Recently I received an unexpected phone call from Travis Macy. If the name is familiar, it’s because you know Travis as an inveterate ultrarunner and adventure racer and author of The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion’s 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life. I know Travis only slightly beyond this thumbnail bio. We started corresponding by email in 2013, when he first got the idea for his book. We now share a literary agent, and earlier this year I appeared on Travis’s podcast with my wife, Nataki.
The purpose of Travis’s call was to check in on my mental health. He didn’t put it quite so bluntly, but it was clear he was doing just that. Not a random check-in but a targeted one instigated by a red flag he’d identified in my response to an email check-in the previous week. I’ll go ahead and share with you what I shared with Travis in that message:
Alas, I’m still struggling. I feel like Paul Newman’s character in the prison-yard fight scene in Cool Hand Luke (my favorite film).The other day Nataki said to me, “Don’t give up, baby!” I told her, “I’m not, Kittycat. This is what not giving up looks like when you’re losing!”
You know those movies where things keep going from bad to worse for the main character? (The Martian comes to mind as one example.) Just when you think the hero has finally hit rock bottom, a trap door opens underneath him and he falls even further. And then it happens again. And again.
That’s what my life has felt like for the past eight months. I was seven months into the living death that is post-acute COVID-19 syndrome when I hit what I naively thought at the time was absolute bottom. I was laid out on a sofa at home, nearly paralyzed by a fatigue so intense that it was a kind of agony. Imagine burning alive, then replace “burning” with “exhaustion.” I’m not exaggerating. Yet at the same time I was maddeningly bored, because it was ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning and sleep was not an option and working was completely out of the question and I lacked the mental wherewithal even to focus on some dumb Netflix time-killer. The only thing that offered any sort of relief was listening to Yanni. That pretty much sums up my predicament right there: I needed Yanni.
It was then I decided to stop waiting my proper turn to get my first coronavirus vaccination and roll the dice, having heard reports of some long-haulers gaining a measure of relief from their jabs for reasons that baffle scientists and doctors. An hour later, Nataki and I were queuing outside the Modesto Civic Center with other responsible citizens. The next day Nataki found me sprawled naked on the floor of the master bathroom, hyperventilating, unable to answer her panicked questions, having crawled out of the tub after discovering I was too weak to make a fist and feeling myself slipping under à la Whitney Houston.
This wasn’t a matter of the usual side effects. My first Pfizer shot had simply worsened a chronic illness already bad enough to cause me to reach for the music of Yanni as a lifeline. A new bottom. Still, I held out hope for my second shot, having heard reports that other long-haulers had, like me, gotten worse after the first shot but then felt better following the second.
Two nights after my second jab, I was awake in bed, desperately fatigued from prior sleep deprivation and knowing with 100 percent certainty that I would not sleep a wink that night. Inoculation number two had further intensified several of my symptoms, including insomnia, tingling in the lower legs, fatigue, brain fog, and chest pains. The 10 out of 10 pins-and-needles pain in my legs alone would have kept me up, but an even greater issue was the hyperadrenalized jittery sensation in my chest. It felt as if I had drunk five cups of strong coffee and then narrowly missed being crushed by a falling piano after hopping off a rollercoaster.
Next night, same. Last night, same. I don’t remember what it feels like to have a clear head. The other day I tried to fill a water bottle by holding it against a light switch. I swear I’m not making this up.
It’s impossible to suffer this much for this long and retain perfect mental health. The toughest part for me has been not so much “depression, “anxiety,” or any other such diagnosis but rather the general strain and enervation of having to fight nonstop for my happiness and sanity all day every day. I’ve largely succeed in holding it together, but I am doing so at a tremendous cost that continues to grow every single day with no end in sight.
Very early on in this process I made a conscious decision to share what I’m going through with friends, work associates, and the public. I did so for three reasons: 1) I share (some would say overshares) everything, good and bad. It’s how I’m wired. 2) I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of in experiencing mental health challenges. And 3) I’d done it before and discovered that it’s extremely helpful.
On this last point, my 2018 memoir Life Is a Marathon tells the story of the long and painful battle Nataki and I have fought with her bipolar disorder. I held back nothing in those pages—not even my own 2007 suicide attempt. When the book was released, Nataki was justifiably terrified about how the reading public would perceive her, but the response she got couldn’t have been more different from her fears. Praised for her strength, courage, resilience, and spirit, Nataki now has a little fan club of her own known. Indeed, that’s partly why Travis Macy wanted her on his podcast.
So that’s one benefit of sharing your mental health challenges: People (enough of them, anyway), respond with love. Another is that the connections you create go two ways. Everyone is either going through, or has gone through, something, and when you open up, the person you open up to often follows suit, and you end up helping each other.
By now we’re all familiar with the public-service message, “It’s okay to not be okay.” Individuals who are currently struggling with mental health challenges are the main targets of message, I assume, but the greater numbers of folks who might know someone who’s not okay need to hear it and take it in too. Travis is clearly a kindhearted person, but I can’t help but wonder if he would have reached out to someone he knows as glancingly as he knows me if the okay-to-not-be-okay meme hadn’t begun to permeated the zeitgeist.
I will say this: That first step can be awkward on both sides. I think that people like me who are currently struggling bear some responsibility to make it less uncomfortable for the listening ears. That’s why I begin Zoom work meetings sometimes by matter-of-factly informing my colleagues how my cognitive and emotional difficulties are currently impacting my productivity. It’s why I’ve candidly informed the hosts of podcasts, before they press Record, that I’ve been dealing with social anxiety and mental confusion and may require rescue at some point. It’s why, when neighbors ask me how I’m doing, I tell them exactly how I’m doing. The fact that we need help doesn’t mean we’re helpless. In being upfront, unembarrassed, and unapologetic about my immediate state of mind, I’m training others to feel less awkward when their next turn comes to be a listening ear. You can do the same.
If you’re going through something and, after reading this, you’re still not ready to let others know you’re not okay, try journaling or art therapy. Expressing your feelings is half of expressing your feelings to others. I’ve written a lot of poetry since my life became a waking nightmare, and it’s been cathartic. I leave you with a poem that addresses my own occasional ambivalence about opening up. As you read it, do your thoughts drift toward someone in your life who might also be the feeling this way? Reach out. Is that person you? Reach out.
I Am Suffering
I was going to say something to
you but I decided against it.
It seemed unseemly to speak for no
reason other than to elicit sympathy.
But wait: Am I trying to have it
both ways, saying it by not saying it?
That idea doesn’t sit well with me.
Neither, though, does the idea
of saying nothing.
Perhaps I need only speak it—
not to you but to God, or a bird,
or a stone. Maybe that’s enough.
Forgive me, I’m thinking out loud.
But no, having thought about it,
I can say for certain it is not
enough. I need you to know.
Can you do that for me? Can you
let me say it, let me let you know,
and promise not to feel sorry for