You’re Not Alone
Like most of you, I can’t wait until 2020 comes to an end. Not only does 2021 offer the world new hope, but it also marks the end of my time as the Chairman of Sigma Lambda Beta. I would be lying if I didn’t think about this farewell message for quite some time. In reality, I thought about it a lot.
Historically, a Chairmen might wish the Fraternity well, thank the Brothers that helped them throughout the way, and hope for a great future. And I do wish that and want nothing but the best for my fraternity. I’d also like to think that the people that helped me the most know that already. But the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t help anyone. That’s why, as one of my last official messages as Chairman, I wanted to write this message.
I, David Ayento, Chairman of the Executive Board of Directors, suffer from mental illness, including depression and anxiety. And I hope that by opening up and sharing my story, it will encourage those in need of proactive steps into battling mental illness.
To many of you, that may seem like a surprise. From the outside, I have a pretty great life. I have a beautiful wife and two boys, a career that allows me to pursue my passions, fun adventures around the world, and the home of my dreams.
For a long time, I wondered how someone like me can be depressed and have anxiety. If you have ever taken an Intro to Psychology class, you might be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I like to think that I have the majority of that pyramid built. How can someone so blessed feel like I do? There are so many people in the world who suffer from poverty, sickness, or hunger that I don’t deserve this pity party. There are those in the LGBQT+ community who are currently in exile from their family for living their truth. I have friends who have experienced harassment based on the color of their skin. I live with privilege others don’t get to enjoy. I’m a male, heterosexual, cisgender, and able-bodied. In typical normative male fashion, I told myself to “man up” because you don’t deserve to feel this way.
All my life, my identity has been tied to one thing in an unhealthy way. When I was a child, in high school, college, or as an adult, I had to achieve. And if I wasn’t achieving, I wasn’t succeeding. There was always a new milestone to reach, a goal to achieve, or a new passion to pursue. And I was never content on being average. I had to give it my all.
Photo: Bro. Mark Villena (Zeta Beta)
Why this doesn’t sound like a bad trait to have, it is exhausting. If you ever saw the musical Hamilton, one of the songs that resonate with me is called “Non-Stop.” The song talks about Alexander Hamilton’s work ethic.
Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time?
Since my self-worth was tied to my achievements, I spent nearly every waking hour pursuing them until there wasn’t enough time in the day. I recall always waking up before my family in the morning and being the last to fall asleep at night. I had to wring myself out both mentally and physically until there was nothing left to feel good about the effort I gave that day. When I was achieving, it was easier to keep the negative thoughts at bay.
The thing with going all out, all the time is that you’re bound to fail eventually. You’re not going to have a good day at the gym. You might miss an appointment. Forget a deliverable. Not perform well at work. Those setbacks, which are normal for most people, compound on me. And in my case, they lowered my self-worth.
I found myself in a slump like there was a perpetual gray cloud over my head. I chalked it up to the stresses of life. We had a baby, and there was a new house to move into and make a home. Instead of getting excited about decorating or working on a home project, I just had a lack of energy. This slump led to a lot of negative internal dialogue—a lot of guilt, shame, and negative energy.
It took a lot of self-reflection, nights spent wide awake, and dark thoughts creeping into my mind to finally realize that I need help. When I sat my wife down, and we had that conversation, it was cathartic. It felt good opening up to someone who cared. We game-planned and looked up available resources, and in less than a week, I was speaking to a therapist.
I admit I was nervous, talking to my therapist for the first time. It reminded me of my Catholic upbringing and participating in the sacrament of confession. Like I was going to be punished for doing wrong. What I found was the total opposite. My therapist is empathetic, understanding, and a calm voice that has helped me realize more about myself and what I’m capable of than ever before.
What I learned in the past several months, there’s no instant cure for mental health. Unlike a priest who prescribes an arbitrary amount of Hail Marys, there’s no instant absolution. There’s no antibiotic you can take for ten days, and you’ll be on your feet good as new. You have to acknowledge that the work towards better mental health doesn’t stop. You need to work on yourself. There are days you feel great. There are days you feel like shit.
Photo: Bro. Mark Villena (Zeta Beta)
The great days are fantastic. You feel so energized that there’s no reason why you can’t crush all our goals. These are the days I feel like going for a personal record deadlift in the gym, my pursuit of personal passions, and being the model employee at work.
The bad days are the worst. Unfortunately, the obligations in our lives don’t necessarily play nicely with what’s going on upstairs. Your kids don’t understand that Daddy is hurting. Corporate America isn’t setup up to workaround a tough day that you can only output 86% of what you’re capable of usually doing. It’s a challenge not to beat yourself up mentally. It’s so easy to talk negatively to yourself in internal dialogue. There are days I don’t want to get out of bed. There are bad days when you couldn’t see how things were ever going to get better…and you don’t see tomorrow.
While I would like to say there’s a happy ending for me. That would be untruthful. The end of my story hasn’t been written yet. The battle is still raging although I think I’m winning more now than ever before. I felt better about myself. More importantly, I feel better about myself more often than I feel negatively towards myself.
If there’s someone who reads this, you too are dealing with your demons; my best advice is to talk to someone. And not just a friend or loved one (although that’s a good start) but an actual professional. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s tough. But you’re not alone. If you ever feel you need help, but you are unsure of where to get it, please reach out to myself, the Executive Office, or any national leader within the fraternity.