| May 24, 2022
For those who do not know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Like many, I suffered a significant loss in my life, which sent me into a depressive spiral. I have spent the last seven years returning from its depths, and what follows is my story. Perhaps it may help some of you out there dealing with a similar situation.
How I Overcame Death and Dealt With Depression
Life was moving right along. A beautiful wife, four amazing kids, a great job with a great company — then it happened. My older brother had a massive heart attack at the age of 38 and did not survive. What followed was not just the expected sadness, but what ultimately became the greatest test of my life.
Some history first: Growing up as the youngest of seven kids, my brother and I were best friends. We were only 18 months apart, and my dad used to call us Jake and Elwood from the Blues Brothers, a reference we would not understand until we were much older. We shared everything — clothes, friends, cars, etc. By the time we reached our adult lives, we had a perfect symbiotic relationship. He was the outgoing friend to everyone, and I was the practical one, always getting things done. He made big plans, I made them happen.
As we got older, my brother started falling down a bad path. Drinking became a daily occurrence, with drugs following right behind, and there was an underlying depression masked by it all. As I went head-down in my life, he went head-down into his, and we grew further apart.
When my kids started to come along, he was there. Godfather to my first born and fun Uncle Mikey to the rest, all of them excited by his presence, and loving his thoughtfulness and sense of humor.
As the kids got older and more aware, so did his issues with depression and dependency. Ultimately, we reached a crossroads. We spent years going back and forth, fighting, arguing, in and out of rehab and counseling. Then, on Good Friday of April 2015, I got a call from my sister that he had passed. Fear, pain, sadness… It hit me like a ton of bricks. How would I tell my kids? How would I ever say I am sorry? It was one of the worst moments of my life, and even though I was fearfully anticipating it, nothing could prepare me for what was to follow.
The ensuing days of services were tough, and having to discuss it with person after person was enormously painful. Having to break it to his goddaughter and my other three kids was difficult, but with my wife in hand, we got through it together.
After the immediacy of his death settled down, an uncertainty and darkness began to enter my mind. Looking back, I am almost certain it was always there to some degree, but I could never have imagined how it would shroud everything I did. I lost certainty in every decision I have ever made in my life, and control became lost.
My mind went back to our childhood and searched for ways my life could be different, questioning every choice that led me here; I completely lost my sense of self. By December of that same year, I began having physical pain in my chest and nonsense in my head that felt like a demon whispering in my ear. Sleep never came, and when I closed my eyes things only got worse.
Having been a student of clinical psychology, I knew that if I did not see someone, this would not end well. My first visit to a psychiatrist ended with a trip to the pharmacy for some sleeping pills. My second trip, pills for depression. This would lead to my first round of Xanax, when the prescribed Lexapro (for depression) led to my first panic attack. It was time for a new therapist.
A few weeks later, I found a psychoanalyst who focused on cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave. I started meeting with her once a week, and worked off the need for medication. Slowly, things started coming back into perspective.
Three years later, I found myself not back to normal, but better than ever. We worked through the moment of time when my brother passed away, and all the years of prior depression that were underneath a layer of false confidence that I had created, which had come crashing down. Through our time together, I discovered a way through the darkness, and made a new life for myself — one that I am not living for someone else nor am quietly worried about. Here are just a few things I learned along the way.
Perhaps one of the most important life changes I made was taking control of my physical health. For years, I had plenty of excuses to live a life of poor health. Although I was always active, I never made a lifestyle commitment.
There are two parts to this; it is not meant to be done for a short time, it is meant to be how I live now. The first is exercise. I made the commitment to do something every day, before I do anything else. In the past, I would run or workout in the morning, and I remembered how great I felt throughout the rest of the day. I made this a must. Somedays I stretch, some days I run five miles, but I start every day doing something to better my physical health.
The second part is my diet. I used to tell myself many stories when it came to how I eat. A bowl of Greek yogurt, a turkey burger on wheat bread; there are many things that are marketed as healthy, and I believed the hype. Not having any experience with lifestyle eating, I decided to see a nutritionist. What I found, almost immediately, was that my diet had sugar at every step. Whole wheat breads, skim milk, yogurt — they all have sugar. We put together a new eating plan, which wasn’t paleo, keto or Atkins; it was simply this: cut out the sugar and up the vegetables.
Once I made these lifestyle changes, my physical health transformed. I lost weight, and most importantly, felt confident in myself and my health.
We will all go through times like this, and it is important to know that you are not alone. You are never alone.
—Matt Bruno, Executive Vice President, Brand Chain
Reading and Writing
I never used to read, with the exception of educational texts or short articles here and there. Over three years, I read over two dozen books and today it’s a daily habit.
I started picking up books on subjects that interested me, including depression. Not only was I fascinated by what I was reading, I learned some great insight, which I still use every day. I have read some of the most renowned writers and gone on fantastic journeys. It has helped me understand more of who I am. One great piece of advice given was that if a book interests you in any way, do not think — just get it. You are worth it.
One of the more challenging habits I formed during that time was journaling. I struggled with what to say in the beginning. I can admit, I was worried who might read the words I would ink into history. But I stuck with it, and it has become an essential part of my day. All I do is open up my journal and write about whatever I am thinking. I challenge my thoughts, write out what is distracting me, what I hope to accomplish that day and whatever else is running through my head. It is simple but cathartic and immensely rewarding.
Last, but certainly not least, was the introduction of meditation. This was the most difficult of all the things I changed or added. I’m still developing my skills in this practice, but the effects so far have been tremendous.
Meditation helps me separate my thoughts from my sense of self. When you are struggling with depression, your thoughts have a debilitating impact on your day. As far back as I can remember, thoughts dictated my emotions. When I allowed my thoughts to be negative, my emotions followed. Even before my brother passed away, my thoughts controlled me.
Negative thought patterns are addictive, and meditation has taught me to release from the addictive behavior. The thoughts may never stop, but I can certainly stop reacting to them. For something as simple as 10 minutes a day, the return on investment is immeasurable.
There are so many ways to access meditation training, and many are free. I found one option, which led me to another, and now it is part of my day. Whether it’s one minute or 20, I make sure to spend time every day separating my thoughts from my sense of self.
I wrote this about four years ago, when I thought I was almost through it. Although I am much improved today, I still struggle with depressive thoughts and situational anxiety. We will all go through times like this, and it is important to know that you are not alone. You are never alone. There are fantastic resources out there, such as NAMI.org; if nothing else, you can always reach out to me (email@example.com).
Take a minute this month to reach out to someone you have not heard from in a while. They too may need to know that they are not alone.
This letter from Brand Chain Executive Vice President Matt Bruno is included in the 2022 May/June issue of PS Magazine. Be sure to check your mailboxes for your copy of the magazine in June. If you haven't done so yet, sign up to receive the next issue!