For a long time, I’ve kept a secret from many of my friends and loved ones. I’ve decided that it’s time to come clean.
I have waged an ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. It has been a struggle that has caused pain to myself, and those close to me.
Throughout this process, I’ve come back to the idea that I never thought it was going to be me that would be afflicted with depression. But this and many mental illnesses do not discriminate. You can be young or old, male or female. It doesn’t matter.
I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I’ve gone through. So maybe if you detect the same warning signs that I had, or if any of this sounds familiar, you can get help as soon as possible. There are great people and wonderful resources out there.
Chapter one: Hitting Rock Bottom
I want to start at the moment when things were at their worst.
At some point in our lives, we all say to ourselves, “Wow, I don’t think it can go any lower. This is as bad as it gets.”
I finally hit rock bottom. It was August 19, 2016
Let’s be clear: I’ve had worse events happen in my life. My Mom had just passed away nine months earlier, I’ve had health struggles not related to depression, my Dad has had several life-threatening medical issues. I’ve had career disappointments, relationships that haven’t turned out the way I had hoped, etc.
But my low point physically, emotionally, and medically was on that Friday in August 2016. It started days, weeks, months, hell, maybe years in advance. And it came to a head while laying on my couch that afternoon.
I was on the second day of a two-day bout with the flu. Except on that second day, physical sickness took a backseat to what I was dealing with mentally. One week earlier I finished a six-year stint at ESPN Cleveland as a producer and on-air personality. In the aftermath of trying to figure out my next career move, I was getting more and more overwhelmed.
I didn’t know what was next. Several stations were calling me. In order to try to keep my salary and benefits, it looked like I was going to have to anchor updates for a news radio station. My head was spinning in a thousand directions.
Two days before I hit rock bottom, I went to a Paul McCartney concert and when I got home later that night I started throwing up.
But in addition to the flu, something else was seriously wrong. And it was boiling over by the time Friday arrived.
My personal walls were closing in against me.
I’d had depression before, but nothing like this. I was scared.
Finally, what put me over the edge - what completely turned everything ugly - was something that’s plagued me all my life: hating the idea of letting people down.
We’re always the hardest on ourselves. I might hold the record for worst at forgiving myself. I do not let myself off the hook from mistakes.
I hadn’t felt up to going over to my Dad’s house on Thursday to do my usual chores of sorting out his multitude of medications for him, taking out the garbage, and cleaning the litter box of the family cat.
My sister called me on Friday while I was already falling in an emotional black hole. She told me that Dad had been up until 3 a.m. trying to get everything out of the house. He never took his pills. The guilt and anger at myself for not being there for my Dad put me over the edge.
I started shaking uncontrollably. I couldn’t breathe
My hands turned into two wet, sweaty sponges.
I thought I was having a stroke because my face was numb and I couldn’t talk. I no longer had any control over my body.
Was I having a heart attack? No. It was a panic attack.
My sister being the cool, calm, and collected mother hen (while talking to me on her cell), grabs her home phone and calledthe paramedics to take me to the hospital.
What was going to happen next? Everything in my mind was negative.
Cripplingly negative thoughts like 'I’m going to the hospital. They’re going to put me in the loony bin. I don’t know what they’re going to do to me,' consumed me.
Here’s a medical secret: When you’re a heart patient checking into the hospital, you go to the front of the line for speedy service. So it didn’t take long to get me processed in the Emergency Room at Fairview Hospital so the doctors and nurses could go to work.
Once the attack subsided, physically there wasn’t really anything wrong with me. All of my vital signs were normal. I got the feeling that the doctors were about to send me home.
Two things happened: My Dad came down and was trying to tell me that I needed to stay in touch with my supervisor at Total Traffic. He was taking on a role as a coach and motivator. He didn’t realize at the time that it was exactly what I didn’t need. I nearly had a second panic attack while my sister got him out of the room.
The epiphany was when someone from behavioral health came into the ER to see me and mentioned that there was potentially help for me. There was inpatient care available at Cleveland Clinic’s Lutheran Hospital. Would I be interested?
It’s an easy decision but a tough one. I knew I needed help but I didn’t know what I was getting into.
My only experience with mental hospitals was watching Jack Nicholson take on Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
I was going to have to be out there with other patients. Was I ready for that? What would they do to me at this hospital?
At that point, I didn’t care anymore. I knew I just wanted to get better.
If I hit rock bottom at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, August 19, 2016, seven hours later, I finally picked myself back up.
I didn’t get to Lutheran until about 1 a.m. Saturday morning. Suddenly, everything I thought I knew about my life was about to change.
Chapter two: Where the hell am I?
After a late-night paramedic ride from Fairview to Lutheran Hospital, I found myself in the Behavioral Health wing. Now this is getting serious.
They take just about every possession you have when you check in. No cell phone, no wallet, no keys, no belt…nothing that could be used as any kind of weapon.
Day 1 of my journey started really like just about any hospital stay…a knock on the door, they take vitals, grab your blood, ask you how you’re feeling, etc. But then, I found myself in something called group therapy.
Me, a 41-year-old, successful broadcaster, sitting in a room with eight other patients. Some young, some old, some black, some white.
But at that moment, I realized they were me, and I was them. We were in this together.
We talked about control.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” was the theme.
Can you control or change the frustration of a loved one’s death when they were essentially hiding a long-term illness? Can you control or change your feelings when you don’t like who your child dates or marries? These were among the discussions we had as a group.
In the middle of the session, I was pulled out to talk to both a social worker, and then a psychologist. Of course, they want to know why I was there. What had happened to me on the previous day? And what was I hoping to accomplish through this stay?
As the day progressed, I realized that the more times I told my story to sympathetic ears, the more the tension went away.
Now let’s talk about what life is like as a patient when you’re not in group therapy sessions:
Your room has no TV, no phones, no shower (although there is a shower that is available by reservation on the floor)
There is a phone available for patients, but it shuts down at 9 pm
Visiting hours are limited to an hour during the day, and two hours in the evening on weekdays, and a seven-hour window on the weekends.
The CIA or FBI would be proud of the measures taken by security for patient visitors. So many things get confiscated because the hospital is concerned about everything from what foods patients eat, to what clothes they can wear.
You have your meals served in the patient group room and eat as a group.
In our group therapy room, there’s a group TV, a group computer, games, and puzzles. One thing I noticed is that many patients use the time to do artwork. They draw pictures, color images, just to stimulate some creativity.
Some people walk up and down the narrow corridor of the wing, others just sleep and sleep.
Much of my time was spent in thought or writing. I guess subconsciously I hoped that perhaps in the future I could take what I’d written in my journal and put it to good use.
Day 2 was a Sunday which meant no group therapy. Essentially you are on your own that day. And that’s when sometimes the negative thoughts permeate back inside of you such as. “What did I do wrong?” “What will I be like when I leave this place?”
I tried to feel ‘normal’ by reading the Plain Dealer, going online and reading Browns-related stories by my friends Tony Grossi and Pat McManamon, and checking email.
I looked at travel websites for Hawaii and dreamed of laying on a hammock with the sounds of the ocean waves lulling me to a restful nap. Hawaii is on the top of my bucket list as the place I most want to travel to in my life. (More on that later)
But I also tried to make an effort to get to know my fellow patients.
I got a roommate that day. He was a fantastic guy who had survived cancer and had also recently retired. He was having issues with depression as he struggled to figure out what was next for him.
I played cards with a couple of other fellow patients. They all had heartbreaking stories of neglect, health problems, and emotional abuse. They, like me, needed real help.
One of the things you underestimate in this process is the effect that it has on your loved ones. For instance, when my Dad walked out of Fairview Hospital on Friday night, he cried to my sister that, “I don’t know how to help him.”
That’s often one of the biggest problems with depression or anxiety. As the ones suffering, we want to avoid being pointed out and stigmatized. But family and friends often have no idea what they can do, should do, what they can say, etc.
I think now if someone asked what can they could do to help, I’d say…just be around. Let me know you’re here for me like I am for you. Just stay close.
There are plenty of humorous things that you observe to help keep things light.
For instance, when outsiders call for patients, the phone is answered at the nurses’ station and has to be announced over the PA system.
I swear one particular patient got at least ten calls on that Sunday.
Dinner was 90 minutes late. That’s not a good way to make patients’ moods improve! There are snacks available in the group therapy room, but you can only eat so many saltines and graham crackers. I need my Salisbury steak!
There’s also a struggle as to who will control the remote for the TV. Some patients like movies, others want to watch HGTV. When that debate heated up, it became a good time for me to go read a book.
Day 3 was the first full day of activities since I checked myself into the hospital.
I started noticing a revolving door of patients being discharged, and new ones coming in. While they were happy to be going home, the concern for the people leaving was they aren’t feeling noticeably better than they were at check-in.
It is explained by therapists that this is a long process beyond just being treated at the facility. It’s not a magic wand.
Just like last night's dinner, lunch was late. Egads.
I started chatting with one of the custodians on the floor during that afternoon. I asked how it is seeing new people coming and going, what he observes overall, etc. He said one thing that always stuck with me, “It would be nice if life were a little easier.”
My Dad came by for a visit that day. He admitted to me that he broke down and cried to a neighbor who works in the medical field when he told the story of what happened to me.
“Is he in the right place? Will he be okay?” he asked her.
“He’ll be better and stronger for it,” she assured him. “Like a tiger that’s been let out of its cage.”
I also got my first experience in relaxation techniques. We went from something called ‘progressive muscle relaxation’ into ‘visualization.’ You tense each muscle for five seconds and then relax it for 30 seconds. The idea is to become more aware of the difference between tension and relaxation.
I still use progressive muscle relaxation as a tool to help me wind down if I’m feeling restless or tense.
Then we went to visualization. They used a videotape to go through it with us. You start by watching pleasing images and hearing soothing sounds, then you focus on your breathing and ‘finding the breath.’ You are using mental images to take a visual journey to a peaceful situation. Every day since I’ve been home, I’ve used Hawaiian music as my visualization. I have also done some meditation as well.
One of the things that the therapists tell us is that there are different techniques for different people. Some do yoga. Others have invested in Transcendental Meditation. It’s up to us as patients to do some research, try things out, and see what works best.
That night, I was a little restless. I felt like I was turning a corner but I wasn't sure. The nursing staff gave me a sleeping pill.
Day 4 began with the doctor waking me up to tell me that I would be going home that day. There’s relief with a touch of fear. I understood exactly what many of yesterday’s discharged patients were feeling.
There’s a reason why these people are professionals at the Behavioral Health Center. They arm you with the tools you need to succeed.
For instance, we talked a lot in group therapy about leisure time. The discovery of things we love to do, that give us a sense of purpose, to essentially figure out who we are.
There are leisure activities we do to relax, to socialize, to be physically and mentally fit, to compete, to help others. I think we came up with about 15 or 20 different leisure categories.
Suddenly, a light bulb went on for me. There are things I do already, or could do for all of these leisure categories. And if I needed ideas, they sent me home with 120 of them.
We also focused on stress management. It’s amazing how much I learned in that discussion. For years, I think I did every unhealthy strategy possible to cope with stress. When I was younger, I used to binge eat. As I got older, I was prone to zoning out in front of the TV or computer, withdrawing from people, and sleeping too much. These things cause so much damage in the long run.
Once you identify what you were doing wrong, and get suggestions on how to improve them, it’s so liberating.
Nowadays, I’m learning better ways to cope when things are tough. I’m trying to say ‘no’ more. I’m trying to express my feelings, rather than bottling them up. And maybe most importantly, I’m trying to do things to relax and recharge without feeling guilty.
Now as the hour of my discharge approaches, I’m feeling much calmer. Now I think I can make it.
When I look back now at my time at the Behavioral Health Clinic a little more than a year later, it was exactly what they said it would be. My life literally stopped for four days. My brain, my body, and my well-being, received a much needed re-boot.
But there's always the fear of taking a step back. How can I protect myself?
Chapter three: Coming back to life
Mental illness is just not something most people are comfortable talking about. But amazingly, you start realizing after you’ve been down the road I had to travel, that one of the things that does make you feel better is talking about it.
By talking about it, you deal with it head on, you figure out a pathway for hope, and maybe you can help someone else that’s had to deal with depression or any other kind of mental illness. By doing all of that, you help yourself in the process.
Once I came home from Lutheran, I was assigned a counselor who really helped me release some things that had been stored up inside of me, and also taught me ways to prevent myself from having future meltdowns.
One of the first things I brought up in my counseling sessions was that my ‘Rock Bottom' hospital experience may not have actually been my worst time in dealing with mental illness.
I had never told anyone that in 2015, there was one really ugly moment when I actually thought about suicide. Let me be clear, I didn’t try to kill myself. I didn’t think of ways to kill myself. But I was much like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” trying to think about what the world would be like if I wasn’t around.
At the time, I had had a rough stretch at work a few days earlier and just felt miserable. I cried on my couch. I felt all alone.
In my desperation, I called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I ended up doing an online chat with a very nice person who was able to calm me down.
After that night, I also became acquainted with a woman named Kathryn Goetzke, founder and CEO of iFred, the International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression. She has become a great friend and a source of inspiration in my search for hope.
I also admitted to my counselor that I had never allowed myself enough time to grieve over my Mom's passing on Halloween 2015. She died of sepsis due to complications from hernia surgery. These kinds of things boil over long-term as well.
Depression is something that can cripple you. It can incapacitate you. I'd argue that it's a lot tougher to live with depression than with the viral cardiomyopathy that I've dealt with since 1994.
Not long after I came home from the hospital after hitting ‘Rock Bottom,’ depression hit me. The first two days I had off after starting my new job here at WKYC, I felt it. "What do I do now? I don’t have to work. Maybe I’ll just flop down on the couch," you tell yourself. And when you do that, somehow you become susceptible to NEGATIVITY.
'What happens when I go back to work Monday?' 'What’s going to happen? Will I suck at this job? People aren't going to like me,' and so on. When you are depressed, you think every bad thing in life is going to happen. And the place you live in becomes a prison. God forbid anyone sees you like this, when you’re down and out. Who would want to hang around a person like that?
That’s the toxic stuff that goes into your brain when you are depressed.
So I've recognized the warning signs. But how can I prevent this from taking over my brain?
My goal in these past 12 months or so has been to get back to a life where there’s much more joy than melancholy.
Joy when you work (which can’t happen every day, I admit), but also joy in some leisure and life when you go home.
Now for the first time, in a long time, I don’t have the pressure to work 10-12 hour days anymore. I’m not working six-plus-days-a-week anymore.
So what do you do when you’re not working? Ahh, that’s the $64,000 question.
When you do work nights, which I do now and have done for a long time, it’s somewhat hard to interact with family and friends. When you’re free, everyone else is working.
Even on the first weekend that I was had off after starting to work at WKYC, I felt a little trapped again.
Consider that for the first time since 1999, I was off on a Saturday during football season. Usually on Sundays, I was a part of Browns coverage at ESPN Cleveland. That was done, too.
Now, suddenly I had nothing to do.
When all you’ve known for so many months, years, etc is work….and you don’t have that, what do you do? It took a little time, but I found my leisure activities.
Music has become my go-to.
I bought a Bluetooth speaker and have several playlists on my phone. My favorite thing to listen to is Dan Gibson’s Solitudes Hawaii, an hour of relaxing Hawaiian music. I will usually do that once a day in a meditation-like mode. I have a couple of Hawaiian-scented candles to help the process of visualization.
So what’s with my obsession with Hawaii? Visiting the four main islands of Oahu, Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai is at the top of my life goals. I want to take in the majestic sunsets, go for long walks on the beaches, stand on the deck of the Arizona Memorial, take the Road to Hana, go ziplining, and so much more.
The music puts me one step closer.
I have also tried to utilize my time to re-establish some relationships on Facebook. For years, I had resisted having a presence on the site. Looking back on it now, I’m pretty confident one of the main reasons was that I didn’t want my friends/family to figure out that I was depressed. It was better for me to just stay off of it and maintain the illusion.
But now I’m active on Facebook, and the list of the people I’ve caught up with is amazing. I've reconnected with everyone from friends from when I was growing up in Canton and Strongsville, to college pals and fraternity brothers from Bowling Green, and so much more.
I also read. Magazines, books, books on Hawaii, lol, and much more. I follow the circus that is our American politics closely. And I enjoy watching documentaries, classic movies, and more. The difference now is that I avoid the vegging and turning into a zombie. The things I choose to watch, I watch with pleasure, and when I’m done, I’m done.
There’s still a long way to go in my process of coming back to life. I still have a lot of work in front of me, but I feel more prepared for the challenges than I have for a long time.
If you are in need of help, here are some resources that I recommend:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
SAMHSA’s behavioral health treatment services locator is an easy and anonymous way to locate treatment facilities and other resources, such as support groups and counselors, to treat and manage depression.
You can also tweet me at @dinocleveland or write to me at email@example.com
Watch my full interview with Russ Mitchell in the player below: