As many who read Politics Hawai‘i with Stan Fichtman knows, I speak on the issue of mental health from time to time in posts. Especially for the last 16 months, the issue of mental health and keeping it has been as important as keeping your physical health up and not getting sick. Luckily, society has recognized this to the point where people are willing to speak about this, upfront and personal.
Mark Lindquist, as an introduction to his story, is a United States Air Force and Afghanistan War Veteran. He currently lives in Moorhead, Minnesota where he works as a motivational speaker, National Anthem singer at sporting events and is now running for election to the U.S. House to represent Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District. Mark declared candidacy for the Democratic-Farmer Labor primary in 2022.
I got to know Mark while he lived in Hawai‘i about a decade ago, through the Hawai‘i Kai Jaycees. But before all this, he is a human, with human mental issues that he has been struggling with. This is his story, reprinted by permission of Mark Lindquist.
(By the way, this is about 3,300 words, longer than typical posts, but please read it through)
My Mental Health Story
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the happy-go-lucky, smiling, fun, and energetic person the world knows so well. It is who I am and what I love to bring to any room or interaction I’m a part of.
When I first was struck with serious suicidal thoughts and depression back 15 years ago, it changed me forever. I often think of it much like the life that an alcoholic leads daily – once you’ve been there, there is always a risk that you could fall back into that same destructive pattern again. At the same time, if you haven’t been an alcoholic as I have not, it is unlikely that someone who hasn’t experienced it will truly understand the plight. I think it’s the same with mental wellness. If you haven’t been there, it’s really easy for people to discard you as weak.
Mental wellness is something I’ve dealt with quietly, many times alone, and only my closest friend and my mom really knows what I struggle with.
Can you imagine the internal and external pressure that comes with being a motivational speaker who is depressed? Can you imagine the pressure of having to be in tip-top condition every other day/night as there are hundreds and hundreds of gigs you need to be “on” for even though you’re human, flawed, and struggle with depression? What if the day you’re supposed to perform for 70,000 people you have a down day? It’s not possible. You have to perform. You have to nail it. It’s what I do. I don’t get to control the date on the calendar they book me for any more than I get to control the way I’m feeling on that day. For me, I’ve learned strategies, tactics, and mindsets that help me perform at a high level no matter what the day brings mentally, because I’ve been trained by the United States military to bring my “A” game no matter what. My self-taught training as an entertainer and a professional speaker also has given me a toolbox full of things I can do to be able to give to my audiences the best Mark I can possibly muster on the day of the performance.
But even all that is just masking the root of the problem. I learned that this week.
This past year, I saw the life I built and worked so hard for completely evaporate. As a live events performer who would do 100+ gigs a year and be on the road 200-300 days a year – a global pandemic put an abrupt and unwelcome end to all of that. These past 17 months I’ve done 4 live events (spring/summer 2021) and I should’ve done about 141.
Throughout this past year as I saw my business crumble and my life restructured into something I didn’t ask for, my mental health declined along with the rest of the country’s. Everyday activities that we would usually perform on auto-pilot became sources of stress and anxiety. Going to the grocery store. Being in the gas station. Going on Facebook. Talking to friends. Interacting with people. The sources of stress in daily life were multiplied by an innumerable factor. As I talk to my friends across the country and world, it has left many people shattered.
I believe much of the country is still trying to make sense of it all in this crazy world we live in. With a global pandemic far from over and looking like it is rearing its ugly head again – and the uncertainty of the fall and winter before us leaves us with a life that is clouded with anxiety.
This past week, I opened up publicly about my struggles with mental health, with direct inspiration from another way more well-known public figure, Simone Biles. To me, she is a global hero. To my friends, I just wanted to be a local source of hope.
It’s not easy to admit you’re not perfect, especially on social media platforms where all we show the world is our perfection. It’s not easy to show the world your struggles. The only thing my heart kept telling me this past week was that there are other people in my life who are struggling mentally as well, and if a motivational speaker and US House candidate who is expected to be perfect can admit mental health challenges and ask for help, then maybe they could too.
I cannot count the hundreds and hundreds of messages I’ve gotten both publicly and privately since I revealed my own mental health struggles. Most of them are either of full-support, or a story of their own with similar challenges of depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety or PTSD. We are all hurting after a year like none other. My point in sharing that is this: If you share your struggle with mental health, even with just a few of your closest confidants or publicly, I want you to know that people in your orbit will be there to support you. That’s one thing in society that has remained intact after a year of division like we’ve never seen before. When a person we know shows the strength to share their imperfections, those who truly love them will always be there to support, even if they feel ill-equipped to do so. If you don’t have that support system of friends and family, reach out to the professional resources in your community. That’s what they’re there for. I did, and I know how important it is to have people who respond and reach out.
I’m feeling better this weekend. I am following the plan that the VA helped me create and I’m prioritizing self-care. It doesn’t make me weak. Doing nothing to get better is weakness. Strength is shown in resisting the temptation to follow a societal plague of “hard work is the only answer.” I tried to outrun my depression with hard work, and after a year and a half of running on empty, I finally ran myself out of gas last week.
That’s when I checked myself into the Fargo VA mental health clinic. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s not the first time I have asked for help, I’ve had a therapist for years. Even when I didn’t “need it” it’s always good to talk things out with someone who understands. I think everybody could benefit from a good therapist.
During my work with therapists last fall, my doctor at the VA suggested, “Mark, you seem like someone who needs a big dream or goal to shoot for. It seems as you’ve been without a purpose this year.” That’s totally true, and I was. I’m all about the next big dream and goal. During these sessions was where I rediscovered my 15 year dream to serve in the U.S. Senate or House – a dream that has been building ever since I enlisted in the United States Air Force. I looked at the state of things in our nation in 2020 and I said to myself – the country needs better leaders.
So these past 7 months, even while recovering from a rock bottom pandemic, I’ve been doing what I can on the campaign. This is my next dream for me, but also for America. During that time I attracted some of the top political leaders in America to my candidacy. I wrote and published two more books on the subject of American politics and the future of our country. I published a 22,000 word volume of my policy positions. I wrote my version of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers and those 33,000 words make up my new book, “America 2.0.” Just because you’re recovering doesn’t mean you don’t have anything good to give.
Some have thrown some snark my way since my admission that I struggle mentally from time to time. They have said mean things on the internet, as they do. They have told me if I suffer from depression that I am unfit to serve. They have told me if I have these things I deal with that I can’t possibly be a representative or a leader of others.
They are wrong.
Just because someone struggles with depression doesn’t mean they are broken. It just means they have a different set of circumstances they must overcome in order to achieve at a high level. The people who have reached out to me privately are CEOs, Senior Vice Presidents, corporate and community leaders, fellow motivational speakers and leaders in our country who all have achieved great things and made great impacts despite their own unique challenges.
If you suffer from depression, mental illness, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, PTSD, or any other host of mental wellness issues – let me be one to say to you – you are not broken. I’ve dealt with depression for 15 years and most of the world would never have guessed it. The VA tells me that I’ve had PTSD for 10 and I just learned that last year.
A note on PTSD:
Imagine living a life where a sound triggers you and takes you back to that night in Afghanistan where you were terrified not only for your life, but the lives of the 34 Airmen you’re charged to lead. You may think a Blue Angels Air Show that was in town last week is just good fun or fireworks are something we all love – but for many Veterans on your block, it brings them back to the worst nights of their life.
It did for me.
I didn’t know this before my PTSD diagnosis at the VA in 2020, but for the past 10 years I’ve been suppressing the trauma of that Christmas Eve in Afghanistan when the sirens belted out the words: “INCOMING INCOMING INCOMING.” I was just an Airman who used to sit at a desk and I had been boots on the ground at Bagram in Afghanistan for a mere 5 hours when we heard the sirens. War hardened Marines and Soldiers who had been in country for months would probably scoff at my fear, but I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t enlist to crawl in the sand with a weapon on my back – thank goodness others have answered that call. I joined to serve my country as an intelligence analyst and sit in a hardened bunker underground. Others who were by my side in that same tent that night have zero effects from that incident and I’m thankful for that. For me, that night just won’t go away.
Typically, 364 days out of the year I am virtually unaffected by that trauma. You would never know it by seeing me those other days. But about once a year I freak out because of a sound I hear. It’s not my fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It just is. After working myself to near exhaustion during my first month of being a political candidate, the trigger had its effect.
But does this make me unfit to serve? After much reflection this past week, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t disqualify me from service to my country. In fact, it may give me more reason to serve in the Congress, since I can be a credible voice for other Veterans who need a national spokesperson.
People have said that I shouldn’t run for office because I deal with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and PTSD. I remind myself and others that during that time I’ve dealt with all that, I’ve led troops in the Middle East; built one of the largest and most well-respected professional communication firms in America; I’ve influenced corporate leaders at the largest companies on earth; I’ve performed live on national television for the largest crowds in America; and I’ve impacted people’s lives near and far with the work I do, the example I set, and the life I live.
Just because we suffer from depression and all that goes with it does not mean we cannot also make an impact in this world. Take it from me. If Mark can do it, you can too. I’m just a dude. I’m just a happy-go-lucky kid from a small town of 2,000 people who grew up on a farm. I’m just a Veteran who loves his country. I’m just a citizen who wants to help his country in its time of need.
What I think we need more of is people like Simone Biles. I think we need more people to be open and honest about mental wellness like Terry Bradshaw, Kevin Love, The Rock, Michael Phelps, Kristen Bell, Bruce Springsteen, JK Rowling, Lady Gaga, and you. It does not mean you have to be sad and down all the time. Look at all those names. They do great things in society but they also asked for help. Now add your name to the list. If they can ask for help, you can too. It doesn’t diminish you. It isn’t a character flaw.
Let’s be honest. Life in 2020 sucked. Big time. Give yourself some grace. Be kind to yourself. Reach out to a friend and let them know that you’re struggling. Ask for help. Help is virtually everywhere if you let someone know you need it.
I was asked on the news the other day if I thought this admission would help or hurt my political campaign. I don’t care. I know it helped countless friends who may have needed a personal example of mental health triumph. I think the only political lesson from all this is that leaders of every kind, whether corporate, community, or political should be allowed to be open, honest, transparent and truthful about who they are, what they go through, and how they’re dealing with it. To expect our elected leaders to be perfect is insane. The country has 331,000,000 people in it and none of us are perfect. If you expect candidates for public office to only show you their perfection, that is a guarantee that they’re either hiding something, or flat out lying to you about who they are.
Candidates aren’t perfect. We’re human.
Should candidates hold themselves to a high standard? Absolutely. I do, and I have. However, the standard of perfection many people hold their candidates to is simply unattainable.
Sure, I want to win this election because I think the country deserves better leaders. We need people of character, people who have strong values, and heart to go along with them. I believe the country deserves leaders who don’t suck and won’t lie to you. I believe this country needs leaders who aren’t only concerned with the power they hold, but are able to tap into the power of the people they represent. I believe this country deserves leaders who have nothing to hide and will tell you the truth, no matter how hard it is to tell. I believe we should stop worrying so much about policy promises that are bound to be broken and start worrying about whether our leaders in this country have good morals, integrity, and character. I believe that if we focus on anything but character, we’re all just asking to be disappointed.
When we elect people on policy promises only and forget about character and integrity, honesty and truth… we’ve lost our way.
I made a promise to myself and my friends that even though your buddy Mark is gonna become a politician, that I wouldn’t change and become some dishonest monster like we see in the news so often. I’ve made it one month into this grand adventure and I’m happy to report that my integrity, morals, values, and principles are still intact. One month down, 15 to go.
But the important lesson I’ve learned on this journey so far is that I don’t need to put the pressure of a 16 month political campaign on my shoulders each day. That’s what I was doing. I got myself so worked up and put so much pressure on myself as I tried to stand up to the powerful political machine, that I landed myself in the hospital. Yes, the doctors tell me the fighter jets in town didn’t help and neither did sleep deprivation or exhaustion. But ultimately, I think it was the weight of the country I was putting on myself that caused my mental challenges.
I learned a lesson this week: One day at a time.
Just look around. Things are messed up. It’s like Orwell’s 1984 out there. When you believe as I do that you are a leader who might be able to help us out of this national mess we find ourselves in, sometimes the pressure you put on yourself is the heaviest burden.
Others reading this have probably put similar pressures on themselves this pandemic. The pressure to be a good mother, father, husband, wife. The pressure to keep it all together as an employee, a friend, or a neighbor. It has been a lot. For us all. For those who already struggle with mental health challenges, I believe this past year has been even more difficult than we’ve given credit.
The thing I try to remember is that even though my troops struggled with depression, PTSD, anxiety and the like – it doesn’t mean they’re any less of an American Airman, called to serve.
I feel called to serve.
As for the campaign I launched, this is just round one. We’ve got 15 more rounds to go. I’m in the corner now, getting toweled off, restoring my energy, resting, getting back to my old (or better) self, and believe me… you don’t bet against an Airman with a mission.
The campaign trail is long. I wrote in my book that I’ll certainly make mistakes as a first time political candidate. I already have and I’ve done what I’ve always done when I make a mistake – try to learn from it and be better next time. But the thing that the system doesn’t want you to do is they don’t want you to show the world you did trip and fall. They want you to portray a candidate who is perfect. They don’t want you to say the wrong thing, be vulnerable, wear the wrong hat, the wrong shirt, or give the world a sound bite they could use against you. They expect you to be perfect for 16 months and during the entirety of your term of service.
I won’t be.
What I will be is a person who shows you that even when knocked down, I can get up off the mat and start swinging again in due time.
I haven’t been perfect for 40 years on earth and I’m guessing I won’t be for the next 400+ days. If that causes me to lose an election, so be it. At least at the end of my candidacy I’ll be able to look myself and my friends in the eye and know that I did it all and the system didn’t break me. At least I’ll know I did it with integrity, sticking to my morals and values, principles and promises to myself. If that’s not enough to win votes, we have much more trouble in America than one single candidate losing an election.
So this is who I am. Warts and all.
When at my best, I’m pretty dangerous. When I’m at my lowest, I’ll need your support. When I’m dreaming big, I’m asking you to believe alongside me.
This week I was at my lowest. You came to my rescue. It was what I needed. Because of you, my friends, I’ve felt my tank filling a little. I’m nowhere near 100%, but I’ve got 15 months ahead and nobody will even cast a vote for like 400+ days. So instead of trying to show you I’m perfect from the start, I’ll show you that I’m growing from the start.
So, in keeping my promise to you – I am telling you all about the journey of what it is to be a political candidate in the United States of America in 2021. In keeping my promise to myself, I’m showing you who I am, even if it is hard to share.
The honest, open, transparent, and truthful politician. That’s what I am and what I’m trying to be. I don’t know how to do it any other way.
Mark J. Lindquist