Embracing life

Adrian Northrup

Hardworking. Intelligent. A leader.
Involved. Open. Outgoing. All words befitting a resident assistant. But for junior Jordan Benedict, one more word needs to be added to the list – depressed.
Although that word can describe him, by no means should it be used to define him.

Benedict, an RA in Governors Hall, has had a long journey to get where he is today.

Diagnosed with depression, it has taken medication, withdrawing from school twice, a year and half in the real world and a lot of determination to overcome his problems. Now as an RA, he is using his role to spread awareness about mental health issues and breakthrough the stereotypes associated with them.

“I try to use my RA role to really push mental health awareness,” Benedict said.

Junior Beth Ellison, a fellow RA in Governors Hall, said Benedict has been great to work with because he is so excited about life and helping other people.

“He is a hardworking, dedicated, passionate individual who is willing to help anyone,” she said.

The breakdown
Benedict did not always have this outlook on life. Starting at UW-Eau Claire in fall 2001, Benedict was a 3.2 GPA student who never drank, smoked or did drugs. That spring, his grades dropped. Over the next summer and fall, he said he was tired, angry with people and not happy even though there was nothing really wrong in his life.

“The only thing that happened was that my dog died which, he was wonderful, but that isn’t enough to change your personality,” Benedict said.

P.J. Kennedy, director of counseling services, said everyone feels blue sometimes, but some people are biochemically vulnerable to more prolonged sadness and hopelessness.

“Often they don’t know why they feel that way,” he said. “Things are going well in their life but they aren’t happy.”

Benedict said he started having regular anxiety attacks where he would get so panicked he got sick. After missing classes in fall 2002, he went to Counseling Services. There he took depression tests and was so off the charts they immediately got him into psychiatric help and on a medication track.

Depression has been a growing concern on college campuses over the last 10 years, Kennedy said, and Counseling Services doesn’t want people to carry around unnecessary pain, he said.

“Depression is not a person’s fault,” he said. “It is part of their biochemistry and we have appropriate treatment.”

Benedict was diagnosed with a general anxiety disorder and put on a sleep narcotic, an anti-depressant, a sedative and migraine medication. He dropped out that semester, but went back in the spring. Over the summer and fall it got worse. He was taking Effexor, a drug that seemed to be working at the time, but he ended up on the highest dosage. He was having the worst panic attacks of his life and was smoking marijuana to cope.

“I found that if I smoked that at night and took my sedative … I could kind of pass out and not have any panic attacks,” Benedict said.

He said most of his close friends had no idea what was going on. His roommate, senior Eric Highlander, knew he was taking drugs for sleeping, but didn’t know the extent of it.

“I just did my absolute best to hide it because I don’t like to burden people,” Benedict said.

Highlander said Benedict hid it well, but there were some signs.

“He stopped playing piano, being involved on campus – he stopped caring about things,” he said.

Although Effexor was kind of working, any depression medication that changes someone’s biochemistry alters who they are. Benedict said he didn’t like it. So he quit cold turkey, which is similar to quitting heroin.

“It was like a perpetual state of anxiety attacks and probably the worst month of my life,” Benedict said. “During that time I was feeling very, very suicidal and the way I coped with it instead of dealing, was I just kept upping the dosages of the medications and the marijuana that I smoked just to not feel anything.”

He said one night he decided it was “the night” and took eight Xanax, 10 Ambien, smoked two bowls of marijuana and sat by the river. He said he knew when the medication kicked in, he would fall into the river and not feel a thing. But when it didn’t kick in after an hour he gave up and went back to his room, because he didn’t want to feel it if he was going to go. The next day he withdrew from all his classes again and dropped out of the university for a year and a half.

Time off
The first thing he said he did was see his psychiatrist and get on a milder anti-depressant called Wellbutrin.

“That seemed to work because it didn’t seem to alter me as much,” Benedict said. “I’m a very excitable person, but I also have very low lows and it made it so that I could still feel those extremes, but made it more moderate as opposed to taking those extremes away completely.”

He got a position at an airline because he said he knew he’d have to pay for college when he went back. Benedict moved up quickly to become a corporate trainer.

It was a great experience, he said but in the spring of 2005 he applied to come back to Eau Claire. He said the airline, while incredibly stressful, was really a test to see if he could do something larger than himself, if he could be a leader.

He said during this time, his father, Mark, was very supportive and without him, he wouldn’t have gotten through it.

“He was there every step of the way,” Benedict said. “He didn’t lead me by the hand, but he made sure he was right next to me in my whole recovery process.”

Mark Benedict said their family has a history of depression, so they talk openly about it. It’s made them closer.

“Jordan still gets distracted and takes on too much, but we are very proud of what he has done so far,” he said.

Benedict’s good friends – Highlander, Guthrie Horgan, and January Boten – also helped him with his recovery and he said he appreciates them more now.

“I guess being that close to taking your own life, you kind of prioritize things in a way that you didn’t before,” Benedict said. “There are certain things about the value of life that I try not to take for granted anymore.”

For anyone who has depression, it’s incredibly important for them to have that circle of support, he said.

Coming back
After being accepted back, Boten, the Hall Director of Putnam, made sure Benedict could go back to Putnam and be almost right where he had left off. He said Boten helped him with that transition.

Boten said people could see that working at the airport was a waste of Benedict’s talents, but that it was cool to see him realize it.

“He has so much inside of him to give to other people,” she said.

He said he was excited to be placed into a mentor leadership role.

“Coming into this role where I was no longer this popular guy where everybody knew me, I had to rebuild a name for myself,” Benedict said. “It gave me a chance to start over.”
He said although it’s been awesome, it hasn’t been without trouble.

“It was just a matter of learning how to take care of myself,” Benedict said. “Now I know when it’s getting bad, and I know how to fix it. That includes medication, diet and regular exercise.”

Mark Benedict said he believes his son reached a certain point where he realized many things had to work consistently to deal with his depression.

The everyday discipline his son has helps him keep all of the bad things from escalating and getting out of control, Mark Benedict said.

“I’m not saying that he’s perfect, but he just knows how to see (depression) coming,” he said. “And I think that’s the number one thing with depression is understanding when it’s coming.”

Jordan Benedict said healing also involves making sure he is doing what he loves – playing piano and singing with the Statesmen.

“There are still moments where I am like, ‘This isn’t worth it – how you feel today,’ but now I have that second voice in my head that says, ‘But it will be worth it tomorrow, or the next day,’ ” Benedict said.

Highlander said he has noticed a definite difference in Benedict.

“He’s involved with everything,” he said. “When he worked at the airport it made him see what real life is like. It focused him – now he follows through with what he says. I am able to trust him with things going on in my life and he can do the same because he is more open.”

Being proactive
Another thing that really keeps him going is helping others, Benedict said.

He pushed for RA training to have depression programming, where he tried to shock people into seeing how real and close it is. Boten said he’s been a great asset to campus.

“It is really brave of him to get up in from of everyone,” she said. “It shows what kind of person he is.”

He also told his story to his hall. He said a lot of people have talked to him about it.

“People want to open up to me and hear that everything is OK, that it will work out in the end,” Benedict said. “Honestly, I think that’s what everybody wants.”

He has reached out in other ways as well. He presented at the fall leadership retreat and is starting a local chapter of “Active Minds,” an organization that promotes mental health awareness.

“It takes my mind off of my own depression . and focuses it more towards how can I use my experience to help other people,” Benedict said.

Freshman Stephanie Nohr said it was good seeing Benedict’s presentation at the leadership retreat.

“I definitely think a lot of people have to deal with (depression),” she said, “but not a lot of people are outgoing about it or want to share it. He helps people open up.”

Benedict said people often don’t believe he has depression because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone who draws away from the crowd or has emotional and introverted symptoms. They don’t assume it’s someone who’s incredibly extroverted, a president of their hall or an RA.

He said they need to get rid of the stigma that it is a certain kind of person – that they are fragile, not strong, in some way weak minded or crazy.

“People don’t think I am depressed because it’s just not the image that I give off,” Benedict said. “And that’s one of the stigmas of it. It can be absolutely anybody; there is no stereotypical face of depression. It’s anyone.”