This past Saturday I did something I had not done in a long time…I spoke publicly about my struggles with mental health. I had been asked to speak at the Ontario Agriculture College Leadership Conference a couple months ago and true to form, I sat down at my computer on Thursday night with very little insight into what I was going to say.
I ended up creating a presentation called “It’s My Journey…You Can’t Have It” and I talked to students about my path from a 19 year old farm boy at Guelph to today. It was a simple 13 slide deck and each slide had a picture or two about a particular time or event in my life. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to fill 90 minutes with 13 slides but I had faith that in the moment that right words would flow.
I had two slides in the deck entitled ‘Our First Detour’ and ‘The Big Detour’. The first slide had a picture from OAC Goodtimes Banquet from 2007. That was the day I had a doctor’s appointment in Listowel after persistent lung problems and the doc told me that he wanted to do some tests but he was convinced that it was from time in a pig barn and I should rethink my career path. That was a massive shock for me and it set me adrift into an insular depressed period. It killed my motivation; I rarely went to class, I drank excessively and started to cut myself off from many people I cared about. Thankfully that period ended when further testing revealed that my problems were coming from my mold infested basement bedroom at school and not the barn.
The Big Detour slide had a graph showing the corn hog ration for the last 10 years. I told the group about how I returned home to farm full time after grad school and after careful planning; we launched an expansion project with a second sow herd. That project taught me some important lessons like just because something looks profitable in Excel does not necessarily translate into actual profitability.
That project was an unmitigated disaster from a production standpoint and the timing coincided with a run up in corn values and collapsing hog prices. As fall turned to winter in 2012, our financial position deteriorated rapidly and losing the everything that Mum and Dad had built became a real possibility. I internalized this, blaming myself entirely for the failure of the project and causing the extra level of vulnerability for my parent’s finances. I could not sleep nor I could not communicate with loved ones as I retreated down the dark path of depression. My self-hate knew no bounds, I would scream at myself in the barn when I made simple errors, I would be paralyzed in the seat of my car when I got to the barn, dreading actually going in to the building. Weirdly, my only refuge from the self-hate came through a podcast about Fantasy Football called Fantasy Focus with 2 guys named Matthew Berry and Nate Ravitz. That 50 minute show gave me something to look forward to each day and gave me a much needed reprieve.
Things came to a head in early December 2012. I was preg checking sows and had failed miserably to get sows pregnant. (Turns out farming is even harder when you are fighting depression) I grabbed an extension cord and was searching the barn for a place to tie it off securely. That moment was the darkest moment of my life. Thankfully, I had a glimmer…a voice that spoke to me saying not today, this is not how my story will end. I went to the barn office, grabbed my phone, and called my Mum and Dad asking them to get to the barn as quickly as possible. My parents responded with unconditional love. My Mum walked through the door of the barn that morning and wrapped me tightly in a hug and I knew I made the right decision. I was loved, I had value, and even if our family lost everything, my parents love for me would never waver.
Getting through that day was not the end of that round in my fight with mental illness. I remained in a very fragile state. A couple weeks later I went to Stratford on a Saturday afternoon to listen to Boston Marathon winner Wesley Korir speak. I called him a couple days after that presentation, asking if he could meet to share more about agriculture in his home of Cherangany, Kenya. He told me he would be at my apartment in 30 minutes. He drove up that afternoon, we sat down at our kitchen table and he looked me in the eye and said, “Stewart, I have been praying for a farmer to come from Canada to Kenya with me and you are that farmer. You are coming to Kenya.” I was a little dumbfounded but thankfully I embraced it and less than a month later I was on a plane destined for Kenya.
My slide about the Kenyan chapter in Saturday’s presentation to the Aggies was titled, “The Kenyan Reset” because it was that first trip to Kenya that I was able to get back to living. I penned this blog, entitled Rediscovering Happiness towards the end of my trip and many of my discoveries remain true today.
I am publishing this today because Bell has started something wonderful with their #BellLetsTalk initiative. On Saturday, before I started my presentation, I said that if I reached 1 person in the crowd who was fighting their own battle then I would deem the presentation a success. I say the same again today, if this post helps 1 person find the courage to reach out for help then I have done my job. Remember, even in the darkness of a struggle, you have value, you are loved, and you never have to face your demons alone.