John Timm needed to harm himself.
It didn’t make any sense, even to him, but that’s what his mind kept instructing him to do.
There still was a part of him that understood the consequences of giving in to those thoughts. But the other voice was becoming more powerful, its volume increasing steadily for months, to the point it dominated his internal monologue.
By then, the Poughkeepsie native had stopped eating and barely slept, and each day felt torturous. His body weakened and his mind became clouded, filled with morbid thoughts he fought to dispel. But that constant, arduous battle seemed unwinnable.
“My brain was telling me to do it because, ‘This is the only way to take the pain away,” Timm said. “I was physically shutting down and mentally spiraling out of control.”
That downturn began months earlier, the first notable indication occurring on his last night at college, during a celebratory dinner with friends.
His head “felt heavy” and he found himself gasping unsuccessfully for deep breaths. The 22-year-old wondered at first if he was having a heart attack.
It was a panic attack, the first of several he endured last summer.
Timm had just earned a master’s degree in Business Analytics, and he soon landed a job as a financial analyst for a company based in Massachusetts.
“I have a supporting family, a wonderful upbringing, never had to worry about anything, things are going great now,” he said, believing his feelings of anxiety and depression to be baseless. “What do I have to be sad about? Why would this be happening to me?”
He always was a gregarious kid, relatives said. Timm was an honors student at Spackenkill High School, involved in several extracurricular activities, in addition to being captain of the basketball and golf teams. Not even he could suspect his own depression.
But feelings of despondence became increasingly prevalent from May to September, until he was overwhelmed. It led eventually to the suicidal thoughts.
His ordeal last summer included three emergency room trips, prescriptions for antidepressants, and eventually an admission to the psychiatric ward of a hospital when nothing else seemed to work.
Timm now finds peace and purpose in the building of Adirondack chairs, a woodwork hobby that grew into the branding of his cause. He began last month the “No Man Sits Alone” drive, a push to raise awareness for mental health issues and to urge those suffering silently to seek help.
An Instagram account and website for the campaign were created last month, through which donations can be made and merchandise purchased to raise funds. Some of the wooden chairs are being given away to social media followers to encourage a spreading of the word online and in their communities.
“I have so much respect for what he’s doing with this,” said Luke Timm, a former football standout at Our Lady of Lourdes High School and Princeton University who said John, his cousin, also helped him overcome drug addiction. “So many people struggle internally, but so few open up because vulnerability is perceived as weakness. It’s not. It’s how you begin addressing a problem.”
John Timm’s long-term treatment includes seeing a therapist twice a week and group talk sessions via Zoom. There still are “good days and bad days,” he said, but he is developing ways to cope.
Mental illness, once considered a taboo topic, has bubbled to the fore in recent years. Several celebrities, including prominent athletes like Naomi Osaka and DeMar DeRozan, have spoken publicly about their battles.
More than 20% of Americans struggle with mental health issues, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, and the holiday and winter seasons can often lead to depression.
Lourdes, John Jay-East Fishkill, Vassar College and Bard last spring became the first Dutchess County schools to partner with Morgan’s Message, a foundation that serves to raise awareness about mental illness and encourage its discussion, particularly among young athletes. The organization was founded in honor of Morgan Rodgers, a 22-year-old Duke University lacrosse player whose battle with depression was unknown until her suicide.
“Looking back now, I can remember little things that could have been warning signs, but I didn’t pick up on it,” John Timm said. “You’ve got to address this stuff when you first notice indicators, or it festers. And it can turn into a crisis.”
He already has spoken to classes at SUNY Binghamton, his alma mater, and Marist College in his hometown. Also in the works, he said, are plans for him to speak next year at local high schools.
“He’s speaking on behalf of a lot of people,” said Jake Timm, John’s younger brother who spoke openly two years ago about his lifelong battle with anxiety. Jake now is a sophomore on the Long Island University football team.
“People everywhere are having a hard time, and with everything going on in the world,” Jake Timm said, “it takes a tremendous toll on mental health.”
Some of his college teammates have spoken quietly about their struggles. Jake communicates often with his brother, offering an empathetic ear and the advice of someone who can relate.
John Timm spent 11 nights in September in a hospital as a psychiatric patient, an experience he described as frightening. But the time there was enlightening, in that he was introduced to a few patients of backgrounds similar to his, and several others whose circumstances were less fortunate.
His mom and brother have battled anxiety, and the family is particularly attuned to mental wellness. But John’s depression and anxiety weren’t diagnosed, or even discovered, until his “breakdown.”
“It opened my eyes to a lot and made me give more thought to things I hadn’t considered much,” he said. “How many people are in that boat now and they’re shrugging it off? How many people are struggling, on their own, and don’t have the support or resources to get help even if they want it?”
He hopes “No Man Sits Alone” can eventually grow into a nonprofit that raises money for research and mental health services. But, he said, the initial step is even more important.
“Convincing people to be honest and acknowledge a problem is usually the biggest hurdle,” he said. “You can raise a billion dollars for a cause, but it doesn’t serve its purpose if there’s a barrier between the money and the people it’s intended for. It has to start with people who need help seeking it.”
NoManSitsAlone.com launched just before Thanksgiving and drew more than 3,000 visitors its first week. As well, John Timm said, some former schoolmates confided in him about theirs or their loved ones struggles. Several strangers have reached out on social media, sharing their stories.
“I expected a good response, but it was more than I could have imagined,” he said. “It reinforced the fact that this is needed.”
There were unexpected periods of reminiscence in the weeks leading up to his college graduation, moments in which he suddenly became reflective and saddened by the closing of that chapter. Those feelings easily were dismissed as nostalgia. Normal.
Then, at the dinner in May, “it really hit me. Hit me!”
Given the family history, John Timm said, he feared it was a psychosomatic reaction.
Although he felt faint and his friends were concerned, John assured them he would be fine and excused himself. But even back at his apartment, it took nearly an hour for his breathing to settle and his mind “was still all over the place.”
He left Binghamton the following morning, assisted by his parents, who drove north to meet him halfway.
The symptoms subsided and he was hired that summer by a startup company in Cape Cod, which allowed him to work remotely. The anxiety soon returned but it was brushed off, he said, “as new-job jitters.”
Then, in August he suffered two severe panic attacks within five days, both of which resulted in emergency room visits and him being treated with anti-anxiety meds and discharged. The second time, though, he insisted that ongoing therapy was needed.
“COVID has slammed the mental health industry,” John Timm said. “The earliest appointment the hospital could get me was three months away.”
Within weeks, though, that spiral began with sleep deprivation and weight loss, and eventually the “dark thoughts.”
“It was really difficult for me because, when he was at his lowest point, I was in the hospital and couldn’t get to him,” said Jake Timm, who had major knee surgery last fall. “I understood what he was going through, to an extent, so I called and texted often. But there wasn’t much I could do.”
John Timm was with his father on Sept. 18, when it became clear to his family that immediate medical intervention was needed. They traveled with him to Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow as John checked himself in for a stay that lasted until Sept. 29.
The psychiatric ward, John said, was “suicide- and homicide-proof” and patients were under constant surveillance. Their behavior and mannerisms were observed and noted frequently. Each patient was kept to a routine that included precise times for meals, exposure outdoors, and group therapy.
“The most beneficial thing about the hospital was there was no holding back,” he said of his group, which included about 20 patients who were close to him in age. “We were totally open and honest with each other, and that was the first bit of progress.”
Since being discharged, he said, the twice-weekly sessions with a therapist have helped considerably and his daily medication includes Zoloft. He also can identify his triggers and is learning how to manage them.
“If I’m in a bad headspace,” he said, “elevating the heart rate helps snap me out of it.”
It is an ongoing battle, though. There still are days he’s down, questioning everything, and even feeling guilt about having these problems.
He keeps a journal and is tasked with noting three accomplishments each day, a way of “training your mind to appreciate the little things.” Regular exercise and fresh air are beneficial — as simple as that sounds — and he goes on walks often with Coco, his black Labrador.
Timm now works in his uncle’s auto body shop and is co-founder of Zenith Link, a startup developing an app tailored for businesses to share market data. But for now, and into the foreseeable future, he said, the mental health cause is paramount.
“For a lot of people, it doesn’t end well,” he said. “I’m one of the fortunate people, one of the positive stories. There’s an obligation to do something to help others. If each of us can save even one person, or improve their life, it can ripple through society.”
Stephen Haynes: firstname.lastname@example.org; 845-437-4826; Twitter: @StephenHaynes4
This article originally appeared on Poughkeepsie Journal: ‘No man sits alone:’ Poughkeepsie’s Timm spreads health awareness