In high school, I was diagnosed with depression and ADHD. It wasn’t necessarily a liberating diagnosis at the time. I knew it meant certain accommodations for me, like receiving extended time to take my SAT. I knew it meant that I peeled left to go to the nurse’s office at the start of lunch, while my friends peeled right to go to the cafeteria; I had to take my Ritalin dose. But my diagnosis didn’t launch me into a space of self-discovery or exploration. I made it through my teen years and my twenties without much work on my relationship with myself. Frankly, I think I was barely aware that a relationship with myself existed to be worked on. Besides, emotions weren’t a topic of conversation in my family. They never served as the foundation for how we got to know each other or how we shared our selves.
Broader society certainly wasn’t encouraging men to speak up about emotions, either. In fact, in 2019 the National Institute of Mental Health reported that men are far less likely than women to seek help for mental health ailments due to social norms, reluctance to talk, and downplaying symptoms.
In my early 20s, when I sold my first company, I thought euphoria, or at least a life of easy contentment, would be waiting for me on the other side of that accomplishment. When the deal closed and months later I didn’t feel much different, despite a different balance in my bank account, I began to see that the work was never external. What I needed would involve going inside. What I needed, in part, was therapy.
And, that’s something I’ve said to myself at several different points now in the past decade.
This isn’t always an easy admission to make — but when the recognition comes, now I heed it. I know it’s time to seek a therapist when I catch myself thinking, “I’m not getting anywhere trying to process this alone.” Other times, it’s because I know that I’m not bouncing back in the ways I have before. Or, when I see that I’m repeatedly burdening my girlfriend, my family, or my co-founders, I know it’s time.
I have started to recognize that curve balls can be thrown at any time, but when I start to sweat the small stuff, it can be frustrating for people around me. By repeated burdening, I am referring to when I get frustrated easily over, let's say, leaving the dishes in the sink. In my opinion, it rarely is the dishes that are frustrating me, but something else that is underlying. Why am I frustrated about the dishes? Is it really the dishes? Being able to take a step back and recognize that there is something bigger that is underlying causing frustration: "Oh wow, I just got really frustrated over the dishes, going to take a mental note here that there could be something else driving that frustration." Just a quick mental note goes a long way in recognizing and building a better relationship with yourself.
So, I’ve been to multiple therapists over the past decade. Not every therapist has felt like a fit. I’ve learned that I don’t like the kind who sit back and allow me to be the only one speaking; I need my therapist to be a bit more of a motivator. It can take time to find the right therapist. But, in general, I’ve become grateful for the opportunity to talk to someone who holds a neutral, unbiased perspective. I can’t “tee up” my therapist to take my side the way I can during a phone call to my mom. On the other hand, I can be remarkably honest with my therapist in ways that I can’t be with my brother or my best friend.
For me, therapy has nearly always felt like hard work. It’s not easy for me to know how to put words to what I’m experiencing. Yet, it’s helpful for someone to keep pressing me with “Tell me more about that.” That’s not a casual phrase that I hear at happy hour or on the chair lift. Therapists have helped me explore places I would have brushed past, and hearing myself talk during therapy has often helped me stumble into clarity. Overall, I am learning awareness. I am learning how to bring attention to myself. I am learning how to be patient with my experiences and my emotions. Combined with my evolving meditation practice and my commitment to my calm morning routine, I can feel myself growing and improving. I’m proud of the strides I’ve made. I know I’ve become better at so many things: recognizing when I need help; communicating with my girlfriend; stepping up when I see my co-founder needs me; having tough conversations as a manager.
I have also become more open about sharing my struggles and my journey. I speak more openly about emotions — highs and lows. I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten more comfortable with mental health as a topic of conversation, my friends and family have opened up as well. That reciprocity is priceless.
To anyone who is struggling right now, I encourage you to invest in yourself and seek help wherever possible. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that have helped me:
- There is much that you’re already doing that you may not realize. Take your wins. Recognize that you shed a tear when that commercial came on. Think back to how deep you reached within yourself to give the toast to your best friend at his wedding. Recognize your emotional growth.
- Start small. This is not a race. Honoring your mental health can be as simple as one big deep breath. That is progress.
- Build spaces that serve you regularly. For me, it's my morning routine: I don’t use my cell phone as my alarm, I don’t glance at work stats immediately, I get into my day slowly. I’ve learned what taints my day, and I plan away from that.
- Don’t let your mental state define who you are. I’ve learned to tell myself, “Today, there’s a dark cloud. Tomorrow, it may be back. And then next Wednesday, it won’t.” Emotions dissipate; they do not define.
- Medication is not weakness. If it works, it works. Don’t go off the antidepressant.
- Therapy matters. Seek it.
- Remember that denying yourself awareness is too heavy of a burden to bear. It amounts to denying yourself authenticity and vulnerability — which then means denying yourself support from others, connection, understanding, a place amongst humanity. I know the more that I can recognize emotions in myself, the more I can recognize them in others — and that deepens my relationships and enriches my entire life.
Alex Iwanchuk is currently the cofounder and co-CEO of Feals, a new wellness brand launched in April of 2019 offering clean, premium, high-efficacy CBD tinctures to help naturally reduce stress, manage anxiety, pain, and restlessness. Before Feals, he was the founder and President of AdExchange, an affiliate network platform for online marketing and ad placement that transformed the relationship between media buyers and advertisers through a streamlined platform. In 2015, Mr. Iwanchuk exited AdExchange through a manager buyout. Mr. Iwanchuk graduated from the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business with Bachelor of Arts in Finance in 2007. Post-graduation, he taught adaptive skiing at Beaver Creek and now resides in Denver, CO.