Illness, not weakness
Can We Talk About … event committee, left to right: Karen Dana (event co-chair), Jenn Ritter (event co-chair), Harriet Zimmer, Rietta Floom, Einat Paz-Keynan (JCFS staff), Meytal Lavy (JCFS staff), Michael Landsberg, Sherry Lercher-Davis, Randee Pollock (JCFS staff), Danita Aziza (JCFS board chair), Pam Vine, Tara Greenberg and Jill Atnikov. (photo from Jewish Child and Family Service Winnipeg)
On Nov. 3, as part of Jewish Child and Family Service Winnipeg’s series Can We Talk About …, TSN celebrity Michael Landsberg spoke about Darkness and Hope – Depression, Sports and Me.
Landsberg has suffered from anxiety for as long as he can remember, and depression for the past 18 years.
“In 2009, I spoke about it publicly for the first time,” Landsberg shared with those gathered at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. “I told everybody I knew. I just hadn’t used the platforms available to me to discuss it [until then], because I didn’t think it was relevant to anyone’s life.
“One day, when I was, by chance, interviewing someone who had suffered from depression, I asked him about it. I commented that I, too, had suffered. The next day changed my life.”
Landsberg received emails from people saying that the interview had been the first time they had heard two men discussing their struggles with depression; in particular, without sounding embarrassed or seeming weak.
“Because of that, they said their lives were changed,” said Landsberg. “Since that moment, I’ve tried to do exactly the same thing over and over again in as many venues as I can, including in Winnipeg.”
Landsberg tries to find ways to bring the topic to the fore whenever he feels it’s appropriate or thinks he has the opportunity to make a difference, whether it’s a public talk he’s headlining or a discussion on radio, TV or the internet.
“Every time I say I suffer from this illness and I’m not ashamed, embarrassed or weak, it changes someone’s life,” he said. “My coming out gave a purpose to this illness. It allowed me to take this poison that’s been inside me, that’s detracted from my life…. It allowed me to help someone else … so my poison is someone else’s medicine. That makes me feel good and makes me feel like I have a place in the world other than the one I was occupying before.”
According to Landsberg, before going public, his level of contribution to society was neutral, like most people’s. But, since coming out and talking about how his depression makes him feel and how it robs his self-confidence and self-esteem – yet he’s not ashamed of it – he’s no longer neutral.
“I think what I have to share most of all is me,” he said. “The more deep I go, the more details I give, the more of my struggles – not just that I’m struggling, but how my struggles feel – the more valuable it is to someone else. You want people to say, in the audience, ‘That’s me.’ And ‘Oh my gosh. My husband has that illness and I never knew that’s what was going on in his head. I understand better now.’
“I think we’re in a time now when every person is really deciding what side of history they’re on. Do you want to be on the side of history that’s changed the way we deal with mental health or do you want to be on the other side? I try to encourage people to get on the right side of it.”
Landsberg has always been a sharer and encourages others to share their struggles. As there is a deep sense of hopelessness and loneliness when it comes to depression, he said it is critical to encourage others to listen and realize they are not alone with the illness.
“More so than any event than I’ve ever been to, I was riveted and was really grabbed by several of the questions [posed to me in Winnipeg],” Landsberg told the Independent. “They weren’t so much questions as they were statements about audience members’ own situations.
“If you have a good night and you do it the right way, and there’s an audience that’s engaged that way, you’ll hear stories that have never before been shared – empowering people to share.
“My analogy is always, what I’d really like to do, is to have everyone in Canada who suffers from this illness [get together] – in the basement of a synagogue or a church, where Alcoholic Anonymous meetings take place – and [have] each of us draw from the collective strength and, at the same time, make deposits into that strength. When you turn to someone for help, you ultimately give them strength just by asking for it. That’s the spirit we felt in Winnipeg.”
One female audience member shared that she has had cancer and that it has come back, adding that she has suffered from depression for 15 years. Landsberg recalled, “She said, ‘You know, I have to be honest with you, I’ll take the cancer over the depression.’
“Also, an army veteran shared that he served in the army for 12 years and that, when he returned to Canada, there were 13 of them in his army group who had served and that, now, there are only two – the other 11 took their own lives. He said, ‘I was in the closet, so to speak, and felt desperately alone and unable to reach out. I watched a TV show you [Landsberg] did two years ago and thought, wow, if he can share, I can, too.’
“That’s enough reason to keep doing this for the rest of my life – just the knowledge that doing something that’s so easy for me, takes no effort, is a joy, [is helping]. To get up on stage and use my struggles for someone else’s benefit … it’s so easy, yet the payoff can be so massive.”
When it comes to helping a loved one who suffers from depression, Landsberg said one should start by admitting they cannot fully understand, as they have never had the disease. Then, they should ask their loved one what they want from them.
“That’s a huge thing – telling me what not to do,” said Landsberg. “The second thing is to reduce guilt. Many of us who have this illness like to please those around us. But, when we’re sick, we lose that ability, because we’re not ourselves – we can’t. I feel terribly guilty when I’m not the person I want to be.
“The people around me aren’t living their lives better because I’m there. Quite the opposite. I feel terrible that I’m actually worrying them, that I’m actually making the room worse because I’m in it. But, if you reduce my guilt, it will make a difference.”
As for someone who discovers they have the disease, Landsberg suggested education, as the more one knows about one’s illness, the more they can be an advocate and fight.
“Then, establish the thought that I will fight for my happiness,” he said. “And that’s incredibly difficult to commit to because the illness takes the life, the drive, out of us. It makes us apathetic. It makes us really incapable of doing stuff, or highly challenged to do stuff.
“If you commit to fighting for your happiness, that’s a big step. If you commit to sharing, that’s a big step. Sharing is incredibly difficult for most people because they feel shame and embarrassment. They feel like their illness is a weakness.
“You can overcome that, to some extent, by educating yourself. When you go on the internet and Google ‘depression’ and get five billion hits, you realize that 10% of the population right now may be feeling similar to you.
“People take their lives – 4,000 every year in Canada, 40,000 in the United States, and there are 25 attempts likely for every ‘successful’ suicide … that means 100,000 suicide attempts. We know there’s at least 10 to one that think about suicide, but don’t attempt it; suicide becomes appealing to them and plays out over and over in their brain.
“If you start realizing you’re just like a million other people in this country, then you’ll realize this is a sickness, not a weakness. All of these people, people that take their lives because they’re in so much pain, that’s not weakness.”
Landsberg added that speaking with someone who you know is struggling with depression is the easiest way to start sharing and healing, as you know they will not judge you and that they understand you.
“Winnipeg people liked what I did, so they went home with something,” said Landsberg. “But, I think I went home with more. I took away more than I left. What I took away were stories from people who I felt privileged to listen to…. I just loved it.”
For more information, visit sicknotweak.com.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.