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We grow up thinking if we are good parents, send our children to the right schools, and they have good friends, – there is nothing to worry about. Life will be clear sailing for our children.
Eli Brown had it all. Caring, nurturing parents, went to good schools, was a gifted and successful tennis player who competed around the States and in Europe, had good friends and got a scholarship to the University of Michigan. But life was anything but clear sailing.
At the age of 14, Eli was sexually abused by someone in the tennis community. At the time he did not know how to reach out or to express what he was feeling. Even though he was surrounded by people who loved and cared for him, he did not know how to get the help he needed.
“It took years before I understood the gravity of what happened. I then was paralyzed with trying to understand my part in what happened. Was I to blame? It would take years before I understood that I was not at fault.
“I didn’t know how to formulate the sentence to ask for help. The average day of a university athlete is exhausting, so if I would tell someone I was tired they would think it was normal. We got up at 6:30 in the morning and went on until 10:00 at night. I lacked the ability to describe that what I was feeling wasn’t just physical tiredness. I really was so poorly educated in mental health.
“When I began University of Michigan, my life started to fall apart. I found myself skipping tennis practice, I didn’t have a strong interest in tennis anymore, my sleeping and eating habits changed, I didn’t want to go out with my friends and family. I didn’t know that these were the first signs of depression.”
Instead he made believe that nothing happened and he just pushed on. Shoving his feelings aside resulted in his becoming depressed and anxious. To quiet those feelings he began to use drugs and drink. That went on for a time until the effects of the drugs and drink were causing him more problems than his difficult feelings.
“I finished my first year at the University of Michigan and that summer I changed to a school closer to home because I had started seeing some doctors and psychiatrists to help deal with what I was going through.
“What got me to go for help is when I realized I wasn’t really living. I was just going through the day. In the beginning the drugs and alcohol would make me feel better, whole. Then they caused more problems than my mental issues. I would always wake up depressed, upset, anxious – I felt it wasn’t the way I wanted to live.
“A combination of things brought me to rock bottom. A suicide attempt; the feeling I just can’t continue like this; doing small tasks like laundry or making my bed felt like monumental tasks, whereas before I didn’t think about them, I just did them – it was just second nature. I had always been a happy and fulfilled person before and now I was anything but.
“I received a tremendous amount of support when I told people I was going to a psychiatrist for help. They knew something was wrong. I was about 19 and a half at that point.
“What I learned along my journey was that change can only happen when the person is ready. It took me about a year and a half to two years of people telling me, ‘Hey, Eli, you should get some help. Things aren’t the way they should be.’ I also learned to forgive myself, that I wasn’t responsible for what had happened. Just because I went through a couple of years of pain, the rest of my life didn’t need to be like that. I learned what I wanted to do with my life. When I found my path, happiness just came along.
“Part of the reason I didn’t share earlier what had happened to me with my parents, was shame and embarrassment, but I also didn’t have the words. It is hard for me, even today, to formulate the sentences and say them out loud. The anxiety and substance abuse is tough to share. There are a lot of consequences.”
“I did take medication for a while, but at the time I was still consuming alcohol and drugs and the medication didn’t work well for me. I haven’t taken medication since I got sober 5 ½ years ago. Once I got sober and began addressing the root cause, I no longer felt the need to medicate.
“Recovery came in little increments. I hadn’t done my laundry in a month and I called a friend and asked if he could come and help me tackle it. Shopping was such a monumental undertaking that I asked another friend if he could be available to take me every couple of weeks and he did. All these little steps allowed me to get to making the big change in my life.
“Getting sober began with my going away for 6 ½ months to Nevada and then Boulder, Colorado. I also began attending AA meetings, going to a therapist. I was able to share my story with dozens and dozens of other men with a similar story. Dissecting my story and realizing that I was not to blame for what happened opened the way to recovery. Another crucial part to healing was setting up a support system that I can turn to if needed. Life always has its challenges. When I am feeling I’m in deep waters unable to navigate the deep waters, I reach out for my life support system. Depending on what the issue is I may turn to my mentor, my family, friends, my girlfriend or to my AA buddies.
“My advice to teenagers who are struggling is to give yourself permission to share how you are feeling. Talk to someone and realize that you aren’t alone. And then, build a support system around you. When you need help, and there will be times that going it alone isn’t possible, you have someone to turn to.
“When I was on firmer ground, and not using drugs and alcohol, I wanted to do something significant in the field of mental health. I wanted to spread the message that it’s okay to be not okay. To let people know that they aren’t alone. There is a way out of depression and anxiety.
“After weighing different ideas, I chose to use clothing as a vehicle to relay my message. I settled on t-shirts. In the beginning I approached 300 companies with my first prototype. Out of the 300, only 7 said yes. But, I learned from their refusals. Some said, ‘Only, black, white and grey – what about adding some color?’ ‘Maybe your styling is off.’ ‘Maybe the sizing needs to be perfected.’ ‘Maybe the designs are off.’ I went back and reworked the product.
“My company is called, ‘Shine the Light On’. The first prototype just said, ‘Shine the Light On’ and people felt like billboards and there wasn’t a good response. Then we rethought how we could get a message across differently. We came up with the idea to use quotes and lines from people’s stories. One of them which is a best seller is ‘Rather be in Bed’. People relate to the feeling.
“My Dad told me that when I was a kid and he picked me up after a tennis game, if I won, I just got in the car and said, ‘I won.’ But if I lost, I would dissect what went wrong and how I could improve. This tactic works better than immediate success. It holds true for tennis, business and life.
“Today we ship our products to over a thousand stores in North America. I have a whole staff of people who work on the t-shirts and I am available to travel and share my story with the world to get the conversation going or if there is a conversation that exists to build on it and improve it.
“Hope to me is a second chance. Improving my day, life or situation. If today isn’t okay, tomorrow will be.
Eli is just 26 years old and has taken his challenges and turned them into opportunities. He can be reached at shinethelighton.com.
Please share with us your struggles and how you dealt with them.
Remember, together is better with mental health.