How are you?
We are asked that question every day. But how often do we just say "fine" or "good" and move on? How often do we actually admit the truth -- to ourselves as well as others?
You want to know my truth? How am I doing? How am I handling quarantine and the global pandemic? Put it this way: I'm still breathing.
It has been one of those months. Nonstop, my mood jumping up and down and all around. The pandemic has been one of the scariest times I've been through. I'm thankful that my family and I are safe and healthy. I'm grateful we don't have to worry about paying bills or putting food on the table, like so many other folks right now. But still, I'm struggling.
Before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, I shared my mental health issues publicly for the first time. It wasn't easy to admit I wasn't perfect. But opening up took a huge weight off my back. It made life easier. Now I'm opening up again. I want people to know they're not alone. So many of us are fighting our mental health demons now more than ever.
The thing is -- and people who live with mental health issues all know this -- it never goes away. You have good days and bad. But there's never a finish line. I've done so many interviews after Rio where the story was the same: Michael Phelps opened up about depression, went into a treatment program, won gold in his last Olympics and now is all better. I wish that were the truth. I wish it were that easy. But honestly -- and I mean this in the nicest way possible -- that's just ignorant. Somebody who doesn't understand what people with anxiety or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder deal with has no idea.
And really, to be blunt, the media is part of that. They dragged me through the dirt for everything I did wrong over the years -- and trust me, I know there was plenty. I'm responsible for every mistake I've ever made. Nobody else. I've gotten help and I ended my career on a high note, so the nice neat story is to put me back on a pedestal. But here's the reality: I won't ever be "cured." This will never go away. It's something where I've had to accept it, learn to deal with it and make it a priority in my life. And yes, that's a hell of a lot easier said than done.
The pandemic has been a challenge I never expected. All the uncertainty. Being cooped up in a house. And the questions. So many questions. When is it going to end? What will life look like when this is over? Am I doing everything I can to be safe? Is my family safe? It drives me insane. I'm used to traveling, competing, meeting people. This is just craziness. My emotions are all over the place. I'm always on edge. I'm always defensive. I'm triggered so easily.
There are times where I feel absolutely worthless, where I completely shut down but have this bubbling anger that is through the roof. If I'm being honest, more than once I've just screamed out loud, "I wish I wasn't me!" Sometimes there's just this overwhelming feeling that I can't handle it anymore. I don't want to be me anymore. It's almost like that scene in "The Last Dance" where Michael Jordan is on the couch, smoking a cigar and he's just like, "Done. Break." He can't take it anymore.
This is the most overwhelmed I've ever felt in my life. That's why I have times where I don't want to be me. I wish I could just be "Johnny Johnson," some random person.
The other night, I had a blowup with Nicole, my wife. It wasn't good. But at the same time, I was able to let out all those pent-up emotions. Sometimes you need that. It was hard. But I feel so much better today. Sometimes that's just part of the process for me.
So how do you fight this? How do you manage it? For me, I have to get in the gym every day for at least 90 minutes. It's the first thing I do. I wake up between 5:15 and 7, no alarm, just whenever I roll over. If it's 7, I'll feed the boys and get them situated, but if it's earlier, I just escape to the gym. And look, there are days that I don't want to be there. But I force myself to do it. I know it's for my mental health as much as my physical health.
If I miss a day, it's a disaster. Then I get into a negative pattern of thinking in my own head. And when that happens, I'm the only one who can stop it. And it typically doesn't stop very fast. I'll just drag it out, almost to punish myself in a way. That's what I do if I make a mistake or if I upset somebody, then I think it's always my fault and just take it all out on myself. When that happens day after day, you can put yourself in a scary situation pretty quickly. And that's been this quarantine a lot of the time.
When I was swimming, the pool was my escape. I would take all that anger and use it as motivation. But now that escape is gone. I've learned in those moments it's important to try to take a step back. Take a deep breath. Go back to square one and ask yourself: Where these emotions are coming from? Why are you so angry? That's something I learned in treatment. That's something I try to teach my three boys. But when you're in that mood, you don't always want to do what's "right" or what you know you should do. I try to write notes on my mirror with a dry-erase marker. There are motivational quotes throughout my office I use to help me. And I journal. I have 20 to 30 pieces of scrap paper all over where I write things down that pop into my head or I want to remember to help me later.
But when things get really bad, I literally give myself a timeout. I just have to remove myself. I don't want the kids to see me like that. So I'll go to my room for a few minutes or the office or my closet. Just a quiet setting to think and be calm by myself. To reset, in a way.
There are moments, those times where I'm stuck in my own head, I don't think it can get any worse, and Boomer, my 4-year-old, will walk up to me, give me a hug and just tell me he loves me. When you absolutely least expect it. It's literally the greatest thing in the world.
After my time in the gym, it's usually snack time for me and the boys. Then we're off to whatever we are going to do that day. Maybe we are going to play on the dirt track at our house or we're going to hit the swimming pool. Whatever we are doing, dinner is always on the table at 5. I take responsibility for that. I enjoy cooking. It helps me. Then it's bath time, bed time, wind down a bit with Nicole and then I'm in bed by 10 before we do it all over again.
I know the things I need to do to take care of my mental health. But again, it's not always that easy. A few years ago, I joined the board of Talkspace, an online mobile therapy company that provides access to therapists whenever needed. It has been so helpful to me when I've been on the road. I've encouraged it to friends and family. I tell people how valuable it has been for me. It literally has saved my life. We all want to be the best versions of ourselves. And talking to a therapist, being vulnerable, opening up about what you're dealing with, it only helps. Nobody can deal with life all alone.
Earlier this month, I donated 500 months of free Talkspace therapy to medical workers on the front lines fighting COVID-19. For every single one of us right now, our heroes are those front line workers. I can't imagine what they are going through. I only hope therapy can be as life-changing for them as it was for me. The Michael Phelps Foundation has also committed more than $100,000 in grants to add social-emotional curriculum as part of the IM Program we created for Boys & Girls Clubs throughout America.
But look, you can only get help if you ask for it. You need to pick up the phone. Open the app. Or just make an appointment near your home. I'll be honest, the past two months, when I've probably needed help the most, I haven't done much of anything with a therapist. I know that's part of my problem. But it's also a prime example of how quickly you can get into this "f--- off" mentality. I know I have to be better. I have to stay on top of that.
But this is also why I'm opening up. I want to help others. And I want to hold myself accountable. There are a ton of people fighting the exact same thing. It doesn't matter what you went through, where you've come from or what you want to be. Nothing can hold you back. You just need to learn the tricks that work for you and then stick with them, believe in them, to keep yourself from getting into a negative cycle.
I have to give myself more love and more compassion. I just don't. I look at our boys. They fall down, hit their head, cry a bit and 30 seconds later they are back on their feet chasing their brothers and laughing. They've moved on. They're resilient. They live in the moment so well. That's what we all need to do.
Not long ago, I had a speaking engagement at a major global company about mental health. After I spoke, there was a Q&A and this younger guy gets up in front of the entire group and starts talking about his struggles. I think about that moment sometimes. The courage he had to get up in front of all his coworkers and admit his challenges. It shows we are finally getting to a point where there is an understanding that mental health struggles are real. It's serious, life-and-death stuff.
There's nothing to hide from. Nothing to be afraid of. The fight is only against yourself. Think about that the next time somebody asks that simple question: "How are you?"