Too often we hear from people who are worried that they can’t achieve their dreams or have a successful career because of their mental health issues. We hope our “Working It” interview series proves that it’s possible to do that and so much more.
You can read previous interviews here.
TWLOHA: For our readers who aren’t familiar with you or your work, can you tell us a little about who you are and what you do?
CHAD: My name is Chad and I work for To Write Love on Her Arms in the world of Music & Events. It’s my job to find creative ways to meet people where they are. At times that looks like outreach. At times that looks like educating people about mental health resources. And at times that looks like simply being present to see stories and lives continue. If you boil it down, my role is to translate the experience that you would have with us online into a personal/face-to-face interaction. Essentially through Music & Events, we are aiming to humanize what this project is.
I often joke that my annual schedule is split up into 3 distinct parts: planning our travels, doing our travels, and making sense of our travels. Last year we were present at 40 unique music events (not including the Vans Warped Tour), and my job was making sure our energies were well spent at each place we set up a booth. Typically for the first part of a year, I learn about the opportunities that exist; this includes researching new opportunities and festivals that pop up, where we need to go, and how we’d get there. We used to call our traveling season “The Summer” but now festivals encompass most weeks spanning from our Run For It 5k on through November. It’s a ton of travel. Once I get home, my attention shifts to finding ways to communicate the human elements and quantify what went into the past year. Stuff like: How many shirts we sold, how many people we met, how many resources pamphlets we distributed, and how many cities we could add to the resources.
My job is a balancing act to find a sense of contentment in the moment as I engage with people and have an eye on the horizon—how we can meet more people and find a way to spread the message: you’re not alone.
On the surface, when I am behind the booth, I could be confused as just another merch guy, BUT the shirts are an excuse for conversation. It’s a way for people to be reminded that they’ve seen this phrase or organization before. My job starts after I ask what size are you looking for. That’s when the conversation starts. How’d you hear about us? When? Where’d you get that shirt? From there, I rarely have to pull conversations out of people. That’s been the theme of TWLOHA from day one. We’re hoping that we aren’t not saying anything new. But we are aware that for some, our tent represents their first opportunity to speak honestly about why these issues matter. Conversations run the gamut between why hope feels real or why it doesn’t in this moment. I don’t recall any story that sounds exactly like any other. But these stories resonate with others and inspire people to seek help and comfort others.
Probably the aspect of my job that I am most proud of is that I get to represent the hard work and dedication of 15 other staff members. I get to carry their hopes and hearts with me all over the map. Together we get to light some sparks that ignite entire campgrounds with conversations. Hopefully the warmth I’m able to carry with me from Melbourne to these events is something that continues to spread from the events for years to come. And in turn, the stories I receive at these events get carried back to our team to serve as reminders to our staff and supporters of the sacredness and profundity of genuine interactions.
Like right now…I’m looking at a bracelet from a guy named Shane from Electric Forest. The “candy” reads “EF’17,” and it’s attached to a card that reads, “We love you. We love you. You are loved.” He was the first person I remember interacting with at the festival this year, and I vividly recall how excited he was to see us. As he approached the booth, he reached into his pocket to pull out his RSVP prompt card from last year that said, “I Love You. I Love You. I Love You. You are Loved.” He kept that card in plain sight all year, and he returned to The Forest with 365 bracelets with that phrase to hand out throughout the weekend. This dude was just abuzz with this energy of wanting to connect with anyone possible. He couldn’t wait to get back to the event and to see other people and encourage them. Hopefully that’s what I do. I stand on behalf of the team of beautiful people full of inspiring conversations.
TWLOHA: How does mental illness affect your life and work?
CHAD: I am someone who lives with depression. That typically manifests in a seasonal way. It’s always a reality, but it definitely feels heavier in the winter months. Perhaps a piece of that is due to having fewer distractions: a lack of travel, maybe even a withdrawal from personal interaction. I have a history of substance abuse and self-injury. My work is all about encountering people who know these struggles intimately as well. Whenever I talk about these issues, I talk about it in the reflective sense. The things I’m saying are the things that were said to me in my darkest moments.
It’s easy to see pieces of myself in about every person I interact with. Perhaps it’s better to say that I see pieces of other people in my story for 14 hours a day, 200 days a year. Honestly, that can be heavy. It’s a privilege, but there are costs. I also have these moments where I’ll be talking to a parent/sibling/friend/lover of someone who is struggling. When I relay the mission statement, they ask if I’ve struggled. Their question is hopeful and vulnerable. And when I tell them “yes,” I get to see them put two and two together, and I see a light come on as if to say, “If this guy is still standing and using his story, then maybe there’s hope for the people in my life as well.”
I had a mentor several years back when I started my journey towards recovery who said that the only difference between shit and manure is purpose. They both come from the same place. Its definition is dependent on what we do with it. We can run from what we deem useless, or we find ways to encourage growth.
While I can’t change the reality of my scars or past or current struggles with depression, I can choose to share that in ways that are edifying or that can make someone else’s situation more hopeful or beautiful.
One practice that has helped my mental health immensely began back at Sasquatch Festival in 2011. I don’t know what took me so long to adopt this, but there at The Gorge, I started writing daily recap emails to staff to let them know of the conversations I was having with people.
I write notes every single day I’m on the road. I get to walk through what I experienced. What were the moments I felt most alive? What were the moments that were really heavy? I was never much of a journal-er. I believed that journaling was a noble task, but it just didn’t do anything. At least I thought it didn’t—until I started writing these emails.
That’s been a key way for me to manage my own mental health—by talking through my day with myself on everything I experienced and then relaying it to my wife/friends/coworkers, thereby inviting them directly into my daily rhythms on the road.
A lot of my mental health is predicated on having an active imagination. When I meet someone at the booth, I hear where they are in the present and then I get to think about where they’ll be next year. There are festivals I return to every year because there are a handful of people I can’t wait to see again because I can’t wait to see how their stories are unfolding.
TWLOHA: Do you ever feel wary about speaking so openly your mental health? If so, why did you decide to do so anyway?
CHAD: I think everyone goes through this period. There was a time a while back—before I started working for TWLOHA—where I alternated between ‘my life is too messed up to share’ and ‘my life is not messed up enough to share.’ Looking back, that is an obviously immature narrative, but it equated to feeling like I needed to be guarded with the best and worst parts of my life. Over time I just learned to be comfortable in my own skin. Was I ever hesitant? Yeah, absolutely. But when I realized my story wasn’t about people pleasing but about authenticity, it left the forefront of my interactions with other people.
TWLOHA: What would you tell someone who doesn’t think they can manage their own schedule or support themselves while dealing with mental illness?
CHAD: I create my own schedule, BUT I’ve learned to craft my schedule in ways that make me accountable to others like my spouse and coworkers. They’re the two factions that keep me balanced. These are people I care about and who care about me. I owe it to TWLOHA to be the best representative possible. I owe it to my wife to be the most honest version of myself. So by including some more voices into my story, I have people who can fact-check me or be honest with me along the way in the moments when I am more distant.
When I get off the road, that should be a time of rest, but I know the changes in seasons will affect me. Miranda still has to remind me—hey, you can say today is just a hard day. I’ll say, yeah I know, but so rarely am I the first one to be honest about my mental health state.
So what would I tell someone? I’d say that if your definition for functioning normally is managing your own stuff, I definitely don’t function in a normal way. I need other people to help me be realistic with my own goals and mental health and the things I’m hopeful for. My reality is constructed with other voices that push me toward health.
For steps they could take: journaling. Looking back at my schedule, I know there are events I know I don’t want to go to anymore. I know there are certain atmospheres that don’t gel well with me. I request for other staff members or volunteers to step up to the plate. I wouldn’t have known how those were affecting me if I didn’t look back through the notes.
I recommend people do this when I meet them on the road. I believe we have a lot of wisdom inside of us. I believe if we can listen to ourselves better, we can make better informed decisions. I recommend listening to yourself and finding people you trust. You don’t have to have all the answers. Find people you trust and who trust you that can remind you of progress you’ve made.
TWLOHA: Finally, is there anything you wish someone would have told you when you were struggling? Or something you’d like to share with our readers who are struggling right now?
CHAD: I’ve been really fortunate. I think anything that I’ve needed to hear I have heard eventually. I think the one thing I’d like to share with people struggling right now is: if you feel you deserve better: you do. If you feel like you shouldn’t have to be anxious every time you walk through the door, you’re right. You’re allowed to trust your experiences, whether they’re good or bad. Just because you’re aware you’re walking through a season of depression, doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty for smiling once in a while either. When I’m depressed, there’s sometimes a piece of me that gets mad when I feel joy in some instances. It’s almost as if I’m betraying my own diagnosis because I’m experiencing something different from what I think I should be experiencing.
One experience doesn’t get to define you. Job/tasks/expectations don’t get to define you. People are, among other things, a collection of cells and experience. To define any one person in a monochromatic or binary way is going to do injustice to a story. If I’m going to share anything with a reader, it’d be to find the space to enjoy the things that are analog in this life. Life is not just night and day. There’s a lot of beauty in dusk and dawn. It’s OK to smile at the ambiguity. It’s OK to not have everything figured out. It’s OK to change your mind on big decisions you’ve made. With 7 billion people on the planet, there are so many choices happening and opportunities we have to regret decisions we’ve made and to relish the right decisions we’ve made, but none of these moments have stopped the world from spinning yet. Be easy on yourself. Learn to appreciate beauty and the things that aren’t clearly heavy or light but somewhere in the middle.