By Benjamin J. Greenzweig
I have started and stopped writing this post for about six years now.
Frankly speaking, as a Founder and CEO, I really thought that “coming out” as someone who has battled mental health issues would be viewed as a weakness; a frailty, and that people would think twice about working for and with me.
Depression is a disorder, not a choice. Sadness is temporary, depression is not. Those who battle depression and its closely related cousin anxiety know all too well that being asked to “simply snap out of it” only minimizes the severity of mental illness.
I want to share my story because as someone who has come to terms with his condition, and who works every day to manage it through talk therapy, medicine and acupuncture, I feel obligated to help normalize the discussion around this disorder that still lurks in the shadows of our society.
Over the past several years, I have had my fair share of curveballs thrown my way, but those incidents didn’t cause my depression. My mind is simply wired differently and, upon reflection, I realize I have battled this illness since I was a young boy.
Depression is often hopelessness, not just sadness. For those who don’t struggle with this, let me try to frame the condition for you. Let’s say you’re having a bad day. A few things don’t go right, a deal goes bust, you get into a fender bender and your child comes home with an attitude. If your mind works the “right” way, these things will impact you, but you will probably move on relatively quickly, put these thoughts in the rearview mirror and likely never look back.
When you have depression, triggers like this create a sense of hopelessness; a belief that things just won’t get better. You are unable to move on from the incidents of the past and instead find yourself in a constant state of reliving the worst, while failing to remember any of the best.
If you also have anxiety, your mind bifurcates into two related patterns. One half focuses on the past and all the negative emotions that come with those experiences, big or small — while the other half creates a future based on these negative emotions. You suddenly feel as if the future is written, and it’s a horror show. You are unable to control events, so you resign yourself to the belief that things just can’t get better — in fact, they will only get worse.
These thoughts begin to take over your day, week and month. Soon a few hours of shouting from your depressive and anxiety side becomes an ongoing chorus of noise that barely, if ever, ceases. Like the car alarm that won’t turn off, or the drilling outside your window… it’s noise that just will not stop.
Now imagine living every day with a tsunami of negative thoughts rooted in the past and shaping what you think the future holds. There is no escape. You can’t make it stop. It’s a voracious beast of negativity that feeds on negativity. It is at this point that some find ways to numb the pain and in many cases, this takes the form of alcohol and/or drugs. But here’s the worst part — the numbing agents only add to the negativity so the cycle picks up steam. Day in and day out, you’re caught in a horrific cycle of downward pressure and the negative past fuels the negative future, so you numb yourself more and that only causes more negativity… rinse and repeat.
It is at this point that those without help, support or treatment begin to contemplate ending their life. It’s not about being cowardly, it’s about making the noise stop. There’s a reason why sound torture is such an effective component of psychological warfare.
I wonder at times how loud the noises got inside the heads of people like Colin Kroll, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Hideki Irabu and so many others who aren’t famous enough to get a byline or Wikipedia page. It must have been all-consuming.
I have often referred to my depression as “my long shadow” — a hitchhiker that never quite goes away, no matter what angle the sun is at. One day in the not too distant past, I hit another rock bottom, probably my eighth or ninth over the past several years. I can’t point to a specific trigger. I didn’t lose a big deal, no child was injured, my physical health was fine — but that’s kind of the point. Triggers don’t need to be major, life-changing events. (That’s not saying that major life-changing events aren’t triggers.)
I believe that when you struggle with depression, triggers are like the causes of disorder. It can be traumatic, like being exposed to airborne asbestos, or it can come in the most subtle of ways, like touching a door knob or being downwind from a sneeze. While the outcomes may be drastically different, both of these examples result in sickness. The same thing goes for depression. It can be a memory, an email, a commercial… all it takes is one moment.
After hitting my last rock bottom, I finally decided to seek help. (Don’t get me started on the state of mental health care in this country, for that is an entirely different post.) Fortunately, I had access to health care, health insurance and an incredible family and friend support structure, led of course by my amazingly resilient, herculean and patient wife whose abilities know no bounds. After an initial session, I was quickly deemed as someone in dire need of medicine and talk therapy.
Ever since I began to realize that I had depression, I always had this visceral response to medicine as if it was a weakness, a white flag, a surrender — the easy way out. This is the main reason why I chose to self-medicate for years as opposed to seeking professional care, and this is part of the stigma that I hope to break. Everyone reacts differently to medicine and yes, there are people who may turn to it too soon, there are people who might abuse it and there are people who judge others for being on it. But these cannot be the reasons why those in need should shun it. Personally, I like that my doctor pairs medicine with talk therapy because medicine by itself might only address the symptoms, while the therapy helps to address the root cause.
My doctor’s philosophy is simple: she wants to “get her patients in need on and then off medicine as soon as possible.”
The only way I’ll describe the medicine is with an analogy that my doctor has stolen, with my complete approval. If you’ve ever taken a child bowling, you know that when it’s their turn, bumpers come out in the gutters. This is how I’ve experienced medication. It’s bumpers that prevent me from literally and figuratively ending up in the gutter. Your ball will still roll from side to side and it won’t be a strike every time, but you’ll at least stay in the “field of play.”
The final piece I want to add is something that occurred more recently while on a few days vacation. I am a very curious person — always have been — so I wanted to better understand the causes of depression, a journey that I could now take as I was seeing things from a more level-headed approach than I have ever before.
I came across an amazing book by Michael Pollan called “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” Yes, most people I know who go on vacation bring along a good science fiction book — a deep autobiography, a story about magic or mischief. Me, I wanted to dive into the building blocks of the human psyche.
I do not want to spoil what I consider one of the three most impactful books I have ever read in my life, but there is one major takeaway that is relevant to this article. One of the theories/beliefs that has emerged from the modern understanding of psychedelics and depression is that depression is rooted in the mind’s inability to properly grasp the concept of time.
The book provides better evidence than I can share, but in essence, depression is a condition rooted in the past where an individual is unable to break free from the vicious cycle of reliving unpleasant memories versus just remembering them. There’s a lot more here, so I encourage those who share my curiosity to read Pollan’s book. Once you understand that depression is related to the brain’s ability to grasp the concept of time, you can begin to understand it or, at least, have more compassion for those that struggle with it.
So here I stand, or rather sit, at the end of a post that has taken me four plus years to write. I could go on about so much more, including what my triggers are, the types of curveballs I’ve been thrown (including some very nasty ones), and the amazing and horrific journeys I’ve been on to get to this point — but that will take a lot more time and emotional capital to articulate.
For now, I hope that if you are struggling in silence, in the shadows, you know you’re not alone. Depression is not a weakness, it’s a medical condition. And just as you shouldn’t be judged for having another type of condition, you shouldn’t be judged for having a brain disorder either.
I am fortunate enough to own my own business, so I “came out” to my company earlier this year about my depression. I can’t preach the virtues of erasing the stigma if I perpetuate it and, what safer environment can I ask for than one where I have no boss? The response I received was tremendously heartwarming and the few private notes I read made me feel like I made the right decision.
My company has always offered unlimited sick and vacation days and from the beginning, I emphasized the importance of taking “mental health days” — but no one ever took one, including me. Again, I was perpetuating the stigma. So now when I need a day off to rebalance my mind, I will be quite transparent in sharing the reason and hope that a “mental health day” becomes as acceptable as a traditional “sick day.”
If this post helps just one person choose to seek help, then I will feel overwhelmed with joy. You’re not alone friends and the sooner we can normalize this disease, the sooner we can improve treatment and give everyone the chance they deserve to live life in peace, free of noise.