My father, through his absence, imparted to me tremendous hyper-vigilance, which rendered me a nervous, aggressive watchdog. I wasn't violent but noticeably aware and tense. My mom’s continued reticence concerning engagement in even the more mundane social tasks in concert with me, such as going out to dinner, is due to none other than the visibility of my readiness; I’m cognizant of everything occurring within the confines of my surroundings at all times. I am truly a man on edge.

Hyper-vigilance is spawned from sentiments of vulnerability. When you’re vulnerable, you’re scared, naturally so, as the catalyst for this very state-of-mind is a conspicuous dearth of security. When you’re scared, you eventually become aggressive.

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Now imagine harboring these emotions but to an extent that you can’t cognize. Waves of fear so prodigious you worry that the 130-pound preteen across the street is going to maul you. Succeeded by waves of aggression so vast that you desire to run back and smack that very kid. You’d believe that after enveloping yourself in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and weightlifting for a combined 13 years would assuage these irrationalities. You’d think that at 6-feet-tall and 290 pounds, one wouldn't panic that his frail cab driver is going to take a detour from the intended destination to an abandoned naval yard in Brooklyn and jump you. Fear is something I know all too well. I doubt that there’s anything I don't know about it.

My hyper-vigilance, at the root of it, is a familiar byproduct of single-parent homes, tending to appear as a predisposition so immanent to the children that emanate from them. Fathers leave; mothers stay, or, in my case, the former is forced to leave at the behest of a 10-year-old. Our verbal battles raged on for perpetuity until threats were levied so convincingly on my behalf that his contact ceased, only to be waged again when he required a reminder of the inevitable physical punishment he would receive for attempting to enter the lives of my mother and me.

This pattern occurred spasmodically until he died of the drink that he so regularly imbibed for the entirety of my life. I don't know where his remains are. If I did… I can’t say that I’d visit them at all, and I can most assuredly say that in the unlikely hypothetical situation that if I did, I would pay no tribute that would show me to be the greater man.

The antecedent is vital in tracing the very distinct, transparent evolution of my extreme vigilance, fear, and aggression; my father’s actions of dissipation and — conversely — aggression were the foundation of the house that fears built. Since I was younger than five, I can remember looking in all directions for any perceivable threat to my mother and me; our safety was my obligation, fear a constant whisper in my ear.

 brizmaker © 123rf.com

If the lack of a paternal bond built the foundation of said house, then traumatic experiences mutated into the very sheetrock, drywall, support structures, and roof overhead. I am fully ensconced in the fortification life contrived.

We all metaphorically reside in such a structure. However, that very structure is binary, as there is a dichotomy of our mind and our soul. While the external side of the walls of my fiefdom is full of scars that stitches can't sew up, the opposite interior fraction is constituted of faith; specifically, the comprehension that I will rise, open the door, and enter the world every day. The wall of life’s experiences serves to partition my mind and soul, and you must give heed to the latter.

Traumas have deepened my perception that there is no order to this world, except for that which we create. Personally, control has been continually actualized through physical transformation into a force so formidable that I was able to manifest fear in others. I saw fear, specifically the instillation of it, in those of my immediate surroundings — everyday people — as a means of control. That’s my mind. Those are my thoughts.

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The mind.

Yet, my soul knows deep down, as if it were a being unto itself that I must face, which scares me every day, to see that it is ultimately not as frightening as my mind would have had me believe. And so I rise, open the door, and enter the gym. I rise, open the door, put my callouses to the bar, and lift. I rise, open the door, and don my kimono to spar. The preceding endeavors are undertaken to master one’s self. There is no mastery of self by imprinting on to others.

The soul.

If you have a mental illness, you are already in a fight. You’re engaged in battle. The toughest there is. Allow your physical capabilities to be the corporeal representation of how strong you are mentally.

Ignorance begs the question, “How can you be strong mentally if you’re mentally ill?” The answer is simple: Mental illness forces one to attend to their mind and soul addressing biochemical imbalances and trauma through the most potent form of both learning and healing: dialogue.

Conversing with a therapist and a psychiatrist takes time, dedication, and responsibility. Make no mistake about it; if you have an illness, then it is your job to seek help. In doing so through the myriad means, some of which are explicated above, you are spending more time healing than most people spend engaging in simple introspection. You learn who you are, why you are that way, and how to become even better.


There is no magic pill, and this is coming from someone on three different medications for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Pure OCD, depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The shingles on the roof of the citadel fear engendered, indicative of traumas in the recent past, and surely will have some company, as life is, amongst many other things, suffering. The day our house is complete is the day we have passed on because life will keep adding to the house. New windows, tiles, flooring. New suffering. New wounds. The key is to not let the outside scars prevent you from going home, to find the beauty inside of the soul. Conversely, let the beauty inside force you through the door and outside every morning to brave your fears and to get help.

Does it get easier? My answer is simple: you just get stronger. Having been in therapy since the age of 10, I'm able to detect where my irrationalities began, when they were exacerbated, and how they incessantly manifest themselves in daily life.

Additionally, I have to remind myself that I have severe biochemical imbalances that further acerbate the problem. Consequently, I’m better equipped to manage them, and as time has proven, mitigate them to a degree. Said attenuations are the result of therapy, psychiatrists, routine dialogue with supportive friends, weightlifting, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

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Get out there and get help. If you have no one, tell a stranger you need help. Your story needs to be told because there’s someone who needs to hear it. Put on your helmet, fasten your breastplate tight, and with one arm supporting your shield, allow the other to gather your sword. Go to battle with your demons. Win the war every day.

Every breath you have is a victory. Every time you speak with a therapist, friend, family member, or psychiatrist, you are doing the honorable, right thing: seeking help. Don't brave the fight alone. Use every ounce of support you can get.

And for fuck’s sake, don't give a shit about being judged. I take my medicine openly, and if someone asks what it is, I say, “It’s my medication.” If they inquire as to the purpose of it, reply, “That’s personal.” If someone really has a problem with it, levy the following retort, “Would you tell a diabetic to cower in a fucking corner while he takes his insulin? No, so shut the fuck up.”

Proud as a lion. That’s how you must embrace your struggle. Remember, you’re not here to change the minds of people who don't understand; you’re here to get yourself better. Those who have struggled will understand, and you will find those you can commiserate with. But don't ever feel you have to answer to any critic. It’s difficult for those with no experience with mental illness to sympathize, but behind the inability to render an honest attempt to do so is a scarcity of humanity; consequently, those who do not endeavor to understand are not worth your emotional reserve. Again, you are not obligated to proselytize anyone to fight the stigma — you’re here to survive and thrive. Thriving is the very manner in how we beat the stigma.

With a head held high, go seek help, with the understanding that you’re a warrior fighting a respectably tough battle. Chest out, shoulders back. Be proud of the battle you've been given, and by any and all means, remain victorious.

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If you take medicine, severe fatigue can be expected. Many refuse medication for this side effect. Change your optics. I look at fatigue as a far more comfortable cross to bear than the loss of my sanity. While some may arrive at the gym rested, you may easily find yourself always tired. This is a gift. Such extreme fatigue is a challenge, and we should be grateful for it. Fatigue is a liar. There is so much training to be done in the face of it. I train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu six times per week on average, and lift two or three times, in spite of it.

Anxiety and depression can be acerbated by maximal effort work. Consequently, if you are feeling anxious, it may behoove you to lift sub-maximally. The 1RM attempt will always be there. Additionally, repeated effort and maximal effort methods can spawn anxiety that was dormant prior to the training session. Henceforth, if you experience an onset of the aforementioned, reign in the intensity and elect to train in a way that is enjoyable. For example, if I’m emotionally taxed or sense that high intensity will promote said mental states, I do banded pullaparts, neck, and/or triceps. The workout facilitates a release of endorphins while the intensity is minimal enough to circumvent stimulation of anxiety.

Regardless of your situation, you MUST train. There is one thing that may be depended on to augment your happiness, destroy demons, and leave you fulfilled: TRAINING.

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*Your only goal is to survive, so make a support network by being HONEST, ASKING for HELP, SEEKING THERAPY, PSYCHIATRY, GROUP TALKS, all through which you might make friends, who are family we make along the way.

God saves his hardest battles for his strongest warriors. If you have a mental illness, then you’re a warrior. It's a badge of honor. Embrace it. Live a full life in spite of your setbacks.

A Mental Warrior is the Strongest of All Warriors

Life IS DIFFERENT with mental illness. I don't lead a typical life, whatever that is. I don't go to bars, the default atmosphere for socialization, because my hyper-vigilance creates fear, and as stated previously, that turns into aggression. Having quit drinking eight years ago so as to further distinguish myself from my father, I am now even less inclined to frequent local watering holes. I accept what I can and cannot do.

The precursory statement doesn't mean that I place limitations on myself. I settle instead for trial and error, which informs me thusly of what may ignite my hyper-vigilance and aggression. Naturally, I will then steer clear of that stimulus. This decision has helped my mental state tremendously.

The resultant of the preceding are many weekends without much personal interaction. You get used to it. If that's the worst outcome of my lifestyle, then I’m fine with that.

And no, relationships are not easy either. Some don't want to be with a guy who has various diagnoses because of the concomitant symptoms. This should just harden you even more as a warrior. Realize that you don't always need someone in that capacity to appreciate what you’re going through, as long as you have your well-informed support group.

My mom told me if you have one best friend at the end of your life, then you’re rich. That's how rare true friendship is, defined here as undying loyalty. All you need is that one person. If they understand, then forget everyone who doesn't. You’re in this to survive, and be happy. Pleasing everyone is a futile act that foments everything antithetical to your self-preservation.

Header image courtesy of  Kostic Dusan © 123rf.com

If you or a loved one is at risk for suicide or needs help, reach out to these resources.  All hotlines listed below are available 24/7 and are confidential unless otherwise noted. In case of an emergency, call your local authorities.

Max Barnhart, MA, CSCS, has been involved in collegiate strength and conditioning at the NCAA Division I level for eight years. In addition to coaching, Max has been fortunate enough to publish two articles in NSCA publications and to conduct his master’s thesis on the reduction of the bilateral deficit and concomitant effects on extroversion and personality type. Max’s true passion is the optimization of student-athletes’ athletic and personal potential through strength training and through raising mental health awareness among such populations.