Bipolar… manic depression… mental breakdown. Those are all ugly words. Words used to label people with problems. Words used to identify the weaknesses and deficiencies in a person. At least that's the power we give those words. Until we don't. Then they're just words.
I'm not going to dance around today and try to entertain you like I usually do. That's my job; repackaging the same basic concepts in a way you haven't seen a hundred times all the while trying to inform you, make you feel something, maybe get a laugh or two. That's my job, and I love it. But that's not the task at hand today.
Today I'm going to lay myself bare for you. This article will reach thousands of people. Perhaps hundreds of thousands. The opinions all those people hold of me will change today. Most for the better, a handful for the worse. Those people won't express that shift, but they'll act differently around me. Some that I do work for might not hire me again in the future. And those are all rational concerns one has to consider before opening up.
But what I realize is that for each of those who judge or fear my weaknesses and deficiencies, there are a hundred more who have been through similar trials or have loved ones who have, and those people will be empathetic and helpful. More importantly, there are hundreds more of you going through similar struggles now. Worrying about the same outcomes should you open up. Lost, alone, afraid and miserable.
My one hope in writing this is that it will prevent even one person from continuing to fight that fight alone. Convince you that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. There's no reason to be embarrassed by cancer. No shame in diabetes or heart disease. But for too long there has been a stigma associated with any illness between the ears.
And that negativity imprisons people in their own minds. That isolation is the enemy. That fear is the enemy. That hopelessness is the enemy. Never listen to the enemy, because the enemy will try to convince you to make a permanent decision to fix a temporary problem. You can't come back from that.
Here's my story. This is what happened to me. It's not nearly as bad as what has happened to others. But that's another thing the enemy will say to keep you silent. The truth, pain is relative. And this was certainly the worst time in my life. Which makes it just as bad to me as the worst time in yours was to you. Try to learn from it. Try not to roll your eyes. Or be moved for a moment and let the moment pass without seeking help. If you read this and it hits close to home, pick up the phone and call somebody.
I'm talking to everyone now.
If you feel this story is about you, call someone. If you feel like this story is about someone you know, call that person.
What happened to Shaye Baker?
I recently reconnected with an old friend from the fishing industry, Walker Smith with Wired2fish, with whom I hadn't spoken in years. Within a few minutes, he asked me a very straightforward question.
"What the hell happened to Shaye Baker?"
A very reasonable question and one I admittedly asked myself for years in search of the confident and charismatic me I once knew. But a question I never thought others would ponder. Sure, my family. But according to Walker, this was a question he had been asked by others on multiple occasions. And again, a fair question considering I was as deep into the industry as anyone could be at one point. And then poof... I was gone.
So, this is what happened.
It was July 31, 2015 and I was on the road covering the Bassmaster Elite Series at the St. Lawrence River. I had been covering tournaments by then for about 5 years. Those were some of the most exciting and enjoyable years of my life. The opportunities and experiences were boundless and I absolutely loved what I did.
Not only did I meet all of my childhood heroes, I actually became their co-workers in a sense. I worked alongside those anglers that I had looked up to all my life. They were in their element and I was in mine. We both had a job to do and I was an important piece of the sport that I had loved ever since I could remember.
Then there were my literal co-workers. Guys I had looked up to all my life for their respective skill sets. Wealths of knowledge. Men like James Overstreet, whose outward appearance and personality lands somewhere between Duck Dynasty and the Dos Equis guy, but has one of the purest souls of any man you'll ever meet. "Uncle James" I came to call him. Those people became my family on the road. And I would soon need my family, both home and abroad.
On July 31, 2015, in Waddington, New York, 19-hours from home, I had a mental breakdown.
I was on the water, covering Mark Davis I believe. I was looking at him but didn't see him. I mean I could see, but I just wasn't there anymore. I had checked out. I remember shaking my head, like I was somehow going to roll the pieces around that I felt coming a part until they fit back together, like some child's game in the waiting room of a doctor's office. But this was no child's game, I was in trouble.
I picked up my phone and called my boss, Steve Bowman. I told him very plainly that I couldn't do it anymore. To my surprise, no more of an explantation was needed. There's one thing that you'll learn about the road if you stay on it long enough, it will break a man eventually. Bowman had been on the road a long time, perhaps it had broken him before. Certainly he had seen other men broken by it. And he had seen those first cracks in me already that week. He told me to do what I needed to do.
But what was that? I didn't know. People close to me in my life had been asking me for a while to "get help". And what the heck did that mean exactly? Again, I didn't know but I did know that I couldn't just do nothing anymore. I drove my boat to the boat ramp, put it on the trailer and sat there in my truck for a few minutes. I was relieved at least to be inside something. Closed off from the world. Not having to preform a task. But I couldn't sit there in my truck at a boat ramp in Waddington, New York for the rest of my life. I pulled out my phone, opened my map app and typed two words: urgent care.
I remember the doctor coming into the room, a fairly gruff man in his mid-50s. I remember him looking at me, surely anticipating something run of the mill like a sore throat or gout. But as he looked at me I just started bawling. Not crying, bawling. I had finally broken. I was ashamed and devastated. I felt like I didn't know myself, like I couldn't trust myself. I was hurting.
I had finally broken. Finally. This wasn't a spur-of-the-moment thing. Bowman and others had seen the signs. My family and others close to me had asked me to get help. But I had told myself I was fine. Until I wasn't.
The build up
I don't remember what the doctor prescribed me, but I remember it put me to sleep. Hard. And honestly that was one of the things I desperately needed. Just sleep. Remember I loved my job. And I was good at it. I took pride in it. Others bragged on me and were proud of the work I was doing. My co-workers and bosses relied on me and I fed off that. But in order to provide that kind of output, I was logging ridiculous hours.
I would drive to most of the events back then and 12-, 14- and 16-hour hauls were pretty common place. I once drove back from California to Alabama in two days. Drove 18 hours, slept 7 and then sprinted home the last 17. Once I'd get to wherever the tournament would be held that week, a typical work day for me lasted from 4 AM to midnight. Then I'd get up and do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next until the tournament was done.
But my pace didn't slow when the tournaments ended. If I was in New York on Sunday when one tournament wrapped up and didn't have to be in Michigan until Wednesday for the next, I would get up at daylight and fish until dark. I mean, I was in New York with a boat around some of the best smallmouth fishing in the country. When would I ever have another opportunity like that?
So that was the pace of my life for 5 years, growing more and more rapid later in my tenure as I took on more tournaments and more responsibilities. And I loved it. But love is a tricky thing. Which brings me to what finally tipped the scales.
I'm not going to go into a ton of detail here out of respect for the other party involved. I don't mind discussing my life with anyone who will take the time to listen and learn from it, but it's not my place to lay bare the lives of others. And when you're in a relationship, two lives become intertwined.
I went through a breakup a few months prior to July 31, 2015. A very serious one with a woman that I felt I should marry but didn't want to... God help me as hard as I tried to I didn't want to. She was my best friend, had been for years. It broke my heart to break hers. Other than the paperwork, this was much more like a divorce than a breakup. It wasn't a 13-year-old crush.
I fought with God over my conundrum on a daily basis. I hated myself for not being able to figure out what was wrong and just fix it. To get through the day, I would pour myself into my work. I understood it. I was good at it. But that became a crutch that I leaned on for months and months. The guilt accumulated for months and months. The self-hatred, confusion and frustration piled up. Then one day, it all came crashing down.
The tipping point
July 31, 2015, in Waddington, New York, 1,021 miles from home, I had my first panic attack. I was sitting in my truck, talking on the phone with the girl I loved but couldn't marry, still trying to figure it all out.
I began to breathe extremely fast, short breaths. My face and arms started to tingle like they were being pricked by a hundred little needles, then my skin got hot. I had never passed out before, but I was certain I was about to. I couldn't catch my breath, like a child when he's cried until he goes silent with his mouth agape. The only thing that kept me from it was her talking me back down.
That was one of the strongest people I have ever known in my life. You've probably heard the saying, "Love them like Jesus." Well she loved me that way. I had hurt her unlike anyone else possibly could. I broke her heart. And she was pissed. But still, she loved me enough to care for me amidst her own misery.
Our relationship and friendship rekindled, we got back together and we had some phenomenal times even after that. But the conundrum eventually resurfaced. And for some reason, I still loved her but couldn't marry her. A reason that, to this day, is still unclear to me. But I just keep the faith that one day, when I'm where I'm supposed to be, it will all make sense. We inevitably parted ways.
So that was what tipped the scales. But now back to July 31. The scales are tipped. The cat's out of the bag now. And I was as broken, terrified and confused as I had been since I was a little child.
It was day two of the Elite event. Several co-workers and I were staying in a big house across from the boat ramp. I was one of the low men on the totem pole so my bed was an air mattress in the basement adjacent to the ping pong table and alongside dozens of charging GoPros and Basstrakk phones. Not the ideal place to nurse a mental breakdown.
So when I got back from the doctor's office my bossman let me take his bed for a while in the master bedroom to try to sleep off some of the funk unencumbered. I woke up later that evening and had some one-on-one time with a few of the guys. They all really circled round me and did the best they could to patch me up, lend their life experiences and try to help me wade through the chaos that filled my mind. The sentiment was much needed and much appreciated, and it did help, but this wasn't something we were going to be able to fix on the spot. I had to get home.
I contemplated flying home, but then I'd have to eventually come back to get my rig and I was so rattled that I couldn't imagine doing that. But the only other option involved towing my boat all the way back to Alabama... 19 hours... 1,021 grueling miles. I had barely made it to the urgent care and back. My mind was so cluttered that I couldn't even fathom driving that far. But in the end, there was really no other choice.
The next day I said goodbye to the guys, put the truck in drive and focused as best I could on the pavement in front of me. I had never been nervous about driving before, not even when I was 16 taking my driver's test. But I was shook now. My confidence shattered. I felt like a shell of who I once was.
Still, I put the truck in drive and went. I don't remember a single mile of that trip. I don't remember if I drove the 19 hours straight or if I stopped somewhere along the way and spent the night. I don't honestly remember the next few days after I got home. I remember my family surrounded me and loved on me. I remember that I slept a lot. But that's it. It's all a blank spot in my past.
The first memory that I can vividly recall after I got home from New York involved me sitting at my parents' bar. I had only been home for a few days but it was suddenly time to go again. There was another Elite Series event, in Michigan I think, and I had hoped I would be ready to roll once I had a little sleep, hoped I'd be back to my old self. But I wasn't. Sitting at my parents bar, I picked up the phone and called my boss. "I can't do it." A week later, it was time to go to Oklahoma and cover an Open. Another phone call, "I can't do it."
I was done. They were good about it. But I had let them down. And I wasn't good about it. The one thing that I had survived off of while my personal life had been falling apart was gone, my work.
I seamlessly went from being depressed and not knowing it to being depressed and suddenly very aware of it. The most unwelcome epiphany I have ever had came in the realization that I had been depressed for years. And now I was sitting right in the middle of it with nothing to distract myself.
Fishing wasn't even an outlet for me anymore. I had loved it since before I could even do it. It had always been my therapy. But one day around that time, I remember going to my local lake, backing the boat in the water, parking the truck, getting in the boat, pushing away from the dock and just sitting there. I sat there for about 10 minutes. Then I idled back to the dock, took my boat out and went home. I never made a cast. I didn't get upset. I was just... numb. I was depressed.
Depression is a b-word. An incapacity to find joy in anything. It's like being sad for no reason. At times, I was sad about the breakup, sad about not being able to do my job anymore, all the same stuff we already hashed out. But in time, I was just sad. Not for any particular reason. Just sad. And I was exhausted. We, my family and I, did the only thing we knew to do. We tried medicine and counseling.
Over the course of the next 16 months or so I rolled the dice time and time again, trying 7 or 8 different anti-depressants and mood stabilizers.
"Take this, it may take a few months to get into your system."..."How do you feel?"
"Ok, well we have to ween you off this one for a while and in the meantime, let's try this one with this one for a while."
"How do you feel now?"
Like crap, same as the last 3 months.
... you get the point.
And the counseling was as frustrating as the medicine. I know there are genuine people out there who get into the profession for the betterment of their fellow man, but I ran into a line of knots on a log that couldn't have been more transparently disinterested if they were being paid to be... instead of being paid not to be.
I did finally meet one psychologist who helped me a little. Though her meds were no more helpful than the others, I did gain a little insight into my particular flavor of depression. I'm manic depressive. Maybe even a touch of bi-polar. Notice I didn't say I was manic depressive. That's because I am and always will be even though I've been in a pretty good place over the last couple years in general. It's a lot like an alcoholic is still an alcoholic even when he's sober. There's a great value to self-awareness and, if you're taking notes, this is a pretty big one: Don't lie to yourself, learn yourself.
You see, the signs were there for years, but I didn't know to look for them. Manic depressive people are often very creative, driven, outgoing, charismatic, funny and all the sugar and spice and everything nice in life for months and months at a time. That's the manic part. And it's like a drug. Like adrenaline. Or like a zone that you get into. I remember getting into that zone with work and being able to go, go, go and pump out content that I was so proud of. It was like art.
But then there's the depression side of things. When that manic fuel runs out, you crash, hard. The value in self-awareness is that you can recognize the manic state and slow yourself down before the crash. But it's hard, so you have to listen to those around you to identify it sometimes - that was another note taking moment.
When you're depressed, the only thing you want to do is feel that manic high again. Feel those creative juices flow and the satisfaction that comes with that level of productivity. The pride that comes with it. The success.
In the manic state, I can sit in front of a computer and write the prettiest poem you've ever read in a matter of minutes. Eloquently encapsulate every thought and emotion that's running through my mind into rhythmic prose that not only rhymes, but perfectly structures itself into square stanzas.
But in the depressed state, I'll sit in front of a computer for 8 hours staring at a blank screen until I'm ready to put my fist through it.
One of the most frustrating things to me about manic depression isn't the sadness, but the silence. Not being able to convey what I want to when I'm depressed like I normally can. And all the different meds I tried seemed to lock me into that state and even exaggerate it. I wasn't as sad as I was silent. They put my brain on mute.
The meds also made me really hungry. And sleepy. Over the course of that 16 months I gained a considerable amount of weight, topping out at 289 pounds. I was completely and utterly exhausted. At my worst, I remember my mom asking me for a couple weeks to dig her two holes so she could plant a couple rose bushes. Finally, one morning I woke up at 7 AM feeling up to the task after having gone to bed the night before at 7 PM. I drove out to her house, dug the two holes, went back to my house and crawled back in bed an hour later at 8 AM. I didn't roll over again until 4 PM. I was a mess.
My saving grace came in the form of a push-come-to-shove moment where I had gained so much weight that I finally had to go see an endocrinologist to be checked for pre-diabetes indicators. My new found endocrinologist, God love her, drew some blood, ran some tests and notified me that I had low testosterone.
That realization wasn't readily received as the blessing it would eventually be remembered as, since the first thing it led to was an MRI to rule out any brain tumors that might be pressing on the pituitary gland - the gland which controls testosterone along with a host of other hormones. But once that test came back negative, I was cleared of any major issues that cause low testosterone and simply lumped in with the surprisingly vast number of cases where men stop producing testosterone at the appropriate levels.
That was around two years ago. I started receiving a small testosterone injection once a week and within the first couple of weeks, I felt normal again. Thank God Almighty I felt normal for the first time in years. All the anti-depressants and mood stabilizers were powerless on me because they weren't able to treat the exaggerating effects that my low testosterone had on my depression.
How I manage
In time, I actually came off of all the anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. As of today, I am 62 pounds down from the 289 I weighed at my heaviest and I'm keenly aware of my mental state. Manic depression is still a part of me. Most days, I'm as creative as I've ever been and I've regained most of the confidence I lost.
But there are also times when I feel myself starting to spin out and I have to check myself. Force myself to slow down. Where I would stay up and write until 3 AM before, I now go to bed at a decent hour and force myself to rest.
I've held down a full-time job for 2 years now and also still create a considerable amount of content on the side though my small production company. But I also turn down work from time to time, because I am self-aware. I have to prioritize my health and happiness over my ambition and pride. I have a healthier relationship with fishing and the work I do with it now than I ever have in the past. I still love it and enjoy it, but I don't lean too heavily on it or expect it to be my saving grace.
This is my depression. This is how I manage it.
For some, medicine works. For others, counseling works. Church, family and friends were all vital to my recovery. I was very lucky. I am very lucky. My depression is not as bad as the low testosterone made it seem. But I am oddly thankful for that time in my life.
It humbled me. Made me stronger. More empathic. More compassionate. More relatable. It made me a better person. All too often we curse God for putting these things in our way and rarely thank him for shaping us into what we need to be for whatever comes next.
Life is meant to be lived. I spent a couple really dark years not living it. Those were a result of several more years I spent not listening to those who loved me when they begged me to get help. To slow down.
I'm asking you now, if you're reading this and some of this is hitting a little too close to home, talk to someone. Please. Get help. Heck, check your testosterone level. Try the anti-depressants if that's what your doctor recommends, I have friends who they have helped dramatically. Try counseling if that's what they think is best, again, I have friends who are much better for it.
I was lucky. My depression had a root that I was able to pluck up. Maybe you'll be lucky too. But you've got to fight it. Don't be embarrassed. Don't be ashamed. Don't give in and don't do something stupid. No matter who you are, no matter how crappy you feel, someone out there is wondering what the hell happened to you.
Take their hand. Take their help. Know it's not going to go away overnight, but it will get better. Then one day, you'll be on the other side of it. And then you can help someone with your story. And in that way, you can own your pain like I do. There are few feelings greater than giving your pain a purpose. I know, you're mine.