Despite all my internal debating about coming out, everything on the surface of my life looked the same. And as far as anyone could tell, I was living the dream.
I had a busy social life, lots of travel, and a successful career. Internally however, all was not well. I'd mastered the art of masking my problems. It was all part of the game.
Around 2011, work really began to pick up, and I was bombarded with new opportunities, and I believed in saying yes to them all. If the boss needed someone to lead a new project, yes. If I needed to stay late at the office to meet a deadline, yes. Countless projects, long meetings, and a never-ending onslaught of emails kept me very busy. And I knew the drill: If I could stay busy enough, I wouldn't have to deal with the other stuff.
The problem with this strategy was that working for a fast-growing small business brings its own stress.
Back then, I led our creative team, and we were developing our first big character theme. Remember, I worked for a company that helped schools with their fundraising. But we also made really well-produced character education content. Essentially, as a school was doing the fundraiser, their students were also learning character lessons through videos and in-class presentations. Schools loved it way more than the average fundraiser which added no value to the kids and forced them to hawk overpriced junk—gift wrap, cookie dough, etc.—to friends and family.
We were serving about 250,000 students, and my team was responsible for getting all the creative work done before the school year started. Our theme that year was called "Epic Adventure," and the visual was similar to Indiana Jones. Our team was responsible for writing scripts, producing a musical album, traveling to Guatemala to film jungle scenes, working with an illustrator on a kids book, and producing a video series that combined live action with animation. At any given time, I'd be managing 20-30 different creative projects. We actually made a behind-the-scenes video for our clients to see how we did it. Here it is...
Back then I was fighting a two-front battle. By day I was working insanely hard, coordinating a massive creative production and managing all the stress that came along with it. By night I was battling my own inner demons—loneliness, sadness, fear, and uncertainty about the future.
Before this time in my life, I'd never given the phrase "mental health" a second thought. I was confident and successful. I was a leader, and mental health was a concern of weepy headcases and disturbed people...not me.
But that was about to change...
The morning of June 9th was pretty much like any other morning.
I made my 25-minute commute to our little office in Duluth. I had a lot on my plate that day. The new school year was kicking off in less than two months so our team was hustling to hit our final deadlines.
Around 11am, I began to feel weird. We know our bodies better than anything, and I could tell something in mine wasn't right. Back then, I tweeted pretty much everything, so I posted this...
People who get migraines know what I'm talking about here. Blurry vision ("stars in the eyes") is a common prelude to a full-blown migraine.
I'd gotten migraines since high school, and stress was a trigger. I knew the drill by then—stars in eyes, migraine hits, take a bunch of Tylenol, lose faith in Tylenol, attempt to sleep it off by lying down in dark room, no sleep, squirm in agony for three hours, migraine eventually subsides.
Back then, we had an old couch set up in our warehouse at the back of the office, so I went back there to sleep it off. After a couple of painful hours, I could feel it waning.
After a migraine, there is sort of a dazed hangover period where your brain recalibrates itself like a drunk man going up on a down escalator. I had a lot to do so I decided to press through it.
After about 15 minutes at my desk, I realized I had a question for Stan, our CFO, so I walked down to his office.
Stan was sitting at his desk with his back to me. I walked up behind him and tapped his shoulder to get his attention. He swiveled his chair around, and we made eye contact. I paused, blinking a few times, just staring.
I was confused. My brain sputtered, trying its best to calibrate, to process who it was looking at. The drunken man on the escalator lost his footing completely...
"Wh...Wh-at....What was your name again?"
I couldn't remember his name.
Though we had worked together for several years in a small office, I couldn't remember Stan's name.
Stan was super confused by now as well, but after a few seconds, my brain rebooted. The drunken man got back on his feet.
I downplayed it to Stan, telling him I'd had a migraine and just wasn't feeling well. But he knew what happened. He knew I couldn't remember his name, and I could tell that really bothered him. He looked at me the way you look at the check-engine light in your car when it flickers on.
I went back to my desk to try and get more work done. Within a few minutes, I began to feel a numbness in my arms. It started in my fingertips and began to move up my arm. This was getting weird.
I knew something was wrong, so I did what any millennial would do—I Googled it. I typed out all my symptoms—headache, memory loss, numbness in arms. I clicked enter, and the page filled with lots of medical links. But my eyes locked onto one big ominous word...
That word sat on the screen like a hand grenade in a baby's crib.
You're having a stroke, Brett.
I completely panicked, leaping to my feet and sprinting a few steps to the office next door where my good friend and roommate worked...
"Collin, I need you to take me to the hospital. I think I'm having a stroke."
Collin's great in situations like this because he never freaks out. He grabbed his car keys, and we both ran to the parking lot. We sped down Highway 400 to Northside Hospital. It was the nearest emergency room.
After a couple hours there, I sent the following tweets...
They ran some tests and the doctor couldn't find anything wrong with me.
When I asked her what caused it she asked, "Well, have you been under a lot of stress lately?"
Yes. Yes ma'am. Yes I have been.
Well this was a first. I was young, healthy, and sitting in the hospital because of stress. This was my first experience with mental un-health. And it wouldn't be my last...
Several months later, I was speeding back to that same emergency room.
It was November 3rd to be exact. This time, I thought I was having a heart attack. More tweets...
My symptoms that night: racing heart, tightness in my chest, and more numbness in my arms.
I'm not sure why I said "NOT stress related" in the tweet because after doing all the normal scans, I remember the ER doctor mentioning stress as a potential cause. I think I was trying to cover it up to keep people from asking why I was stressed. It was my way of saying, "Guys, guys...I'M FINE! Nothing wrong with me. I'm definitely not that stressed. I'm doing greeeeaat."
People under great stress will often do whatever they can to reassure those around them that everything's okay. It's part of the game.
It would be a couple of years before I realized what these two episodes were about. I didn't understand that I was living in a 24-hour stress loop.
And I didn't understand that a distressed brain will eventually begin to distress the body. The body eventually freaks out.
It was around this time in my life where I began to understand—truly understand—anxiety. I'd always thought of stress and anxiety as the same thing, but I learned then that they are very different. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America explains it this way:
The difference between them is that stress is a response to a threat in a situation. Anxiety is a reaction to the stress.
I'd been living in a state of distress for several years, and my body had finally begun to react to it. I didn't realize it, but I'd been sitting in a garbage heap in my mind. And it was making me sick.
My unwanted same sex attraction was a massive engine of stress, and I coped with it by working myself to death which spawned a second source of stress. I was trying to numb one pain with another which is like alleviating the agony of a broken leg by beating the other leg with a hammer. But when you put down the hammer, you just have two busted legs.
In the year I turned 30, I went to the hospital twice—once for what I thought was a stroke and once for what I thought was a heart attack.
I knew this wasn't normal. I knew something was happening, something was changing. I was dealing with legit anxiety for the first time in my life.
And at the same time, I could feel my loneliness growing. I was running. I was hiding. But the hiding places weren't working as well. And with each passing day, Loneliness got a little better at finding me... 👊
All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.