Tyler Simmonds: Tragedy to Triumph

On January 26th, 1990, I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I was then taken into my community in North Preston where I’d imagine I was surrounded by my large and loving family. As a baby and young child, I was quiet and didn’t show much interest in playing with other children. If there was a large crowd I’d stay with my mom and sit on her lap. I also vaguely remember following my dad and grandparents around everywhere they went if other people were around. I was a deep thinker, and I didn’t like to be influenced by others. Being around my parents or grandparents was safe for me.

As I’m sure you can imagine, when I became a teenager I isolated myself. But I often tell people that getting involved in sports at an early age gave me friends by default. I was in love with hockey and football, they were the outlet I needed. Being socially anxious and isolated caused me to feel depressed but sports became a form a therapy for me. I wasn’t judged for being quiet and people didn’t ask me a thousand questions on the field or in the rink about my personality like they did in school. They thought of me as the short, fast, and resilient kid I was.

If you’ve seen my TEDx, you’ve heard the story about how I’d always fall down and get back up while playing sports. I use this analogy to explain how it felt dealing with mental illness. In my last year of high school I finally put a label on the ways I was feeling. Major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety. I remember the feelings that came over me when I realized this and I’ll list them in no particular order: fear, relief, hope, and more fear. I know, confusing right? Basically, I felt like my mind was all over the place. That started to change when my parents took me in to see my GP. He talked to me about a little bit about different medications, mindfulness, yoga, meditation and then referred me to a psychiatrist. This was extremely overwhelming.

I decided to use my way of applying myself in sports and apply it to my mental health. I can get through this, I just need to keep being resilient, and keep practicing these different techniques that will help me improve was the general thought I had. This turned into me studying different forms of meditation, reading books and articles or mindfulness, and trying different medications.

In the beginning I became very frustrated. I wasn’t seeing fast results with meditation and the medications had too many side-effects. I kept falling into deep moments of depression, but I’d get up and try again. I began to realize that these treatments aren’t a one-size-fits-all. This meant that I had to figure out how to understand myself better. I began meditating with that intention in mind. I grew up thinking I had to fix something about myself, but in my early 20s I began to realize through meditation that there was nothing broken.

As one of my biggest inspirations, Donald Glover, says, “No matter what happens in life, the one thing that will never change is that we can always get better.”

This influenced me in ways you wouldn’t imagine. Want to be a better human overall? You can get better at it. I took this quote with me and it stuck with me so much that I will never forget it. I don’t think you can even google this quote. I heard it in an interview of his once when I was trying to figure out how he became so successful.

I was finally seeing results from meditation and mindfulness as the years went on but I still wasn’t where I felt I needed to be at the time. I became more self-aware and I began seeing life through a different lens, but I was still rather depressed overall. I switched anti-depressants and tried nearly every kind out there, but life was still too dark for me. I felt like I was walking on a tightrope and all I needed was one more moment of deep depression to end my own life. That moment came, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. My grandad was sick and it was time for my family and I to head to the hospital to say our last goodbyes.

I remember receiving a phone call from the woman I was in a relationship at the time and telling her what was going on. I remember her response that cut me deep, “I don’t care, I need you right now.” How could someone be so selfish and inconsiderate and heartless? I introduced her to my grandfather, she knew how close I was to him. How is it possible for somebody to not care about their partner at a time like this? I told her to never speak to me again and proceeded to the hospital. On the car ride over, I was numb. I didn’t feel sadness, I just felt cold. I felt like my emotions were completely shut down so I would be able to get through this traumatic experience.

I walked into the hospital and an uncle I had barely spoken to was the first person to rush towards me. He gave me a big hug and said, “You’re the one I was worried about.” I remember it like it was yesterday. I thought, Wait, he gets it. He knows I deal with something yet we never talk. I spent the day sitting in the waiting area with my brothers because I knew I’d be safe there. Safe from some of my dark thoughts that I knew would come up. I walked into the room where he was laying unresponsive. Is it healthy to be seeing my grandfather die right in front of my eyes? I thought. Maybe it wasn’t. But it was something I had to see. I had to tell him I loved him one last time. I had to touch his hand. I had to feel his peaceful energy. It gave me closure.

We went back into the waiting room and got the news. His life has ended. Tears began to rush from the eyes of my entire family. Not mine though; in my mind, he was already gone and I felt completely numb. This feeling of numbness stayed for weeks. I missed him and wanted to rage in anger. I wanted to cry so bad. I wanted to call my ex-girlfriend and make her feel like the worst person to walk earth. But I didn’t do any of these things, something inside of me wouldn’t let me. To be completely honest with you, I felt like God was not letting me act out in these ways. I remember thinking that maybe because I’ve done so much meditation that there is permanently this spirit inside of me that makes sure I’m mindful in tough situations. Maybe that’s the truth, there’s no way of me knowing.

After trying so hard for so many years, my depression led me to wonder why I won’t just give up. I hated my job at the time so I was beginning to feel like a failure and by this time I felt I ruined most of my friendships because I’d spend all of my time working on myself. I went into the drugstore at my work one day on my lunch break and I took a handful of pills. There were more pills left in the bottle and I’d take those if I knew 100% that this is something I want to do. Later, I cuddled up on my bed in the fetal position and put on a playlist by the gospel singer Kirk Franklin as my body began shaking uncontrollably.

This is the moment when I had an epiphany. Thoughts began flowing through my mind at a million miles per hour. They were thoughts of regret. I was so used to falling down and getting back up, but this time I was going to stay down for good if I didn’t try to get up. I got a spark of motivation and told my parents to take me into the hospital. That night in the hospital was a night that would change my life forever.

I spent the entire night having a conversation with myself. I was forgiving myself and motivating myself. I thought about my grandad, my parents, my brothers. I can’t leave them behind, I thought. I got back up.

The next morning, I held my mom’s hand in the hospital and I told her I’m sorry. I told her how I want to inspire people and to help those who struggle with mental illness like me. I told her I am going to become the great person I know I have potential to be and that this will never happen again. That I will become a public speaker and a filmmaker. I looked into her eyes and I saw just how much she believed in me… She didn’t think it was the drugs talking. She believed. This made me believe in myself even more.

So now, I’m here. I’ve spoken to 10 thousand youth at WeDay, I did my first TEDx Talk a few years ago, and I’ve spoken to universities and successful companies and organizations. I did all of this with social anxiety. I completed my first award-winning short film titled “In My Mind” which gives you a look into my mind when I was suicidal. I did this with feeling like a failure in the past. So how did I do it?

I took tragedy and turned it into triumph. I fell down and got back up. But most importantly, I believed in myself. That quote that I mentioned from Donald Glover – we can always get better. I took that and I added my own twist to it. “No matter what happens in life, we can always get better. So why not give the things you want to do a try?”

I didn’t think about how good I would be at filmmaking or public speaking, I just did it. I knew I’d get criticism, but how bad can it get? It definitely can’t get as bad as that moment when I was laying in my bed thinking I was going to end my life. This way of thinking made me not care so much about fear. I will always be afraid of things, if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be human. But I don’t let those fears control me anymore. My faith in myself is now much bigger than my fear.

If you want to do anything in life, let your faith in yourself become bigger than your fear. It’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let it cripple you. Accept the fear, because acceptance is strength. Once you accept it, you can let it work for you. That’s what I did, and continue to do.

You know that feeling you get on a rollercoaster? Yeah, I’m talking about that fear. Why do you keep going back to rollercoasters? I’ll tell you why: it’s because once we change our perspective of certain fears we have we can actually have fun with them. When I step out in front of groups of people, I’m afraid, but that’s my rollercoaster. It’s so incredibly fun to do something you’re afraid of and actually accomplishing what you set out to do.