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Seasons of Depression & Kevin Breel

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In May of 2013, 19-year-old Kevin Breel gave a TEDx talk in Ambleside, Canada. Eighty people were in the audience.

At the time, he was a recent high school drop out with ambitions of pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian. He was also a person living with depression. And wanted to tell his story to break the silence of suffering that he knew too well, a suffering that he imagined affected many other young people around the world. 

The TEDx event was, in fact, a TEDxYOUTH event, meaning that organizers were expecting many young people and their parents to attend. After an initial run through of his talk, the TEDx organizers thought his journey with depression was too heavy a subject for young members of the audience, and asked him to change his topic, and talk instead about social media. At the time, Kevin was building a substantial twitter fan base where he tested some of his comedy material.

But Kevin followed his heart, disregarded their request, and gave a powerful and honest talk about his struggle. He spoke about his identity as a high school student who had a hard time understanding where he fit in, who lived through what he calls “seasons of depression.”  And though he played sports, was popular, and even a kind of class clown, he was plagued with feelings of isolation. In an effort to hide his depression, he worked hard to mask his pain, and found it all exhausting.

Real depression isn’t being sad when something in your life goes wrong. Real depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right. That’s real depression. That’s what I suffer from. And to be totally honest, that’s hard for me to stand up here and say. It seems to be hard for everyone to talk about. So much so that no one’s talking about it.

 

Depression isn’t chicken pox, you don’t beat it once and it’s gone forever. It’s something you live with. It’s something you live in. It’s the roommate you can’t kick out, it’s the voice you can’t ignore, it’s the feelings you can’t seem to escape – and the scariest part is you become numb to it, it becomes normal. And what you really fear the most isn’t the suffering inside of you, it’s the stigma inside of others. It’s the shame, it’s the embarrassment, it’s the disapproving look on a friend’s face, it’s the whispers in the hallway that you’re weak, it’s the comments that you’re crazy, that’s what keeps you from getting help. That’s what makes you hold it in and hide it. It’s the stigma. 

 

 — from Kevin Breel’s TEDx talk “Confessions of a Depressed Comic”

When he finished, he received a standing ovation from the 80 people in the audience. Rather than being upset, the TEDx organizers were moved by Kevin’s story. Four weeks later, a video of the 11-minute talk was posted on the TED Site, and Kevin’s TED talk, titled “Confessions of a Depressed Comic,” began to seep out into the world.

The world I believe in is one where embracing your light doesn’t mean ignoring your dark. The world I believe in is one where we are measured by our ability to overcome adversities not avoid them. The world I believe in is one where I can look someone in the eye and say, “I’m going through hell,” and they can look back at me and go, “Me too, and that’s okay.” Because depression is okay.

 

— from Kevin Breel’s TEDx talk “Confessions of a Depressed Comic”

Soon after, the website Upworthy shared the video with an appealing “clickbait” headline that read “This kid thinks we can save so many lives if we are just able to say four words: I struggle with depression” triggering an avalanche of attention, and a record number of views. To date, over 3 million people have watched Kevin’s talk. Another website, Mashable, called it “one of the moments that brought the world together.”

My story is this. Four simple words: I suffer from depression. And for a long time I think I was living two totally different lives, where one person was always afraid of the other. I was afraid that people would see me for who I really was. That I wasn’t the perfect, popular kid in high school everyone thought I was. That beneath my smile there was struggle. And beneath my light there was dark. And beneath my big personality just hid even bigger pain.

 

— from Kevin Breel’s TEDx talk “Confessions of a Depressed Comic”

Kevin’s life was changing. After Upworthy posted the talk, Kevin quickly found himself in the international spotlight. He was much in demand, and book deals were proposed. And while appearances on national television morning shows offered him another chance to share his message of awareness and hope, he became frustrated by the news machine that he was participating in, and by the brevity of the videos that failed to tell a complicated, emotionally dense story. He felt the need to once more “perform” and not be his true self in an effort to please network media makers. Ironically, the whole affair sent him into another “season of depression.”

What brought him out of the dark place, Kevin says, were the comments from young people who contacted him after being impacted by his TED talk. And although he was wary about taking a book deal, he was moved by the Facebook messages that young people from around the world would send him – sharing their pain and hopes for recovery. Kevin wanted to create something that could actually be a part of their lives, something more than the 11-minute video that brought him to the world’s attention.

We all know what it is to have pain in our heart, and we all know how to heal. 

 

— from Kevin Breel’s TEDx talk “Confessions of a Depressed Comic”

So Kevin wrote his story down. His book, Boy Meets Depression (Or Life Sucks and then You Die Live) was published in 2015. The book is dedicated to all of those people who identified with his story, and reached out to him and inspired him. The book begins with a message to the reader: “May my story meet you somewhere in the middle of yours.”

There is a great value in consuming Kevin’s story in both media. The TEDx talk is full of his personality. It is a performance imbued with a truthfulness and honesty that grabs the viewer and holds you throughout. The book offers that same honesty, but with more depth, reflection, detail and observations of his state of mind. Articulating his “seasons of depression” is one of Kevin’s gifts.

He calls the book a memoir, but it is set up as a journal of sorts. Each chapter deals with a period in his young life, and we are able to chart the progression of his depression, and take lessons from each step of the way. At the end of each chapter, there are “Notes to Me” that lift up themes or messages from his journey.

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DEEP INTO THE DARKNESS

Kevin’s sense of life as a lonely journey began early on. He details the dysfunction of his early life at home in Canada, where his parents lived in the same house, though they lived separate lives. Kevin would come home in the afternoon to find his father, who was an alcoholic, passed out in the living room. According to Kevin, “The dysfunction inside my house had left me craving the intimacy of true friendship and connection.”

After a painful series of early childhood events, Kevin does meet a good friend, a soul mate, Jordan. (“Jordan became my best friend the way a good joke builds to the punch line,” he writes, “slow at first and then all at once and unstoppable.”) However, this soul mate of sorts was tragically killed in a car accident at age 13, exacerbating Kevin’s feelings of loneliness and isolation. His private eulogy to his friend Jordan is one of the most touching moments in the book.

Despite the support of an energetic and well-meaning grief counselor, Kevin continued to descend into a very dark state of mind. As Kevin moved on through middle school and high school, he became skilled at masking his increasing feelings of detachment and loneliness. He says he became a stranger to himself, “renting the skin” of someone who’s familiar – playing a character, putting on a costume, wearing a mask, all the time. It sounds exhausting.

One of the tender delights of the book is that Kevin has a gift for explaining how depression feels.

On any average day, I was so lost in my own mind that there was nothing else that was real. Every conversation was like listening underwater. I could hear words and see gestures and make vague connections, but my focus, each and every conscious thought, was married to my sadness; nothing else successfully connected with me. It was pathetic and childlike, this compulsion to think only of myself, and yet it was unshakable. I hated that this was who I’d become.

 

At the end of some days, I noticed how much my shoulders had sunk in and my eyelids had drooped and how even my physical shell was telling me that I sucked. There was no lower level to sink to. This was rock bottom. My existence was no more than a meek, unremarkable puddle of jumping from painful thought to painful thought. 

 

When you’re depressed, you want to watch life through every different camera angle that exists and then rewind the film and ask yourself why everything just sucks so damn much. 

 

— From Kevin Breel’s book, Boy Meets Depression (Or Life Sucks and then You Die Live)

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Finally, we are with him at that very dark moment when he feels that he has no more choices, and he decides to end his life.

It’s hard to say whether or not I’d lost the desire to still be alive. But then again, something is only lost once you become aware it’s gone missing. I was so deep into the darkness, I’d actually started to think that it was normal. 

 

— From Kevin Breel’s book, Boy Meets Depression (Or Life Sucks and then You Die Live)

Kevin’s careful articulation of the life-saving epiphany he experienced while writing a suicide note to his mother and sister is extremely touching. At this point, the shadows about him begin to clear, and the story becomes about Kevin’s slow climb into the light.

I know what it’s like to want to die. And now I can honestly say I know what it means to want to live.

 

— From Kevin Breel’s book, Boy Meets Depression (Or Life Sucks and then You Die Live)

 

A SEARCH FOR MEANING

If Kevin’s story were to be turned into a film, one could imagine the first half of the movie being presented in a split screen. On one side of the screen we see the public Kevin (hiding behind an “everything is AOK” mask) making his way through each day pretending nothing was wrong. On the other side, we would see the private Kevin, paralyzed by thoughts of deep sadness, isolation and loneliness.

The spit screen would dissolve only after Kevin finds meaning in life after deciding to live.  We would applaud and celebrate this single person for what he is: someone who has acknowledged his humanity and embraced his imperfection.

We would see the ups and downs of his everyday life. In addition to his successful TEDx talk and now this book, scenes might include Kevin talking with supportive friends and family members when he feels the “seasons of depression” closing in. We’d follow him on the road as he talks to college students and performs his stand-up routine. We’d watch him pursue a self-care regimen, which includes counseling, healthy eating, good sleep habits and physical exercise. We’d find out about his hopes and dreams for his future (he is, after all, only 22 years old!). We would see a multi-layered artist who is challenging the world, prepared to say the things that people are afraid to say.  We’d learn that even though it’s a part of who he is, there’s so much more to Kevin Breel than depression.

And in the end, whether he’s telling his story to 80 people or 3 million people, we would be inspired by his courage, his compassion for others and his passion for life.

There’s a sort of secret magic to being alive. There’s this thing inside of me that knows I will never be able to fully get to the bottom of just what makes this all so beautiful, yet I’m compelled to continue searching. 

 

— From Kevin Breel’s book, Boy Meets Depression (Or Life Sucks and then You Die Live)

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The homepage at kevinbreel.com

 

ABOUT TED: TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global set of conferences run by the private nonprofit organization Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading”. TED Talks are influential videos from expert speakers on education, business, science, tech and creativity, with subtitles in 100+ languages. TEDx was created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading.” It supports independent organizers who want to create a TED-like event in their own community. Speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can. Since June 2006, the talks have been offered for free viewing online.

PODCAST: Kevin speaks about his life, the TED talk and his journey writing Boy Meets Depression (Or Life Sucks and then You Die Live) with wellness advocate, author, athlete, and podcast host Rich Roll. Some of the information in this post was gleaned from this informative podcast.

KEVIN’S FAVORITE ORGANIZATION: Kevin is a big fan of the organization To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit organization that strives to present hope for people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury and thoughts of suicide while also investing directly into treatment and recovery.

WEBSITE: You can learn more about Kevin Breel on his website, kevinbreel.com.

 


 

EDITOR IN CHIEF: Bud Clayman | EDITOR: Glenn Holsten | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein
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Glenn Holsten

Glenn is an award-winning director who loves to create compelling documentary story experiences of all lengths for screens of all sizes. He is an avid reader, studied literature in college, and his passion for stories with strong characters and interesting narratives stems from those years. His career as a visual storyteller began at WHYY (the public television station in Philadelphia) where he worked for 15 years before becoming an independent filmmaker. In addition to his PBS documentaries about arts and culture, he has directed films about justice and human rights, and now, mental health. He was emboldened to undertake his current documentary project, Hollywood Beauty Salon, a colorful feature-length documentary about surviving mental illness and finding the courage for recovery, after his transformative experience directing OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie, along with Bud Clayman and Scott Johnston.

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  • Jennifer D. Schwartz

    Kevin Breel isn’t what he seems. He certainly has an inspiring life story that is well presented. However, he does not genuinely care about the mental health community he sees us as an opportunity to cash in and gain notoriety.

    I was a part of a committee that organized bringing him to our university. We’ve booked dozens of notable speakers, celebrities, and artists prior…no one, and I mean no one, was more difficult to work with than Kevin Breel. He was demanding, moody, immature, unprofessional, untimely, unprepared, and just flat out rude. I wanted to believe this was someone having a bad day. But sadly, upon discussing this with a few colleagues at other universities that had hired Kevin we discovered our storylines were very similar.

    Proceed with extreme caution if you are considering hiring Kevin and perhaps show his TED talk instead — you’ll save yourself a lot of money and headache.

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