Episode 7: When Anxious turns Panic

       By Steve Cichon

To describe the sensation can be elusive, but it often starts just a smidge beyond physical— kinda like the feeling someone is watching you.

Sometimes, that grows into general uneasiness. It’s dull pain in a hard-to-define area like pressing your thumb into an almost-healed bruise.

It’s the insatiable feeling of trying to breathe deeply on a hot, humid day, but not finding enough air to suck in.

It’s not dying of thirst, but it’s thirsty enough to quickly drink a whole glass of water and still be thirsty— but afraid to drink anymore because it’ll hurt your stomach.

Sometimes you can catch it and slow it down, but sometimes it takes you by surprise or there’s too much of something else going on, and it just keeps running in the background.

It’s a cramp you can’t quite stretch out enough and you know once you relax that extension your muscle’s cramping right back up again.

It starts getting harder to ignore with a strong pulsating heartbeat at the back of your throat and the feeling your brain might start swirling out of your ears.

It’s being very palpably scared and angry and sick— but at shadows rather than anything in particular.

It’s years of practice of trying to make your face look normal while your brain and your soul are screaming like they are being murdered.
Sometimes it’s a minute or two.

Sometimes it comes in waves for hours or days, and you feel like your in the surf being flung against the rocks over and over and over and over.

It’s horror and terror, and all you can do to fit it is to breathe, nervously move your hands, and pray the spinning stops.

Anxiety and panic feed into themselves and while you hope it ends soon, part of you is certain it never will.

Until it does. And the beat goes on.

The only thing worse than talking about mental health is not talking about it

By Steve Cichon

I just had a conversation with myself about how to share this (it’s ok, as you’ll read, I’m a bit crazy.)

Humor, especially self-deprecating humor, helps me get through the day.

None of this is anything to joke about, but it was through self-deprecating humor that I first spoke to other human beings about it all, and really got on the path to a much more comfortable place.

With divisive politics and instant hot takes on every stupid thing that crosses our social media newsfeed, it’s becoming more and more difficult to talk thoughtfully about the things are most important to us… but talk (or write) is how you share, and share begins a discussion, and discussions help you think, and thinking is how you grow.

Get outside your own head. Be good to others— Especially those in most need of your goodness. Realize everybody has their own stuff.

Mental health isn’t easy to talk about, in fact, it makes me sick to my stomach to do it.

The only thing worse than talking about it– is not talking about it. That’s why I sat down to talk with WBFO’s Nick Lippa. His tremendous radio report and a transcript of our chat appear after this 30 second PSA:

From wbfo.org:

Suicide Prevention Coalition campaign aims to normalize men talking about their mental health

  FEB 27, 2020

Western New York organizations like Crisis Services and the Suicide Prevention Coalition have launched a campaign that encourages men to speak up about their mental health. The campaign titled “Be A Man” features several local men sharing their stories of living with mental illness. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with writer and former radio newsman Steve Cichon, who is one of the people who shared his story dealing with anxiety and depression. They discuss toxic masculinity, how to ask for help and more.

WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with writer and former radio newsman Steve Cichon, who shared why he talks openly about his anxiety and depression.

So first off, let’s talk about the project itself and what’s happening with crisis services and this PSA. What is it exactly?

Steve Cichon: I’m more or less just a participant. Just a cog in this larger piece. I didn’t have a lot to do with planning it. But it sort of plays into something that very important to me. And really, it’s just talking about mental illness. It’s being transparent with something that more and more people are suffering from and don’t know how to talk about and are afraid to talk about. And I mean, I know that because I was that guy until I just got so angry at some of the misinformation. The way that that people thought that they understood what was going on inside of somebody else’s head when they clearly didn’t. So just talking about it, starting trying to start conversations for people getting shining light in the darkness is really what, for me why I’m involved with it every time you can turn on a light and bring a little more light to a corner that’s dark. You’re doing something, you’re helping somebody. That’s why I’m involved.

I know one of the big key components is talking about toxic masculinity. And you mentioned this was a little frustrating for you at times when addressing these issues at first. Can you go into a little bit more detail about that?

SC: You know, I’m a pretty emotional guy. Super Bowl commercials make me cry. Watch those 30 second commercials and the tears (start) forming in the corners of my eyes. So when I read the newspaper and just see the numbers of young people who have died suddenly, or they actually go into detail and you see their friends post these things on social media and they don’t have any idea what happened and they wish that they could have known or they wish done more than that, you can’t necessarily help that person. There’s nothing. There’s no life preserver you can throw that person, but the thing that you can do for everybody is just be kind, is just be nice, is just give people room. And it’s something that takes practice, especially when we’re surrounded by so much toxicity, not even necessarily toxic masculinity, just toxicity. Open up Facebook and Twitter and it’s just people being angry and having to top each other’s anger and just being nice, for me, that’s what this is about. It’s not just allowing people to see around them somebody you know.

SC: I know a lot of people who work here at WBFO. I just talked to five people out in the hallway who I’ve known for 20 years and (previously) none of them had any idea that I was suffering from depression and anxiety. Through the 20 years where I’ve known them very well and we’ve been very close. Why did they not know? A combination of maybe some kind of shame on my part, not knowing how to deal with that. Not wanting to put out into the world this notion that something about me was broken. Wondering how people would react to that idea. The same thing that I think anybody would have with anything that they perceive as a weakness in themselves that they don’t want to broadcast it. By broadcasting it, you’re putting your weakness, if that’s what it is out there, and just start dealing with it. And it’s just sort of one day at a time.

Why before did you not feel comfortable talking about it with peers and coworkers?

SC: I think part of it is understanding what’s going on inside of you. In this instance, understanding what’s going on inside of your head. It’s difficult to talk about something that doesn’t have a name. I have a huge South Buffalo family and depression and anxiety and just about any diagnosable mental illness is prevalent in my family. I can point to the person who suffers from it. So to me, it almost seemed kind of normal. Like okay, I’m just like aunt so and so or I’m just like cousin blank where I’m just like uncle or my grandpa or whatever. So we never talked about it as a family and I don’t think that’s unusual for any family. It’s the same way cancer was 50 years ago. He didn’t talk about cancer people just disappeared and died from it. But once you have the tools and the ability to know what it is you’re talking about, you have a word that you can say what this thing is– and I can almost, I can’t tell you the date, but I can tell you the day, when I figured out okay, boy, this has been going on for 30 years. And now I know what this is.

SC: After I felt like my brain was falling out of my ear one day, having a panic attack, having lived with constant anxiety, and not even realizing that I was suffering from constant anxiety, but being on a nine on the anxiety scale and all of a sudden having that cranked up to a 17 one day, and literally thinking I was dying. And doing what everybody does type it into old Web MD to see what’s going on. And like wow, that was a panic attack. Okay, boy, I need to figure out how to start getting some help. And that was a seven or eight year journey from there. In order to get to a spot where I was sitting in front of somebody who was able to help me get through it. And even from there was another year before I talked about it. What made me want to talk about it was, well, Robin Williams’ suicide shook me. I was a radio news person when Robin Williams died. And I was there all day, we found out that he had passed away and then we found out that it was probably a suicide. Then we found out some more of the things that that went into it. And that really shook me, knowing at this point what I knew about myself. (It) helped me along on my journey to get to a point where I was able to talk about it.

SC: I was a radio news person when Anthony Bourdain died. And I was a news guy on a morning show with people having happy talk. They were doing happy talk but talking about Anthony Bourdain, and neither one of them had any idea what was going on in his head. And it just it made me mad. Not mad at them. They just had no idea. And at that point right then and there, I realized, if they don’t know that the guy sitting 10 feet away from them is having the same sorts of issues that Anthony Bourdain did. Who was going to tell them about that? Well, I guess that’s got to be me. And I sat and wrote a very long blog post piece on just what’s going on in my life. And that was a very freeing moment when you hit send on something like that. Very graphic and very detailed. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You have no idea. Did I just ruin my life? Did I just tell everybody this thing that was going on? The response was resoundingly amazing. Support from friends. People that I hadn’t talked to in years calling and going, this is amazing what you did. People I hadn’t talked to in years going, I got the same thing going on. I’m really glad to know that I’m not alone. I’ll be honest, there were a couple of friends who said how dare you have this thing going on? And not tell me? Which is kind of a weird response. And those people aren’t necessarily my friends anymore.

SC: I don’t know. Your original question was, why didn’t I talk about it? I think it had to be the right instance. It had to be the right spot. And just sitting there and having read to read this news of somebody having taken his own life. And having two people who I considered friends, not having any idea and just having all the wrong notions about this. And me having the facility to sit there and bang it out with my thumbs on my iPhone, my thoughts and feelings about it. And realizing that, you know that there are a lot of people who are suffering from kind of the same thing, to varying degrees. The loneliness of it all is terrifying. And to not be so lonely because somebody has written down the same feelings that you have to be able to provide that to people is a gift to me to be able to do that for people.

You can read ‘A brief memoir in depression and anxiety’ by Cichon here.

One of the things which you mentioned, perceived weakness before. If there’s a perceived weakness to be open about having feelings. When you talk about toxic masculinity, it’s the idea that, ‘Oh, well you cry Super Bowl commercials. That’s a weakness. You cry during movies, right? Suck it up. It’s not okay to show your emotions like that.’ But you’re openly like, ‘Hey, this is okay. I’m an emotional person and that’s fine.’

At times you didn’t feel comfortable talking about some of these issues, but is it fair to say you’ve always been an emotional person?

SC: Sure. I would say so.

Have you felt throughout your life there were times where you weren’t able to be around certain people or groups of people where you couldn’t be that emotional person? You felt like they would be negative towards you potentially crying at a Super Bowl commercial or having those kind of moments to be able to emotionally share yourself with your environment?

SC: Yeah. I teach boys at an all-boys is high school now. I am just as likely to bust their chops for crying at a Super Bowl commercial. Maybe I am part of the toxic masculinity problem (he laughs).

SC: Maybe this is me taking it to the ‘nth’ degree. If I am with a group of guys and they see me crying at a Super Bowl commercial, I fully expect them to hammer me on it. When I wear pink pants to school, and I have. They’re salmon, but let’s be honest, they’re pink. When I wear pink pants to school, I will mock myself before someone else has the chance to say something about it. A lot of those tricks are the same thing that come into dealing with having these feelings. Having these emotions. Having this mental illness. People who are very close to me had no idea because I was good at masking it or good at being able to flip the switch.

SC: We talk a lot about chirping at school. I’m on the school climate committee. I’m on the anti-bullying committee. I’m on all these things. We talk a lot about chirping that is just the way of life at an all boys school you put 200 teenage boys together in a building and they’re just going to— know, it’s just a constant. Everybody is going to be whatever it is. And people expect it. I just said this last week to my class. I think chirping is okay. I think it’s okay to say to somebody, what are you crying at the Super Bowl? What’s the matter with you? I think what matters most is what’s in your heart when you’re chirping. We’re friends. I can chirp you all day and I hope you understand that I’m doing what I love because I love you, brother. And I’m not afraid to tell you that I love you brother. Right? But when somebody else walks in and I’m saying the same thing, but I’m not chirping them out of kindness.

SC: I see less of that today probably than I did when I was in I’m 42 years old. I think we’re in a better place now. When I was watching the Bills’ Super Bowls, I don’t know if it would have been okay for me to react emotionally to a commercial during the game. Now, I might get chip for it, but I don’t think it’s unacceptable or at least as unacceptable as it would have been years ago. I think we’ve progressed in that. Then I can come out and say, I suffer from anxiety and depression. I talked about that with my students too. I think that’s a huge step and, and an essential step. To be a man 50 years ago or 60 years ago, to go and work in an awful job, work at the plant. And work in a job where you’re risking your life every day, and you’re going to provide for your family. You’re going to come home. You’re going to read the paper and leave me alone. And maybe you’re going to drink too. Alleviate some of that stress. Maybe you’re going to gamble to alleviate some of the stress. There’s probably some stress reliever involved. Because for damn sure you’re not going to cry. You’re not going to show any weakness. But a huge number of them didn’t make it out. They died of alcoholism or they had a heart attack at the age of 52. Or, you know, whatever that the case is. There’s always room for improvement, but I think we’ve made leaps and bounds of improvement over the decades.

You can look at one side where somebody says, well any kind of chirping to that extent, it’s going to lead to some bad behaviors or open the door to some things getting out of hand. But there’s another side to that. And you mentioned it. You’re looking at a history where you may be the son of somebody who wasn’t as open to talking about things and was raised in that type of environment. It’s part of a history that comes with developed habits. In the meanwhile, you are also learning and recognizing how to be more open with yourself and others.

It leads into a larger talking point. When we talk about making ourselves vulnerable in those kind of positions, it goes back to that weakness idea. The idea femininity is negative or a weakness. You talking about the salmon pants that are pink. It’s that association. That kind of mindset can potentially lead to some those other problems. It could be unhealthy, right?

SC: Yeah. You know, it’s just difficult to wrap my mind around just because it’s so absurd. I don’t go into my closet and go, I’m feeling a bit feminine today. I think I’m going to grab the salmon pants. I don’t. I think they’re sharp looking. I like them. Honestly. You know, as a ‘manly man’ the ladies like when I wear the pink pants (laughing).

SC: So to me, the whole that whole notion is absurd. And you know, even showing feelings being labeled a sign of femininity, to me it’s just absurd. We have the right to say anything in America. You could say whatever you want but there are always consequences to the free speech. I remember kind of struggling with a friend whose wife passed away in a work environment. This is maybe 15 years ago and saying to that guy who clearly needed a friend– I love you, buddy. I do. I love you. To look into a man’s eye and say that is probably the first time that I have ever done it. It made sense to me. It wasn’t– how will this be perceived by the outside world? Maybe that’s what the whole discussion of toxic masculinity is. But I have since said that dozens of times, hundreds of times and never had a problem with it. I’ve never had somebody go, ‘what you love me? (in macho voice)’ I’ve never had that that happened.

SC: For me in my head in my space, it’s just so absurd. I think that’s where something like what we’re doing with this public service announcement becomes very powerful. I had that conversation with myself in order to be able to say to my friend, I love you buddy. And it’s just absurd that you would have to think about that or I would want to, but once I did, the floodgates were open. Maybe more people will have a conversation with themselves about saying it’s okay to get help. I have to imagine that a lot of people my age, our age, post-baby boomer folks– clearly feel that that this is an okay thing to do. It’s just that we don’t have the skills or the ability to do it. How do you eliminate toxic masculinity? Start being a less toxic guy. And it’s really that simple. And all of a sudden, you see it start to melt away.

Where do you think you would be if you didn’t seek help?

SC: Bad things grow in darkness, mental illness grows in darkness. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here. If I would have figured out how to talk to a therapist 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, I wouldn’t be sitting here. Things just fester in that darkness. Your brain can be a dark place. My brain was a dark place for a very long time. It’s a lot lighter now. And you need to bring other people in. You need to be able to say, even if you’re not saying I don’t feel so hot, something ain’t right with the way I’m thinking. Even if you’re not saying that, just to see that other people are kind of in the same area and you happen to go to your health care website if you’re lucky enough to have health care and you look up the name of a therapist and you click that button. All right, you know, that wasn’t too hard. Now I’ll go and talk to this person. If this conversation helps that to happen, then that’s just amazing. Like, why isn’t there a line of 20 people in here waiting to talk to you to tell this story? It’s not comfortable. I don’t want to be known as the crazy guy, the guy is going to come in and talk to you about his mental health problems. But that’s not what I’m known as. I’m still known as everything else. But now I have this other extra thing that I talk about that really, really, really helps people.

To those people who may be in an environment where they’re not sure they can be open with how they feel, what would your advice be to them?

SC: Especially if it has changed for you, the way that you receive somebody saying something different hits you harder lately. I can say from my personal experience, there was a bit of a downhill. If you’re looking around yourself and things that didn’t bug you a week ago are all of a sudden bugging you, then you know, there’s probably something going on inside of your head that you really have very little control over. And you know, if not, talk to a friend. There’s a phone number and crisis services calls it a suicide hotline or at least they did for a long time. It is a suicide hotline, but it’s also a– hey you know what? My brain isn’t working so good. Can we talk for a second? And they do and they talk to you and they help get you in a better place. And hopefully, from there, you figure out at some point, you finally make a call where you can get the mental help that you need from your doctor, from a social worker, from somebody who’s really going to help. And it’s a lot of work. And it’s something you deal with for the rest of your life.

SC: I always kind of envisioned that going and talking to a therapist would be like having a broken arm. I had a broken wrist once. I’m going to go get my wrist reset and it’s going to be in a cast for three months. I’m going to walk out and my wrist is going to be pretty much be okay. It’s not that. It’s more like, ‘Well, sir, your wrist didn’t heal exactly the way that it used to be. So you’re going to have to figure out how to continue your life with maybe a limited mobility in your wrist.’ That’s something that’s terrible, but it’s something that you deal with every day. I would say do whatever it takes if you feel it. Especially if you notice a change in yourself. Reach out to somebody if you don’t have a friend that you can reach out to make a phone call. If you don’t want to make a phone call, go to a website. There are enough resources now that you can get on the right path. So use them. It’s easier said than done. I think that’s the thing that made me the most angry, which forced me into writing that missive that I wrote a couple of years ago, was people saying, ‘Gosh. Why didn’t he just get help?’ It’s not that easy. There’s so many different things that go into it. But man the alternative is pretty dark. So figure out a place where you can where you can go get some help.

You went and got help and it doesn’t sound like you were judged too harshly for the most part it sounds like.

SC: My dad was a diabetic. And we all knew that if dad started acting a little loopy, that he probably needed some sugar. He didn’t take his insulin properly. And that happened a lot with my dad. But it was important to know that because if we didn’t know that, it could lead to really bad things. I’m glad that the people around me know that. That I suffer from anxiety and depression and if they see something that isn’t quite right, they can say something to me or try and help me get on the right track. Or say something to my wife or just be concerned and know exactly what’s going on. For me it was a very difficult thing to admit. Not just that I need help and I need to go to a therapist, but I need help from my community. I need everybody like, ‘Hey, everybody, keep your eye out for me, would you?’ For me, that was a difficult thing to do. And it may or may not be difficult for other people, but it’s just essential.


From Shame to Super Power

By Steve Cichon

Light is the only cure for darkness. It’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and in a piece I wrote for The Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition, I shared the wide range of experiences I’ve had with my own mental health issues. Please take a look and share for the next guy… who might really need it.

I’ve started and erased this story at least a half-dozen times. It’s not that the words don’t flow, it’s just that I get anxious talking about my anxiety because I get anxious about nearly everything.

Far too much of my life has been wasted leaving terrible thoughts and emotions to fester inside my head unchecked. More than 30 years went by between the time I tried to take my own life as a kid in grammar school and my first session with a mental health counselor.

I was filled with shame, inadequacy, and a general feeling that I’d be letting people down if I did anything other than try to tamp down and ignore the brush fire that was burning uncontrolled in my mind.

I had little self-worth, but have always been filled with love and empathy for others. My first stepping out of the shadows came only to help someone else. That being an ear for a friend became more of a pal-to-pal therapy session, and showed me, finally, that help was within reach.

Since those chats started five or six years ago, the weight of depression holding me down has become lighter in a way I didn’t think possible. Understanding it a lot better through introspection and professional help has also made living with mental illness much more manageable.

Before, crippling anxiety would leave my mind and emotions spinning out of control, often to the point of physical exhaustion and pain. I’d feel it pulsing deep inside my head and at the tips of my toes. I’d feel burning in my lungs and other organs I couldn’t necessarily identify.

Spending time talking about and understanding what is at the root of my anxiety—both the utter soul-crushing kind and the smaller not-wanting-to-answer-a-phone-call kind—helps me contain it.

It’s more manageable, but it’s still a struggle. St. Francis de Sales tells the story of a man who receives the gift of some precious liquor in a porcelain bowl, and how carefully the man walks home cradling the bowl and careful with each step, making sure not to spill any.

That’s the same careful journey I’m taking day to day, or hour to hour, or minute to minute– but as time wears on, I’m spending less time focused on the full bowl and more time focused on enjoying the walk through life.

I will never “be healed,” but I have experienced tremendous healing through therapy and putting my story to work to help others.

What was once my shame is now my super power.

Originally appeared in the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition Newsletter, September 2019

Cichon testifies in “Important Conversation” on suicide and mental health awareness

By Steve Cichon

I was proud to bring my story to the floor of the Erie County Legislature yesterday.

Legislator Patrick Burke launched “Important Conversations,” a series of monthly meetings to provide a public forum for difficult issues confronting our community. The first topic was suicide awareness and prevention. Speakers included Erie County Mental Health Commissioner Michael R. Ranney, Cheektowaga Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski, author Steve Cichon, Crisis Services CEO Jessica C. Pirro, LMSW, and Suicide Prevention Coalition Coordinator Celia Spacone, PhD.

Steve Cichon testifying in the Erie County Legislature chambers on June 27, 2018.

The Testimony of Steve Cichon, June 26, 2018

This is entirely new to me— bringing out into the light the darkness which has silently been an exhausting part of my life for as long as I can remember.

I’m not here to speak for the third of Americans who’ve dealt with depression or anxiety… or the 5 percent of Americans who’ll have severe depression or panic disorder symptoms this year.

I can only talk about my own experience– with the knowledge that the only way to defeat darkness is with light and with the hope that my story helps people who don’t suffer understand.. and the hope that it helps people who do suffer realize that they aren’t alone and there is a way out.

In the two weeks since I first published my brief memoir on Depression and Anxiety, on an immediate level, my hopes have been realized.

READ: A brief memoir in depression and anxiety

As one person telling my story, I’ve heard from family members of those suffering from or having succumbed to mood disorders that they better understand what might be going on in the mind of a loved one.

I’ve had perfect strangers and people I’ve known for decades approach me and ask how I started down the road to better mental health.

Knowing that I’ve been able to turn the wretched consternation which is never too far away into something positive– something that can help others– has been a great relief and comfort to me… And it’s why I’m here again today with those same hopes for telling my story… even though it’s really not easy.

It seemed to strike a chord with some people when I wrote about how living with depression is like trying to move under a heavy wet blanket. It’s possible— but it’s exhausting and miserable, and sometimes it feels like just too much.

I’m up at 4am to read the news at WECK– and while I love my job, it’s sheer misery every time that alarm clock goes off in the darkness. I know I can’t hit snooze… and it takes every bit of everything I have to throw myself out of bed and start my day.

It’s a perfect analogy for the mood disorders I suffer from…

Depending on the day or the hour or the minute… sometimes it takes everything I have to throw myself into whatever small task presents itself next.

The analytical smart-enough, public face and mind I present knows full well that stopping for a haircut or a car wash on the way home from work makes perfect sense… but sometimes it’s just too much. A lot of times.

And those little defeats build– and it can be a constant onslaught. All from inside my own head. It begins to be unbearable when those choices made in the grips of anxiety and depression start to effect other people.

None of it makes sense.. but its there and its a constant fight.

But it is a fight. And it’s one I take on… and millions of people take on every day.

READ: Taking the next step to better mental health

I’m not a depressed person. I’m a happy, sunny, hilarious, industrious hard working guy… who happens to suffer from Mood disorders.

It’s a chronic illness which I refuse to allow to define who I am. One way to do that is to not publicly acknowledge it– and in some ways that might have been easier… but I’m doing my part to chip away at the wall of stigma that exists with mental illness.

Light is the only way to defeat darkness… and the more light we shine, the more darkness disappears.

People ask, How can I help… Be more understanding. For many years, as a closeted mood disordered person, I’d remind people constantly that WE ALL HAVE OUR OWN STUFF, whether you realize your neighbor does or not.

Being understanding means just being a nicer person. Smiling more and meaning it. Making eye contact and human contact and meaning it. Whatever you’re dealing with– trying to make room for compassion for other people dealing with their things.

Bringing light to the world. In many cases, its all we can do. It’s not a cure… but when there’s more light in the world, there’s less chance that someone is going to slip into the darkness.

Be nicer… and be educated.

That’s one way this body can help… Education usually takes money– and for the number of people who are affected by mood disorders and mental illnesses, the funding is woefully short.

The way I told my story was unique, and the unique message touched some people. The more unique messages mental health professionals can put into the world, the more people who will see more light in their day… and that’s all just about any person suffering wants– its some way to realize that there’s a way to find light.

From County Legislator Pat Burke’s Facebook page: Thank you to the wonderful speakers at today’s suicide awareness conversation. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in America for those between the age of 10-34. There will be a summary report and information to follow! To simplify the conversation: practice kindness, connect with people, and know the warning signs of someone in crisis. Public humiliation, social rejection, major disappointments, a personal crisis, and often substance abuse can be triggers for suicide.

Taking the next step to better mental health

By Steve Cichon

The reaction to the piece I wrote the other day about my personal struggles with depression and anxiety has been overwhelming.

One aspect I didn’t entirely think through– was that when people would share their stories with me, I’d really like to be able to offer some kind of next step to help them, some kind of way forward with some resources to get get on the road to better mental health.

So I turned to the experts.

“I think what’s important to remember is that everyone’s definition of crisis is different,” says Jessica Pirro with Crisis Services. She says it’s important to know that whatever kind of crisis you feel, at whatever intensity, at whatever moment, Crisis Services wants to help.

“Our hotline is available 24 hours a day for anyone that’s in need,” says Pirro. “You don’t have to be in extreme crisis. You could just need some information and referrals to resources. Maybe you’re interested in getting linked in with treatment or counseling. We can walk you through what that might look like.”

Not just for when “it’s really hitting the fan,” Crisis Services also is for support to help prevent some future crisis.

They want to help getting you to the next step after the phone call, in whatever way makes you comfortable to get to that next step.

“People can call our hotline anonymously. A lot of people call us every day, just to talk about what’s going on. Really our goal is to provide empathy. We’re not here to judge anybody. We just want to provide some resources to help you through the situation you’re faced with,” says Pirro.

Anyone of any age who is experiencing a personal, emotional or mental health crisis can call 24 hours a day and find someone who just wants to help you make your way towards your next step to feeling better.

Crisis Services‘ local hotline: 716-834-3131

National Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

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A brief memoir in depression and anxiety

By Steve Cichon

Most of us hear about the lurid details of a suicide and can’t even fathom hanging ourselves by a belt from a door knob like Robin Williams did. Seems impossible that he would, either. He was always the life of the party, always smiling and trying making people laugh.

Most of us can’t rectify being so despondent that, like Kate Spade, you can coherently write a note to your 13 year old daughter and explain why you’re about to end your own life. Beyond that, it seems incongruous with the bright, sunny fashionable mark she made in the world.

And now Anthony Bourdain has taken his own life in a hotel room in arguably the most beautiful city in the world. This was a man who could seemingly find common ground and connect with anyone, in any place, and be comfortable any place in the world.

We talk about and make social media posts about the tragedy and the incongruity of it all, with the lamentation, “had they only gotten help.”

Not me. I painfully understand the struggle to overcome depression and anxiety.

It’s not easy to publicly say, “I’m crazy,” but it’s true, and I might as well put it that way right here– because that’s what society will say once this is published. And that’s a big part of the problem.

Actually, for me right now, it’s a wonderful point to come to– being able to share all this regret-free and without reservation. It’s been a very long time coming. Though I didn’t always know what it was,  I have been suffering from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember.

We don’t talk about mental health, because despite what anyone says, the stigma is still too great. You will read this and never think of me the same way again.

The massive outpouring of people trying to understand their feelings about the usually tragic newsworthy manifestations of mental illness means the willingness is there, but there doesn’t seem to be much movement beyond the mental health version of “thoughts and prayers,” which is asking our universe generically to “get help” if they need it.

Just like offering “thoughts and prayers,” a general “get help” plea is well-intentioned and from the heart, but it can’t be the final word if this is going to get any better.

I’m sharing my story so you might have some insight into how my brain works, but also how you might be able to help.

Please know it’s very difficult for me to talk about any of these things without humor to deaden the reality, because the last thing I want you to do is feel like I do. But you need to know.

I didn’t know what that hell was wrong with me, as far back as middle school.

Even though people close to me were (now) clearly suffering the same way I was, I didn’t know because no one ever talked about it.

As far as I knew, mental illness was like Daffy Duck, bouncing on his head, yanking on his tongue, screaming, “HOO- HOO, HOO-HOO, HOO-HOO.”

I couldn’t have known that I was suffering from something routine and curable. More than Daffy Duck head bouncing, I felt a great weight on me, both metaphorically and physically sometimes. My arms and legs and chest feel heavy.

Sometimes it felt like going through life was like trying to walk through deep mud.

Sometimes it felt like my body was being weighed down by a soaking wet, heavy  woolen blanket, sometimes with bricks on top of those blankets.

Depression and sadness, I thought, were kind of the same thing, right?

I’m a happy guy, not sad. What I felt was more like the heart and soul of any given moment in life could be ripped out– still bleeding– and leaving me with a heavy, aching pain and an inward sucking emptiness vacuum which swallows up everything in sight that isn’t tied down. I could fight through that devastation and have some part of me still feel happy. Sadness wasn’t a part of it.

I thought anxiousness is just what makes you sweat before a test.

I don’t need a test or any other reason. Without warning or provocation, my heart races and energy shoots through my arms and legs, which at the same time are rendered tingly and unstable while also in need of fidgety motion, trying to nervously vibrate the physical feeling away,  as my mind feels like it is physically unraveling. This is a run on sentence, but it’s a run on sensation.

All of these things have been a part of who I am, in varying degrees, literally as long as I can remember.

But that didn’t mean I knew what I was dealing with. At one point, I didn’t know I needed help because I didn’t know what was wrong.

It was a lonely shameful feeling that I was some how damaged in a way that no one could possibly understand.

I’d heard about and even written papers about mental illness and dealt with family members with mental illness, and none of it sounded even vaguely familiar.

There wasn’t a single person who ever spoke personally about their struggle in a way that could help me understand my own. All I knew was there was help for bat shit crazy people who were ready to kill themselves (and those people should get help.)

I saw those people portrayed on episodes of Matlock. I wasn’t wearing a black t-shirt while listening to Nirvana, so I was OK. Crazy? Suicidal? That wasn’t me.

Even after a student in my high school hanged herself, I didn’t know that it’s very likely she was going through the same sorts of things I was– but there was never a discussion other than “get help.”

I had no idea that I was one of those people that should be getting help.

I can remember with sparkling clarity the moment that all the sudden I had a diagnosis for what was going on inside of me.

At a particularly low point, I was sitting alone in the ICU waiting room at the VA hospital, with my ol’man’s life hanging by a thread just inside the double swinging doors to my right.

In that moment, from the pages of a crumpled, coffee-stained magazine I’d been mindlessly flipping through, I unexpectedly received all my answers in three or four quick pages.

An article about Mike Wallace and his mental health battles moved from quickly scanning it to suddenly hanging on every word.

This was me.

All at once, everything that I’d been feeling  made sense, and things fit together and lined up now. It was (finally) a personal story where he spelled out what he was getting help for– and it was as if he was telling my story.

It was a tremendous relief, but it was also in that same moment I was instantly awash in the fear and stigma of what this was.

I was no longer alone, but now even lonelier. My suffering was nothing special– but I didn’t know where to turn.

Alone, without seeking any help, I spent the next 10 or 15 years trying to handle it on my own. Handle this depression, which was becoming more entrenched and sedentary, and handle this anxiety, which was becoming more volatile and unwieldy.

Opposing urges making for deeper anguish.

–Editor’s note–Please don’t do this.

Despite the barrage of constantly generic pleas from media for people like me to get help, I now realized those calls were for me– I just didn’t have a road map to make it happen.

There’s a suicide hotline, but couldn’t find a “I’m getting worse and just need some guidance and explain how to get started in the process of getting better” hotline.

I was fearful that I was going to be locked up. I was fearful that I was going to be pumped with medication that would change the good parts as well as the parts that needed changing.

I was fearful of being judged by people who despite saying all the right words, didn’t really seem to get it.

I knew I needed to do something, but didn’t have the energy to start from scratch to figure out what the hell to do.

I lied in every mental health screen I’d ever been given. Maybe I wouldn’t have, if it didn’t feel like the people offering the exam didn’t seem to be going through a wrote exercise every time. I guess I don’t present as “in need or psychiatric services,” but I’m here to say there is no typical presentation.  Maybe if there was some feeling that the questioner really cared or somehow wanted to help, or even actually could really help, not just flip to the next page in the manual and urge me to “get help.”

Keep in mind, until this point, this is all inside of me. Never told a soul. How do you tell someone you love that you’re legitimately losing your shit, without having them lose their shit? I wasn’t about to find out, especially having still never met anyone ready or able to talk about the things that were going on with me.

I’d also spent a lifetime conditioning myself to “act normal,” no matter what was going on inside.

But just as I’d read with ol’Mike Wallace, things gradually got worse. Keeping the facade became more difficult.

I was trying to figure out how to “get help.” I knew I needed it, but my head wasn’t in a noose at this moment, so what do I do?

The commercials used to say something like, if you feel like your life is in jeopardy, if you are in crisis, call us before you do anything else.

I didn’t want to wait for that point, but there didn’t seem to be anything aimed at people not in the midst of imminent crisis.

Even web resources offered little other than “hey, call a suicide hotline.”

It’s difficult for me to imagine every cancer resource aimed at people with Stage 5 cancer, and telling everyone else, “wait around… you’ll get there eventually!”

That’s what it felt like.

Probably in the wake of Robin Williams or some similar jarring public awareness of mental illness, public conversations I was having on Facebook became private conversations which became my coming out party.

It was two separate on-going conversations with two people I’d have called “fond acquaintances” more than “friends,” at least until that moment. These were two people who were suffering in the same way I was, but were further along on the path to help. And my struggle became their struggle. It was a great rest and a break from decades of growing weariness.

Being able to talk about what had been inside of me for three decades was amazing, and really among the greatest gift anyone has ever given me.

Around that time, I also began making jokes and comments to my wife about some of these things going on in my head, using clinical names and getting her used to the idea that I would need to get to work on some of these things, and that it would make our life together better for both of us.

I didn’t have it in me to just spill it all out in one swoop. I knew I was playing with fire– not finding legitimate, professional help NOW– but I still felt a need to do this at my own pace.

–Editor’s note again–Please don’t do this.

It was still another three years of calling insurance companies, trying to find a doctor, all kinds of nonsense and excuses until when, earlier this year, I finally sat on a couch with someone across the room who had the training and skills to help me.

I wish I had found the proper help I needed sooner. I wish there was a better framework for people who are struggling with mental illness and the societal and social stigmas attached to have non-judgmental interactions with someone who can just be a friend to help guide through the process.

I wish I could have asked people conversationally about how their mental illness feels, where they go for help, but that just doesn’t happen.

I wish that my life wasn’t going to completely change when I hit send on this… but it will. And I’m ok with that, because carrying it around with me is just too much.

That’s what I feel, by the way, when I see the news of a suicide.

I feel the weight that they must have been carrying.

I take measure of my own weight, and hope and pray that the scale never tips and it’s too much.

“Get help,” sure, but you’ve no doubt seen the sky go from sunny and delightful to dark and stormy– seemingly in an instant. It’s unnerving to live in that kind of weather pattern every moment of every day, but it’s all you can do.

So,yes, please get help. But “get help” is a tiny seven letter phrase which can’t even begin to describe the totality of trying to untangle the frozen knots of all-consuming wretched darkness and hopelessness inside some of us.

None of us should think of it as just “get help.”

Again, it’s like telling someone who has cancer, “get help.”

Sometimes medicine and vigilance makes everything better for cancer and mental illness. Sometimes all kinds of medicines and procedures and fighting like hell still won’t do the trick.

The big difference is, of course, every suicide death is 100% preventable.

Sure, there’s a number to call, and I’ll paste it in here in just a moment… but more than anything else, the one thing we can all do— each one of us– to make suicide less likely in our individual corners of the universe, is to more regularly and more thoroughly practice human decency, compassion, and love.

Especially when it’s not easy. Especially when the person standing in front of you is an asshole.

The only way to stop the anger and sadness in the world is to be less angry and sad yourself.

No one knows that more than a depressed person.

Some part of me knows that’s why Robin Williams worked so hard to make people laugh, why Kate Spade worked to bring vibrant color to the world, why Anthony Bourdain worked to bring people together through food.

I am not a depressed person. I’m a happy, loving, compassionate, optimistic person who deals with depression and anxiety. I’m also working very hard to make sure that I’m remembered for the first half of that sentence and not the second.

It’s been my experience that people who suffer from depression and anxiety feel mostly the same things that everyone else feels, I think it’s just we’ve lost the throttle control on those feelings. Every feeling is just so rich and vibrant.  It’s like the instagram filter that makes the colors pop out vividly. There’s no little bit of feeling. It’s full blast and it’s truly wonderful– but it’s also exhausting.

It’s surely great to see your all-time favorite rock band live in concert, feeling the pulse of the music in your chest with smoke and lasers all around.  Sometimes, though, you’d just like to listen to that song on your iPod quietly while you’re sitting on a plane, trying to take a nap.

Tapping play on my emotional iPod brings the smoke and lasers every time. It’s all the feels all the time. Sometimes it’s exhilarating, sometimes it’s defeating, it’s always draining. It makes me a more compassionate and loving person– and I don’t think I’d want to change it–but a lot of times, it’s just too much.

So, I’m writing this because it exhausts me to pretend like it’s not there.

I’m writing this because you need to know that there are so many people suffering– but at the same time putting every ounce of their humanity into not suffering and trying to reduce the suffering of others.

I’m writing this because the weight of all these things hasn’t become too much for me, but it’s really impossible to know when that last straw might come.

I’m writing this because someone has to speak from the perspective of those who say there but for the grace of God go I.

Social media and dinner conversations are filled with people who don’t understand, because we who do understand don’t always have have the emotional strength or bandwidth to put the dark and ugly on public display.

I’m writing this so you might understand a little bit, and that understanding might make you want to be part of the answer.

The only answer I see is that all of us use up every bit of capacity for love and compassion that we have. We leave nothing in the tank. With family. With friends. With strangers. With that asshole in the grocery store.

It’s not a cure, but it’s what we can each do.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-8255
Available 24 hours everyday