Editor's note: It wasn't that long ago that Mark Markham found himself with little will to live. Mark, a medical administrative assistant in Mayo Clinic's Department of Neurosurgery, sought help from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He credits the compassionate staff at Mayo, the power of mindfulness and meditation, and the unwavering support of friends, family and co-workers for where he is today: thriving in a life he loves. Mark shares his story here in his own words.
By Mark Markham
I am a 34-year-old who suffers with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder. But I am not just that. I also am a 34-year-old who is a creative musician, a husband, a father to the cutest Yorkie you could ever meet (Dolce), a devoted staff member in Neurosurgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, a compassionate and kind friend, and an individual who finds joy and laughter daily.
This story is about dealing with a mental illness and still thriving with a job and life I passionately and deeply love and care about. I do this with the help of Mayo Clinic as an institution, its staff, my friends, family, and most importantly, Generose (Department of Psychiatry and Psychology).
My need to share this story comes from a place of strength, compassion, honesty, and care for self and others like me. I feel like I — and we — need to take steps to break the silence on what people think of mental illness and suicide.
The worst part of the disease for me is the panic attacks. It's like being choked, having your heart protrude out of your chest as if you had just run five marathons at what feels like 10,000 beats per minute. You can't catch your breath. But at the same time, you are breathing faster than you ever thought you could. You start to shake. You begin to have chest pains. You start to sweat. You start feeling dizzy like you are going to pass out. And you begin to feel like you are floating out of your body — looking down at your body from the sky wondering, "Why? Why me?"
Everyone around you thinks you look great as you have a mask secured to your face — a mask that smiles and hides the truth, one that has been there for years. But inside is a tangled web of blackness, the unknown and impending doom. Some days, you wash, rinse and repeat these symptoms times 10. That's what brought me to my breaking point: suicide.
It's a word that through societal beliefs and teachings brings shame and disgrace. But until you get to that point of helplessness and hopelessness, you have no idea you would have even stated the word in your head — and truly meant it.
"Mental illness has a funny way of pinning you against yourself."Mark Markham
I had to find help. And I did, at Generose.
My primary care provider recommended the Transitions Program, a three-week intensive therapy program offered as an outpatient at Mayo Clinic's Generose Building. I called my supervisor, scared and in tears, letting her know the plan, all the time thinking that nothing could help.
The next morning, my husband drove me in and walked me up. I was terrified as I checked into Generose 2B, where I scored myself on the check-in sheet:
Rate your wish to live: 0.
Rate your wish to die: 5.
They require us to do this daily to see the progress being made.
Then I made my way to a roundtable of what should have been a black cloud of six people and a licensed therapist in front. There was no black cloud. There, for the first time in a long time, I could feel hope and the desire to get better.
That's where the magic began: being around like individuals who are all going through something similar to you. Who all have felt suicidal or have attempted suicide. All unique, strong, creative, compassionate, yet desperate individuals, with care for each other.
The piece that seemed to be missing from us all? Care for self.
Mental illness has a funny way of pinning you against yourself. Telling you lies that you are not worthy, that you do not belong, that you cannot do this, that you are not strong enough to withstand this — not another day.
That's where the intense therapy with mindfulness begins to retrain the brain and the neural pathways. Mindfulness is a way to slow the brain down and to focus fully on the present moment — not focusing in on your to-do list for tomorrow, not worried about that thing you "shouldn't" have said yesterday. It is simply living in the now. Easy, right?
Imagine you are driving yourself home from work. Do you remember the entire drive home? Likely not. It is likely you were focused on things you needed to do or things that happened earlier. The practice of mindfulness along with meditation is something I have been practicing now for months. I like to do it when I am not bothered by the outside world — out in my apple orchard, watching our chickens run around, looking at apple blossoms on our trees.
But in times of a panic attack, it means simply counting something on the wall in front of me.
"There are five photos on this wall in front of me." I nonjudgmentally describe those photos.
"He is wearing a black suit with a white-striped shirt and a red tie in the photo." "The frame is silver." Doing this for even five minutes can take me out of a panic attack. Slow. Things. Down.
Or for someone who doesn't suffer panic attacks, even higher-than-normal anxiety could be an instance where you try this practice.
"A life of passion came back to me through the support of my Mayo family."Mark Markham
There are many other skills and tools Generose teaches, but mindfulness and meditation were by far my favorite — so much so that I created my own song and video to be used by anyone who may need it.
There are so many more things I learned from the caregivers at Generose — so many more examples of care and compassion, understanding and resiliency training that the team there brought to me.
The Department of Neurosurgery where I work was integral in getting me back on my feet, as well. I could not have done it without them. The second week into the program I received a letter from our department chair wishing me well and telling me that everyone has my back. My operations manager sat with me, caringly, to discuss what he could do to help. My supervisor made it extremely easy for me to complete the family medical leave of absence and short-term disability process, and continues to sit with me one-on-one to make sure everything is running smoothly, and that I have all the help and resources I need to make it through each and every day.
I have truly felt embraced, cared for and supported by Mayo Clinic.
With the support of Generose and Mayo Clinic, I have been able to accomplish things in life I did not think possible. I have put on an education course through my department twice. I chaired and assisted a fundraiser for the Neuro Hospitality House. I sang the national anthem at a Rochester Honkers baseball game this summer. I work out daily. And I continue to write music and enjoy photography. A life of passion came back to me through the support of my Mayo family.
This certainly isn't a fairy tale or about "look at how great I am doing," and it doesn't end with puppy dogs, rainbows, glitter and ice cream. Each day is a struggle, and for those of us that deal with mental health issues, you know there isn't a magic pill. But with the right therapy, medications as prescribed by a physician, and exploring mindfulness and meditation, I have found that you can live a fulfilled life — even with painful moments.
I know that mental illness is a forever thing. But for right now, it is in the back seat.
As an amazing psychologist told me at Generose, "Put your disease in the backseat of the bus, and you drive."
Rate your wish to live: 5.
Rate your wish to die: 0.
Note: If you or a loved one is thinking about suicide, get help. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press "1" to reach the Veterans Crisis Line. Or seek emergency medical care by calling 911.