The Gift of Giving

Traveling to classrooms at colleges and universities to talk about ethics, deception, substance abuse, mental health and a variety of other topics, has a redemptive quality for me. But as satisfying as it is to help see good come from my mistakes in the form of lessons learned, it has always been the human story that has captured me. As I give of myself, others give their stories back to me, enlightening me, expanding my base of knowledge, transforming me.

These stories are all around us on a daily basis. Sharing can make it easier for others to share with you, but the key to formula here is as simple as can be, and involves nothing more than actually listening as opposed to merely hearing.

I have learned that many people have stories that are similar to my own. The main difference is that my fall from grace and redemption play out on a large, public stage. For most, these are stories are only known to their families and friends, and, in some cases, stories that they carry alone, quietly. I’ve always admired these silent warriors. With all the downsides of public scorn, one of the upsides is positive affirmation during your recovery and an element of accountability. I’ve always wondered whether I would have learned as much as I did and grown as much as I have if it were not for the public nature of misdeeds.

It is in listening to these stories of others that I find the true lessons to be learned. It is in these stories that I find the people who help me grow, learn and expand my empathy. It is in this people that I find hope, the power to believe, as one of them recently said, that “redemption isn’t just a fairy tale and people can rise from mistakes.” As much as I get from seeing good come out of the lessons of my life, the truest and greatest gift of this work has been the gift of their life stories that are shared with me.

This is about a student whose words recently changed me.

This is about one particularly story, but it is but one powerful example out of many. I learned from students at Roosevelt University and Columbia College in Chicago during my talks with them last month. I learned much earlier this month during my talk with students at Washington & Lee University. It happened this week after talking to a class of journalism students at Patrick Henry College. I learn from my clients and my colleagues each week. And I’m sure it will happen when I travel upstate next month to visit the University of Albany.

I learn, and grow, from the journalism students who have talked with me about their passions and their futures. I learn from the reporters who are covering me who pull me aside to talk about their bipolar father who essentially died because of the disease, their depressed father and its impact on their family and their fears and anxieties about ethics, or even their difficulties about forgiving others or chasing their dreams. I learn from the experiences of a documentary filmmaker who has been following me for years. I learn from the students who ask about the impact of institutional and organizational ecology on ethics, and I learn from the students who say I should share more about my mental health. I even learn from those who will not forgive me. I’ve long believed that true talent has never been a static notion, but about an ability to learn, grow, expand, adjust and change in response to what you learn in your life and those of others.

Before giving a lecture and answering questions at a university, I had been contacted by a student who had heard I was coming and wanted to interview me. The request was no different than the half-dozen I receive each week – a brief introduction, a description of their interest and a request to talk. I sent the request to the public relations consultant who I pay to predominantly keep me out of the news, half-hoping he would tell me that my schedule was too jam-packed to talk with the student. Instead, he recommended I do the interview and we added it to my schedule. I certainly wasn’t dreading the interview, but there is a certain amount of anxiety that comes with media attention being on the worst mistakes of your life. Living with and pushing through that anxiety is part of the price I pay to see some good things come from my history.

If you’ve given a lot of interviews about your life, you learn to anticipate the questions. There is a predictability to the cadence in the voice of your interviewer. Certain looks on their face when either compassion or an ambush is coming. After a couple of rounds, you can figure out how to avoid landmines and think quickly on your feet. In the worst case scenario, virtually anything can be defused by a little levity. In one recent interview, for example, a television anchor noted that he was not trying to be provocative by asking this question, and then reversed himself immediately, acknowledging that he was trying to be:

“When did you first lie,” the interviewer asked, clearly referring to the first time that I told a lie in my job as a reporter. “That’s a good question,” I replied.

I paused, and said, deflecting his question by taking it literally, “Well, I think it was when I was about 3 and it had something to do with a cookie jar.”

The room broke out into laughter. We had to stop taping. When the cameras rolled again, I seriously answered the question that he was actually asking, but my anxiety lifted by the laughter around the room.

As the particular interview with this student was approaching, I was exhausted. I knew that the chances of me giving an articulate and enlightened interview were somewhere south of zero. As we walked up to the office where the student was conducting the interview, we engaged in polite conversation about her life, my life, the school, the profession and a variety of other topics. When we sat down to do the interview, I was struck by the student’s presence and and was surprised by the opening question, which typically about why I got into my profession or how I feel about the people I hurt. Instead, it was a particular piece of my background that few focus on, but I find integral to my personal journey. I was so taken aback that I stumbled through the question of few times before I could get out a coherent answer. The question told me that interviewer had been either paying close attention to my story or intuitively got some piece of me.

She followed up, later in the interview, with a question about mental health. It’s about the last element many journalists want to talk about in my story (questions of mental health are filled with nuance, complications, confounding factors and a lack of clarity that makes them very unfriendly for the simple narratives that can be told in 700 words or a two-and-a-half minute television piece). By the time she got to this question, bells were going off in my head, and I knew that it was no mere coincidence that she was interested in telling my story. My thoughts of hitting the road and heading home gave way to a desire to know her story. My curiosity in her was sparked by an undercurrent that suggested that there was some deeper reason why she gravitated toward this particular piece. Unlike my friend authoring a book on posttraumatic stress disorder, journalists tend to keep a pretense that they do not have a vested interest in the stories they select. I could tell that was not the case in this situation. Afterwards, she brought up the idea of talking more. I suggested a cup of coffee.

As we sat outside, hovering over styrofoam cups, in the middle of a beautiful campus, she asked me more questions, interjecting little pieces of herself as we went through my story. We talked about how she grew up in a town, near a military base, and her middle school memories of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon, a shattering of innocence that forever changed her sense of safety and security. She slid in the fact that her father had manic depression, and discussed how hard it was to grow up as a child, not understanding certain strange behaviors by dad, trying to understand the notion that he was sick and that this was an illness. We talked about her mother, and reconciling notion that she choose to stay with a man who did such erratic, strange and harmful things. I saw the resentment there. She was the 20-something year-old version of the much younger children of some of my friends with bipolar, filled with confusing and conflicting thoughts about her father and having a hard time not resenting her mother, and reconciling why she would put up with all she did. I saw how her experience of growing up with mental illness blinded her to the possibility that she too could face similar things. I thought of the children of my friends with bipolar, how untreated or poorly treated mental illness does not impact just the individual, but leaves victims in every direction, like the shock wave that spreads out of the fireball in a nuclear explosion.

Like so many children of people with mental illness, their relative sanity compared with their sick parent, leaves them convinced that their parent was the last stop on the mental illness family tree. I listened as she talked about being first struck by depression during her freshman year. She told me the days of trying to hold it together and present an outward front and the nights of crying herself to sleep. She discussed how it was difficult to deal with the notion that her mind – which had been one of her greatest assets – was at the same time working against her. It was difficult, as it was for me, to admit weakness, to reach out for help and come to grips with the idea that her depression was real. So, like me, instead of reaching out for help when she felt the darkness closing in, she struggled to prove herself, sick as she was, that she could overcome and do as well as she had done before, if not better. She had trapped herself within her own swirling cognitive dissidence, convinced that her cure was to prove herself, when she did not even realize she was so sick that she was setting herself up for failure. She had boxed herself in – sick, dehabilitated and unwilling to reach out for help or stop trying to achieve – she ended up making a mistake, and getting caught.

The people who found out were merciful, as my former colleagues were when they got help for me. They did not understand how such a intelligent and put-together young woman who resort to this type of misstep. They did not understand the crippling storm of illness that she was under, as many do not, but they showed the important ethic of human compassion, insuring that she was given a second chance. The incident served as a shock to the young woman’s system, leading her to get help, and beginning her journey of recovery. It was a familiar journey to me, one punctuated by medications that didn’t work well at first, struggles to reconcile that her sickness did not define her, that she could forgive herself for her mistakes, seeing that mental illness has its advantages (in terms of growing empathy, perspective, authenticity, intuition, spurring creativity or even the notion captured with John Nash’s story, when he shares that the reason he believed his delusions about aliens was because they came from the same place where he got his mathematical ideas). She was able to better understand the experience of her father.

As I listened to the young woman discuss a woman she was trying to relate to, a woman that was very different from her, she told me how she was able to connect, and I saw how her too human experience with depression helped her better emphasize and understand, and how it informed her work. It was as if it were an unintended metaphor for the growth she had undergone.

We could have probably talked forever. She was completing my sentences and ideas, and I hers as well, but it seemed we both were adding new elements and notions to each other’s understandings. We ended our talk with what I called a “pause,” promising to continue our conversation, hopefully making it a lifelong dialogue.

She shared some of her thoughts in a letter afterward. “It took some time,” she said, referring to her experience with her depression, her misstep and understanding the impact that September 11 had on her, “but I learned what not to do and feel like I’m one of the lucky ones. Granted there will always be those people who have to touch fire to know it burns, but I feel like these stories do need to be told, not necessarily to be didactic, but because it’s inspiring to know that redemption isn’t just a fairy tale and people can rise from mistakes.”

I could not have said it more eloquently.

We can rise from our mistakes. We can learn from our experiences. We can grow. We can not only get back to where we were, but become better through our greatest missteps.

As much as my story helped her on that campus that day, her story helped me.

If there is a gift of giving, it is what people like her give back to me.

She let me inside her mind, and I am, immeasurably better for it. I will think of her and thank her each time I speak about a painful topic that fills me with anxiety. I will think her and thank her each time I give an interview on a day when I don’t want to speak. I will always carry that piece of her in me.

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