Larry Bryant began feeling like something wasn’t right his sophomore year of high school in Alexandria, Virginia.
He didn’t know it at the time, but he was contending with clinical depression and anxiety. His parents’ divorce only exacerbated his feelings.
Bryant would go for days, sometimes weeks at a time, without speaking to anyone.
He was an All American football player, but when the team would go out after games, he would go home.
“I was very much a loner, and kind of sat in my own space most of the time,” Bryant told Humanity.
Eventually, his parents and his coach noticed that something was going on.
But Bryant didn’t want to admit how he was feeling. He felt a lot of pressure to not appear depressed.
“I kept pushing it down, pushing it down,” Bryant said.
He was the oldest child of six children, and felt like he couldn’t share what he was going through. He also didn’t want to be labeled by his peers at school.
When the opportunity came up to receive a college football scholarship, he was made to believe that his depression would adversely affect his chances of getting one.
“I was eventually told, ‘You can’t show this. You can’t say this. You need to get yourself right so you can go to college on a scholarship,'” Bryant said.
For years to come, he would try to conceal his depression and pretend that the emotional pain he was feeling wasn’t happening.
Throughout college and his young adult life, he found himself angry, sad, quiet, and confused. At times he would cry without knowing why.
“I wasn’t sure how to respond or react to how I was feeling,” Bryant recalled.
It was difficult for Bryant to identify what was happening to him.
His freshman year of college he was diagnosed as HIV positive, which only made his depression worse.
“That was kind of like dropping a bomb into an already demolished town. At that point I felt like I couldn’t recover at all,” Bryant explained.
He was diagnosed in 1986, and was told he was going to die. During this time, people were dying from HIV AIDS rapidly.
Now, he felt like he couldn’t talk about his HIV status either, which only compounded his depression.
Everyday life was a struggle. He had trouble focusing on his studies in college; some days he felt like he couldn’t get out of bed.
As professional football scouts came to college, coaches again encouraged him to hide his depression.
Men were supposed to be strong, he was taught. If he admitted to having issues with depression, he feared being considered weak.
He found it increasingly difficult to cope. Bryant dropped out of college, and began drinking and abusing drugs. Sometimes he found himself waking up in the street. Several times he woke up in hospital while having his stomach pumped.
Eventually, the self-destructive behavior came to a head.
One day he woke up and decided he didn’t want to die in the street. He didn’t want someone notifying his parents that he had died under such circumstances.
“It was almost like a switch that came on. I just decided I didn’t want to die like this,” Bryant explained.
“I figured, okay, I’m going to clean myself up. I’m going to do something purposeful. If I’m going to die of AIDS, then I’m going to die doing something.”
For Bryant, it was easier for him to tell his family about his HIV status than his depression. He continued to keep that a secret.
As he was being treated for HIV, he began to realize that he wasn’t going to die immediately, and took some comfort in that. His family was also incredibly supportive.
“It was like spinning a plate on one hand. I realized this is good. I got the balance. This is going to be okay. I can do this,” Bryant recalled. “Now I’ve got this other plate over here I haven’t even tried to spin, and I’m not even sure I can.”
Within only the last few years Bryant has been able to identify his depression, and open up about it.
Bryant, now in his forties, began working at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City (NAMI-NYC) in 2016.
At first he just listened to others contending with depression, and empathized with them. Recently he started to address his depression out loud in peer-to-peer group sessions and support groups.
Prior to this, his depression and anxiety was only discussed in the context of his HIV status. Now, he was finally able to discuss his mental health as its own entity.
Being able to identify his depression has helped him manage it. Now he’s helping other people living with mental illness through his work at NAMI.
He manages the Helpline, coordinates support groups, coordinates and teaches the Hope for Recovery class, and manages the NAMI Smarts program.
The depression and anxiety are still there. But now he knows what to look out for, he’s better able to deal with it.
“It’s like mastering the weather. We all wish for the sunny, 78-degree, low-humidity days every day, but occasionally it’s not that way. Sometimes it’s going to be a thunderstorm,” he said.
“Before I knew how to the read the weather, I’d just get caught out in the rain without an umbrella. Now, even though I can’t stop or change the weather, I can prepare for it.”