An award-winning writer, mental health activist, and sought-after speaker and educator, Gabe Howard was formally diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety disorders after being committed to a psychiatric hospital in 2003. Since then, he has become an advocate for Mental Illness, and fights daily against the associated stigmas faced by those with mental health issues. Nowadays, Gabe writes regularly for PsychCentral.com, Bipolar Magazine, and has been featured in multiple news outlets. Recently, we sat down for a chat.
Can you describe your“rock bottom” where you knew that you needed help to get yourself and your life back together?
I didn’t know I had a mental illness. As far back as I can remember, I thought about suicide every day. Life went up and down, I went back and forth, and no one realized anything was wrong. I thought it was my personality. I couldn’t control it, and felt more and more isolated. Someone I knew asked if I felt suicidal and I said yes, because I assumed everyone had those thoughts. I ended up in the emergency ward of a mental hospital and that’s where it all began. While there were several lows along the way, I consider my rock bottom as waking up in a psychiatric hospital.
What advice would you give your 25 year old self?
Listen to professionals more, and to family and friends less. Not because my family and friends are bad, but everything they told me about mental illness was wrong. Every sterotype they knew about mental illness came home to roost. So, their “advice” set me back in seeking the treatment I needed. So, I’d also say to hug them more, and understand that they are scared too.
Do you feel you can “recover” from mental illness, or is it a question of maintaining good management strategies?
We’re already acknowledging that addiction and mental illness belong in the same camp. But I don’t think “recovery” is a good term to describe how we are progressing with the treatement of mental illness. When I was first diagnosed, I spent 100% of my time managing my illness. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, it’s long term, but rather than say I’m recovering, I can now define it better by saying I’m spending more time on my life and less time managing bipolar.
Which part of your treatment do you feel was the most interesting or unexpected?
Therapy was an amazing thing for me because I had pre-conceived notions about what “therapy” entailed. I discovered it was more about learning actual life skills, coping skills, management strategies, tools and techniques than actual therapy in the way I had always thought of it. In time, I learned to figure out what elements I could use for my own illness and proceed from there.
For what in your life do you feel the most gratitude today?
Life! I’m so happy to be alive. I really took life for granted, not on purpose, but because I really thought everyone was trying to decide if today was the day they were going to kill themselves or if today was the day they were going to live. Constantly weighing the pros and cons of whether or not I wanted to die, I wasn’t valuing life very much. When I learned to appreciate life for life’s sake, I felt an emotional range I’ve never had before and I’m really grateful for that.
How important is it to have a solid support network?
It’s extremely important. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family, knowing they cared enough to try, even though they made mistakes. When the people around you believe you can do something, you start to believe you can do it too.
What does an average day look like for you these days?
Get out of bed, put pants on … I go to work. I play with the dog. My wife yells at me for not putting clothes in the hamper. It’s a pretty routine life now.
What blows your hair back and makes your heart beat wildy?
I love live music. I love concerts and live performances. Also sporting events. The thing I love the most is being a public speaker, standing in front of people and talking, and making them laugh. That’s the biggest rush I can get.
How would you describe your greatest achievement?
Living well with mental illness. It’s such an invisible disease, people have no idea how much you’ve had to overcome. It’s an epic battle against an illness no one ever sees, then you realize the last few months have been pretty good.
What’s the closest you have ever come to death?
The suicide plan I had before I was admitted to the psychiatric hospital. I’d rented an apartment specifically to commit suicide. I had life insurance that would pay out in the event of suicide. I tied up all the loose ends, and was ready to depart. I’m thankful that didn’t work out.
Who is your favorite superhero, and why?
Batman. He uses his brain to do all these amazing things. He doesn’t have super powers like Spiderman or Superman. He’s a tortured soul who took a bad situation and made good out of it with intelligence (and probably billions of dollars).
Where is the most interesting place you’ve ever been emotionally and why?
The rapid cycling of bipolar that rages in uncontrollable circles from elation to despair, paranoia, mania and everything in between. It spins around so fast you have no time to process anything.
Describe the weirdest situation you’ve ever been in?
Before I was diagnosed, I woke up half-naked in the basement of a strip club after a three-day manic bender, hanging around a bunch of people I didn’t know. I couldn’t remember what I did the night before and had no idea how I got there.
Do you feel substance/alcohol abuse magnified your mental illness? If so, in what ways?
Yes, absolutely. Firstly, I would describe myself as an abuser rather than an addict because quitting wasn’t an issue. I’d say substances altered my state. I was already in an abnormal state with depression clashing against mania, so adding substances just made the whole thing a goopy mess. It made an already bad situation even worse.
Global advocacy against stigma is stronger than ever. Do you feel the battle is being won, and what more needs to be done?
Vast amounts of progress have been made, particularly over the last twenty years. However, we still have such a long way to go that it’s hard to celebrate a victory. Since we don’t even really know how far we have to go, we might actually be on the precipice of really changing how the world thinks about mental illness. Or we could be twenty years away.
What’s the biggest lesson life has taught you so far?
Don’t expect anything. John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” and I agree with that because it’s all random, up in the air stuff. I try to control the things I can and let go of the things I can’t. And acceptance is a powerful thing.
If you could be any cartoon character, who would you be?
Mickey Mouse. He’s well known, universally beloved. He gets along with Minnie fantastically, and he’s well respected. There are no scandals there and he owns Disney. That’s pretty awesome.
Do you see a correlation between the American diet and increasing issues of mental health?
As an observer, I see that a lot of people who suffer from depression are also eating processed foods. It’s cheap and easy to get; it costs nothing to buy a cheeseburger and soda. I’m not a scientist, but it can’t be a coincidence. I don’t believe depression leads to weight gain. I believe depression leads to poor eating habits which leads to weight gain. I feel better when I eat healthier and it really helps improve my mental health.
How big a part do you think diet plays in the maintenance and management of mental health?
I think it has a role. I don’t know exactly how big of a role except to say that it’s bigger than the zero that we think. Physical and mental health are linked and food is a part of the equation. Depression makes you feel bad physically, so I think if we adopted a better diet, then we’d get better faster.
What should I have asked you that I didn’t?
You should have asked, “Do I feel that everybody can get better?” It’s a tough question to answer, but YES I do believe everyone can get better, regardless of their situation. At the same time, peole do not get better equally. My better isn’t going to be on the same level as someone else’s better. I think if each person can achieve a level of wellness where we each can live a decent life, then they’re better. We tend to stigmatize people who aren’t as well as us. Forward is a direction, so our only true goal is to be a little better today than we were yesterday.
Find out more about Gabe Howard at: www.gabehoward.com