Author Archives: Blake Friis

Be Brave, Kansas City

The stigma around mental illness is strong, but our stories are stronger.

The majority of people who live with mental illness do not seek treatment. That may surprise some people, but not me. I used to be part of that majority.

I believed clinical depression meant some pale, dead-eyed drone rocking back and forth in a padded room. A body on autopilot, clearly off their meds. I wasn’t one of Those People. I had a good job, a beautiful family, and a safe home and a big ass TV. I was living the life I always believed could be achieved with hard work and a little luck.

Yet still, I occasionally sat in the dark by myself for hours at a time, imagining the life my wife and children would be free to live if I killed myself. But I’d never actually go through with it. That would be crazy…right?

I took an online depression screen. When I answered “Yes” to suicidal thoughts, the test paused and a helpline number popped up. I scaled back my answer, because who needs that shit? The results of my almost-honest version were “Moderate to Severe Depression.” I got a second opinion from someone who had no business giving medical advice — myself.

Dr. Me delivered the same old treatment Plan:

Appreciate how good your life is and stop being such a little bitch all the time.

Then one day I read an essay in the Washington Post by a woman named Amy Marlow. Like me, Amy lost a parent to suicide when she was 13. Like me, she spent her 20’s and early 30’s trying to hide her depression. Like me, she was had a career in corporate communications.

Amy detailed her eventual breakdown honestly and unapologetically, and vowed to handle her depression with the same openness and candor.

One month after reading her article, feeling like I was on the verge of a similar breakdown, I finally opened up to my wife about how I’d been feeling, and got treatment.

Amy’s story changed my life, and I vow to use my story to do the same for others.

This Is My Brave

Last year, I wrote and performed a one-man show about my experience with suicide loss and depression. After hearing about it, a friend asked if I would perform on a show she was producing, aimed at breaking down the stigma around mental illness. The show was called This Is My Brave.

I liked the idea so much I decided to take it a step further. I contacted This Is My Brave and got permission to produce a show right here in Kansas City.

This Is My Brave — Kansas City will take place Sunday, May 7 at H&R Block City Stage in Union Station.

Now, I am looking for more people willing to be brave and share a piece of their experience living with mental illness.

We are holding auditions this Saturday (February 25) and next Saturday (March 4). Both will be held at the Johnson County Public Library in Overland Park, Kansas from 2–4pm (sign up at this link).

If you have a story and are brave enough to share it, I want to help you tell it. You never know whose life you might save.


For more information on This Is My Brave, and to check out past performances, go to ThisIsMyBrave.org.

To keep up with the latest on the Kansas City show, follow me on Twitter.

Toughness, Not Depression, Is An American Fetish

In defense of the clinically depressed

I love Twitter. You could say (as my wife routinely does) I’m addicted to it. Sure it’s easy to insulate yourself with like-minded people, but it’s also a great place to do opposition research — find viewpoints you disagree with, and better understand the people who hold them.

I recently stumbled upon one such viewpoint — expressed by a professional shit stirrer (pictured above) — that depression is just sadness, and people who “suffer” from it are weak and need to suck it up.

The troll — who I’ll call Dickface in an effort not to promote his work — fires a lot of shots. I’ll address a few, not because I am the type of person he put in the crosshairs (I am), but because he’s not alone in his mentality, which literally kills people.

We’re bathed in a culture that glorifies and fetishizes depression.

Dickface goes on to say we’ve been “forced to swallow the ridiculous idea that constantly admitting weakness is a strength. It isn’t. Strength of mind is strength.

Ah, yes. Strength is strength and asking for help is for pussies. Actually, supporting people who open up about mental struggles is not fetishizing weakness, it’s a celebration of the courage it takes to face challenges head on, rather than die quietly because judgmental wannabe tough guys like Dickface are waiting to pounce with their bad science and big mouths.

Strength of character used to be about the ability to deal with negative stuff without falling to pieces at the first sign of distress.

If any mentality is fetishized in America it’s this brand of toughness, a widely admired and aspirational character trait, more than intelligence, and light years beyond vulnerability. If you were to ask any depressed person if they’d rather be labeled as “depressed” or “tough,” roughly 100% would choose tough.

We consider toughness the ability to absorb pain without admitting we’re hurt or asking for help. Maybe we’d be better served to think in terms of resiliency — the capacity to recover. If you suffer from depression, and you decide to face your fears and ask for help, you have done something really hard and are likely to be rewarded with a fuller, happier life. You’ll have proven yourself resilient, not weak. And I will celebrate your resiliency.

It’s also valuable to address the idea of depressed people “falling to pieces at the first sign of distress.” I can’t speak for everyone who battles depression, but for me, depression isn’t a red-faced, tear-soaked, blubbering breakdown. I cry at the end of Rudy or every 108 years when the Cubs win the World Series. I don’t cry when I’m depressed; I robotically contemplate, with no emotion whatsoever, how much better life would be for my family if I weren’t weighing them down, and consider the least traumatizing ways to give my children that gift.

I’ve come to the conclusion there is no way to do that, so I ask for help when I feel the darkness coming on.

People think they have the right to be happy. You don’t. Happiness is earned by the way you live your life.

I read somewhere that the pursuit of happiness is a right, a certain unalienable one, if I remember correctly. But I think Dickface is at least half right here. Happiness is the result of how you live your life. I am a happier person when I am open and honest about the things I struggle with, and yes, I am happier on medication.

Denying yourself happiness and living in the darkest parts of your brain doesn’t earn you some unquantifiable measure of toughness, awarded by people whose opinions don’t matter. It doesn’t make you a “real man.” It could very well make you a statistic — like 3.5x more real men die by suicide than women, or how in 2015 white men accounted for 7 out of every 10 suicides.

Stop being depressed, you’re not impressing anyone.

Stop being an asshole just because it impresses other assholes.


If you need help, get it. Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255.

You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741–741.

How To Be Brave

100116_crowdWhen I walked off the stage after talking about my experience with suicide loss at the Kansas City Out of the Darkness Walk, a woman I’d never met approached me and said, “You are so brave!”

For 20 years, I rarely spoke about my mother’s suicide, and certainly never in public. I tried to ignore the pain and hide the shame, unwilling to forgive myself for the role I believed I played in her decision, and afraid to be labeled, or worse, pitied. I once heard someone speak about their experience, and wished I had the guts to do it myself. I couldn’t imagine being that person.

Fast forward a couple years, and I’ve written and performed a one-man show about my experience for audiences ranging from ages 13 to 83.

Like the woman at the walk, people come up to me after shows and say they admire my bravery, but I’m surprised how many people follow up by saying they wish they could write or speak about their experience, but aren’t “brave enough to put themselves out there like that.”

But they are.

It all starts with a simple concept: bravery is not something you have to be born with. It can be learned and improved upon. You get better at being brave the same way you get better at, say, golf: practice.

Now, like golf, people have different ceilings for their ability. Sometimes you put in hours of practice and win major titles, like Tiger Woods. Sometimes you put in hours of practice and break a three wood over your knee that your wife won’t let you replace because such public fits are — in her opinion — unacceptable for a man your age. The point is, the course is open to the public, and if you show keep showing up, you will start to hit those great shots that keep you coming back.

Here are a couple things that helped me get going:

Start a blog and share your posts (even if you think they suck).

Contrary to popular belief and my behavior on Facebook/Twitter, not every thought needs to be made public. But if you want to write for public consumption, the public has to come into the equation at some point.

When my first son was born, I took the opportunity to finally share my writing. I wrote four posts in the first week, but they seemed to get worse the closer I got to the share button. Finally, I held my nose and put them out there for friends and family to ridicule. But they didn’t, and neither will yours. They will actually tell you your work is better than it really is. That’s ok. In fact, it’s crucial to keep you going early on. Eventually, you need critical feedback, but you can build up those bravery muscles by sharing your crappy early work first.

Take an improv class.

If you live in an area where improv is offered, I highly recommend taking a class. Improv is daunting and difficult, so join other beginners and make fools of yourself together. Nobody gets better or braver without a safe place to fail, and there is no environment where you’ll feel safer failing harder than an improv class.

Note: I took improv to get over my stage fright enough to do standup comedy open mics. That was exactly the right order. Standup is easier in that you get to prepare your material and practice it, but much tougher in that the audience is often made up of other comics and they are not impressed. Standup comedy is a masters course in bravery, not a level 1 course.

Find a support network.

This is specific to sharing personal stories around issues like suicide, mental illness, and substance abuse. Find a group of people who can relate to what you have gone through, and continue to go through. Your story can help people if you share it, but the most important step in sharing your story is truly knowing it.

I didn’t attend a group of any kind for 19 years after my mom died. In the two years since I have, I’ve become stronger and more comfortable with everything, largely because I know I’m not alone.

There is no substitute for people to confide in and learn from. Find those people, and you’ll find yourself.

So there it is. Go write. Go talk. Get brave. I know you have it in you.

Talk With ME

Last week, I got the chance to sit down with Marcia Epstein at her home in Lawrence, Kansas, and record an episode of her podcast Talk With ME. We had a great chat about love, family, suicide prevention, mental health, and the Chicago Cubs.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to be part of this discussion and continue encouraging people to ask for the help they need, and just as importantly, to be brave enough to offer help if you believe someone you care about is struggling.

We cover a lot of ground. You can listen to the conversation in its entirety here.

Kansas City Live

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-9-28-50-amTwo weeks ago, a producer for Good Morning America caused a ripple in the Suicide Prevention community but asking members of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to remove their signage and step aside because it was the top of their morning show and they didn’t “want suicide on the brain.”

This stirred a lot of emotion in people passionate about our mission to #StopSuicide, but the reality is, suicide is a difficult topic. That’s what makes our work so important and, at times, difficult. It’s also why it is so rewarding when people with a large platform welcome our message with open arms.

That is what happened last week, when I was asked to appear on Kansas City Live to speak about my experience and what we can do to raise awareness.

The host, Michelle Davidson, and producers of the show not only gave me a segment to speak about suicide prevention and mental health awareness, they chatted with me about it before and after the show. If we are really going to break down the stigmas around suicide and mental illness, we need allies in a position to help us get the message out.

It’s easy to criticize the Good Morning America producer who silenced the message, but I’d much rather thank Kansas City Live and others who enthusiastically join the cause. That’s how we change perception and save lives.

 

 

How They Lived

Originally appeared on The Gift of Second.

Four days before Christmas, when I was seven, my mother suffered a devastating brain injury in an automobile collision. For the next six years, her recovery was an inspiration to everyone around her. She never regained her pre-accident self, but in many ways she became something better. I believed she was the toughest person in the world. Then, three days after my 13th birthday, she ended her life.

There is a lot of information out there about suicide. You can research the causes, the aftermath, prevention and coping techniques. But one thing you don’t understand until you experience it up close is the way that type of death affects the way you feel about the life lost, and about yourself.

I thought suicide was something that only happened to people who were mentally weak or selfish. When the toughest, most selfless person I knew took her life, it created a series of questions that only one person could answer, and she was gone.

Every birthday I’ve had for the last 21 years has been accompanied by the lingering cloud of the anniversary of my mother’s suicide. For most of those years, that meant focusing on my perceived shortcomings as a son.

Last year, I started volunteering for the local chapter of the AFSP. At the first meeting I was asked about my mother. I started to describe the circumstances of her death until I was stopped by the woman who leads the chapter.

“No, don’t tell me how she died. Tell me how she lived.”

That was a turning point in my loss journey. This year, for the first time since I lost Mom, I celebrated my birthday without the lingering cloud, because for the first time in two decades, I don’t see the anniversary as a time to focus on her death; I saw it as an opportunity to focus on her life.

I no longer try to figure out what her death says about either of us. I think about her toughness and resilience, and the way she loved me while she was here. Because she, and all those we’ve lost, should be remembered for how they lived. Celebrating their life makes it easier to attack the way they died, and try to prevent others from having to fight this battle.

Rewriting History

After accepting an invitation to speak at this year’s Out of the Darkness Walk in Kansas City, I spent several weeks trying to figure out what the hell to say.

I rarely feel this way speaking in public, but this event is special. Like me, nearly everyone in attendance has lost a loved one to suicide, which, in theory, should make them easy to relate to. But knowing this journey as I do carries a weight of responsibility. It’s the furthest thing from “just another speech.” These are my people.

Potential themes bounced around my head before I settled on what I believe to be the central purpose of the event: making history.

When you ask someone at an Out of the Darkness Walk why they are attending, the most common response is: “I’m here because I lost _____ to suicide.”

That surface level answer obscures a deeper purpose we can accomplish on behalf of loved ones lost, survivors of loss, and those who continue to struggle. To me, it all comes down to history. Suicide is intense, and many people try to bury the cause of death along with the person they lost, hoping the intense feelings that go with suicide loss – grief, guilt, shame, etc. – will eventually go away. The past is the past, they say, and dwelling on it won’t bring her back. Technically, that’s true. The past is a series of things that happen, and we can’t undo them. But history is an evolving narrative based on knowledge of the past. We all have the ability to influence history.

In that spirit, I decided to use my time Saturday to rewrite an important piece of personal history. I hope it helps.