June 30, 2016

Sports are like life: Encouragement works; yelling does not

By Jack Smith

This has everything to do with mental health and nothing to do with mental health. Publishing here because several folks asked me to. 

I posted this on Facebook last night after an experience with little league baseball.
Sports are a lot like life. The battles we learn to fight there may help us when we face far more imposing opponents, like disappointment, loss or mental illness. 

We can all use good coaches to help us through the hard times.
Couple observations about youth sports and coaches.

1. Encouragement works. Yelling does not. (Watch elite coaches who've won National Championships up close and personal and you'll learn this lesson).

2. Children have good memories. So don't tell them one thing before the game and another after a loss. That's called hypocrisy. Kids may not know how to spell it but they know how to smell it. From left field.

3. Respect must be earned. Not demanded.

4. Kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. About them. Not the game you are trying to win to prop up your own ego.

5. It's not possible to be objective about your own children. So guard against that blind spot. Everyone else sees it from 10 miles away.

6. If you didn't achieve all your goals as a player two decades ago, your kid won't, either. They are your goals, not his. So let it go.

7. Kids will only have passion for the sport if they love the game, not because you do. You can't force passion. Let them find their own passion, whether it's baseball or bowling, reading or playing guitar.

8. Consistency isn't key. It's critical. Inconsistency undermines credibility and erodes trust.

9. Idiot parents are ruining youth sports and often times their own kids. That's why coaches with positive attitudes who encourage and motivate matter more than ever. And can be more effective than ever. Many kids are starved for encouragement.

10. Body language matters. Watch Dr. Cuddy's YouTube video. She teaches at Harvard. You probably don't.

11. All kids learn differently. Their personalities and learning styles matter. Yours does not.

12. Leave your ego at the door, or it just might cause you to embarrass yourself at the ballpark. And your kid.

13. If you cheat in 12-year-old baseball or coach with a win-at-all cost mentality, you better believe your kid thinks it's okay to cheat in life and use people for selfish gain. And the essence of sports and the timeless life lessons they can teach us is lost. How sad.

14. Last but not least: The purpose of sport is to teach us about life. And overcoming adversity. And the importance of putting others ahead of ourselves. If coaches don't do that, there is no way in the world kids will.

June 5, 2016

Top 10 Tips for Fighting Depression: Keep Fighting

The Greatest reminds us all: Keep fighting. Even when your back is flat on the mat.
By Jack Smith

The death of Muhammad Ali moved me in unexpected ways. He was brash and cocky, but he backed it up. I love Ali because he stood for something—whether you liked it or not. He didn’t care.

He did what HE thought was right. He didn’t spend his days trying to please others or tell them what they wanted to hear. (Paging Jack Smith!)

We can learn a lot from Ali’s life and boxing career.

You know what I learned?

There’s greatness somewhere inside of me even when I can’t see it. All I have to do is never quit searching for it—even when I’m face down on the mat like Joe Frazier after taking a right hook from The Greatest champ who ever lived.

So I credit Ali and a new blog friend who reached out to me a while back from far away and told me I have to keep writing. He said men need help more than I know, and my blog for some reason helps them. Or at least him.

His outreach inspired me to get this post up today. It reminded me that I write this blog to give people hope and help me cope.

So I’m sharing my list of Top 10 Tips to Battle Depression. These are things I try to do in my battle with depression and anxiety. I hope it helps.

I rarely do them all at once. Sometimes my report cards reads like an old “Leave it to Beaver” episode. Wally brings home all A’s. The Beave brings home Bs and Cs—at best. I’m more like The Beave than Wally most of the time.

Here goes, with apologies to Wally for any typos. Posting without much editing is exposure therapy for me:

1. Exercise. Running was once a passion, and it always helped me. It’s like a mental flush. Running is like rebooting my crazy computer, giving me calm and focus. I just started back after a stint on the Disabled List.

I’m already addicted again. You don’t have to run. Swim. Walk. Cycle. Do something even when you don’t feel like getting off the couch—especially when you don’t feel like getting off the couch.

2. Set realistic goals. I try and write down 3 things each night I need to do the next morning. I always start with an easy one. Like “text Fred and tell him Happy Birthday.” It gives me positive momentum. Add one or two things that must be done, like pay the water bill. Do this before bed. It will help you sleep.

3. Get a massage. I don’t know what the research says, but I know what my mind and body think. A good massage always helps me feel better physically and mentally. Even emotionally.

4. Take my meds: All of them. I now use “PillPack,” a fantastic mail-order service for prescriptions. They handle it all. I never deal with drug stores anymore. Pill Pack fills and refills them all and mails me little plastic envelopes that are so easy a monkey could do it.

The one I just ripped open and took said “8 AM Sunday.” It has today’s date and a list of them. You tear out the envelopes you need for each day. No more bottles. I highly recommend PillPack.

5. Focus on family: It’s different in divorce, but I’m happiest if I can really focus on my kids when I’m with them. It’s hard for all of us to turn down the white noise and not worry about things. It’s hard for me, too. But I try mindfulness tips like focusing on the details of what they’re saying or watching what they are doing, noticing the little things. It helps.

May 15, 2016

You can go home: Just take Memory Lane

“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

—Norman Mailer

By Jack Smith

This Norman Mailer quote pretty much sums it up.

My heart longs to write for a living, but my head says I’d starve.

I almost went to law school, but I hated my first job. I worked at the biggest firm in the state in a job I started a couple days after graduation. They stuck me in a room with no windows and not enough straight jackets to do tedious discovery work defending an insurance company—a massive company that ripped off a bunch of poor people who didn’t know better. I was miserable.

My girlfriend was four hours away that summer. The whole thing triggered one of my first bouts with major depression in my early 20s. I’d struggled before but never like that. I could not get off the couch except to go to work.  I had no idea why and never told anyone.

When I told the firm I was leaving, one nice lawyer said it’s a shame. He said I wrote good memos and summarized things well. I didn’t take it as a compliment. I remember wondering why he didn’t say, “You’d make a good lawyer, Jack.”

That’s all I wanted to hear. I have enough lawyers in my family to field a basketball team with good subs to come off one heck of a bench. For years, I’ve wondered why I was too scared to become one. I recently figured it out: I was too scared to become one.

So I did something I swore I’d never do. I went home and settled on a career as a journalist at a community newspaper. They were the best 10 years of my life and career. And the hardest. It’s not easy being Superman’s son, but flying is fun even if you’re afraid of heights.

Oh. I almost forgot about the third part of the quote up top: I have a tremor that on some days makes it hard for me to drink coffee in front of other people. Being a surgeon was not an option, even if I hadn't stunk at science my whole life.

I’ve sat through hundreds of lunches and dinners at restaurants and eaten entire meals without taking a single sip of water. That’s what I used to do when my tremor was bad and the waiter filled my glass too close to the top. I was worried I’d spill it everywhere.

I was mocked as a child just a few times and never really got over it until fairly recently. If someone were to make fun of me tomorrow, they might get a shaky middle finger back in their face. It feels good not to care what others think again. I know that's crass and I'm sorry to sound that way. Honesty is liberating, and that's honestly how I feel. And the rest of the truth is most days I do care what others think. And that's misery. 

You may have heard what Norman Mailer said about going home. Or was it Tom Wolfe, who stole his line and put it on the cover of his best book? Either way, I made up a word just now for what at least one of them did: Plagiarism.

“Don’t you know,” a lady once allegedly told Tom Wolfe, “you can’t go home again?”

April 23, 2016

Music & Miracles: The Dream of a Champion

By Jack Smith

I knew a man who had a dream.

He dreamed of peace amidst pain for those who suffered. He dreamed of a better future for his wife and their children and all who suffered from the indignity of a cruel illness and the injustice of hunger.

He dreamed of music and miracles. He dreamed of a cure and an answer to problems that too often leave those of us incapable or unwilling to dream with our hands in our pockets, waiting for someone else to fix it.

His dream was powered by faith and hope, not fear of the final act he knew was coming, no matter how hard he fought.

And he fought—like a champion in the ring—to the end. As those who were blessed to be at his funeral learned, the end was devastating and raw and real and painful. And sweet and powerful and life-giving for those who loved him most and those who didn't know him at all.

He kept swinging and hoping and praying until that final bell tolled. Its sound echoes still, giving hope and life and encouragement to those still fighting the good fight.

What a blessing.

Even as he penned notes to those he loved, knowing his final breath was moments away, he still dreamed of this day and how to make it happen. He challenged us all to fill up a historic stadium and raise $1 million for the causes he believed in.

Despite mighty obstacles and the seeds of doubt sewn by all who said "that's impossible" through the entire journey, he still had a dream.

He dreamed of music and hope and love on a warm spring evening in God's Country. Of thousands gathered together in fellowship to listen to the music that had been the soundtrack of his life and the life he had built with an amazing and beautiful wife.

He kept the dream alive even as his own nightmare played somewhere in the background every day and in the foreground on the hard days. It was set to the haunting score of a movie sure to end in the hardest kind of tragedy, the kind when a bright light is snuffed out far too soon.

He surely felt it. He surely knew it. Those who love him most did, too. Yet he never lost hope. He never lost faith. He never took no for an answer.

He never let the white noise or the black noise or the chattering doubt of naysayers choke the life out of his dream, even as the illness he fought slowly choked the life out of him.

Despite it all, he still had a dream.

He had a dream just like the man who woke up the conscience of a great nation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial five decade ago.

Sentimentality and emotion may sometimes cause us to overstate the beauty and greatness of a moment in history, a night that may one day be an obscure footnote compared to the greatest speech in American history.

Yet to miss the significance of days and events like this one, when tens of thousands will gather to hear music and witness miracles big and small at a stadium built for a game Kevin Brown loved—regardless of his color blindness and allegiance many of us here in Auburn can't understand—would be like missing the magic and power of music itself. Music, as Kenny Chesney even says, is medicine for the soul.

Medicine for the soul

Music has been medicine for my soul, a powerful antidote for the pain of a broken heart and the sting of disappointment. I know it has been for you, too.

So tonight let's all take a moment to close our eyes and give thanks to our Father in Heaven for the life of Kevin Brown. Let's pray for Stacy and Barclay and the entire Chicken Salad Chick Foundation team who made this happen. 

Kevin Brown had a dream many said was not possible. Tonight it will come true.

How sweet it is to know he will have the best seat in the house at the Music & Miracles Superfest in Jordan-Hare Stadium. 

As Kenny Chesney and other gifted artists spread the love, Kevin will feel it in his heart. I wish I could see the smile on his face. I find comfort and hope knowing I will one day. That's not a dream. It's a promissory note, already paid in full by our Savior.

Despite the pain we all endure at one time or another, there is a time and a season for everything.

Tonight is a time to celebrate.

I will close my eyes and let music be the medicine my soul needs. I know it will be for you, too.

I will thank the King of Kings for the gift of knowing a great man. I will thank Him for taking away this great man's pain and for showing us grace we don't deserve by giving us all his love.

Thanks be to God. Forever.

P.S. #Spread the love. That's what Kevin and Kenny would want us all to do.

February 18, 2016

Be patient with depression meds

This is an old article I did for a national mental health website. I'm posting it again because I've had questions about it recently. 
I no longer take the same drugs. And not near as many. My life is better now, but it's still challenging to maintain good mental health. That's true for everyone, but especially those of us with mood disorders. We aren't just moody. We have an illness, no different than cancer or diabetes.
I'm now on an MAOI. I take it and a drug for anxiety on occasion and a sleep aid. That's it.
When I wrote this, I was on enough medication to sedate a large horse.
Genetic testing later showed most of what I had taken for years (SSRI's you've heard of) probably never had a chance to work for me. The merits of genetic testing are debatable, but that's another blog for another day.
Having the right doctor and the right plan is a huge part of recovery. At least it has been for me.
There should be no debate about that. I believe it's essential.
By Jack Smith
I’m an impatient patient.
When I was first diagnosed with depression seven or so years ago, my doctor prescribed me an antidepressant medication, warning me that it might take 2 to 4 weeks before it made any difference.
Boy was that an understatement. I vividly remember getting worse before getting better, even dealing with physical pain caused by my depression.
The first depression drug he prescribed proved ineffective, even after a month, so we tried another. The same cycle repeated itself. I didn’t start feeling better until my third antidepressant prescription—a few months after being diagnosed.
I know that is not very encouraging to those who have recently been diagnosed with depression. Hearing that it may get worse before it gets better is frustrating. But it’s true.
It takes patience to get the payoff from antidepressants. Two to four weeks is generally the minimum to see any improvement, and it may take up to six months to get the full benefit of a new depression drug. At least, that’s what my psychiatrist tells me.
Changing antidepressant medications can be just as frustrating as taking an antidepressant for the first time. The last couple of weeks have been extremely difficult for me. I began to slide back into a deep bout of depression, and my doctor wanted to be aggressive in trying to stop it. It got so bad that my stomach ached and I could barely get out of bed for a day or two, so we had no choice but to try something different.
And we did. We changed my antidepressant. While I’m generally a compliant patient, I didn’t follow the doctor’s orders exactly on how to switch antidepressants safely and make the transition. Big mistake.