Hello! Who are you?
My name is Mike Cundall. I have been diagnosed on and off again with mild to medium depression for nearly 15 years. I live near Greensboro NC, USA where I work as a philosophy professor at NCA&T State University.
I’ve been there for more than 12 years. I am married with three children and two dogs. I am a 30-year practitioner of the Japanese martial art of Aikido and am an avid woodworker. I’ve focused more on carving bowls and spoons of late.
I also have a side pursuit where I take my research on humor and work with organizations and individuals on using humor to improve engagement, resilience, and raise our levels of happiness.
I am passionate about my work in humor because it allows me to take my academic research and find ways to make it relevant to the wider public. I have always believed that philosophy is crucial for anyone who wonders about the world and in working as I do with humor, I am able to show people how much impact my work as a philosopher can have on people in their ordinary lives.
I generally consider myself happy. I have a loving spouse, some pretty cool young men that I am proud to parent, and a robust life. This doesn’t mean everything is always great and there aren’t times when things are difficult. We all have difficulties in our lives.
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What is your struggle and when did it start?
My official issue is depression which is sometimes mild and sometimes more than that. My depression manifests itself in feelings of anger and irritability, and then times when it’s hard to get myself moving on projects, even simple ones.
I was diagnosed about 15 years ago when I went to a doctor to explain that I wasn’t feeling right. My world just felt out of sync and disjointed. There wasn’t any one thing that set it off that I could put my finger on. By all accounts, I was doing well both professionally and personally, but things were amiss in my head and heart.
I was originally put on a six-week course of antidepressants. While I technically made it six weeks, that’s only if you include the first week when I was on the medication the doctor gave me at the office. This particular drug caused stomach issues and killed my energy levels. I put on 15 pounds in those six weeks because it sapped my will to exercise.
I’ve never quite recovered from that. I was told that if the depression came back there would be a three-month session, then six months, and then finally 12 months. If the depression came back after that, then I would be on the medication for life. Thankfully, the issues seemed to abate for a time.
The depression returned five or so years later. I was at a new job that came with a raise and promotion. I was achieving all the trappings of what could be said to be success. But I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was angry, irritable, and depressed, so I went and met with a therapist.
It turned out that while I was becoming more successful in one sense, my ability to achieve success at the new job was severely limited. This, more than anything else, led to the depression. It was the first time in my life that I was unable to control the things that were happening to me.
As a result, I became very angry, because so much of my concept of self was built upon my ability to be successful and meet challenges I faced. I had to learn a whole new approach to the world. It's one I am still learning.
The main way that the depression affected me was that my anger boiled over and harmed the relationships I had with my family. I felt alone, unappreciated, and as a result, I was angry at them. This ultimately led to some very unhealthy ways of interaction. My main regrets are the loss of time with my family because I felt alone.
How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?
Being angry, alone, and feeling powerless is not a cocktail that leads to happiness. I was even put back on medication for a time but ultimately gave that up because the idea of being on medication for the rest of my life was not appealing.
At my worst, there were times when I couldn’t really get much done. For the first time in my life, I left work early because I simply couldn’t stand to be there. I tried reading books and listening to others on how to face the challenges at work, but nothing got any traction. This situation cut me to my core and I had nothing–no answers–no solutions. Just a growing list of failures.
I didn’t try to hide it. I was open about going to therapy, but even then, it didn’t always work. It’s hard for someone like me to give up trying to fix things, to help make things better. I deal with the failures and the inability to change things beyond my control, but it still irks me.
The biggest thing for me has been finding other places to find happiness and fulfillment. It’s one of the reasons I started my company Mirth Management and wrote my book, “The Humor Hack.”
I chose to put my effort and energy into pursuits that I could reasonably hope to find levels of success. It hasn’t always been success-ridden. It took me a year to get my book published and I even started my “spreadsheet of failure” as a way to poke fun and cope with the rejection.
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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?
I wouldn’t say there was a moment, especially as I’ve struggled with depression for a while. But the one time I think I made a real change was when I decided to stop taking the medication and deal with the depression on its own terms.
Since I’d been struggling with depression for so long, I know the signs and symptoms for me. I’ve become an expert on how my depression manifests. I decided that I would stop trying to fight it and beat it back.
I wasn’t even going to really work around it so much. I decided to be as aware of the symptoms, feelings, and behaviors as I could, and then work with them.
If I felt anger or irritability, I would explore what the source might be. If there was nothing really there, then it was likely the depression hijacking my mood.
If I felt the stillness coming, instead of trying to work out of it, I would sit with it, let it come, explore that state, and see what was there. Instead of trying to control the flow of the river, I would flow with it. This may sound counterintuitive, but it has worked.
What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?
Depression is a pain without a doubt. I’ve found that trying to “fight” it, to remove it totally is a fool’s errand. At least for me. Whatever the actual medical/psychological status of depression is, I know that I suffer from it. What I’ve tried to do is change how I deal with it and thus change my amount of suffering.
In a sense I have tried to reframe what depression is and rather than see it as a sickness, I see it as a state of my being. So instead of trying to fight it back, and remove it completely, which I have so far failed to do, I’ve tried to work with it as part of how I am. I find I suffer less as a result.
Having a therapist and coach has helped. I haven’t done everything my coach has suggested. I still think I can and should work towards fixing issues. But the way I now look at success is different.
If I am still able to accomplish things, then great. I may not feel as I wanted to, but so much the worse for my feelings. I may not ever “escape” the depression, but seeing it as something needing to be escaped has only ever made things worse.
When the depression visits, I make space for it as a guest. While it may hang out for a bit, I find that treating it in this way has reduced the overall amount of time it hangs out, and makes it feel less like a fight and as a result, uses less energy which is nice.
Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?
As a professor, I see a number of students as advisees. Depression is a common issue and one they’re not often comfortable discussing. When I share that I’ve dealt with and am still dealing with depression it oftentimes helps them to feel less stigma about it and seek ways to deal with it.
I would feel uncomfortable talking to anyone I sense would want to make fun of me or belittle me or anything like that. But generally, I feel okay talking about my mental health struggles.
If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?
If I had one bit of advice on depression given how long I've dealt with it, I guess it would be to try not to see depression as something you have to "fight" or "conquer" or even compete with.
I don't succeed in spite of or perhaps despite my depression, I succeed with it there. It's part of who I am. So I've radically changed how I think and approach it. It's not an adversary, a sickness, or even an obstacle. It's part of me, like it or not.
For some reason, this works for me because then I don't think or worry about winning or losing relative to it. In a sense, I take away some of the stigmas maybe, or in so doing I give it space, but no more space in my head than is necessary.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?
I guess I don't really have any resources beyond my coach, and that seems like a resource that's too specific.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
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