It Could Happen to Anyone

“GOOD MORNING BIG BLUE NATION!” That’s the greeting reverberating across the airwaves of Louisville Talk Radio every weekday morning at precisely 8:06 am. The booming voice and unmistakable laugh belong to Michael Bennett, host of the increasingly popular talk show, Just the Tip, spotlighting University of Kentucky sports.

Gregarious by nature, Michael wants to be everybody’s best friend. He describes himself as “happy go lucky,” and everybody who has met the former UK Baseball pitcher turned orthopedic neuro-spinal sales distributor turned radio talk show host, would be quick to agree. His jocular and jesting on-air banter with show producer and co-host Shannon “The Dude” Grigsby never fails to bring a big smile to anybody tuning in. Honestly, I don’t know anybody around who doesn’t love “jolly” Michael Bennett.

Appearances can be deceiving, and Michael Bennett—like 16 million other adults in the U.S.—struggles with the deep, dark side of a debilitating illness known as depression. Michael’s demon is just a small part of the larger spectrum of mental illness disorders, which affects nearly 44 million adults in this country. That’s one in five people—burdened and battered by a health condition which—even in 2018—remains so ridiculously stigmatized that many are fearful to admit they have it.

“This is something I didn’t want to admit to my family,” Michael recently acknowledged to me. “My wife knew about it, but my boys didn’t know about it. My dad didn’t know about it. I’m very close to my sister, and she didn’t know about it. To be able to say something about it to someone like you was a reopening—a rebirth.”

Michael Bennett and I have two things in common. The first is our love for University of Kentucky sports. We initially met at a football press conference at the beginning of the 2017 season, which triggered a series of serendipitous events and conversations that ultimately resulted in the unveiling of this very personal story.

The second commonality in our lives is that we’ve both been faced with the immense challenges of dealing with depression—Michael, directly as a victim—and me, through the suffering of my spouse (https://huangswhinings.com/2017/04/11/in-sickness-and-in-health) and another close personal friend.

As we’re sitting here and talking on a beautiful late-summer afternoon, looking down from the bleachers onto Kroger Field, I still can’t believe that someone so outwardly jovial could be depressed. And yet, I can fully believe it because depression is as sneaky as an onside kick in the gut. It lulls you into a state of denial, stiff-arms you into apathy or acceptance, and shames you to where you feel vulnerably exposed.

“I noticed depression coming in after my mom passed away,” Michael relayed to me as his voice began cracking. “I lost her 18 years ago, and I still get teary-eyed talking about her. I’m very close with my family. I’m especially close with my mom and dad. That’s when it hit. When my mom passed away, I disappeared for about four or five years.”

Disappearing meant being exhausted and tired all the time. It meant wanting to sleep all the time. It meant being numb day in and day out. Michael described it like being handcuffed to a wheelchair and not being able to do anything about it. It was debilitating. When friends asked if he wanted to talk, that just drove him further into seclusion. The saddest part of all was missing a lot of what went on in his children’s lives during those formative years.

“Looking back, I didn’t know anything was wrong at the time,” Michael admitted. “I just knew I didn’t want to be around anybody. I didn’t know anything about depression. I wasn’t even aware that I suffered and struggled with any sort of anxiety. The people that knew me knew that something wasn’t right. My wife knew it especially. I didn’t want to be around anybody.”

Michael’s wife, Patricia, is a real gem. People such as she—spouses turned caregivers, who must live with the daily emotional turmoil of watching their loved ones spiral into such depths of despair—deserve sainthood status. Balancing a career while raising a family isn’t easy. Doing it alone, while dealing with the flux and uncertainty of Michael’s depression, would drive many to the brink.

“I don’t know how someone like you or my wife overcomes living with a severely depressed spouse,” Michael said. “I’ve told her numerous times in the past, ‘Why do you stay with me?’ I don’t get it. I would have been long gone. I credit her a lot for getting us where we are. If it weren’t for my wife, my family, my boys…when I finally admitted it to them—they kind of understand now what I’m going through. They helped me out quite a bit.”

Depressive disorders have wrecked many a marriage, with the spouse bearing the brunt of the illness’s vicious attack. On the worst of days, you tell yourself that this is not what you signed up for—that you deserve to have a happy life with a spouse who is “normal.” Just seeing other couples out for a simple evening together triggers painful thoughts of what once was or could have been.

“Marriage is a promise, through sickness and in health,” Patricia clarified. “Everyone in the family who is affected by mental illness gets to a crossroads. And you stand at that crossroads, and you must make a decision that you’re going to go down one side or the other. It would have been so easy to just walk away from Michael. But then you realize all the people that would be undone by that.”

Patricia’s ever-present faith and tenacious character would not let her simply walk away. She continually lived on pins and needles, not knowing whether the next twenty-four hours would be good or bad, depending on how Michael was feeling that day. Not knowing how his illness would play out over the long haul also ratcheted up anxiety levels within her own mind. “I literally had to take it one step at a time,” she recalled. “I tried to take each day as a gift. I tried to find something good about every day. Sometimes I had to work really hard to find it. I took the boys to baseball games, was involved with the kids in school, and volunteered all the time. Looking back, that was my salvation—to get a chance to be around other caring adults and to see our kids flourish. That was the happiness that got me through.”

Finally, a breaking point came. Something woke Michael up. “Some people may roll their eyes,” Michael hesitantly confessed. “But it was the power of God, the power of my church, and the power of prayer. I firmly believe it was the power of my faith.” Michael Bennett can tell you exactly where he was the day he decided to go see a therapist. He knows the exact time. When he made that phone call, he immediately felt like a fifty-thousand-pound burden had been lifted off of him.

“This was about twelve to thirteen years ago,” he continued. “I credit a lady who was a good friend of mine. Her son and my son were very close friends. She started talking to me about how I was suffering from depression just as she had. Here was someone I trusted who had suffered just as I was suffering. She gave me the name and number of her personal therapist. That did it for me.”

Michael went through the usual series of prescribed counseling sessions. For the first year, he would just go in and sit and not say anything. He wondered what in the world he was doing there. Then, his natural frugalness kicked in. He started worrying that he was wasting money by just sitting there like a zombie during these sessions. He told himself, “Don’t waste money—talk.” Initially, his counselor would just ask him questions and wait him out for answers. She didn’t force Michael to talk. She said she was there to help him whenever he wanted her help.

Slowly but surely, the counselor started suggesting more things, and Michael started opening up. She suggested going to a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication. Michael agreed, and the medication immediately helped. He was on medication for five or six years. He tried to discontinue the pills for a time but found out he needed to go back on them just a few months later. That happens a lot in depression treatment. There’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of recurring frustrations when dealing with unmapped areas of the human mind.

Successful treatment of depression requires a team-oriented approach. If not a village, at least an outpost or two. Michael has had two fantastic therapists. He thinks his endocrinologist walks on water. It took a while, but he thinks he’s also found the psychiatrist who fits him the best—someone with more of a holistic treatment approach. “Medication can be quite helpful, but why not supplement it with other methods as well?” he pointed out. “Just because you’re dealing with a mental illness, doesn’t mean you neglect the other physical aspects of your overall health.”

So why open up now about all of this? Why share his story when he knows the stigma associated with telling it could possibly alter the way people choose to interact with him, or worse—sabotage his career? Two recent encounters shaped his decision.

The first one was with Cameron Mills, the former UK Basketball star and current radio media personality. Earlier this spring, Cameron appeared on Michael’s show as an impromptu guest.

“For a while I’ve thought about talking about my daily struggles on the air,” Michael explained. “For some reason, Cameron and I just kind of clicked. This happened to be the day that Anthony Bourdain, the famous chef, committed suicide. I was going to bring it up as one of my topics, and Cameron beat me to the punch. Cameron told me that it was something we don’t talk enough about, and he confessed that he himself had struggled with opioids while trying to recover from a back injury. When he admitted that on the air. I’m like ‘wow, this is the perfect time.’ I told him right then that I struggle with anxiety and depression—anxiety all my life and depression for the last 18 years. Then we kind of both looked at each other and said, ‘OK we need to talk about this.’ So that day we didn’t hardly talk about sports at all. That was a breaking point for me. Wow, I really admitted it. I admitted it on air…I admitted something that’s very private. And now I’m learning that it can’t be private. So many people are out there struggling that maybe as you said—and it hit me hard when you said it—we can do some good. I thank Cameron Mills for that.”

The second encounter involved overcoming the shame and embarrassment of admitting his struggles directly with people at work. Understand that Michael and Shannon, his co-host, have become really good friends through the show. “I’m leaving the studio after doing the show one day, and I told Shannon that you wanted to talk to me,” Michael said. “I confessed to Shannon that I suffered from anxiety and depression, and that you wanted to interview me about it. Please understand that I was hesitant to tell anybody at work about this because of how it may affect my job. I know in the past that depression has cost me parts of my career.”

Shannon—as he is apt to do a lot—said something that resonated with Michael. He said there may actually be a lot of sympathizers out there, and that getting the story out might just help a lot more of those people who are struggling. “Shannon’s a smart guy,” Michael continued. “He thought this could serve as a turning point for me if I shared it in the right way. He recommended that I do it. He said, ‘Michael, you’ve been successful in life. You’ve made money. It’s hard to believe someone of your stature—you have a beautiful home, you have a beautiful family—could be depressed. How is that? People need to know.”

To many of his listeners, Michael Bennett does appear to have it all. “I’ll tell you right now, I could give it all away if I could to be with my mom again,” he sadly acknowledged.

Commonwealth Stadium holds some incredible memories for Michael Bennett. He points to the corner where he and his family have sat for the past thirty-five years. He tells me he frequently comes here to relax more than anywhere else on campus. It’s a beautiful day, and we’re sitting in this incredible football stadium…and yet there are days where Michael would rather be sitting in his bedroom at home doing nothing. Sometimes, it still takes everything he has just to go outside. That’s the part of depression and mental illness people still can’t understand. It’s brutal, it’s sad, and it really could happen to anyone.

Although things are better now for Michael, depression never completely disappears. It’s always lurking, relentless, ruthless and sneaky, prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Michael still struggles whenever his boys, now both in college, go back to school. “I have struggled with thoughts of suicide,” Michael sheepishly confessed. “That may be a little too much for you there, but I have. I haven’t gone out and sought to do it. I’ve gone through programs within Baptist Hospital in Louisville that have helped me out quite a bit. But I still get depressed. I still go through periods of anxiety—like when it’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I have to prepare for tomorrow’s show.”

So, what’s up next for Michael Bennett? He’s excited for what the future holds. A lot has transpired in the last eighteen months alone. Last spring, Michael was sitting at the Hooters on Johns Pass, in Madeira Beach, Florida—five minutes from his family home. He’d been in medical sales his entire professional career, and he’d been thinking of what else he could do for the rest of his life. For twenty-five years, he’d been rather successful, calling on orthopedic and neural surgeons, and selling spinal implants. Then depression kicked in, he stopped working, his company wasn’t happy, and he lost his job.

Out of the blue, Michael decided he wanted to host a radio show. Three months later, he’s in contact with people like Mike Pratt setting the wheels in motion. Kyle Macy then signs on for a stint as co-host, and the show is off and running. Next thing you know, he’s got Shannon “The Dude” for his producer and sidekick, as fans tune in and ratings take flight.

“That’s my dream coming true—being able to be a part of a university that I love—that’s near and dear to my heart,” Michael gushed. “Helping it out as much as I can. Promoting this university and the good people surrounding this university. That’s a dream come true.”

For anyone affected by the ravages of depressive disorders, that’s music to our ears. Godspeed, “jolly” Michael Bennett. May your road to recovery be filled with many more carefree days, bowl wins, and national championships.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and a volunteer teacher for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). He currently serves as a sports columnist for Nolan Media Group. If you enjoy his writing, you can reach him at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

If you, or someone you know, is suffering from depression and mental illness, please don’t hesitate to seek immediate help. Don’t know where to start? Check out your local NAMI chapter https://www.nami.org/ for resources and contacts.

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