by Gavin Henning
I’m sitting on my therapist’s sofa, physically and emotionally distressed. “I need to try something different,” I told her. In the year we had been working together, she had never seen me this upset. But this time felt different. This time was different. My wife and I had another fight about my drinking and my detachment. I thought it was the breaking point in my life. And our marriage.
That was the moment my life changed.
This post is a bit difficult to write. I am forced to reflect on my life in ways I haven’t before and publicly share some behaviors of which I am ashamed. I am not someone who “puts myself out there.” I am not, by nature, vulnerable. But as Brené Brown, the ACPA14 closing speaker and champion of daring greatly, tells us:
Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection (p. 2).
Perhaps this post represents the first step on my journey of engaging with my depression and accepting who I really am.
For many years, I lived a double life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the double life of a superhero or special agent. There was the public, professional persona of the confident assessment professional, adept administrator, intelligent professor, and dedicated ACPA leader. The other was the private identity of a timid educational leader, distant husband, and lost soul. This multiple identity emerged in my late 20s or early 30s and continued for 15-plus years. I can’t necessarily pinpoint the exact beginning since I lived this disjointed existence for so long. I had normalized the dysfunction.
I put 100% into my professional life, whether through studying in a doctoral program while working full-time, learning everything I could about the emergent field called assessment, or providing service to the field through my involvement in ACPA. This personality comprised my “onstage” professional identity. But behind the scenes, what Erving Goffman described as “backstage,” the mask came off. And that life wasn’t pretty.
While I felt that there were two faces to my personality, I didn’t see myself the way my wife did; from what she has described, the transformation into a dual identity began with disengagement and withdrawal. My conversations lacked depth. I kept to myself at home, spending time on lone activities such as reading, skimming news online, or living vicariously through the lives of friends on Facebook. That side of my life also included excessive use of alcohol. I attributed this refuge-seeking and wall-building to an increased introversion that came from six years as a live-in hall director in my mid-late 20s. Now, in my late 40s, I’m not so sure that was the reason.
During the past 15-odd years, my personal walls grew higher and thicker, so much so that even those closest to me couldn’t penetrate them. I talked even less, and when I did, the discussions were superficial and matter-of-fact, lacking any feeling.While my connection with others weakened, the link to my own emotions was also diminishing. I was becoming an island, internally and externally. I was wandering in darkness and couldn’t find the light switch. I was lost.
Ironically, as my personal isolation grew, I continually donned my professional costume and mask, presenting a life that was flawless and perhaps even picture-perfect.
My personal world at home became smaller and more insulated while, at the same time, my professional world expanded. I traveled often, consulting and attending ACPA or CAS board meetings. My identities became disparate. The onstage and backstage selves separated even further into individually distinct people.
As time went on, my alcohol abuse (though, at the time, I saw it as self-medication, not abuse) caused me to withdraw further into myself and behind my walls. The strain on my marriage became enormous. Discussions with my wife led to more fights and then to silence and resignation. By the time I told my therapist that we needed to try something different, my life and marriage hung in the balance.
Upon the recommendation of my therapist, I nervously made an appointment to see a psychiatrist for an evaluation. At the end of the meeting, he diagnosed me with moderate depression. Initially, I felt elated; there was a reason for my growing need for isolation. There was a reason for my alcohol abuse. That elation was immediately squashed, however, with the realization that I had a mental illness. I worried about the label, the stigma. What would my family think? Friends? Colleagues? How would people react if they knew the president of ACPA had depression? How would other areas of my life be affected?
Despite my concern regarding how others may perceive me, addressing my mental illness has been a positive step forward in my life. I feel better mentally and physically than I have ever been. The antidepressant has allowed me to turn the light on in my world and walk out of the darkness. I no longer feel lost. I no longer feel caught between two identities. I am becoming more of my one authentic self.
I’m sure I will always wonder what people will think when they discover I have depression. Those concerns made me hesitant to share my story here. However, the more we talk about mental illness and share our stories, the more quickly we can move beyond stigmas and labels. As Brené Brown shares “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive” (2012, p. 75). Let us all respond with empathy when others bravely share their stories to provide support and stomp out the shame.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.
Originally posted at the Student Affairs Collective on May 21, 2015.