By: Thomas Becker
From the outside looking in, a lively Leigh Read appears to have it all – a loving family (who describes him as being “larger than the average bear”), a job he enjoys and a home he’s come to appreciate.
Sounds like a perfect life. Right? Not so fast.
Read is another example of how mental illness doesn’t discriminate against age, race, gender, culture or status. The 50-year-old Surrey, England native struggles with depression and anxiety, a mental illness that has plagued him for close to 40 years.
And he’s not the only one. Mental health affects us all, and for people like Read an average day can turn into a nightmare instantly, where the mind seizes control and doesn’t let go.
With the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, which raises awareness and opens a dialogue on mental illness, stories like Read’s come to the forefront so that others can realize they’re not alone in their own battles.
STRESS AT A YOUNG AGE
Read still recalls, almost to the day, when his life was turned upside down.
When he was 11, Read attended a village school with 200-300 kids, who spent a lot of their waking hours together learning and playing sports.
“It was an amazing school and we were in our own little universe,” said Read, who’s become a vital piece to UPEI’s athletic department.
At that age in the United Kingdom, students begin transitioning to secondary school, not unlike junior high in Canada, where a larger collection of students join a bigger school.
“That’s when I realized I was so far out of my den,” he said. “I had gone from being captain of this and captain of that and feeling confident about myself to being five-foot-five, being small and having the s—t kicked out of me Day 1.”
The first day he walked into the school, he had a bag wrapped around his head as the bully told him to expect this every day from now on.
The friends he made from the pervious school couldn’t help him because they didn’t want to be the next victim. He suddenly felt alone and isolated. And he didn’t want to burden his parents, who both worked or his younger brother, who was busy with school.
So, Read gravitated toward what he knew best – sports – to help him survive the harassment as best he could.
“I found strength in that,” he explained. “I knew what my values were and as a team player, I could still put that across. On the field of play it was great, but off the field I had to go back to that toxic place.”
Over time, he said he got used to the physical abuse, but never imagined how much more difficult the mental and emotional abuse – through verbal attacks and acts of intimidation – would be to deal with.
“I didn’t cope with it very well.”
And at the age of 13 things only got worse.
“I came home and found my mum on the floor for the first time and realized we had a problem. That’s when Mum’s alcoholism manifested itself right in front of us.”
Going to school and having issues and coming home and dealing with a struggling loved one, is a lot to bear for anyone, let alone a child. Fear, as he described it then, became his life and fear was his reality.
There were days when he had to drag his mother to bed before his father came home, not realizing his father already knew what was going on and was just trying to hide it from his brother.
“We didn’t talk about it and I was carrying it around by myself and thinking I’m doing the right thing,” he said. “But I wasn’t, it just became something bigger.”
Unknowingly, everything he carried with him revealed itself in the form of depression and anxiety in the years to come.
Once he finished his final exam at 15 he escaped the hellish world that let him down and vowed never to return.
“I ran out of school as fast as I could and I never wanted to go back to the education system and never wanted to be part of it again.”
SHEDDING THE MASK
In the following six months he and his father sat down and talked about what had gone on, from school to life at home. He quickly realized he had support in front of him all along, he just had to find the courage to speak up. Gradually, everything became an open book and his entire family became closer because of it.
Read was one of the lucky ones, whose family allowed him to express his feelings and emotions without fear of ridicule or judgment.
For some boys and young men, that opportunity doesn’t present itself and confiding in a friend is chance they’d rather not take, for fear of more bullying.
The 2015 documentary “The Mask You Live In,” illustrates this perfectly. The piece follows young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while navigating through our culture’s narrow definition of masculinity.
“Stop crying.” “Stop with the tears.” “Be a man.” These are just a few phrases uttered in the documentary that have silenced young men for generations when all they really want is to express how they feel in a healthy and understanding way.
It’s that type of naive outlook and insensitive behaviors that have contributed to this epidemic.
In many ways, Read felt like one of those boys who didn’t dare open up with kids his age.
“I think it’s tough for men because they care what others think.”
Fortunately, Read had a family who saw beyond that.
“I came from a hugging family, I hug a lot. I don’t see it as a sign of weakness. I was taught that crying isn’t an issue. If you’re hurt and it hurts, cry.”
PILLARS OF RECOVERY
In 1999 he found another key supporter, when he met the love of his life, Cindy, who also shares in his beliefs of mental wellbeing and communicating openly.
“We talk about anything and everything,” he said. “She can tell in a split second when something’s not quite right.”
Read is a giving type of personality, who always wants to do right by people and gives them his full attention, regardless how it affects him. But that’d come back to haunt him when he experienced another breakdown at 43, and his closest supporters, including his wife, knew something was wrong.
That familiar fear and anxiety reentered his life when people he considered friends were treating him poorly, taking advantage of his good nature and manipulating him and the ones he loved. Once again, he felt less than he deserved and it took a toll on his mental health.
It wasn’t until long-time friend and life coach, Phil Wells satin his car one night after a meeting and said “Leigh, you’re not yourself.”
“I had been caught, I had been seen,” Read said. “He knew something was up.”
Wells worked with Read in the following months pinpointing who and what exactly was causing this mental stress.
Wells used a metaphor to help Read understand what was going on. Wells drew up a scenario in which Read was the driver of his own bus. He asked Read to imagine looking in the back mirror and picturing everyone in his life, including those who were getting a “free ride” and affecting him negatively.
“You have to surround with passengers in life that you want,” he remembered thinking.
That eureka moment helped him realize he didn’t have to be everything to everyone and made the decision to cut them out of his life. He had to look out for No. 1 and now admits it was one of the best decisions he ever made and it allowed him to be himself again.
“I realized then I didn’t have to be somebody I didn’t want to be, and I did that for too long,” he said. “It took me along time to realize that it’s OK to love yourself first.”
In 2016, Read and his family made the bold decision to move to Prince Edward Island. They visited the Island often, since his wife grew up there, and the timing just seemed right.
“We love it here. We’re just who we want to be and we can be whoever we want to be without any pressure or expectations.”
Coming to a small, close-knit community allowed Read to appreciate once more the small gestures that have so much value, like a hug or a smile.
“It truly is the little things that can make a difference in someone’s life.”
It didn’t take long for Read to adjust to his new surroundings and was quickly discovered by UPEI, where athletic director Chris Huggan hired him to build connections with the community, as the Coordinator of Promotions and Community Engagement.
For Read, forming these healthy relationships, finding a job he loves and coming to a place where he can be himself has all helped ease the daily grind of his mental illness.
HELPING A NEW GENERATION TALK OPENLY
Read has made sure to pass these values down to his children and has given his daughter, Sadie, and especially his sons, Lewis and Sam the ability to express their feelings, good or bad, without judgment.
“An emotion is something you should embrace, not try and hide from. The more we hide our emotions and our ability to share the more likely the world around us crumbles.”
Since arriving at UPEI, Read has become a mental health advocate and is now trained in the SafeTALK and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) programs that help recognize at risk individuals.He insists he’s no doctor or psychologist, but wouldn’t hesitate in talking to any student and walking them to the “amazing” Student Affairs team who offer “incredible” support for anyone on campus.
“You can make a difference by simply offering a hand, a smile or a thumbs up. That small gesture could change the outlook on someone’s life.”
Through these actions and with the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, Read is hoping to help the next generation talk openly about their struggles with mental illness and help put an end to the stigma.
“We’re enabling people to have a voice about something that’s really, really scary.”