My name is Jim Russell, and I am the Deputy Chief of Police at the Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. I've been at FSU nearly 20 years, and prior to my employment at the University, I was a student there, first as a Fine Arts major, then later switching to Criminology. I graduated in 1991 with my B.S. degree and after going to the police academy in Central Florida, I was hired at FSU in 1993. I've been there ever since. Now, before my very first post goes in the police direction, the important thing to note is that this is not a page about police work, my career, or any of that. This blog is personal, and is about my journey, that I want to share with you, which takes place seated on a bike saddle. I feel it is important to share my experiences, including successes and failures, so you can take this ride with me. What's more, I hope that as I share, you can use my experiences in your own life.
I have clinical depression. There, I said it. It is a mental illness. I believe I have had it some some 20 years or more, but in 2010 I was officially diagnosed by my primary care physician. I wasn't shocked at all to get the diagnosis, as I'll explain later. Although I had suffered from symptoms of depression for a long time, in my own mind, I thought I was just sad from time to time. I figured this was the result of environmental factors, such as relationship issues, occasional loneliness, anxiety about various issues, etc. Things that everyone goes through from time to time, but I had no idea that the feelings and the depth of my depression were not normal, and were indeed, becoming more serious.
Bear in mind that to my friends and family and later, to my colleagues, nobody had any idea that I was suffering. I became an expert on putting the "brave face" on. I had (and still have) a good sense of humor, (don't worry, I promise I'll say funny stuff later) was active, and got along well with others. I was always outgoing and creative, and rose through the ranks pretty quickly at work. In 2000, I made sergeant at 30 years old, and in 2003, I was promoted to lieutenant. I knew my craft.
But inside, it was another story. I would enter deep, dark periods that were highlighted by feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and disconnect from others. Between 18 and about 25 years old, I dove into poetry, and wrote hundreds of poems as an emotional valve to express myself. They weren't too bad, I thought, but they nearly all followed a very melancholy theme. I also painted quite a bit, and my paintings were highly reflective of a depressed state. I still have them, and now when I look at them, I know immediately that the artist was clearly depressed. At the time, I explained to those who saw them that I was simply attempting to elicit an emotional response from the observer. Yeah, right.
But there was more. I used my poetry and art to express my emotional state, and actually provide myself some relief it seems. I can remember on an occasion when I was about 19, actually cutting myself on my upper left shoulder. Not deep, but enough to draw blood, and enough to make a scar that I have to this day. If you asked me then why I did it, I wouldn't have been able to explain. Now though, I know it is a psychological phenomenon called "cutting" and it is literally a physical manifestation of causing pain on one's self to release emotional pain. Theories explain that it may release endorphins or remove the focus off of internal emotional pain. It is not a suicidal act, however, "cutters" may be more apt to attempt suicide at a later date. It certainly is indicative of something going on inside. Fortunately, I only did it the one time, but I had other outlets...
From about 14 years old, I was deeply into physical fitness. I saw working out with weights as a way to make myself better, literally. In my mind, if I could sculpt my body or lift weights beyond what people expected I could do, I would elevate myself not to others, but to me. Depression it seems, has an affect on self-esteem. Not only that, but I would work out hard. Sometimes spending 4 hours in the gym, and when I learned that I didn't have the body type to be a bodybuilder, I turned my attention to powerlifting. Powerlifting hurts, and between the pain associated with the workouts and the transformation that the exercises did, you could say that I found my "cutting" release through another, less damaging means.
In a nutshell, the story is that I obviously had depression for a very long time, but I remained functional and successful in most endeavors, although always beneath the surface, it continued to reside. I would attend and graduate from college, get a great job at FSU, and do well in that job. In fact, in a sense, I can say that it was my job and the connections I made there that ultimately provided me with the courage and resources I needed to get help, get treatment, and get better.
You see, this is not a blog about suffering, but it a story about hope and healing. But, a little more before we get to that part.
Depression isn't a stagnant disease that is satisfied with attaining a certain level, and it doesn't strongly manifest itself all the time. It comes in waves and is very cyclical. It can also increase in frequency and intensity as it makes its visits. As I got older, this is exactly what my depression did. My lows became even lower, and I would retreat to a deep, dark place. Whatever feelings of worthlessness I had were even stronger, and although I was surrounded by friends, and had a beautiful little boy, I felt more and more alone. I was even experiencing real physical aches and pains in my muscles and joints. Add to that a crumbling marriage and financial woes associated with that, and I was not in a good place. What stymied me though, was that the levels of pain I was feeling were not parallel to the influences in my life. Sure, at times things were not great, but they weren't so bad that I should have been contemplating, you guessed it, suicide.
Now, I hadn't hatched a plan, and I wasn't giving away my possessions, but there it was, a viable option in my mind to my woes and my pain. Suffering from depression doesn't make you stupid, so more and more, I knew that what I was feeling and my thoughts were not normal. Something wasn't right and it didn't make sense. Yet there it was and the thoughts would come, and when they did, I found myself not dismissing them. Remember that I was not yet diagnosed, so in my mind, I did NOT have depression or any other mental illness. I was fine, just dealing with some issues. Sure.
Of course, work continued and as far as professional issues, things were going pretty well. I was getting more and more into suicide prevention and learning about the subject not due to me, but because we had dealt with some sad cases at work with students taking thier own lives. I learned that suicide is the #2 killer of college students (yes, you read that right - #2), and I knew that getting involved with prevention and partnering with other campus departments was extremely important. I was fortunate to meet at the police station with Dr. Thomas Joiner, a recognized expert on the subject of suicide and quite frankly the preeminent researcher on the subject. As we spoke, he equated suicide as being the end result of factors that are detectable and treatable, but which often go untreated. Just like heart disease shows signs of advancement and just like it can be caught and treated, so can depression and other mental illnesses associated with suicide. He had no idea when he was explaining this to me, but a giant lightbulb switched on in my head.
I set up an appointment with my family doctor.
As I spoke to my doctor, she quickly recognized that I had depression and we discussed how we might go about treating it. She prescribed me medicine which required me to take a small pill once a day. From there, after a couple weeks, the dark places slipped away, the suicidal ideations faded, and for the first time in many, many years, I felt...good. Not ecstatic, but normal. No unexplained weeks of dispair. No sleepless nights. No worthless feelings. Just normal me.
It was that simple, yet it was not. The success of the treatment amazed me, but I knew that I would not be "cured" of depression. I was now a person diagnosed with a mental illness, and I was a cop. That was scary, because in the world of first responders, police, and military, mental illness is often viewed as a sign of weakness and is highly misunderstood. At worst, I thought that I could be looking at the end of my career, but I also knew if that was the price to be paid for living a full life, then so be it. I did know however, that I needed to talk to my boss, the Chief of Police, and let him know exactly what the scoop was. I prepared myself in my own mind. I forgave myself for having an illness. It sounds funny, but I needed to reassure myself that it was not my fault. It was not something that I asked for, nor was it something that I could control or deserved. Like cancer or diabetes, or any number of other diseases, it just showed up and walked right on into my life. It was here to stay, but I didn't need to give it the run of the house.
When I talked to the Chief, I was not surprised, but still glad when he took it all in stride and assured me that he was still completely confident in my abilities, and I could count on his support. That's the kind of guy Chief David Perry is. He believes in his people and appreciates that struggles that they face. He only asks for honesty and integrity, and I think that my sharing with him my personal battle did more to build trust than anything else. I have always felt that as his number two in command, he deserves to know everything about what is going on in my life so he can make an informed decision when he needs to rely on me. At the end of the day, people depend on him and depend on me to make decisions that have a very serious impact on people's lives.
So where does the bike come in?
Of course, during this time, every second of every day wasn't spent being curled up in a corner depressed. I continued to pursue many different interests, and one which captured my heart and soul was cycling. I had stopped with the weighlifting due to developing problems in my knees, and in 1996 I found that the police bicycle squad was a great way to stay in shape and work at the same time. From there, a friend introduced me to road cycling, and after a few years of dabbling in it, I went for it full bore in 2004, when I realized I needed to get a little weight off (I was getting older). I completed my first 100 mile bike ride in August 2004 and having enjoyed the fulfillment that it brought entered several more and did my first race in February, 2005. Say nothing that it was a 12 hour bike race, but I did pretty good with a third place finish, having completed 166 miles in 12 hours. I was hooked.
At the same time, I was concentrating my professional work in the area of drunk driving prevention and enforcement. I was very concerned that we were losing too many young people to impaired driving crashes, and made efforts at enacting DUI checkpoints on campus, participating in the DUI Task Force, and coordinating educational activities. In 2004, with some help, I came up with the concept of a bicycle ride around the state of Florida in order to increase awareness about traffic safety to include seatbelt use and DUI prevention. The concept was launched in reality with the 180 Energy Drink Ride for Survival in 2006 where a team of riders, me included, rode around Florida for 1100 miles in 12 days, speaking at universities and other public locations about our mission. With the support of Anheuser-Busch (yup, the beer) and Florida S.A.F.E. (Stay Alive From Education) our concept was not only successful, but was recognized by NHTSA as a Best Practice in Traffic Safety Marketing in 2006. I knew that using the bicycle as a platform for delivering a safety message was one that worked.
GEICO Road Safety Tour 2012 - Our 4th Florida tour
With too many events to list here, I pushed the bike heavily as a means to forward a traffic safety message, and with the advent of my added knowledge regarding mental health, from a first person perspective, I knew it would not be long before the bike would find its way into advancing awareness about this as well.
It wasn't just about using the bike as the only means to push a message. While I laid low for the most part in 2011, I knew that not only would I not allow depression to conquer me, but I was going to take the fight to it. Afterall, although I struggled with it for years, it had not beaten me, and most certainly I was not the only person in the world who struggled in silence. On top of that, I was well aware that in law enforcement, depression and suicide are very real issues, and it was especially sad for me to hear about brothers and sisters in law enforcement taking their own lives. I decided, after a lot of introspection, that if I truly loved the people I worked with, and if I really wanted to do something positive to help others, I was in a unique position to do so. I had never heard of a deputy chief or any high level police administrator coming out about their own struggles. I thought that if my officers and staff were fighting their own battles without help or hope, and if they saw that I would tell them my story without shame or fear of stigma, they may find the courage to take that small step to see a doctor for help. So, in February, 2012, during the FSUPD departmental-wide meeting, I told ALL of our staff my story.
The world didn't end. Instead, within 30 minutes of the meeting closing, 5 of my staff came forward and thanked me for sharing. They shared their own stories and told me about situations in their own families. They shook my hand and I knew that I had kicked down doors that needed to be opened. Since then, many more of my staff have spoken to me and I have made deep and lasting connections with professionals in the mental health community to forward the mission. In fall 2012, I rode my bike for 24 hours on a circuit around the FSU campus to demonstrate that having a mental illness does not make one weak, and that there is hope, even during the darkest of times. During and after this ride I received messages from students that will forever touch my heart, and it further tempered me to keep going on my task to tell my story so others can know there is hope.
Which brings me to this blog.
The bike events that I have put together and done have shown me that without a doubt, the bicycle or any major physical endeavor with a purpose, can be shown to be a parallel of life's struggles. People identify with it and the participants can literally demonstrate their dedication to a cause. This cause certainly means something to me, and 2013 is shaping up to be the most meaningful, intensive, and difficult bike "ride" I have ever come up with. But it is that important to me, and that important that I share it with you every step of the way and every mile -- so that we make every mile count.
Take the last five years of suicide data in Florida and you will see that for every 5 years combined, about 11,000 Florida residents take their own lives. That's 11,000 people with loved ones and families who may have been helped, some of whom through a simple visit to their doctor, like me. If we get the message out that there is hope, and hope is not a distant concept, but a very real, accessible, and tangible thing, I am convinced that lives can and will be saved.
That's why I am deciding to ride my bike 11,000 miles over the course of 2013, and document it all - the ups, the downs, the struggles, and successes, as a reflection of the challenges we all face, but in my case, the challenge faced by a person diagnosed and living with the mental illness called depression. Along the way I want to share my story and my new experiences, and learn about the experiences of others. I want you, the reader, to see that someone living with a mental illness can live a full, complete, and happy life, and that someone like me can attain great things against great odds.
Each mile is dedicated to someone who is lost due to suicide. I will log every mile. I will share everything.
Will you join me on this journey here? I hope you do. For hope.