And finding my way back out again
Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (3), pp. 20-23
My life's journey is not unlike that of many aspiring professionals. I started out my career with drive and a determination to succeed in order to get ahead in life. I sought out mentors, people with influence who could help me with the building blocks of life and work. The trip was challenging but there were lots of rewards along the way.
The people we meet in life—friends, family, teachers, spiritual leaders, artists, doctors, counsellors—influence us in a positive or negative way. If your self-esteem is not rock solid, the opinions of these people will have more power over you. Your shield of self-esteem may be Star Wars—strong, molded over the years to repel what you feel is wrong and invite what you feel is right. Or it may be tinfoil-thin, easily damaged by small nicks and knocks along the way. If you are like me, it can feel like sometimes you have a Star Wars shield, and sometimes you have a shield made of foil.
For much of my adult life, my self-esteem was of the Stars Wars variety. I was a successful manager with a major retailer, and I had been given the opportunity to open my own store and hire more than 120 employees, building something that very few people get to build in their working career. I was committed to my marriage and to raising our three wonderful kids. My career enabled us to raise our kids with mom at home, a rarity in this day and age.
But after a while, I felt that I was all shield—the real me wasn't there anymore. I had an impressive façade, but that was all I was: a façade. I had no idea who I was behind that façade.
The onset of loneliness
Two years ago, I began experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. This affected my ability to make decisions. My Star Wars shield began to crumble, and behind that façade, I began to erode. I had increasingly depressive thoughts and made increasingly poor decisions.
I hid my growing anxiety from my colleagues and family. At work, I focused only on the tasks that needed to be done immediately and neglected the mundane, day-to-day responsibilities necessary for the efficient management of a business. I started to spend more time in my office instead of checking in with my employees. This led to a gap in communication and, eventually, a rift between my employees and me. At home, I was exhausted; communication with family members suffered as well.
I have always responded to conflict with a "fight or flight" response. Anxiety kicks me into flight mode. When I am anxious, even the most basic conflicts give me heart palpitations and I feel the need to escape my immediate environment. This made interactions with my colleagues—particularly the more abrasive ones—more challenging, even though I am fairly adept at dealing with difficult personalities when I am in a non-anxious frame of mind. Conflicts at home also escalated.
I stopped seeking the support of those I trusted because I did not want to be seen as weak. This made things worse, and my communication with others at work and at home all but ceased. I became isolated and lonely.
Hitting rock bottom
In life, we can hope that we find like-minded partners, people who understand our perspective, speak with us honestly and support us through the rough patches. Unfortunately, the romantic partner I chose as my wife and the mother of our children did not see the world in the same way that I did. She became angry with me and my mental state, accusing me of being a narcissist, not capable of reason or expressing myself. This pressure amplified my feelings of loneliness and depression.
If I had known what I know now about depression, anxiety and loneliness, we might have been able to work together. But our deteriorating relationship pushed me further and faster towards a deeper depression and anxiety. I wasn't able to explain what was going on in a way she could understand, and she was not able to offer help. Ultimately, I moved into our RV, which was parked in our driveway. I had become a stranger in my own home.
I slowly pushed friends and family out of my life, hoping my depression and anxiety would pass on their own. I isolated myself so completely that the people I cared about stopped reaching out. On my most recent birthday, for example, I received no phone calls; no one in my extended family contacted me at all. Immediate family members expressed only minimal emotion towards me.
On some level, my situation was baffling to me. How could I be in this place? I had been a family man! An attentive employer! What had happened to me? Where had all the emotionally supportive, influential people in my life gone? How had I become so overwhelmed by depression and anxiety?
At a really low point, after my wife and I had separated, I contacted my youngest son on his 11th birthday and asked if he'd like to spend some time with me on his special day. I was crushed when he told me, "I'm too busy right now, but thanks." I have always been close with my children; to realize how bruised our relationship had become over a period of two years was devastating.
The long climb up
As I lay in bed after that phone call with my son, I did a lot of soul searching. I came to understand that life is a series of decisions. Sometimes we have a lot of information to base our decisions on, but often we don't. We make decisions based on gut instinct or interior judgement, which depend on how strong our sense of self is, or how healthy our self-esteem is. Often, we only get one shot at making a serious decision, one that impacts love, family or work.
I realized that morning that my decisions had distanced me from the things that I believe are the most important. I had somehow allowed the battle with anxiety and depression to take over my life.
Ultimately, even the simplest decisions are affected by our emotional state. Decisions we make in a positive frame of mind can bring us great joy and pleasure. But if we allow depression and anxiety to go unchecked, our decisions reflect our negative state of mind, setting us on a course that can be hard to reverse.
I didn't come up with any answers as I lay there in bed. The thought of re-examining all the decisions I've made in my life is overwhelming, especially when I struggle to get through each day. Sometimes I think it's like going into battle with no fuel in your tank. I see the individual with the Star Wars shield and the person with the shield of tinfoil. It's like these two individuals are waging an epic struggle inside my head, a war between Good and Evil.
Eventually, something had to change. When I started to avoid my responsibilities at work, I knew I was ready to look for support. I sought help through my employee assistance program. I also contacted my local health unit and got a referral to a psychiatrist.
Seeking help is never easy. Many people have opinions about whether you’re doing it the "right" way. In my case, some people said I was playing the victim. Some thought I needed to be alone to work things out. Others thought that I was being selfish, that I should focus instead on what I was doing to my kids, to my life. But I know from experience that everyone has their own right way. No matter how you look at it, it is an uphill battle to build bonds once they’ve been broken. It takes a lot of time and patience and self-compassion.
In my quest for recovery, I've tried medication, counselling, even a lot of exercise, which I know is supposed to help. I took a demotion at work as I felt I couldn't take the organization to the next level. I let go of a lot of pride. There are days when I feel overwhelmed, like I can't do it. But I have discovered a deeper appreciation for everyone fighting a personal mental health battle. I know I am not alone, and that many are fighting worse battles—possibly with weaker shields.
Hope in the darkness
I've made a point of surrounding myself with positive, honest relationships. One-sided relationships that were enabling rather than truly supportive had to go. I started reaching out to people online to try to make new connections. It was there that I met my new partner, who helped me through some really lonely times. I am grateful for all that she has done, but I'm also scared to lose her; I don’t want to make any decisions that will result in distance between her and me.
My recovery is not over. After a three-and-a-half-month leave from work, I returned to my job. The lead-up to my return brought its own anxiety, but my employer was supportive and gave me lots of space to re-introduce myself. My anxiety eased, and the employees were genuinely happy to see me back. While I still occasionally slip back into feelings of low self-worth, I take things one day at a time.
I still have limited contact with my kids. My ex feels that my illness is not healthy for my kids to see, even though I am recovering and the help I have received is making me a better person. My new partner has been supportive, even offering up her house so that one or all of the kids can stay with me. But at this point I feel that the only way I will have more time with my kids is to battle in court with my ex, who has clearly established herself as our children's gatekeeper.
I hope that in sharing my story, I can be the voice for others who are waging similar battles. We are not alone. Loneliness is a state of mind, and it can be overcome. But it takes work, and we won't win every battle. We need to build up our shields slowly, surround ourselves with compassionate and supportive people and make decisions in a positive frame of mind.
About the author
Jay lives in northern BC and is the father of three children, ages 11, 13 and 15. He works for a large retail outlet and volunteers with the local 4H club. He was married for 13 years but is currently separated