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Why I'm Taking a Mental Health Break
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I’m struggling to write this post.
COVID left many of us struggling. I know I am not alone. I am, nonetheless, struggling with repeated psychological body blows.
In 2018, I lost both of my parents. The last years of their lives were the very worst of mine as I struggled to help them. It was similarly difficult, I believe, for my siblings.
In 2020, I ran for Congress as a Democrat in Utah. Going in, I knew I could not win, but I decided to suspend reality and work to win the race. Concluding that money was the key to success, I made 30,000 fundraising phone calls during the campaign. To be clear, we logged calls carefully. That is the actual number.
Those phone calls most often went unanswered. Those were the easy calls. Even then, the technology I used facilitated my doing two things, leaving a voice mail and sending a follow-up email after each call. In an instant, I had to decide which messages from a portfolio of emails and voice mail messages to send. At its easiest, it was incredibly intense.
The next most common outcome was a brief, unproductive conversation with someone not interested in helping.
Then, in roughly equal numbers, I spoke with people who, on the one hand, donated and, on the other hand, told me in precisely these words to “fuck off.” Across all the phone calls, I raised an average of about $5 per call. Getting a $100 donation for an “uphill” race in Utah was a big win.
I’m able to reflect on the campaign and see some wins:
We won the Democratic nomination in a three-way race with over 80 percent of the votes
We raised important issues
We held a popular incumbent accountable for his votes that hurt people and the environment
We garnered more votes than the incumbent did to get elected in the 2017 special election
Still, the loss was in some ways beyond comprehension. Despite working full-time on the campaign, I did no better in percentage terms than my predecessor, who raised a fraction of the money I did and kept his day job. It was a crushing defeat.
Throughout the campaign, I worked closely with other Democratic candidates and actively with the Utah for Biden campaign. I hoped for a position in the Biden administration as my fallback. In time, I confirmed the transition team added my name to the approved list of candidates for positions.
Amid peak COVID lockdowns, the strategy for landing a position in the administration eluded me. As the months went by, the disappointment grew.
I was broken.
Having endured this series of painful experiences all while preparing ourselves emotionally for a move to DC (at least part-time), we were mentally prepared for a change. We moved to Florida.
Since it became clear that I would not be joining the Biden Administration, I wrote a book, Superpowers for Good, and resumed writing and podcasting. We recently hosted SuperCrowd22, a fantastic conference featuring some of the best people I know, working to solve the world’s big problems.
I love that work. You cannot imagine the joy I get from speaking to changemakers virtually every day about their inspiring work and the skills that help them such impact.
When we moved, Gail and I launched a show called Our Solar Electric Trailer Journey. I’ve loved working as true peers in a professional way with Gail. She is brilliant.
None of that, not the change of venue, not doing the work I love, nor time spent with the love of my life, has fixed all that is broken in me.
I am broken.
Recently, I received a mental health diagnosis that explains some of my difficulties. I’m learning about the mental health industry firsthand now.
The mental health industry is also broken. It is difficult to get help when you need it. Unless you have planned your own suicide, the system is likely to deny you access to treatment or refer you to providers who aren’t equipped to diagnose and treat you.
Having worked with psychologists (who are doctors but not MDs) over the years, I am a big fan. Still, they are overworked, and insurance often doesn’t cover their help. My psychiatrist is covered, but he focuses more on the meds than on me.
Just last week, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended anxiety screening at the primary care level for adults without symptoms. If implemented, this would be a vital step forward, but I am concerned there simply aren’t available resources to help everyone who needs it. About 40 percent of women and 25 percent of men experience anxiety disorders.
So, my strategy for dealing with mental health begins now with a break. I’ll be taking three weeks, from October 8 through the end of the month, off from Superpowers for Good. I’ll queue up some “best of” episodes while I’m gone. Enjoy them!
During this break, I’ll take some time with Gail to travel and relax. We’re planning a trip up the coast to see the Carolinas. We’ll share our travels at OurSolarTrailer.com.
Then, I will take two weeks to work on myself. I hate saying that. It sounds selfish or at least self-centered. This year, however, I have finally concluded that without some focus on my mental health, I literally may not survive. Despite my mood at times, I believe that I add more than I extract to this world.
Over the years, I’ve found some great reading on mental health. I plan to revisit this reading, focusing on completing the assigned mental health exercises. A dear friend and psychologist, Dr. Paul Jenkins, likens mental fitness to physical fitness with the mantra that you’ve got to “do the reps.” By that, he means you’ve got to take time to regularly do the mindfulness and other exercises that build mental health.
Paul’s book, Pathological Positivity, is my favorite of this genre. I’ve read it three or four times. The book guides you to see the good in every challenge and the opportunities to improve your life by taking action.
Another helpful book is Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism. This classic and Seligman’s related research helped create the treatment modality known as cognitive behavioral therapy. The thesis—to which I subscribe—is that you can convince yourself to genuinely believe different, better, healthier ideas than you may currently think about yourself and the world around you.
Recently, Mark Horoszowski recommended Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle. It is a powerful book that provides a step-by-step guide to coping with stress, changing the neural pathways that govern your response to triggers. The book demands compliance with a variety of exercises that you complete regularly. Like creating good habits, you must repeat them over and over.
Finally, I discovered Self Esteem by Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning. Currently feeling the unrelenting weight of my recent failures, I found comfort in this book. Like the others, its effectiveness requires investing time and energy in exercises that enable you to defend yourself against your inner critic. If you don’t learn to stand up for yourself to that inner critic, your failures can trigger unhealthy downward spirals.
Sharing this is extraordinarily difficult for me. I hate being the center of attention, which is why my work focuses on the great things that others are doing. Furthermore, my mental health is not presently optimal for publicly exposing my weaknesses and failures. I am feeling dangerously vulnerable.
Here’s the thing. I’m convinced I am not alone. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 21 percent of adults experience mental health challenges every year. I’m glad that because of the work of NAMI and other people and organizations that it is easier now than ever before to talk openly about mental health issues. Still, there is a stigma attached that isn’t there for cancer, diabetes or a broken leg.
That stigma contributes to a critical problem: The average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years.
I hope sharing my experience will embolden someone else to get the help they need before it’s too late.
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