Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.
Let’s get naked about mental health!
In this episode, it got complicated. I started writing the transcript and then fell down a rabbit hole. If you have ever seen someone finish a bottle of tequila and then try walking home, that’s kind of what it was like. Aye, I made it home, sobered up, and then retraced my steps to find a more direct route.
When I post, I always use the hashtag #keeptalking. A couple episodes back, I started posting with a new hashtag, #startlistening. I first discussed it in the interview I did with Leo Flowers on his podcast that inspired me to do this one. I do talk, but then I stop because people aren’t listening. They hear what I say but aren’t communicating with me.
Last week, a few things came together, like conversations, realizations, my sense of humor, being in a cast for eight weeks and a couple songs. Jake and Elwood Blues and Pink Floyd will be joining us for this episode.
Before getting into the episode, the important stuff: I just want to remind everybody that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or any kind of professional with an –ist at the end of their title. I am just a guy who has been there.
If you are in crisis, or know somebody who is, I implore you to reach out to a professional. In the United States, there is now a national hotline you can call or text. 988.
I’ll repeat that because it bears repeating. If you or someone you know is in crisis, I implore you to reach out to a professional. Dialing or texting 988 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.
Now, let’s get into the episode.
I now understand Robin William’s quote better, about how he always felt being alone was the worst possible thing and then realized that being made to feel alone while being surrounded by people was worse.
I’ve spoken about it before in podcasts, that an issue that I have is people not listening, not comprehending what I am saying. Aye, I get it. I understand. Clinical depression can be very difficult to wrap your head around unless you have been there.
As humans, we try to understand things by comparing it with our own experiences, the known. Most understand depression as a bad day, the feelings associated with bad moments. Clinical depression is not that. Talking about the desire to commit suicide can be like talking about an alternate universe where our laws of physics don’t work.
Especially during Suicidal Awareness Month, I saw a ton of posts about reaching out to people to check on them. It is a good start. But there was something off about the message for me and I didn’t understand why.
I spoke about it in previous episodes, about how when I was suicidal, or even just in a depression, everybody and anybody could have reached out to me, and they all would have gotten the same answer: “I’m fine.” Hell, people could have stopped by for pizza and beer, and they would have found somebody that was fine, a-okay, laughing and joining in the conversation. They would never have known I was not okay, not fine, and planning to kill myself.
Both times I stood on that doorstep to suicide with my hand on the knob, about to pass through, there was a long, long list of people I could have called. I come from a huge family, and they care about me and love me. I have an even larger group of friends. Both times, 20 years apart, I called one person, Rachel.
I can remember going through the list of people in my mind the first time. In 2000, I called Rachel, though we had really only known each other for a handful of years. In the second instance, in 2021, I remember going through my contact list on my phone. I called Rachel again.
Why her? Out of the hundreds of contacts? The simple fact is that I know that I am truly blessed. Those hundreds of contacts are not merely acquaintances. A large, close-knit family makes up a large portion of them and even larger group of close friends ring them.
Other conversations, about other situations, began to intrude on to my thoughts on communicating about depression and suicide. A web of understanding began to form. Large pieces were missing, but the framework began to appear in my mind. I started following the paths open to me.
There was a conversation I had with a friend of mine on another topic. He was upset with me. I would talk to everybody at work except him. I would also stutter more when I spoke to him. He took it personally and finally told me so.
I told him he should take it personally.
I explained that we had had a few conversations about it. Half a dozen? He’s one of those fast talkers that cut people off. He explained that he does that to everybody. I countered that I wasn’t everybody; I was a person who stuttered. Him cutting me off and talking over me made me stutter more and just not want to talk to him.
He finally understood, stopped cutting me off, I stopped stuttering, and we had good conversations. We still do.
It was a lesson I learned a long time ago as a PWS, a person who stutters. I consider my stutter a superpower. For 50 years now, I have called it my asshole meter. It saves me a lot of time.
It works like this. I begin or enter a conversation. Immediately, how they respond to the stutter tells me if it is worth investing anymore time in the conversation and the person. If they don’t listen to me, cut me off, or talk over me, I move on.
Yeah, it might sound harsh, but after 50 years you pick up on things. I do give people the benefit of the doubt, try again, but that is about it. It is just something that I know. I don’t take it personally.
Aye, it is a lot like dating. I am not everybody’s cup of tea, and they are not mine. I don’t take rejection personally. I see rejection as an opportunity to meet someone else that is more compatible, for the both of us. The sooner we break up the better.
But what happens when I am left as the only person in the room not talking? When I don’t have a date for the prom? I take a break. I step back. Leave to collect myself.
Mix in the depression and I isolate.
Leo Flowers and I spoke about it when he interviewed me on his podcast, “Before You Kill Yourself.”
I forget exactly what we were talking about, but it comes in at about 18 minutes into the interview that can be found on my website.
“Your friends,” Leo said, “don’t really know how to be supportive when you share your suicidal idealizations, and they believe they and their friendship should be enough to keep you around…and I think people miss out on the opportunity to be curious as to why [you] might have these suicidal idealizations. And try to understand where it is coming from as opposed to saying, “don’t kill yourself because I’ll miss you.”
“To me,” Leo continued, “that response is selfish because [they] haven’t taken the time to hear [you] and listen to [you] articulate where these emotions are coming from.”
Then, this framework in my mind, this web of thoughts and ideas, began to have a soundtrack. Or at least my favorite line to a Blues Brothers song.
In the song, “I Don’t Know,” Jake says, “Baby! What did I do to piss you off this time?”
–sorry, it’s the way my mind works and, when I’m following ideas, I’ve learned to just allow it to wander down any path that presents itself. This particular path led me to Jake and Elwood Blues and then a book I read a long time ago.
Aye, just go with me on this one.
Deborah Tannin taught me what possibly could have pissed off Jake’s “Baby.”
In her book, “You Just Don’t Understand; Women and Men in Conversation,” first published in 1990, Tannin talks about how men and women hear differently, approach conversations differently, have different conversation styles. If you have ever had a relationship, I am sure you have encountered this.
The book, a NY Times Best Seller, was published before sexual roles got complicated, so generalizations are made. For the sake of the podcast, I’m going to use the generalizations, but keep in mind that I have realized that my approach is much more “feminine” in nature though I can also be very masculine in my approach.
A woman comes home from work and tells her husband that she had a bad day. The conversation quickly makes the day even worse for the wife and for the husband.
The man approaches the conversation from the masculine, “how can I fix this?”
The woman approaches the conversation from the feminine, “I don’t need anything fixed, I just want to be heard.”
The man gets frustrated because his attempts at fixing things are being rebuffed and he feels ignored. The woman gets pissed off because her attempts at being heard are being ignored.
The wife stalks away and the husband starts hearing the line of from the song: “Baby! What did I do to piss you off this time?”
As I said, I am very much in touch with my feminine side. When I talk to people about my depression, and particularly about my suicidal thoughts, I don’t need things fixed. I know how to fix them. I want to be understood. I want to be heard. I want to connect.
Rachel heard me, both times.
If I don’t think I am being heard, I walk away.
“Baby! What did I do to piss you off this time?”
Jake, I now have an answer for you: “You pissed me off by not hearing me and I just wasted a lot of time and emotional effort for nothing.”
Maybe that is why I withdraw and isolate when I’m in a depression? Why I hide it. It is the path of least resistance, and the path of least resistance is the best I can do at times. If I am in a depression, it means my emotional reserves are gone. When the depression becomes severe, I barely have the energy to function let alone explain myself again, try to talk over the noise and the people talking over me. Talk over the rejection.
It is much like when I broke my ankle. I had to walk home three blocks. The best I could absolutely do was the most direct route, and I almost didn’t make it. Talking to people when I am in a deep depression would have been like if someone had asked me to go out of way and pick them something up at the store. It ain’t happening.
…and that does not ring true to me. Parts of it. Where the hell has the path led me now?
It’s led me to SW Philly and my Coci Carol?
My Coci Carol is popping into my head, so I am going with it. Bear with me here. There is a whole other twist that is coming into play. Rejection and abandonment. Follow along as best as you can. I think it’s important.
Coci means “aunt” in Polish. I grew up calling her Aunt Coci. I finally learned better but she was still Aunt Coci to me. Some of my earliest memories of childhood revolve around her and her home, a block up the street from my house.
My own home was, well, not safe. Not stable. My mother was bipolar, so things were always interesting and a surprise. Coci’s house was my safe place, my comfort place. Her and her own children, all older than me, were my home. When my mother would have an episode and go into the hospital, my father would eventually drop me and my brother off at Coci’s house.
This is where there is a dichotomy, a story of polar opposites–no pun intended. One of my earliest detailed memories is being at the shore with Coci in North Cape May, NJ. I was laughing and playing in the bay. I was probably about four or five? I stepped on something slimy, and it came up to stare at me with one eye. I went screaming to my Coci on the beach. She laughed and said I should have grabbed it, that it was a flounder and was dinner.
Another of my earliest childhood memories is bolting out of my Coci’s house in SW Philly. I was six or so and running away from home. My safe place was being ripped from me. I forget why, but my father had stopped by to bring me home to my mom, even though she was still sick. I ran.
I got about a block before my very huge cousin caught up to me. He was crying and apologizing but scooped me up anyway. I fought. It was like, well, a scrawny six-year-old against a giant. He carried me back to my Coci’s house where my father brought me back to my mother. I was taken from safety to a place where I was not safe.
So, I run from the unsafe place, where people are not listening, to the safe place, the depression? Where the battle is not with other people, only with myself. Alone, I have been taught, is where I feel safest. Me against everybody. Me against the world. Me against the universe. I might fail, but at least I do not have to count on anybody.
–there is really something important there you can find in the movie, Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams talking to the math guy about Will’s friends.
There is still that inner child, that scrawny kid with the skinned knees and bad haircut, that felt rejected and abandoned often, most often by the family that loved him. I was abandoned by the people who were supposed to take care of me. I started taking care of myself. Maybe not well, but somebody had to do it.
It was another part of the interview with Leo: adultification. I was forced into the role of an adult, independent, when I should not have been, when I was too young to handle it. Without ever having really come to grips with it, I brought those survival coping mechanisms into adulthood where they became unhealthy behaviors.
When things get bad, I count on me because I am the only one who I can count on. There is no safe and stable place for me unless I create it.
And now another song is starting to play, the opening of Pink Floyd’s “Keep Talking.”
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. And something happened that unleashed the power of imagination. We learned to talk.”
After those millions of years of not talking, partners were finally able to communicate, and I’d guess it was about three days after that Jake and Elwood Blues appeared on the scene singing, “Baby! What did I do to piss you off this time?”
So, I stalk into the other room to be alone, where I might not be okay, might not be fine, but it is where I feel safest. The other room might be a path to self-destruction, but at least I walk it alone where I am not reaching for someone’s hand for help, and it is not there or torn away when I need it most.
Why Rachel? I imagine there was a gut feeling that she would not pull her hand away.
As with many things, I don’t really know.
This has been a tough transcript to write. Imagine what it would have been like without the script.
But let’s get away from Leo, Jake & Elwood, Coci, and Pink Floyd. Let’s find our way back to the main path, communication. What can you do to #start listening to a person who is struggling? If you are struggling, what can you do to #keep talking?
On International Stuttering Awareness Day, I repost a piece I did on how to talk to a person who stutters that has simple rules. 1) Don’t finish their sentences, 2) Don’t tell them to relax and 3) Don’t talk over them. You have to keep in mind that you are having a conversation with someone that is different and different rules apply. I write that all that we want is to be heard.
Their reality, my reality, is different than yours. Fluency is natural for you where as it is a battleground for people who stutter.
The same goes for someone suffering from depression or other mental health issues. For some reason or another, we are pushed into isolation, and we should not do that and should not be there; it is the unhealthiest place for us. How do we end up there?
The first thing you need to think about is should you reach out? Seriously. The best of intentions can go wrong. What’s the saying? “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”
I understand. I really do. I have a family member who has told me they have the emotional intelligence of a shrub. They are just going to try and fix things. If they reached out to me? And I was desperate enough to respond with something beyond, “I’m fine, a-okay”? That would end up being a step along the path deeper into my personal hell.
Another thing to think about before you reach out is do you have the time and the emotional strength to hear what the person has to say? Again, I do understand if you don’t, and I do not hold it against you if you don’t.
I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been in a place where I knew a close friend, a loved one, was going through a bad time but I just couldn’t do anymore. It really took me about 40 years to stop being pissed off at my mom’s family and to start understanding that they have lives and issues as well.
You have to put yourself first.
If you are ready to make the investment to reach out, be prepared. You will not be having a conversation with someone who’s reality is the same as yours. It may be completely beyond anything you might know or have experienced.
The absolute worst thing you can do is point out to them that their reality is wrong. You can’t just tell them to suck it up. You need to be prepared to approach them from different angles as opposed to head on.
That’s what Rachel did with me the first time. I remember the conversation from 2000 vividly. Not once did she say, “don’t do this because I love you.” She came at me from a different angle. Remember: suicide made perfect sense to me. It does not make sense now, it did not make sense to her, but that was my reality at the time. So, Rachel approached it from, “just give me more time. Hold my hand and just give it more time. You’ve been through so much. You can give me another week, another month, another year.”
That made absolutely no sense to me. I was in so much pain and my reality was so altered that I could not see beyond that moment. But Rachel was right. I had been through a lot. I knew I could make it through anything. I could give her the year that she requested. In that year, I got help. Rachel helped give me perspective. She allowed me to have more time to regain a better reality.
Another thing you can do if you do reach out is don’t be a guy. Don’t try to fix things.
When I get calls like that, it just pisses me off.
“You should get counseling. You should get meds. You should do yoga. You should walk two miles every day. You should…”
Yeah, no shit Sherlock. I’m not stupid! Is that what you are trying to tell me, that I’m stupid? That I am just being lazy and a piece of shit? That’s how I interpret it in the depression. Which doesn’t help. It makes me more depressed, reinforces the depression and makes me isolate even more.
I’m actually a very intelligent person. A hell of a researcher as well. Mental illness smothers that intelligence. You need to figure out a way to reveal it. How?
I don’t know.
I’ve been there too, on the other side–with no answers. My mother had an IQ that well surpassed genius level. Her mental illness had her focused on a fact that was not true. Every expert in the world would agree. There was no shaking her from that reality.
I wrote a long time ago about an experience where my intelligence was smothered. Long story short, I was hammered by a depressive attack while at work.
“Do you know what it is like,” I texted my wife, “to be a failure in every aspect of your life?”
In that moment that I texted her, that was my reality, my truth. I started getting a flurry of texts from her. This was just a depressive attack, much like an anxiety attack that comes and goes, not a long drawn out episode. Reality reasserted itself much faster.
“What the hell did I just text” I thought to myself. I’m a failed business owner, husband, father, uncle, son, nephew, etc.? Am I nuts? I’m not perfect, I’ve made mistakes, but a total failure? No. And then I began to resurface from the depths, the attack passing, and I made it to the surface where my real truth existed.
But apply that to an episode that is lasting weeks or months.
The second time I reached out to Rachel was much different than the first and her response was different. It was a long conversation we had, with me in tears for most of it. The pain was more awful than what I encountered walking three blocks on a broken ankle. The agony was real, physical.
I think it was a depressive attack while in the depressive episode.
From a couple thousand miles away, Rachel hugged me. That’s it. That’s what I needed. She knew. She just had to be there to understand and to hug me. She didn’t try to fix anything, didn’t try to approach it from another angle like the first time, she just instinctively knew that all I needed to hear was “I understand” and to hug me.
Maybe it has to do with the inner child thing? I just had the same thing happen under different circumstances a few months back. It was not about depression or suicide. I had been triggered by something.
The friend I texted understood immediately and called. As a child of trauma herself, she talked to me from experience. “I’m right there with you, we’re standing there with your inner child and hugging him and telling him that he is safe. We won’t let go.”
She didn’t let go until the attack had passed. Rachel didn’t either. And that is really all that it took.
Within me, a part of me, is a very accomplished adult, 51 years old with a hell of a resume. Also within me is a scrawny kid with skinned knees and a bad haircut. I think a lot of this is coming down to that. If and when you reach out to me, you are reaching out to that child, not to the adult. The approach is very different. The adult needs to be coaxed out while keeping the child safe.
How do you keep talking? I think the same rules apply but just reversed. You have to be aware of who you are talking to and what their limitations are, understand where they are coming from talking to you. It’s about communication styles. Different people are going to give you different things, approach you different ways.
I say often that when I am in bad shape, before I completely withdraw, I throw out lifelines. I just start tossing them out. I’ve been amazed at who has picked one up and surprised by who has not.
The people who have not picked one up, or let go before I was safely ashore, I am not angry at or disappointed in. I now understand.
But I am going to keep talking. And I am going to start listening better.
And that is a wrap for this episode.
Except for one last part. I have not been communicating something very well. I have an inhibition I am attempting to overcome.
I typically resort to humor. That hasn’t been working.
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I also just started a Kickstarter campaign. The link is on my website. I explain that I am trying to put in the time to make this a full-time job that pays a little instead of a part time job that doesn’t pay anything. I’m not really expecting that to work out but thought I’d give it a shot as a way to potentially spread awareness for the podcast.
This was all exhausting. I need a nap. A siesta is definitely in order before I come back around and see if the path is still too tangled.
I hope you were all able to follow along.