Keith Anderson inspires people suffering from mental health ailments to never give up, speaking on a strength born from his own depressive darkness and reinforcing the message life is Worth Living.
As a lawyer, my work required that I was able to communicate in a straightforward and forthright manner, whether it was at a meeting with other lawyers, explaining the law and its effect to a client, or appearing in a courtroom.
I thought given this experience, I could readily talk about myself and explain my depression. I had written a few articles, appeared in a magazine, talking in public would be the next step.
My first “presentation”—the word I learned is used instead of “speech” in this world of public speaking—was in August 2008 at the Canadian Mental Health Association National Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia ( a four hour drive from where I live).
I arrived at the Conference Hotel and upon checking in, collected my bag and took a seat in the lobby, watching others arrive as I flipped through the program. My name in print noted my session; the sense of accomplishment was overwhelming.
Back then, my “outside-the-house” activities consisted of getting groceries, going for walks and visiting the book store. Very little interaction with people outside of my family occurred.
Now, here I was at a national conference, with hundreds of people to discuss mental illness and mental health. I was actually part of it!
My presentation was 20 minutes held in a very informal setting, no stage, just a group of 20 people sitting around in comfortable chairs. Sounds very relaxed—not at all. I had a page of notes I’d re-read a dozen times that morning. I was so nervous, my mouth went dry halfway through and I got emotional as I spoke.
Speaking on behalf of a client in front of a not-too-receptive judge was much easier compared to talking about myself.
The true challenge though would be the following year when I was invited to speak at a Mental Health Conference in my hometown. It’s an annual event with a waiting list to attend. A full house of 550 people.
I like to check out the venue before I take the stage, so the previous day I’d gone to the conference facility. My fear had me wondering if I would have the stamina to stand while nervously talking for an hour.
Rule One of public speaking is to stand, not sit. I also didn’t want to use a podium because I thought it would become a barrier between my story and the audience.
So I decided to use my own set of rules. I needed a high back chair at the edge of the stage. The restaurant at the facility provided the proper chair. I made my own Rule One in that moment—I had to be comfortable when I presented.
I hadn’t been out in my hometown in six years. Most of my friends had abandoned me once they’d learned I had a mental illness. The stigma was rampant. I had only two friends who had reached out to help. Walking into the conference was intimidating and daunting. Who would be there? What would they say to me? Would some people ignore me? How would I cope?
The following morning I arrived early—I always do—to take my seat at the Speakers Table ( yes, I learned we get our own table close to the stage!)
The first person I met was was a man I recognized, the Cape Breton regional police service chief. We had always gotten along well, and had even been neighbors for a few years. He greeted me with a firm handshake, then a hug and we talked for a good half hour. He wanted to know how I was feeling, what I was doing. Myles set the tone for the day by offering an accepting and friendly reception. He was happy to see me. Not many were back then.
I was set to speak after the morning break. The 10 minute intermission seemed like an hour. Then I was introduced, took the stage and settled into my stage chair. I had water with me—I was learning—and had been told not to worry because with the lighting, I would not be able to see the audience. Well that didn’t happen—as I looked out at the people assembled before me, I could see all 550 of them!
My hometown presentation went well. I spoke of my journey, 16 years of darkness, my recovery, and what I had learned about life along the way. I got emotional once on a topic that surprised me, speaking on a former girlfriend. Even today, having given many speeches in which she is mentioned, she still tends to catch my emotions.
My time was up. I went to my seat, my energy level flagging as if I had just written a three hour law exam. I felt good, relieved, but exhausted.
Reflecting on presentations since, I have come to realize speaking is a form of therapy. I get an hour, maybe less, to talk about my life, thoughts, fears and concerns, yet I also celebrate by sharing exciting and uplifting events. When the speech is over, I take a deep breath and feel so good!
As I noted in my last blog, I look for “worth living moments” both to comment on and to live for. Speaking in public about my journey is truly a moment worth living. I enjoy it and people tell me they do too. We all benefit in terms of mental health recognition and awareness, which makes my mission worth living for all!
My self-confidence has certainly improved, going from spending weeks and months in my bedroom to being able to discuss my life before strangers.
Oh, and I no longer need a chair, instead I’ve taken to roaming the stage as I present, even using a PowerPoint and queueing Rolling Stones music at times. Start Me Up revs me up!
If you have suffered from mental illness, take heart, because just as I surfaced back into the world, so, too, can you!
Photo credit: Getty Images