Growing up, I was a bit of a loner. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but that didn’t bother me much. I came from a stable home, with both of my parents working hard to get through the 80’s recession. I was the oldest sibling, followed by my sister and younger brother. I was a little high strung but not to the extent that mental Illness would aﬀect me later in life. I was heavy into music, and showed promise as a guitar player. Music helped me stay focused.
After high school, I attended Valley City State University. I got decent grades, but halfway through my third quarter, I experienced major depression for the first time. I was 19 and miserable. I started missing classes and lost the ambition to continue. I dropped out soon after that. This sort of pattern would repeat itself later on in my life.
After leaving school, I was presented with my dream job: I started playing guitar for several bands in the North Dakota/South Dakota/Minnesota areas. I honestly thought I had made it in life. Things went well the first few years, However, mental illness reared its head. Looking back now, I realize I was unstable. I experienced delusional thinking: one moment I believed would make it huge in the music business; the next moment, I would crash so hard that it aﬀected my ability to perform. People around me encouraged me to get help, but I refused, insisting, “I’m not crazy.” I was fired from a band that I formed the following year.
I then went into what I call Depression Hell. I was inconsolable for months. I decided to head to Nashville to make a name for myself – and when I got frustrated with that, I became more and more depressed. It was at this point that I began to experience suicidal thoughts.
Meeting my wife was my saving grace. We met while I was playing in a band in 1996, at a casino in Minnesota. We had our son a year later. I thought things were going well, but despite being your typical broke, young, starving couple, I started spending all of our money on useless things. I now realize this was a reflection on my mental health, another aspect of the delusional thinking I had experienced earlier. After two years, it broke our marriage apart.
What I went through at this time was the worst depression I have ever experienced. Life seemed worthless to me. I was heartbroken and confused. I had lost my family. Not only that, I felt I had lost my career as a musician, and even my self-identity.
I finally decided to suck it up and go see a doctor about my depression.
After meeting with me, the doctor ultimately diagnosed me with Bipolar 1 disorder. I didn’t realize at the time that there’s really no shame in having something going on with your mental health. If I’d had a physical health condition, I wouldn’t’t have thought twice about it. But at the time, I responded in the only way I could deal with the news. I told the doctor, “I’m not crazy! You are!” and stormed out of their oﬃce.
I white knuckled my mental illness, on my own, for 10 years, until I hit rock bottom.
In 2011, I attempted suicide. The thing is, I knew I didn’t really want to die. I just figured that I would be doing my family a favor by removing myself from their life’s equation. I didn’t’t realize that feeling like a burden is one of the warning signs for suicide. When people are suicidal, their mindset may be that it’s the last noble thing they can do for their family and loved ones. But the truth is, someone in a suicidal state isn’t thinking clearly. We know this from all the scientific research done on suicide prevention. And things do get better.
I’m not going to paint a rosy picture for you here: there are plenty of people who get it, and when they know someone is struggling in this way, they understand and they want to help. That’s why it’s so important to tell someone you trust if you’re going through anything like I was. At the time, I remember one friend of mine didn’t get it: they said that suicide was a cowardly way out, and that I was weak.
Fortunately – I realize this now – as much as I was hurting, I wasn’t weak. I hadn’t gotten the caring response I wanted from that one person, so instead, I went to the mental health resource center in my community and begged for all the help I could get. I didn’t want to die. I knew something was going on with my mental health, and I was ready to accept that.
The research into suicide shows that everyone is different, but that some combination of therapy or medication works for people. And that’s true, but it’s not always easy: finding the right medications for me was worth it, but it was a long and trying process. In the meantime, I started getting into trouble with the law, driving under the influence, and other things that are hallmarks of risky behavior associated with Bipolar 1 disorder. I ended up in prison in 2015. I was also hospitalized.
Eventually, I realized this was all another wake-up call. In 2018, I went back to college at 46 years old to finish my music degree. Things went well for a while, and then I started experiencing depression again.
The difference was that this time I more immediately spoke with the school counselor, and got in touch with my therapist and psychiatrist before my suicidal thinking could fester. Therapy helped me develop some communication skills that I’ve found useful. I was surrounded by a lot of support.
It’s been a journey, but I’m now stable and appropriately medicated. More importantly, I know I don’t want to die. I no longer feel suicidal, no matter how depressed I sometimes get. What I’ve learned is that you’ve got to accept support. You have to learn to love yourself, while also being honest with yourself, and be willing to fix some things. Sometimes it’s okay to not be okay. I manage my mental health now in the same way I might manage a physical health condition.
There is always hope in the struggle.
Educating people about mental illness and suicide prevention is so important. One nice thing I can share is that my family has become more educated than they were back when I made my first attempt. They now show empathy as to the effect mental illness can have on anyone. Help is always available for people who need it, whether it’s the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Crisis Text Line, or just sharing what you’re going through with someone in your life who you trust. If the first person you tell doesn’t get it, find someone else. The more awareness we spread, the more help there will be for everyone.
You are worth it.