The Mind Matters
Updated: May 14, 2019
On February 14th, I had a panic attack.
The attack happened totally out of the blue. Prior to February, I had never experienced one before and couldn’t believe that it really happened to me. But it was happening, as real as it can ever be, like a shot to the gut. From that night forward, everything I thought and thought I knew about mental health changed.
I have never been particularly comfortable sharing about my life. Today, I turn 22 and for nearly two decades, I have kept a lot of things private. I’ve been known as the sports guy for as long as I can remember and I was comfortable talking about any sport, especially basketball. That came naturally for me, but when it came down to my personal self, I would oftentimes defer to another topic of conversation. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was going through.
Looking back, I wish I was more open about sharing my inner life with more people. That certainly could’ve been beneficial not only to me, but it would’ve also been beneficial for the people around me. That’s why today, I want to share my experiences with the panic attacks, what has happened since that February night, and what I’ve learned from opening up.
I always thought mental health was a problem other people faced. I also always thought that depression isn’t so common and isn’t an illness of any kind. There were people around me that asked for help or opened up to others about it, but I never thought it was the right thing for me.
Growing up, the societal norm of “being a man” was to not talk about your feelings. “Be a rock.” “You can deal with it by yourself.” It’s like an unofficial set of rules. And so, I followed along with those norms of how to act for nearly 20 years. I thought that depression was just another thing that I could get over with time. But that isn’t the case. One day I would be dealing with it, and the next day I would feel fine and then I would be dealing with it again the day after that. Deep down, depression always lingered behind a shadow waiting to strike again.
I was also very scared of sharing; scared of judgment, scared of failure, scared of ridicule that might come along with it. That’s why I never talked about my feelings; I always saw it as weakness that would make others see me differently.
Because of that, I suffered quietly for so long.
I dealt with a serious case of depression in the winter of my junior year. I questioned a lot about my life: is sports the career you want to pursue, what’s your purpose in life, all those hard-hitting questions. Then came the days where I physically and mentally could not get myself out of bed to go to class or get my work finished. My housemates noticed something was wrong and we talked about it. That was probably the first time I had ever been pried out of my shell of talking to others about my personal thoughts. In our conversations, we talked about what we all were going through and it was interesting to see how similar our problems were despite being completely different individuals. It certainly got me back up on my feet to open up about life with some of the people around me.
However, the realization was short lived. For more than a year, I put my problems behind my back, hoping that if I kept myself busy, they would disappear. I was wrong and the weight from long before still carried and added.
The final semester of senior year came, and the panic attack hit me. It occurred as I was doing something I loved: talking about sports.
It was Valentine’s Day and I was sitting at my desk in the Pepperdine Graphic newsroom finishing up a few sports articles. About an hour in, a storm of stress hit me: family life, work life, school life. Everything crashed together so quickly. For a bit over a week, I hadn’t been sleeping well, staying up late to finish up work for school or my three other jobs. I thought that was the problem, and I knew something was wrong; I just couldn’t figure out what. I felt winded and couldn’t breathe as my head kept spinning with thoughts of an uncertain future, whether I would live to see the next day. I raced to the restroom freaking out, my breaths shortening, my mouth feeling drier than the Sahara and next thing I know I blacked out, lying on the restroom floor.
I woke up a few minutes later with my mind still hazed out. I sat up, tried to gather myself together, but I couldn’t stop asking myself “what happened?” The next day, I felt normal and was so relieved that nobody knew what happened.
A few weeks went by. Things were going well at work, at school, and between my friends and family, but I still felt a weight on my back.
Then it happened to me a few weeks later, this time away from campus.
It was March Madness and I was volunteering with Pepperdine at the Staples Center. I remember running up to the top of the arena to run an errand, but as soon as I got to the top, life hit me again. I began to run out of breath and my vision started blurring. So many people were around me this time. I ran over to one of the press boxes near the nosebleeds and sprawled out on the floor. A member of the Staples Center security then accompanied me to the arena clinic, giving me a few tests as well as some water. All the signs pointed to me being fine physically, which was a huge sigh of relief, but I went back out into the field leaving the clinic asking myself the million-dollar question again: “What just happened?”
That was a new dark area for me and I was so lost. But I learned one thing – that I couldn’t hide what happened and needed to talk to someone. For so long, I laughed at the thought of me talking to another person about my problems and feelings because I knew most people were busy with their own life, with their own problems. The only way to get past obstacles was facing it head first and continue to move forward, but this was a whole different situation.
Seeing a therapist seemed like a small thing, but it went a long way for me. Again, I was the last person who would’ve thought to seek out a therapist. When I was growing up, nobody talked about what they were struggling with inside or about their worries. Not even in the general public, with celebrities or athletes refraining from talking about their problems openly until recently. I didn’t want to be the one of my friend group to appear weak. It was just like what the unofficial societal rule book suggested: deal with the problems yourself, because that’s what everybody else is doing.
During my first appointment with my therapist back in late March, I entered with a pinch of salt. But what we talked about blew my mind. We talked about all sorts of topics, not just sports. We dug in deep, talking about relationships with family and friends, childhood memories, all that. It was just like an onion, and with each layer you peel back, you find out more and more about yourself.
One of the relationships that I opened up about was the one I shared with my grandpa. I had a very close relationship with him growing up; he shared stories with me, mentored me, and taught me life lessons that have shaped me into the person I am today. When I was in middle school, he passed away and I was at a loss for words. It had been a few years since I saw him since he lived in Taiwan with my relatives, and he couldn’t make trips out to the States later on due to his age. What hurt most was I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. It was the start of the school year, so I didn’t have a chance to mourn, and it saddened me that I didn’t keep in closer touch with him in his last years. So it was back to it: focus on school and deal with the emotions later. Looking back, that time never came.
I still miss my grandpa a lot, but this story really is about how much I learned from talking about it openly with someone else. Yes, I’m still seeking out a therapist and it’s still awkward and terrifying in my experiences, but bringing things out loud has helped me have a better understanding of what I’m going through or have gone through.
Over the past few months, I’ve had the chance to talk to a few friends about what I went through. Something that was so interesting to hear was they were all going through something. What’s real is that we do have a lot in common with the people around us. I’m not saying you should share your deepest, darkest secrets – it’s all on the person – I am saying it definitely helps create a better environment for talking about struggles, especially on the topic of mental health.
Through my battle with depression, I learned that mental health is something everyone is dealing with. Deep down, everyone is carrying some weight, whether it is the desire to be successful in life or something personal like a relationship with a family member that really hurts deep down.
Now this is simply a reminder for you the reader to go talk to someone if you’re going through something; don’t keep that buried inside because that can hurt you even more than you are thinking now. You’re not weird for being in the silent majority of dealing with depression; so why not start making it an un-silent majority? Denying that opportunity to share your inner struggles is denying yourself from getting to truly know about who you are. It also denies you from the chance to reach out to others that are in need of someone to talk to.
Out of all the things in your life, sharing what you’re going through just may be the biggest thing you do. That was certainly the case for me.