7 min read

You're here and you're doing okay - please stay.

You're here and you're doing okay - please stay.

If you are struggling, it’s okay to talk about your feelings. The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States.

It’s been nearly four years since I first felt the pain in my chest. I remember it vividly. It was sharp. It was debilitating. It took my breath away and knocked me off my feet. The only thing I’ve ever known about chest pain is that when it comes, you have to be concerned that you’re having a heart attack - especially when it takes your breath away the way that this pain did me.

We rushed to the hospital.

It was at the beginning of COVID and there were tents and scanning centers set up outside of the emergency room. But, even at the height of the unknown of COVID, chest pains trumped everything. I skipped the line and was rushed into a room, given a handful of aspirin, and hooked up for an EKG.

I was scared. My wife was scared. It was scary.

And then the results came back from the EKG - no heart attack.

Relieved, I went home that night and felt confidence that my heart was in stable condition. The pain wasn’t gone, but it was no longer an emergent pain and that gave me solace.

It wasn’t a week later when the same debilitating pain grabbed me from the inside once again. And, just the same as the first time, it took me off of my feet and stole my breath. It was more scary than the first time - more intense, more focused, and more heart attack-ey.

Back to the emergency room we went. Once again, I skipped the waiting room and the COVID screening center. I was once again given a handful of aspirin and set up for an EKG. And once again, my heart was just fine.

Many of you reading this are surely thinking, “Jeff, dude, panic attacks. Stop going to the emergency room.”

But I had never had panic attacks and hardly knew what they were. It never dawned on me that I could be having something like this - it wasn’t even in my brain as a possibility.

My wife, though, had experienced panic attacks. Though she was unable to keep me from rushing to the hospital when those chest pains appeared, she had an inkling of what was really going on. That’s why, when the chest pains came back again for a third time the following week, she sat me down and we started to talk through some things together.

That wasn’t the end of the panic attacks and it surely wasn’t the end of the stress. There was a period of time where my brain was so convinced that my physical body was failing me that I was afraid of sleeping. I was consumed by the thought that I was sick - my heart, my lungs, my brain, something - and I couldn’t get rid of the feeling. Night time was the worst - when the kids were sleeping, the TV was off, and it was just the deafening volume of my inner thoughts that I could hear.

I was afraid to sleep. If I fell asleep, I was convinced that I would not wake up and my poor wife or kids would come into my room the next morning to find my cold, lifeless body. My solution to avoid that scenario? I simply wouldn’t sleep.

My family would go to bed and I would pull out my first energy drink of the night. I would go for a second energy drink sometime between 2:00-3:00 in the morning. I was determined to stay away, and thus, stay alive.

I kept this up for about a week - eight nights and nine days, to be exact - before I couldn’t function anymore. I had counted something like six hours of accidental sleep during that time. I was dragging. I was short-tempered. I wasn’t performing my job duties like I should. I wasn’t the dad that I wanted to be. I wasn’t the husband that my wife deserved.

But I was alive, and at that point, that was the only thing that was on my mind. I was so consumed by the fear of dying that I was treating my body in a way that it was killing myself.

And that’s when the real mental struggles started to come.

I never thought of taking my life seriously, but it crossed my mind in passing. It wasn’t a ‘it would be better if I was gone’ thought as much as ‘if I’m going to die anyways, wouldn’t it be better to just face the music quickly?”

My wife had a front row seat to all the struggles. After night eight, she sat me down again and we worked out a plan.

I met with a doctor. I got on medication. I talked more openly about my feelings.

I wish I could say the panic attacks went away and I wish I could say I’ve never felt that chest pain again, but that would be a lie. Four years later, WebMD is still my best friend and worst enemy. I still feel the pain. I still get anxiety. It’s still not easy.

But I am here. And I’m doing okay.

Looking back at those first few weeks and months of my grapple with anxiety, I realize that I was lucky that my symptoms were displayed outwardly. I was fortunate that the pain caused me to visibly change course. The thunderous noise of my inner thoughts were silent, but the reaction to those thoughts couldn’t be hidden. My wife and my kids were always there and knew something was up. My closest friend in the office could see my struggle and frequently checked on me. My parents knew something was wrong and called nightly.

I had a support system who knew I was having a tough time and they were there to help pull me through to the other side.

Had I just been alone with those brain-piercing thoughts, I’m not sure I would have seen the other side at all.

There are many out there who know what I’m talking about and they are struggling silently. Please, my friends, let those painful thoughts out. Please let someone know - anyone. Please give those around you a chance to pull you through to the other side. Reach your hand out and there will be someone to find you, I promise you.

If you aren’t struggling with these thoughts or feelings, you have an even bigger role to play. Please find those hands that are reaching out and grab them. Those hands are there, and they need you. They need me. They need anyone. Please be that anyone.

In the past week, just in my small scope of the world, there have been four young men that I’ve learned of who have died by suicide. Each of them were between 25-45 years old. Each left behind a family who is devastated and heartbroken today.

Four spouses have no idea what their tomorrow looks like. 13 children who don’t have a dad they can call today. The trajectory of so many lives altered, and no matter how they move forward, they will do so with a massive hole in their hearts that can never be filled.

Life is hard. Life is hard for moms staying at home with young children. Life is hard for people in the tail end of their careers staring at their 401k accounts and hoping they have enough to make it work. Life is hard for the teenager going through high school, struggling to find who they are and where they fit. Life is hard for so many people.

Included among those people are the young husbands and fathers who are trying every day to provide for their families.

Those husbands and fathers see the articles that tell them they aren’t teaching their kids enough. They hear the stereotypes that, no matter how hard they work, they are just a dumb dad who doesn’t know anything. They go to the office and are told how much they are worth in the form of a paycheck from a company that constantly moves the goal posts on them, moving from the next objective to the next objective. They see these things all the time.

But, husbands and fathers, you’re so much more than those things. Your kids need you. Your spouse needs you. Your home needs you. You have so much more value than a paycheck. You are an integral part not only in the success of your family, but of their future families and the families they will have. You are a key cog in a cycle that will influence hundreds and thousands of people for decades to come. You are needed.

I had a conversation with a friend earlier this week where he opened up about his current struggles. He tried to minimize them and downplay them, but I could feel how heavy the things he was going through really were for him. It was familiar to me, because it wasn’t many years ago that I was drinking Rockstars at 3:00 AM desperately trying to stay awake.

He was reaching out. His hand was out.

He talked for a while. I opened up about my personal struggles of the past. Through the tears in his eyes, he was able to tell me that he was going to be okay.

His journey is far from over and my responsibility is far from complete, but he is here and he is doing okay.

And folks, that is something we should be celebrating for him because sometimes just being here and doing okay feels impossible.

Please reach out your hand. Please grab those hands reaching out. Please, my friends, stay here and let’s be okay together.

If you are struggling, it’s okay to talk about your feelings. The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States.