really thought about how my depression had evolved. Via a conversation with one of my daughter’s teachers at school this past week, I’d realized there was almost an inverse correlation to how things were going in my personal life to how my depression had gone.
As things grew better in my life — new cars, new home, loving marriage, beautiful daughter, great friends — that darkness seemed to grow. But why?
Is it possible I was feeling implicit guilt that it wasn’t me who was in that seat on that Sunday in July, 1994? As things got better for me, did I feel like I was less and less deserving of them?
I’m not totally sure, but I think so.
But I do know this — without being open to talking about it, it’s possible this conclusion would have never crossed my mind.
Since Bell Let’s Talk began in 2011, each year I’ve felt like the stigma around mental illness has gone down. The risks of being ostracized from society or treated like a crazy person unfit for friendships or work have gone down the more and more we’ve understood mental health as a whole.
So please, don’t be afraid to speak up. I think you’ll find that more people are willing to listen than you ever realized.
(P.S. Here’s uncle Cody beaming with my daughter and his niece, Harper)