I don’t remember much before the age of ten. I know I lived a normal childhood life – playing sports, sleepovers with friends and all of the other things a normal kid does. I have pockets of memories here and there, but I always say that my story starts when I was ten years old. That’s the first time I noticed that my dad was sick with heart disease.
I remember going to Temple on Friday nights and then going to the hospital to visit him. I’m not sure how long that went on for, but to me, it seemed like months. If I could pinpoint the first time my dad’s health had a significant impact on my life it was when he told me, “Eric, I just hope I can live to see you have your Bar Mitzvah.” I’m not sure of its importance, but it’s stayed with me ever since.
Throughout high school, he had a myriad of physical health issues. I joked with friends that my dad was Ironman and that his dresser was basically a pharmacy. It wasn’t until my junior or senior year that I learned about his mental health issues though. In addition to his OCD and Major Depression, my father has Asperger Syndrome, which is a developmental disorder affecting his ability to effectively socialize and communicate. The situation and relationship between my father and I got worse as I went to college.
Whether I was home or at school, it didn’t matter. I felt overwhelmed, anxious and trapped by a helicopter parent who wouldn’t let me live my own life. In one breath, he’d emotionally abuse me and a moment later, he’d tell my mom and me how much he loved us. He’d threaten to leave us and never come back. These were mostly empty threats, but as a college student, I couldn’t rationalize his words juxtaposed against his actions. It felt like one long emotional roller coaster. He knew exactly what my triggers were and how to push my buttons. The relationship had been flipped upside down; I felt like the parent, and he, the child.
At this point, it had been almost 10 years of taking a mental beating. I tried to act as the adult when I was in the same room with him. I tried to explain how disrespected I felt when he treated me with kid gloves. He did things without asking me because “he wasn’t sure I knew how to” or “he wanted what was best for me.” To many, this is an act of love. Through my eyes though, I viewed it as a parent who didn’t respect my decisions. I told him how badly it hurt when he didn’t show acts of kindness or love to our family, and how I didn’t believe that he loved me because a moment before that, he would call me an ungrateful son. I would beg him to look me in the eyes, but he never did. He’d just say, “You’re right, I’ll change.” But in my eyes, he never did.
At first, I thought this was how all parents were. As I got older, I believed this was blatant disrespect. But then I learned this was a classic symptom of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. The puzzle pieces started to fall into place. The awkward social encounters and interactions, the feeling of apathy had a name, and with it, a bit more understanding as to the why. Of course, the anxiety and major depression played a large role as well. While each situation is different, once my father was clinically diagnosed with these issues, I had a tangible thing to draw down on and I became more understanding.
I started going to therapy in college and all roads inevitably led back to my relationship with my dad. I told my therapist that I was embarrassed to introduce friends or a girlfriend to my dad because I was so uncertain with what he’d say or do. As I told it, the only positive was that I learned what not to do as a father. But with time and distance, I could see positive changes within him.
I discovered that while I can’t control what happened in life, I could control my reaction to life events.
Fast forward a bit to when I moved to Memphis in 2015, which was a turning point for me. Living in an unfamiliar city without any existing friends or relationships, I prioritized myself. My mental health came front and center; I discovered yoga, going twice a week. I fell in love with how it relieved my anxiety and how my mat felt like a safe space for my body and mind. Ironically, it was while I was the furthest away from home that I was able to begin repairing my relationship with my dad. When I would go home for holidays, we could go to breakfast without verbal threats from either one of us. I was able to accept who he was as a person rather than wish he were some other version of himself. He began to respect my boundaries and our relationship took major steps forward. It was progress.
When I moved back to Chicago in 2017, I began seeing a therapist weekly and developed a stronger yoga practice to supplement therapy. I learned that the dreaded feeling I always had when going home was a result of the negative energy I felt emanating from my childhood home. Armed with this knowledge, I began protecting myself. I learned that I didn’t have to rely on just therapy or yoga; I could develop a suite of skills to improve my mental health and wellbeing. It wasn’t until I attended my first yoga retreat in December 2018 where I really delved into the world of mindfulness. Now, I was practicing yoga, meditation and going to therapy. I discovered that while I can’t control what happened in life, I could control my reaction to life events. I began to address my anxiety, my indecision and my rage rather than suppress it. All of this was incredible, but I lacked consistency as life seemed to be flying by rather than slowing down.
The goal is to have enough tools in your toolbelt to know how to manage your mental health.
When COVID hit last March, everything stopped overnight. Gone were the superfluous distractions and external cues – happy hour, work events, and travel. I picked up my meditation practice, practiced yoga 4-5 times per week and switched therapists. All of it helped immensely as I became more patient. The past few months I’ve seen great strides in my relationship with my Dad. I truly think it can be pinpointed to one major moment – the decision to truly work on myself rather than fix him. A great friend urged me to love my parents where they’re at in life. Practice patience with him like I did with so many others in my life. Show him the respect that he deserves for helping raise me. That can be enough.
I began a mindful self-compassion class in September and believe that this has helped me be a more compassionate human. I have worked hard to forgive my father and take responsibility for my own actions rather than use him as a crutch. But at the same time, I’ve become more compassionate to myself. I’ve learned to love who I am because of my upbringing, not in spite of it. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s because I’ve learned so much from it. I’ve learned that people have different love languages and how much work relationships are. Most important, I’ve learned that people can change, because my dad has. This past Fall, I also started taking Zoloft and ultimately Prozac, anti-anxiety medications to deal with my ruminations, at the recommendation of my therapist. In the near-term, I’ve seen some positive results. When I told my dad, he understood and accepted it. Naturally, I think he was concerned for me, but he’s let me deal with it in my own way. To me, this is progress. However, medication is only one tool amongst many I share below as a part of my attempt to optimize my mental health and wellbeing.
I believe I’ve learned so much from my situation and want to share these lessons with others, so here we go!
1. Normalize the issue of mental health
This starts with talking with family members and colleagues at work. Just because we can’t see the opponent, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We’re trained to be judgmental as a society and be superficial in our dealings. Mental health is the furthest thing from superficial. Normalizing the issues starts with increasing the everyday discourse around mental health at work and at home. When we hear those we care about, talk about mental health, the better odds we have at destigmatizing the issue. Be open with your family friends, boss, team and colleagues with your mental stressors and take the steps you need to maintain your wellbeing. I’ve recently become more open about my mental health journey, and now I’ve become the go-to person on our team whenever someone is considering therapy.
Gender matters. In a male dominated industry like sports, we must eliminate the macho stigma around mental health. It isn’t a sign of weakness if you have mental health issues. We’re all wired differently – that’s why we have a team. Men need to do a better job at speaking up, advocating for themselves and providing a safe place for other minority groups to voice their mental health issues as well.
2. Proactively discover the best course of treatment for your wellbeing
This isn’t an either/or statement, but rather an and one. It’s likely that you’ll lean on some support tactics more than others depending on what the issue is or where you are in life. The goal is to have enough tools in your toolbelt to know how to manage your mental health. We want to proactively do this because when we’re faced with a stressor, we’ll know how to best treat it. Some of these tools include:
I’ve found that therapy, yoga, meditation, medication and exercise make up the best treatment plan for me. This helps me stay out of my head and eliminates so much of my rumination that occurs on a daily basis. As people in sponsorship and the broader sports industry, we’re Type-A control freaks. I’ve learned that my wellbeing is better balanced the more I live in the moment and give up the control factor. Experiment with the above or other tools and see what balances you out best.
3. Check in on others
This one is the trickiest because no one can walk a moment in another person’s shoes. It’s impossible to know what personal battles someone has, but we can normalize asking for help and checking in on others. Be empathetic and self-aware around others. Offer someone a set of ears in case they ever want to talk. That will give you permission to continue to check in on them.
Here’s an example – a colleague’s mother just passed away after a long illness. It was made public that she was dealing with this passing and so I wanted to give her the space she needed. The next time we spoke on the phone, I shared how I am in therapy and opened the door to let her talk about her feelings. While I can’t relate to losing a parent, we’ve all lost a loved one. I could empathize with her and offer her my support. Because I know what she’s going through, I have offered to take on some of her responsibility and tried to be more patient as she grieves. While this is an extreme example, we can all find smaller ones that are emblematic of this.
Mental health and wellbeing matter. We cannot continue to push down our feelings and suppress our issues because they will inevitably reappear in a magnified way. Just like with an injury, the best course of action is to rehab our mental health and then continue to proactively care for the issue so we stay healthy and productive.
Eric Shainock has spent his career at the intersection of culture, commerce and conscience. As Co-Founder of Philanthropy Playmakers, Eric advises professional athletes and sports organizations on how to leverage sports to accelerate community impact through fundraising efforts and community programs. Philanthropy Playmakers exists to help create sustainable sports for good programs and effective community partnerships. Through his work, Eric also helps professionals in the sports philanthropy industry connect and learn from each other by providing a platform to share best practices.
In addition, Eric currently works for BMO Harris, where he is a Marketing Manager. He oversees all of BMO’s sponsorship, brand and Sustainability advertising across the US footprint. He is responsible for bringing BMO’s sponsorship and brand work to life and ultimately drive customer awareness and consideration.
As a self-proclaimed “corporate hippie,” mental health and wellness have become the #1 priority of his life. He has a consistent meditation and yoga practice that has led him down a spiritual journey to travel the world to different yoga/meditation retreats and integrate his practice into everyday life to create a balanced wellness mindset.