Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Why We Need to Talk About Mental Illness With Gabe Howard
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for Episode 431 of Live Happy Now. We’ve become more comfortable with talking openly about mental health, but we’re still reluctant to talk about mental illness. Since September is Suicide Prevention Month, we wanted to open up that conversation on this important topic.
I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week I’m talking with Gabe Howard, author, speaker, and host of The Inside Mental Health Podcast by Healthline Media.
After being committed to a psychiatric hospital in 2003, Gabe was diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety disorders. And today he uses his experience to help others navigate and understand that difficult path. Gabe is here to talk about not just his journey, but to help the families and friends of people who are struggling with mental illness. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:51] PF: Gabe, thank you so much for being on the show today.
[00:00:54] GH: Paula, thank you so much for having me.
[00:00:56] PF: You have done so much to create awareness around mental illness and really challenge the stigma that’s associated with it. I don’t know that there’s any individual out there who’s approaching it the way that you are. So, before we really get into this conversation, why don’t you give us a little bit of your backstory and tell us about your journey.
[00:01:15] GH: I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 26 after being committed to a psychiatric hospital. And if you would have asked me, well, hell, an hour before I was committed to a psychiatric hospital, if I had any mental illness, I would have been like, “No. I’m just fine.” My background is I didn’t know what mental illness was and I believed all the stigma and stereotypes. Mentally ill people are violent. Mentally ill people rock back and forth and drool. They’re antisocial. They’re psychotic. They look a certain way. They come from bad homes. I always like to remind people of that one right there, because my home life was stable. My mom and dad loved me very much. They were engaged in care. I always say the worst thing my parents ever did to me in my childhood was give me a younger brother and a sister.
[00:01:56] PF: I’m sure they love hearing that.
[00:01:58] GH: I know. I always pause for laughter there. But sincerely, when people hear my story, they want it so desperately to hear that my father is an alcoholic, and my mother sat on the couch eating bonbons and beat us, or that they were disengaged, or that we were homeless, or that we didn’t have health insurance. They want these things so desperately because then it’s a protective factor. Right? If they keep their homes in order, their children will be safe.
Unfortunately, that’s not the reality. And people believe that it’s the reality. So, if they have a good, stable, caring home life, they don’t see it in their children. They don’t see it in their spouses. They don’t see it in their friends and family, siblings, et cetera. They’re like, “Hey, we’re all good and we all love each other. So, whatever’s wrong with you is probably your fault, and we don’t have to pay attention to it.” This becomes really, really problematic because it allows really sick people like me to go without care and help.
[00:02:55] PF: Well, what was it that triggered you being institutionalized? How did that manifest itself? As you said, even an hour before you were committed, you wouldn’t have thought you had mental illness. What was it that – was that breaking point?
[00:03:07] GH: I thought about suicide as far back as I can remember. When I was five years old, I thought about suicide. Ten years old, I thought about suicide. Teenage years, young adult. So, I thought it was normal. That’s really the key that I want your listeners to focus on. When you are born thinking a certain way, when you are born with your brain working a certain way, you have no reason to believe that that’s aberrant, or an illness process, or sick, or different. When I looked out in the world, I thought that everybody was contemplating the pros and cons of life or death. I thought that everyone was suicidal. I thought that everyone’s brains work this way.
So, when my parents punished me and said, like, “You’re bad.” I believe that I was bad. I believed it was a behavioral issue, just like they did. Where this is going is that by the time I was 26 years old, I just thought it was bad. I thought I was bad. My parents reinforced that I was bad. I was constantly being punished. Society wasn’t happy with me. I was going through a divorce. So, I decided, you know what, I tried. I tried. So, remember that decision. I’ve been contemplating literally my whole life. I decided that now was the time. I made a suicide plan, and luckily, luckily, someone caught on. Someone who suffers from depression herself. Someone who’s taken psychology one on one. Somebody was raised by a psychiatric nurse. Her mom was a psychiatric nurse. So, she just had a lot of the pieces of the puzzle that my family, friend, and support group lacked. She spotted it. She did the right things. She ultimately drove me to the hospital where I was committed, diagnosed, and I like to say that that began my four-year epic battle against bipolar disorder.
[00:04:46] PF: How long ago was that? What kind of a timeframe are we talking about?
[00:04:49] GH: That was 20 years ago. I am now 46 years old.
[00:04:52] PF: All right. How did it go from your being institutionalized, to you have this journey, this four-year journey, and how did it then become a point where you are comfortable enough to talk about not just other people’s mental illness, but your own mental illness?
[00:05:11] GH: It went slowly. The example that I always use is true crime. I love true crime. America loves true crime, and everybody listens to this, like, few hour podcasts or watches a one-hour television show. They’re like, “Wow, that’s an amazing story.” We all tell like these details of the story, and we love it. But you ever actually look at the dates, the date from the crime –
[00:05:34] PF: Like 18 years.
[00:05:35] GH: Yes, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years. We were somehow able to take what is 5 years or a decade or 15 years of a bunch of people’s lives and boil it down to the high points that took an hour. That is how my story with mental illness goes, of course.
The first thing I want to say is I’m about to wrap up for years in like two minutes. I don’t know that it does it justice. Because four years is a really long time to be suffering, and having ups and downs and trial and errors and goods and bads. I tried a lot of medications. I tried a lot of therapy. Obviously, I was in the hospital, then I went to a step-down unit. A step-down unit is where you sleep at home, but you spend eight hours a day in the hospital. It’s sometimes referred to as intensive outpatient therapy or outpatient therapy. I did all of these things, and it took a really, really, really, really long time. There, that was like two minutes.
[00:06:29] PF: Did you have support during that time? Was your family supportive? What kind – were your friends? Because I feel that’s kind of important to know.
[00:06:35] GH: Many of my friends were gone. My friends, they bought into the Gabe is just a jerkface. They weren’t buying it. They judge me by my behavior and my behavior, make no mistake, was awful. It was awful. The way that I treated them. I lied to them. I was manipulative. I was not there for them. So, they moved on. Because who wants a friend like that? My first wife, the exact same way. I cheated on her. I was dishonest with her. I was not a good husband, and she left as well. But I had my family. Moms and dads, they are much, much, much harder to push away. My family got on board very quickly.
[00:07:10] PF: Parents or family members, if they have someone they’re dealing with, it’s difficult. As you noted, it’s difficult to help someone who is going through this. So, how important is it for them to be able to rally around you, and probably get their own support to deal with whatever they’re dealing with their family member?
[00:07:31] GH: That’s definitely one of those how much time do you have. So many family members are just like, “You know what? The hell with you. I’m done. I’m not helping you anymore.” While I was going through it, I did not realize that that was a possibility. It never even occurred to me that my parents would abandon me. That was how good they did. I now realized that that’s like, super – I call it luck, right? My mom and dad don’t refer to it as luck. They’re just like, “We would never abandon you. We don’t care what you do.”
But listen, there’s so many families out there to get fractured and broken. As I point out all the time when I’m talking to people, my parents had other kids. They couldn’t just abandon my brother and sister to save me. So, it’s possible that they might have had to stop helping me so that they could start helping my brother and sister. Fortunately, my brother and sister did not need the kind of support and time that I needed.
Paula if I can explain, anything to your audience and get them to take it away, it’s that families are super complicated, and many families they suffer and they cannot withstand the storm that is untreated, serious, and persistent mental illness, and it fractures them, and it breaks them up, and it costs people everything. To answer your specific question about how important it is. It’s vital.
[00:08:45] PF: How does a family get help? They’re putting so much of their time and their resources into getting through this difficult situation and this difficult time, and it’s such a long journey. So, where do they find support and understanding of what’s going on?
[00:09:02] GH: There’s so many places they can find support. So, many family members don’t realize that they need support. There is a magic duo. They’re in Las Vegas. They’re super famous. They’ve been famous for 35 years named Penn & Teller.
[00:09:13] PF: Oh, God. I love them.
[00:09:14] GH: Have you heard of Penn & Teller?
[00:09:15] PF: Oh, love them.
[00:09:17] GH: I love Penn & Teller. But Teller, he is referred to as the little guy, right? That’s like, if you say Penn & Teller and you can’t remember. It’s like, “Oh, I saw these magicians. There was like a big guy and a little guy.” And that’s how they’re always referred, the little guy, the little guy, the little guy, the little guy. Teller is 6’3”. He is taller than the average male in America by a huge margin. I think the average height for a man is what like 5’11”, six-foot, somewhere in that range? And he is three inches taller than that, four inches, five inches. But you know why he’s called the little guy? Because he spent his career standing next to 6’8” Penn Jillette.
So, it’s all about perspective. I always give this example because so many family members, they see their mentally ill loved one, and they think that they have no problems. They personally, the family members believe that they have no problems, because after all, when you’re standing next to someone who has serious and persistent mental illness, your mental health issues look small. But here’s the fact, Teller from Penn & Teller is not the little guy. He is tall. He is taller than the average. That is a fact.
Here’s another fact, your mental health issues don’t change because someone is sicker. One, that’s just the suffering Olympics. But two, this is where perspective is really, really important. You can be having a serious mental health crisis, and just because your loved one is having a serious and persistent mental illness issue, or illness, or disorder, or problem doesn’t change yours. I don’t mean to beat this into the ground. But so many people believe in these families that they don’t need help, because they need to be helping someone else.
Here’s where this is dangerous. Do you want somebody to come and save you that is suffering from a mental health crisis? If you were in trouble, do you want the person who shows up to be suffering from a mental health crisis when they are here to save you? No. You want the person who shows up to save you to be firing on all cylinders, to be 100%, to be well rested, well slept, have control of their faculties, and be in a good working order. That’s what we want. But so many family members don’t think they need therapy. They don’t think that they need help. They don’t think that they need to go to a support group. They don’t think that they need to take a class. They don’t think that they need to talk their general practitioner. They don’t even think they need to take a break. They don’t even think that they need to step away from the situation for a day or two, so that they can gain perspective and get well rested and come back.
They believe that they have to be helping their mentally ill loved one 100% of the time, always and forever with zero breaks. This is a recipe for disaster and failure. But it’s what the average person believes. Listen, Paula, if you ask any mom, if it’s okay to leave your child alone for a couple of days to recharge, almost every single mother would say, “Absolutely not. Absolutely not. No, no, no.” I hear it all the time. And all I can think is, “Wow, that’s” – I get it, you’re a really good mom, like I love you and I want to hug you. But you’re actually making the situation worse for everyone and you don’t even realize it.
[00:12:22] PF: We had a guest on recently, Dr. Laura Phillips, and she’s with the Child Mind Institute, and she said a great thing where she said, “Self-care is childcare.” And I love that because her whole point is you’ve got to take care of yourself first, so that you can be whole and present for your child, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about.
[00:12:41] GH: She sounds like she can say things shorter than I can, and that’s a skill that I do not have. But yes, 100%. One of the things I’d like to say to all of the moms out there, all of the parents out there, all of the frontline caregivers for teenagers, young adults, et cetera, is it doesn’t have to be you. I know that’s a hard thing to hear. But sometimes you got to call the favorite aunt. You got to call grandma and grandpa. You got to call the trusted friend and you got to say, “Look, I need you to step in. I need you to step in and take my child for the weekend. I need you to talk to them. I need you to go to the doctor’s appointment. I need you to help me.” Many times, these people were like, “Yes, I just didn’t want to offend you by offering my help.”
Because that’s another problem we have in our society. When we see parents struggling, we don’t want to walk up and say, “Hey, mom and dad, you seem to be struggling with your young adult, or your teenager, or your toddler, or whatever. Let me step in.” Because then, “Oh, you think I’m a bad mom. You think I’m a bad dad. You think we’re bad parents. You’re judging us.”
So, we’ve been so trained not to offer any assistance, and then parents have been so trained not to ask for any assistance, and this is the literal equivalent, and everybody sitting inside the burning house, not knowing what to do. The answer is so simple. Call the fire department. Get out of the house. Actually, I’ve said that wrong. Get out of the house, call the fire department. But imagine if the messaging was muddled. Hey, if your house catches on fire, that’s your responsibility to put out. Well, hey, if you see a house on fire, you got to give the parents a chance to put it out themselves. You don’t want to usurp their power. You don’t want to make them look bad in front of their kids. Then, in the meantime, we just have all these houses burning down, and all these people getting third degree burns are worse, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We have to get away from that.
Mental illness thrives in this atmosphere. Because it can run around unchecked. It can do whatever I want it. It’s difficult to ask for help. It’s difficult to offer help. I understand. But I’m telling you, it pays huge dividends for families, huge.
[00:14:47] PF: One thing that’s so different now than when you started this 20 years ago, is that we didn’t talk about mental illness. We didn’t talk about anxiety. We didn’t talk about schizophrenia. We didn’t talk about bipolar. It was whispered. So, what has changed? And how has that helped get treatment out there? Just how has that helped just being able to talk about it? If we continue as a society, do you become more comfortable talking about it? How is that going to change the way we can manage it? Because obviously, if you don’t have to hide it, you can do so many different things with it.
[00:15:27] GH: The faster you get to care, the better your odds are. That’s not a mental health thing. That’s just a fact. That’s just a health thing. It’s true in physical health. It’s true in mental health. It’s true in physical and mental health. It’s just true everywhere. So, if people were willing to talk about it, I’m going to use myself, I’m going to make sure that I’m using myself as an example. I used to cry myself to sleep at night all the time. But I grew up in the eighties, and I absorbed these messages that men are strong. Men are stoic. Men don’t cry. So, I told no one. I didn’t tell anybody I was crying myself to sleep. I was ashamed and I was embarrassed.
Now, I find out years later that I had I told my parents this, they would have asked why, what’s going on? What’s the problem? They would have been extraordinarily open, extraordinarily supportive. They would have gotten me all kinds of help. In fact, when they finally figured this out, they did in fact, take me to a therapist. They took me to the school psychologist, so I can talk to about this.
So, I was 16 years old. I’ve been exhibiting this behavior for a decade, before I got even the most remote assistance at all and they feel bad about this. But the message of men are strong, and I’ll give you something to cry about, was so there. It was there. Men my age, understand this. Adults my age understand this. So, just imagine if when I was 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, I mean, like I cry every day. Well, what’s wrong? I don’t know. Well, let’s talk about this. I could have just had an open eye – I might not have needed therapy. I probably would have because the bipolar disorder was there. But I imagine that there are just so many people, so many teenagers who are exhibiting. I don’t want to call them mild, because they’re on the spectrum from suicidality to crying yourself to sleep. Crying is sort of a beginning symptom, right? There’s got to be so many people who are experiencing depression and crying themselves to sleep at night, and they tell no one. If they could tell people, they could get support, they could get intervention sooner, and this would be so much better. So, much better, right? A stitch in time saves nine. That’s what my grandmother says. I think it’s an old timey analogy, but it works. I love it. I love it, just faster is better.
[00:17:35] PF: Before I let you go, what is it that you most hope that you’ll accomplish by bringing topics related to mental illness out into the open and really opening up that dialogue?
[00:17:44] GH: I look at my family a lot. Remember what I said, my family were good, stable, engaged, loving parents that created a beautiful home, and yet they missed it all. They believe the stereotypes, and they did not have the information that they needed. This could have cost me my life, and it could have cost them their child, it could have cost my brother and sister, their brother, my grandparents, their grandson. The devastation of my suicide would have rippled throughout my family and friends forever. This is from a family that I know was doing everything. I don’t have to guess. I know they did everything they thought was right.
What I think about all the time is the fact that they did everything they thought was right. If they would have known it was wrong, they would have done something different. I hope to reach those families who are doing everything they think is right, and just letting them know, hey, instead of doing this, do this and here’s why. Because these families, they’re ready and they’re willing, and they’re able, and they’re trying. They are doing everything they can for their children. What makes it horrible for me is knowing that it’s not going to be enough. I want to make sure that everybody understands in mental health, that for all of the people who are ready, willing, and able to do the right thing, do this. Do this instead. Have this knowledge instead understand this instead, and that would have saved my family so much, so much, so much suffering, so much grief, so much unhappiness. And as I point out, I ended up okay. In the end, it all turned out okay.
[00:19:22] PF: Well, Gabe, you’re doing tremendous work. You’re putting so much good out in the world and so much educational value. On the landing page, we’re going to let people know how they can link directly to you, listen to you. I thank you for coming on the show and talking about it today, because it is super important topic and I’m so glad to be able to share it with our listeners.
[00:19:38] GH: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and energy and effort and everything that you do.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:19:49] PF: That was Gabe Howard, talking about mental illness. If you’d like to learn more about Gabe and his podcast or follow him on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.