Our next guest blog comes from Kevin at The Niche Movement and FYN Creative. In this candid entry originally published here, Kevin discusses his experience with depression and anxiety and some of the support that helps him in his journey. While his experience is unique, just like each of our own, we are sure many can relate to his struggles and victories. We thank Kevin for allowing us to share this with you. Read his story below
MY 2021 GOAL: MENTAL HEALTH – MY STORY OF DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
In the past, I’ve written about how I view February 1st as the true start of a new year. For a good chunk of my adult life, January has been a blah month. The weather is gross and cold. It takes a few days, if not a week, to re-group and re-energize from the holidays. January also is a reminder of grief as it’s the month that I have lost two special men in my life: my grandfather in 2006 and uncle in 2017.
Professionally, I have viewed February as the new chapter because it was a month I celebrated one of my WeWork office anniversaries and client projects and engagements would be in full swing.
This year, I am looking forward to this new chapter and officially a “new year” more now than ever.
Why now more than ever you ask?
Because the last several months have been some of the most difficult for me. I truly would describe it as surviving instead of thriving.
My main goal for 2021 isn’t to train for some brand new Ironman race or achieve some lofty professional or financial goal. While I have set some fitness and financial goals for myself, they are the top of the priority list.
To get it out there in the open my main goal and top priority next to being a husband and father: my mental health.
Right before the holidays I was officially diagnosed with depression with a side of anxiety and mounting, overwhelming life stressors.
Just how bad was it?
I admitted several things about my mental health recently but the one that stands out and that I am comfortable sharing is that I remember telling my therapist the favorite part of my day was the very end. The point where I could finally “check out” from all my responsibilities and just lay my head down, escape from my depression and everything pulling at me and go to bed.
And that hurt to admit because for those of you that really know me, I am generally a morning person and go getter for each day. However, even on a day like Christmas, I remember that was one of my toughest days because all I wanted to do was stay in bed, I felt really blue and I couldn’t necessarily put my finger on it. I literally had to force myself to just get through the day to eat dinner with my in-laws, spend time with Courtney and Noah, and muster up 15 minutes to facetime my family back in New Jersey.
Wow, I can’t believe I just typed all this and shared it. I have been dreaming up this post for a while and have been working on writing it for the last two weeks and it’s time to get it out there.
If you’re still with me, take a deep breath, I know I am.
So, where did all this begin?
Well, if I”m being honest with myself (and you the reader), I feel that signs of depression and ebbs and flows of quality mental health probably go as far back as my formative years in high school. Through high school and up until my first two years of college I was labeled as the “shy kid” and I think that brought a lot of my own self conscious and negative self talk along with it.
The next part where my mental health possibly started to suffer and this takes a lot to admit because I have been doubting it for the last few years is becoming an entrepreneur.
Being self employed over the last six plus years has brought it’s freedom and flexibility, huge accomplishments, fulfillment, and financial success directly because of my work. However, working for yourself also brings imbalances, instability, and periods of low motivation. Oh yea, and countless moments of decision fatigue, self-doubt, and harsh judgement on oneself.
I say all this because this is where I thought the root of my poor mental health was stemming from as far back as 2016 to almost present day. Then in summer of 2018, I remember the suicides of public figures Anothony Bourdain and Kate Spade really shook me. A few weeks later, it came to a point where I decided to work with a therapist about my professional and life goals after feeling in a bit of a dip. The one to two months of therapy didn’t really help because 1) I synced up with an unprofessional therapist and 2) whatever I did address with this therapist was only a band-aid and not really preparing me for what I really needed to work on.
The fall of 2018 I discovered Ironman races and made a fitness goal to sign up and complete a half ironman in 2019. January 2019 kicked off my formal 20 week training and for the first six months of 2019 I was feeling great. A huge testament to how working out has helped my mental health. The next few months after my Ironman race I missed the training and having something to look forward to. On a personal level our adoption process progressing and everything that brought with it mixed with a thriving year professionally, I was feeling pretty good.
Enter 2020. Outside looking in, January and February of 2020 should have been a fantastic start to the year. Courtney and I were raising a healthy beautiful baby and were just surrounded by so much family from the holidays. So I hit the ground running being a fatherpreneur.
I was teaching two classes at GW while balancing multiple moving client projects for FYN Creative and relaunching a content strategy for The Niche Movement. In the first two months of 2020 I was doing it – I had the work life balance I desired and quite frankly was scared I wouldn’t have when we started a family. However, as I look back, I definitely struggled with the “January blues.”
Looking back and analyzing my symptoms and talking with my therapists, those blues ran well past January of 2020 and I struggled with bouts of adoption postpartum. Yes, there were nights and days with little sleep. Yes, there was a crying baby at times. Yes, there was mounting household responsibilities and a to-do list that never ended personally and professionally.
However, what I was really struggling with was this term adoption postpartum. Here Courtney and I were, less than 2-3 months after Noah was born and a flood of emotions I experienced between November 2019 thru February 2020 started to unfold. The happiest of emotions seeing your baby born. Shock from having 10 days notice from the day we were matched with Noah’s birthmom to when she went into labor. The inability for personal and privacy reasons not being able to talk about all the things that are involved with the adoption process. The reality and non-existence playbook of how to navigate an open adoption and relationship with Noah’s birthmom. The legal process and all the financials to officially complete Noah’s adoption that wouldn’t be finalized until June of 2020.
So here I was, 60 days into 2020 (pre-pandemic) and was all of the sudden faced with recurring and new buckets that needed my full attention. I remember meeting with Joanna Platt a friend and colleague and she helped literally write these down on paper and it was eye-opening. Staring at this sketch, it still didn’t hit me that underneath all of these buckets was my mental health. Another reflection I have is that because I was so busy personally and professionally during this time I had “distractions” that keep my mind moving instead of an echo-chamber. However, I still had signs of depression: peaks and valleys of motivation, shrinking window of tolerance, a lot of sleep or desire to sleep countered with lack of sleep.
Fast forward to the end of March when the pandemic was unfolding and here I am faced with the fear of the unknown and fear that many of us experienced watching the news. Professionally, I was scared and playing worst case scenarios in my mind around my business (i.e. losing income, projects, and fulfillment). Through some resilience, creativity, advocacy, and a bit of luck, for the next several months I pivoted and had just enough work on my plate while balancing being promoted to a pandemic parent.
The quality of my mental health I described above in the first two months of 2020 continued to deteriorate as these new mounting pressures and fear of the unknown around the pandemic evolved. I specifically can recall this moment where Courtney and I took Noah to a park by our house in one of the first warmer days in late April. It was magical watching my son observe the clouds, trees, birds, and grass in a park he will grow up in. In the inside though, I was hurting. My mind wasn’t present. I wasn’t getting quality sleep and felt fatigued all the time.
A new project for work that required my full attention matched with a running goal Court and I set for ourselves and some new fitness routines helped put a band-aid on these feelings in May and early June. However the feeling of fatigue really heightened in the later half of June to the point I went to the doctors to get checked out and they just immediately thought I had COVID. I remember when I got my test results back NEGATIVE, I talked to my doctor and she said “fatigue also comes with depression.” Here I was sitting in my car having a telehealth visit with my doctor and she said the “d” word and I remember vividly being shocked that it could be depression. At the same time, I went on the defensive that she would even entertain that I may be depressed without ever seeing me and casually mentioned it.
Now, with sunshine and warmer weather in full swing paired with visits from both our parents, occasional socially distanced gatherings with friends, and a once a week visit to support our local restaurants to eat outside, I started to feel a bit more like myself again. Labor day, one of my favorite times of the year, was here before I knew it and I was feeling pretty good personally and professionally.
I was mastering fatherhood. I pivoted my business and had client engagements that excited me. Most importantly, I felt that my fatigue went away. Was I out of this “funk” and past this depressive state? I thought so.
I was wrong. Dead wrong.
I was just catching enough oxygen, mentally speaking, to prepare for a couple of more buckets I was about to add to my load.
It was the first week of October and Court and I were in a routine that made the whole pandemic parenting thing bearable while trying to be two work from home professionals. In fact we even found time to book a date day on a Friday afternoon and it was glorious. In reality, though I was just getting by. And the week ahead was about to be filled with several surprises.
One of those surprises came on October 8th, at 1:36pm “Mom Cell” popped onto my phone while I was on the 4th floor playing with Noah. To preface this, my parents rarely call me let alone in the middle of the day. I immediately answered and all I heard was my mom say “Daddy is having a heart attack.” A phone call I played in my head more than I like to admit and here I was 4.5 hours from New Jersey. As soon as I got off the phone I was panicking, spiraling thinking the worst and I was lost. But with the quick thinking and calmness of Courtney, she had me packed and on the road in under 10 minutes. I don’t want to revisit this entire day, but thank god to the doctors and cardiologists at two different hospitals, they saved my father’s life and I was there by 6:30pm to give him a kiss on the forehead and order him dinner while he was recovering in the ICU.
For the second time in under a year, work and everything else (friends, fitness, personal time) in my life took an immediate back seat. All I knew was my parents needed me. My wife needed me. My son needed me. I spent the next 10 days in NJ helping my dad get back on his feet, create and implement lifestyle change for my parents, and help around their house. As hard as this was, I will say this, I would do this again in a heartbeat. One upside to this tragic event was that 48hrs after my father was omitted from the hospital, he and I went out for a drive. We wound up stopping by his high school friend’s 3 story music store in Randolph, NJ. I saw my dad in his glory catching up with his friend Jerry and playing every piano and keyboard in the store flawlessly. It brought me to tears and something I will never forget.
I then returned to Virginia where Noah was developing new skills and personality and quickly approaching 11 months old. It was the longest I was away from him. I slowly got back into the groove of pandemic parenting, picking up with work and teaching classes, and working out. But something wasn’t right.
The fatigue came back. The inner critic crept it. I started to feel anxious and overwhelmed easily. It was like I was hanging on this pendulum swinging 100 mph and at any minute I would snap or fall off. I’d either lose motivation, get easily irritated, feel an anxiety attack coming on, or just instant fatigue, like completely drained physically and mentally. Courtney witnessed it and I know Noah indirectly observed it. I wasn’t myself. And I remember during one of my episodes Courtney calmly took Noah into the other room and said “Dada isnt’ feeling well.” That moment really shook me.
I raised the white flag and knew I needed professional help. The tough part is I knew I didn’t want to work with the therapist I saw in 2018 but that was my only lead. It almost came to that after I literally reached out to 15+ counseling offices in the DMV area only to be turned down or put on a wait list. Luckily, I was referred to a therapist taking on clients right before Thanksgiving. In the first week of December I finally have my first in-take. Since then, on a weekly basis, I have been meeting with two different therapists about two separate but similar topics in my life. To this date I have completed 30+ sessions and within the last few weeks I can finally see it paying off.
My life stressors, known to me now as “buckets” are finally categorized and prioritized. I’m working on creating boundaries, my word for 2021. I’m trying not to overthink and live in the present (easier said than done). I’m learning to stand up for myself. I’m improving my communication and how and when I share feelings to those I love and support me the most. Most importantly, I am calming my own inner critic little by little. I am learning to look at myself with a new perspective. I’ve adjusted my expectations and evaluating the perceived standards I’ve created that aren’t helpful to me.
This year I’m testing new things to holistically get back to feeling “normal” whatever that may be. In January, I deleted social media from my life for the entire month and went 28 out of 31 days without alcohol. I’m finding myself in better patterns of sleep. More now than ever I know that exercise is 100% a must to feel great mentally and it’s even better if i can get a workout completed in the first 90 minutes of waking up (not always possible though when I am on morning duty with Noah). I’m trying to eat and eliminate/add certain foods while taking natural supplements to energize me. But I won’t lie, I can’t kick the sweets 🙂 #unclesnacky
Before I close this out, I don’t want to lead you all on either. Using the surfing analogy my therapist shared with me this week, I still fall off the board and will continue to even though I have seeked help. And that’s ok to fall off. This past weekend I had 3-4 “good days” and thought I had figured out a routine to a good mental health routine. Then Sunday, I woke up with what I thought was a full night’s rest and I felt behind the 8 ball the whole first half of the day. It made me feel so frustrated and annoyed and angry with myself.
Why was I feeling this way? Why does this sometimes come out of nowhere? What I realized though, is I am aiming for perfection and creating an unwarranted and unrealistic “streak of good days.” That is impossible. I just need to know that I can get back up on the board and not beat myself up when I do fall off. Sometimes that’s easier said than done especially when I am trying to be the best husband and father I can be to Courtney and Noah.
That’s why I’m sharing this. Life is hard. Depression and anxiety is even harder, especially with mounting “buckets” you are holding. Oh yeah, add on the one year anniversary of the pandemic.
I am lucky to have the family and friends I have. I couldn’t be doing this without Courtney. She has been the biggest supporter of me and now more than ever she is my biggest cheerleader. She’s been impacted by what I’m going through as well and deserves just as much credit for working on herself. Thank you my love.
I also have to thank my best friend John for being someone I can just call and talk about therapy and this process because he just gets it and there’s never judgement. I also want to thank cousin Jen for sharing different perspectives, her own stories, and always encouraging me to go easy on myself. I also have my friends Rod and Austen to thank. I had coffee with them in November just a few weeks after my dad’s heart attack and they were so supportive and encouraged me to talk to someone. Lastly, I have to thank my therapists that are on this journey with me to manage my depression and anxiety.
If you have gotten this far, thank you. Thank you for reading. Thank you for understanding. If you can relate to this – either you have felt this way or you know someone that may be going through something similar – please reach out to them or seek the help. You won’t regret it.
Last, if you ever want to talk or share, I’m here to listen – no judgement. Just DM or email me: email@example.com
Kevin O’Connell is a serial entrepreneur, author, and instructor at George Washington University’s School of Business and General Assembly with 15 years of higher education experience. Kevin launched The Niche Movement and FYN Creative . He has delivered TEDx talks, released the book “The New Rules to Finding a Career You Love”, and is a founding member of 1 Million Cups D.C.