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Stigma Ain't What It Used To Be

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"I am now the most miserable man living. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better."

The words came out of my mouth slowly and deliberately as passengers boarding trickled past. From the loving embrace of a First Class seat, compliments of a flight attendant I'd charmed on the way to Business Class, I held my iPhone up to my ear and waited for a response from Nancy.

Seconds ticked by. Then, finally, a response. "Joey, did you just say 'awfully forebode'?"

At the moment, I was the most grateful man in Kuwait, a Perrier between my legs, a MacBook Pro on my fold-out table, and a wife shocked into silence 6,300 miles away. Nine days in Iraq -- she must think I've lost my mind. Well, I had; I was, after all, in Iraq against the wishes of my entire family. And yet, my mind felt more intact and I felt more serene, than I had ever been. My brain was still pumping dopamine from the Black Hawk flight into Baghdad 8 hours earlier. The pilots had maneuvered a procedural corkscrew landing designed to escape mortar fire and the momentary weightlessness provided a sensation I hadn't felt since creaking down the wooden Cyclone roller coaster over Cliffside Park at Palisades Amusement Park. Nancy was calling to ask me how the trip from Baghdad had gone, and whether I'd shot a final video blog for the nkm2.org site. "Everything ok?" She sounded genuinely concerned.

Everything was. If we'd been on Skype she'd have noticed my canary-eating grin. I had been going through emails before Nancy called, and was in the middle of reading an article sent to me by a friend. It was about a man and his lifelong depression. And it made me really happy.

The sentiment was a familiar one. I'd known the same color of despair. I had never articulated it so eloquently; my particular brand of expressiveness had been shaped in a world where the magnitude of love articulated was directly proportional to the amount of profanity used to express it.

But the source of the sentiment surprised me "Abraham Lincoln's words. I gotta go back and tell those kids."

I was returning home from a "Stomp the Stigma" tour in Iraq, where I'd screened my documentary, No Kidding! Me 2!!, which we chose to distribute through CreateSpace, Amazon.com's DVD on Demand service, because I strongly feel the film and its message should be seen and heard by as many people as possible. In Iraq, I had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of our men and women stationed there. I shared stories about my struggles with depression and listened as they relayed theirs. There is a terrible epidemic of suicides among young men and women in uniform. Suicides have actually outnumbered combat deaths among our American heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan since at least 2009 - and that's not counting the failed attempts. Veterans from the wars in the Middle East are committing suicide at a rate of twenty a day.

I made a powerful connection with these soldiers, and it awakened so much inside me. It was an overwhelming experience, one that I could not begin to fully understand or process until I had stepped away. On the flight back to JFK, I was consumed with thoughts about the plight of the soldiers, my own journey, and mental dis-ease, the taboo topic that had brought our paths together.

I wondered what they carried away from my talk. "You're only as sick as your secrets," I'd told them. It's something I truly believe. The military brass is beginning to believe it too; that's why they invited me here. "Soldiers are kind of funny sometimes," a high-ranking officer said to me over lunch at a military base. "Probably our biggest issue right now is getting them to talk about it." They were starting to figure out that your feelings can kill you.

I hoped that, if nothing else, the soldiers took that message back to their bunks. By speaking about my own life and inner demons, I wanted to show them that communicating my fears to another human being made those fears less real to me. The feelings are not as scary if you let them out. What haunts you is what you hide.

And here was Abraham Lincoln, a man who had shaped the very ideals these kids were fighting for, talking the same language. The American saint, the face carved into a mountain in South Dakota, the face on the fivers I'd swiped from the a-boost cash baskets at many a wake my mother took me to in Hoboken, that unforgettable, one-of-a-kind punum he understood their anguish. And he understood mine. President Lincoln was standing proudly behind them, and he had a message: speak up, speak loud, and be proud. I wanted to share President Lincoln's story with those kids, the ones I'd met with and the many I hadn't, soldiers fighting in a war and dying from their secret torment at a greater rate than the Taliban could take them out.

We have something to learn from the way his contemporaries behaved toward Lincoln, long before his political fame took hold. Yes, we could afford to tear a page out of that old book. Lincoln found support from his peers and community despite the "melancholy" that "dripped from him as he walked," as Lincoln's law partner William Herndon once described him. Today his condition would be called "depression," but in those days depression wasn't relegated to the closet. Lincoln's burdens didn't make him weak in the eyes of his peers but, rather, were accepted as part of the natural landscape of humankind - and it required strength, not weakness, to walk one's path while lifting such weights. The script was flipped, and it seems to have something to do with a more relaxed attitude in dealing with our inner world. Could our culture be that uptight compared to the early 19th Century? There was a more intimate discourse among us once upon a time. We seemed more open to each other's thoughts and feelings, including our battles with depression. Things that today would be shunned as too personal or awkward, a taboo topic better left to the "head shrinkers," as Mommy would have referred to modern-day therapy, seem once as easy to discuss as apple pie was to eat.

It's still hard to believe this was America in the 1830s. In less than 200 years, the American palette seems to have gone from a sweeping expanse of color combinations to paint-by-numbers with invisible ink. What's happened between then and now? What the hell has gone wrong? In President Lincoln's time, it's as if managing life with mental dis-ease was a character virtue. President Lincoln's lifelong battle with depression is the perfect example of how the challenges so many of us face from the inside out, given to us by genetics or faulty learned experience or both, can be transformed over the course of our lives into the stepping stones of success. As a society, perhaps it's time we followed the same path to recovery from the stigma of mental dis-ease as taken by Lincoln and so many courageous souls since his time: we need to step away from ignorance, denial and fear, towards acceptance and engagement of the totality of our circumstances and, ultimately, transcend our circumstances.

Lincoln's dis-ease was persistent and cruel and nearly destroyed him. Imagine what our world would have been like had a promising young man from Illinois not received the support of his community, his peers, his society - support that helped him manage and overcome a most grueling inner life and achieve his deserved place in history. Too many of us - one in four, in fact - can identify with his suffering, if not necessarily with depression then with the many variations and manifestations of brain dis-ease. Our brains are complex and mysterious, and in that complexity and mystery there is benefit and challenge alike. And when it comes to the challenges, the story of President Lincoln reminds me that mental dis-ease is as much a challenge as a source of strength and motivation to achieve our personal victories.

I had spent nine days telling soldiers that being diagnosed with a mental dis-ease had been the best thing that ever happened to me. Nine days humbled to the bone as tough kids in desert camouflage threw their arms around me and thanked me for what I had done for them. How exactly had I gone from running numbers for my bookie mother in Hoboken to running hope for the U.S. Military in Baghdad? Why me? I had spent the last 35 years playing the guy you love to hate, all the while hating myself because I wasn't Al Pacino or feeling another of a million wrenches my unceasing anxiety threw between me and my serenity. But I was - we were - in good company. I felt relieved as I read Lincoln's quote to Nancy. Nancy, needless to say, was relieved to hear it wasn't me who was doing the "foreboding."

Let's bring some February presidential awareness into May's Mental Health Awareness month. Let's remember President Abe Lincoln's lifelong battle with depression, and reflect on what his successes say about our own stigma-crazy modern world and the unnecessary harm that an earlier generation seems to have avoided.

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