You Are Not Alone: Out of the Darkness with Ann Brennan

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There is so much stigma surrounding mental health, especially when it comes to suicide and suicide ideation. Instead of helping them and the whole suicide prevention initiative, it puts shame on people who are struggling. Fortunately, there are people out there who are willing to share their stories and encourage others to do the same. One of those people is today’s guest, Ann Brennan, CEO of ASMM Digital Marketing. Along with her son Ethan, she co-founded Burgers & Bands For Suicide Prevention, which aims to help families struggling with depression and suicide ideation. Born out of love and their own struggles, the organization has served as a community for many people in need. Ann also shares her family’s story and the turning points that allowed her to not only help others but herself as well.

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You Are Not Alone: Out of the Darkness with Ann Brennan

Ann Brennan is the CEO of ASMM Digital Marketing, a digital agency that helps small businesses create a community around their brand, building engagement through services including social media, website management, content creation, graphic design, and other forms of digital marketing.

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Ann Brennan. She is the Founder of Burgers and Bands for Suicide Prevention, the CEO of ASMM Digital Marketing and most importantly, the mom of three boys. She's also the host of the Small Business Connections podcast. Ann, I want to thank you for coming on board and I welcome you to the show.

I'm so happy to be here. Thank you.

The way this is going to work is we are going to give you a space to share your story. What we talk about here is usually what were the pivot points that made you into who you are. We usually try to focus on the flashpoint, which is the point that ignited your gift to the world. That's the key thing. You can start wherever you like and we will go free flow from there.

One thing I do a lot is to speak to people about checking on your strong friends. When I give this talk, I say, “You might be your strong friend.” I say this because I have a story that started in 2012, I had been for two years training for Ironman. I had completed it in October of 2012 and did way better than I ever expected to do. People had followed my journey on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and all over the place because I have a podcast and a blog about running.

I had this group of people who called me Ironman. In the middle of all of this, I finished that Ironman in October, I knew something was not right with my second son, Ethan. By March, my son had ended up in the hospital because he was self-harming and he was suicidal. It was terrifying. That was the beginning of me going from Ironman to the psych ward. It wasn't Ethan’s psych ward, it was mine.

By July of 2013, I had lost all hope for Ethan. I had started planning for what was going to happen when one of his suicide attempts worked. I had no idea how I would survive and I didn't want to survive without him. I didn't want to have that moment of finding him dead. It was a horrible thing I was going through. I had been sleeping outside his room. I wasn't eating, sleeping and taking care of myself.

You have to put on your own oxygen mask first.

I’ve got to a point where finally I had to call somebody and it only happened because we live in Annapolis, Maryland and I was heading to the Bay Bridge. I knew in my head I'm heading to Bay Bridge because I'm not dropped off at anything. I had a moment where I thought, “That's not okay. What's wrong? Something is wrong.” I called a local emergency psychiatric unit and said, “I need help. Either that or I'm going to go jump off the Bay Bridge.” They said, “Why don't you come in.” Crazily, that was the beginning of something beautiful. It was the beginning of Burgers and Bands.

I want to start with thinking how amazing it is to come from such a strong place in Ironwoman and a crash to come so far down. I don't want to make you feel diminished in this way but it is a deep, dark place to be in that moment.

To be in a place like that, it's unbelievably dark and it was a big surprise for me because I was my strong friend, I was everybody's strong friend. People knew me as the person who they can talk to. People were calling me Ironman. What happened after I’ve got out of the psych ward, I was there for about a week. When I’ve got out, I wrote an article because I had a blog.

I wrote a blog post called Psych Ward Annie. My husband was furious with me. He was like, “I cannot believe you did this. Why would you put yourself out there this way? This is our private information.” We have been married almost for several years and we never argued, even everything through that was going on with Ethan. We were always there for each other but at this moment, he was so mad at me.

I'm saying to him at the time, “People are calling me Ironman and I spent a week trying to pull myself back up because I wanted to die. I can't do that. It's not fair to people who are out there. It's not fair for them to think of me as this strong person when that's what almost killed me. It’s being a strong person, not admitting that I was having a hard time, not telling people that I don't know how to deal with these emotions that I'm having for my child, this fear that I'm dealing with.”

We are arguing. I had my phone in my hand and it buzzed at me. I looked down and there was a comment from my blog, it was from a fifteen-year-old boy and he said, “I was going to kill myself tonight, but I called my mom and she's going to come to help me.” At that moment, my husband said, “What else can we do? How else do we share this?” Everything changed for us.

I want to take a moment because that's so profound. Knowing that anything that you can do to impact someone's life positively gives you hope. The strength that you have had and exhibited in the past could be the thing that rises up from that moment of darkness and brings you out into the light. It allows you to rise up from that moment.

There's so much shame around it. For the longest time, I felt a lot of shame that I let myself get to this place. When I was in the hospital, my husband came to visit me and he said, “What happened?” I said, “I told you I was struggling.” He says, “Yes, you said, ‘I'm struggling’ you didn't say ‘I'm suicidal.’ There's a big difference between these two.” There's all the shame that's around it.

That moment of that young man saying, “I'm going to get help,” took a lot of that shame away because I went, “That was strong,” because I could see how strong he was. That was strong for him to say to his mom, “I was going to kill myself tonight but I need help,” which meant if it was strong for him, I had to be strong as well. It was an eye-opener for me and our entire family.

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It's amazing to hear that because when you see strength in these people, it's beautiful to see that even at the darkest moments, you can come up from that moment and say, “This is possible to do something else.” I keep on thinking of the Viktor Frankl experience of being in the concentration camps, still seeing a possibility and a light even in the darkest of times at that moment. This is such a dark period to be able to take that and turn it into something positive, which is what you have done. That's what I'm looking forward to hearing more about where you have taken this from that moment.

It's a dark moment but it's a moment of no hope. That's why they die. People say, “I don't understand why somebody would die by suicide.” They have lost all hope. For me, I lost all hope. Ethan was going to die. In my mind, he was going to die, which meant my life had to end because I could not live without him. That was where I was, whether it made sense or not, whether this was where we were or not, it's where I was.

I want people to remember that if you are feeling like there is no hope, it's time to go ask for help. That's important to remember. What we did with it though is so great. You will laugh at me because if you go back into my life, my whole life has been about long-distance sports. Everything I have ever done has been about doing long-distance.

The day we took Ethan to the hospital the first time and we took them to Sheppard Pratt up in there in Baltimore. I was coming home and there was an ad on the radio that came on and it said, “Come walk the Out of the Darkness Walk.” I thought, “I'm going to do that and raise money for suicide prevention. That's what I'm going to do.” I went back to the hospital the next day and I said to Ethan, “I'm going to do this Out of the Darkness Walk, do you want to do it with me?” What a crazy thing for me to ask my child who is sitting there in a psych ward. I'm asking it.

He was like, “No, I don't.” I was like, “That's fine. I'm going to do this walk.” I raised about $1,400 to do this walk. About a week beforehand, Ethan said to me, “I want to do the walk with you.” I thought, “I've got to raise money for him.” We ended up raising another $2,400 with his help. We raised $3,800 for that first walk. We are long-distance athletes, we looked at it and we were like, “This overnight thing was too easy, why don't we do something more challenging?”

For the next two years, we decided that we would walk through the woods. We were in on the Great Allegheny Passage. Unless you were a ranger, we were on the Great Allegheny Passage if you are a ranger but it's closed at night so we wouldn't have done that. We walked for 24 hours straight for two years in a row and raised money for suicide prevention. As we did this, each of these walks we would do, we would have these talks about why we were doing it.

The biggest reason was to say, “You are not alone.” Ethan would say to me when he first got sick, I would say, “Sweetie, you know that you are at a school where people are dying by suicide regularly. You are not alone in this.” He says, “No, I am. Nobody feels this way, nobody understands it.” I kept saying, “You are not. Look at the people around you.”

Even when we took them to Sheppard Pratt the first time, he was signing in and they said to him, “Where are you going to high school?” He says, “I go to Severna Park.” They go, “You go to suicide high.” It was a horrible thing to say but even hearing that, he couldn't hear that he wasn't alone. On these walks, we talked about how we make people see that they are not alone.

How do we do this? These walks are great. We are raising tens of thousands of dollars but we are not getting a message out there the way we want it. We came up with this great idea for Burgers and Bands for Suicide Prevention. The idea was born out of the fact that we have a local tap house, it’s Severna Park Taphouse and they had this great big backyard where you can have bands and I thought, “I love this place and they have great burgers. We will do something, we will call it Burgers and Bands and we will do a little fundraiser.”

The first year we did it, we raised $8,000. We thought that's cool. The best part was about three weeks later, we’ve got a call from a mom who said, “My son came to me afterward and said, ‘Miss Ann said I can ask for help, can you help me?’” We are like, “That was so great that he asked for help and he's getting help, we are doing something good.” The next year we raised $45,000 and in 2019 we raised about $150,000. In 2020 we have raised hardly anything because of COVID but we will come back.

These are strange times for sure but what an amazing 2019. That's remarkable. One of the key takeaways that I'm hearing so far is these elements of you are not alone. That has been ringing true to all the statistics that we hear about so many people suffering in silence. People need to hear the message that you are not alone. Some so many people are struggling. Maybe even more so now with the element of being cordoned off into sheltering in place. That amplifies the challenges people have with being lonely.

If you're not taking care of yourself, you couldn't go on to help somebody else.

If you want to know, whether your story matters, I have a good story about it. I was picking my son up from CCD. We are Catholic, we were at CCD, he was at CCD. I was sitting outside in the lobby on the little couch and I was knitting hats for suicide prevention, it was another way I raised money. The first lady came up to me and she said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I'm knitting a hat, I sell them and I raise money for suicide prevention.” She says, “My grandson is in the hospital now for suicide ideation.” We talked a little bit and she left.

I sat there and I kept knitting, another woman came up and she says, “My son is 40 years old. He attempted suicide and he's gotten out of the hospital.” I said, “I'm so sorry.” We talked for a bit. A third person sat down and he was a young man. He said, “I’ve got out of the hospital for depression.” If you share the story, that person will share it, too. If you say, “This is what I'm doing, and this is what I care about,” then people do that. Every time I speak, every single time without exception, somebody comes to me and says, “I need help.” It's worth sharing.

The reality of having you here, I hope that a reader who reads this and can say, “I know someone like this. I am the person who's listening to this.” They feel a connection to the story because it's something that we need to spread the message. I love the fact that you can be that voice for the people who haven't been able to share their stories. I'm thankful for that. What has been the hardest part of your journey since you have found your mission of moving towards helping people in this path?

It's interesting because I want people to share their stories with me. One thing that happens with me, especially and I don't know why it is because we have a lot of people around us who are involved in this now but I get a lot of phone calls about suicide. If there's a suicide anywhere near us, I get a phone call. Somebody will call and say, “Did you hear?” Every time, it kills me a little bit. I have had to do a lot of work on that personally to not take it on.

My husband said, “You can't save everybody.” That has been the hardest part and not taking on other people's feelings because I'm hugely empathetic. When a mom comes up to me and says, “It happens a lot. We are so grateful that you are here. I lost my child and I wish you had been here for them.” That used to break my heart and crush me. I started working with somebody who said, “You need to change it. When they say that, instead of trying to fill so deeply for them because that comes so naturally to you, say instead, ‘Thank you so much for sharing that story.’”

That was a huge learning thing for me to learn I can say that. When we have events, that's usually when it happens. At the event, everybody wants to find me and tell me how they lost their child, their dad, their mom, their brothers or sisters. When they do, instead of letting it hurt me and break me again, I realize I'm being honored by them sharing their story. I don't have to fill that deeply. I can accept that and thank them for sharing their story. It sounds odd that it's such a hard thing but it is incredibly hard to hear it. Part of it is, I hear it and I'm so grateful that it wasn't Ethan but I still feel like it could have been.

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It's a powerful shift in mindset. I wanted to, first of all, celebrate that for you because that is amazing. Having empathy, being an empathetic person, being able to shift something that you are hearing like that, and being able to say, “How do I take this in and create something into a positive?” I came from the biotech space where we treat rare diseases while I was working on rare disease therapies. Oftentimes, you meet a child who maybe they are too late in the process of being able to be saved but it's the next one that you do the work for. You work on those therapies with the next person who can be saved. Any advocacy you can put towards helping them in helping the community move forward is powerful.

As you are saying that, it goes back to that thing that you and I have talked about, which is you have to put on your own oxygen mask first. If you had not taken care of yourself while you were working in that space, if every time you let it break you, you couldn't go on to help somebody else. The same thing, twice a year now, I couldn't keep going back to these events, hearing these stories and getting broken a little more each time without it putting me in a position where I wouldn't be there to help people.

Make it into fuel for the fire as opposed to something that buries you deeper. You are doing other things outside of the world of helping people through your mission. What are you doing outside of this world? Are you doing some digital marketing?

Several years ago, I started a digital marketing company. Interestingly, we run it in conjunction with the charity. The idea is that our digital marketing company is what backs the charity. That has been great. I also run this podcast and I help small businesses be seen. I had two of my podcasts. I help people get their message out there and that's a powerful thing to be able to do. I look back on that day and I think, “What if I hadn't called for help?”

All of the people I have been able to help, businesses I have helped grow or entrepreneurs who I have gotten in front of people who have said they can share their message to a charity that we started. All of these things that I have done and my children, what would have happened to them had I done that? It's powerful to look back and say, “I have done all of these things in this short time. Every day, I'm affecting somebody's life.” Every day we are all affecting somebody's life, whether we know it or not.

That's so beautifully said because I think about all of the things that you are grateful for now and I'm sure you give gratitude for it daily but there's one thing that resonates with me as a message. You have given voice to the voiceless and it shows up in everything you do. In the work you do in digital marketing, with suicide prevention, in your life in general, the people you work with, it's all about ensuring people can have a voice for the things that they are not sharing.

I hadn't put those things together but that makes sense. That's what we do. We always say we share people's messages on digital marketing. We share your brand message or your brand story. Burgers and Bands have done the same thing with the ideas to bring out the messages, the personal stories and help people see that they are not alone. They do go hand in hand.

I love it when you can see a common thread between all the things you do because it gets you lit up that you are doing things that are meaningful to you.

Now that you are saying that, don't we do that for our kids as well? We are showing them. On Twitter, they talked about imposter syndrome. They are like, “How do you help your kids understand the imposter syndrome?” I said, “It's easy. You tell them how you have experienced it.” Tony, I'm sure you have done it. Every time I go on the podcast, I'm like, “Am I doing this? They are going to realize that I'm not that important. I shouldn't be talking and in front of people.” If I share that message with my son and say, “It's okay.” Not only do I feel that but I have talked to CEOs who said their first day in the office as a CEO, they kept waiting for somebody to knock on the door and say, “You are in the wrong office.”

Something is hiding behind all of that, that people leave the courage to say things that they are not saying to everybody. There are a lot of things that are hiding behind the surface. Having the courage to speak up about the things that are hidden behind, whether it be, “I'm struggling and I need someone to hear that. I don't know what I'm doing but if you trust me, I will make it through.” Those are the messages that I love to get out of people to give them space, let them feel trusted and allow them to share what's truly in their minds and their hearts.

It's very important.

I want to give you a chance to share, what would be one thing that you would want to share as a message to people who are going through the challenge that you have gone through, the key takeaway?

If you go back to the depression, when you are in the middle of it, it seems like there's no hope. If you can hold on, ask for help and it seems hard that you need help but as soon as you do, there is some relief. As soon as you say, “I can't do all of this. I need somebody to hold me up now.” Especially if you are a strong person, that is a hard thing to do. A great example, my husband and I went on a 120-mile bike ride. About 100 miles down, I ran out of Gatorade. I said, “There are 7-Eleven a few miles up the road. When we get there, I want to stop and get some more Gatorade.”

He says, “I have some extra.” I'm like, “No, I will wait.” That's the kind of person I am. I don't take help in general. To ask for help for something this big seemed impossible but I'm so grateful I did and it pulled me out enough. All you need is enough for you to go, “I'm strong. I can do this but I have to take care of myself.”

There are so many messages. Put on your own oxygen mask first because the people around you, you are not going to be able to do them any good if you don't take care of yourself. You are enough. It's okay to ask for help and more important than anything, you are not alone. When I say, “You are not alone,” people don't always believe me. I will often say to them, “Look at the person next to you and share how you are feeling because chances are, they are there, too or at least they have been there,” because almost everybody we meet has been there.

Every day, we all affect somebody’s life whether we know it or not.

This one particular night, I received a text message from a woman. She said, “I am struggling. I need help.” I said, “Do you need help immediately or do you want me to help you find a therapist?” She says, “No, I need a therapist. I'm not suicidal. I'm okay but I'm struggling with some dark thoughts.” I said, “Okay.”

I'm texting her and at the same time, I get a text from another woman. She says, “I need help.” I said, “Are you suicidal?” She says yes. I say, “Can I call 911?” She says yes. I said, “Is there anybody you could call now who would be with you while I do this so that they could be there when the ambulance comes? She says, “There's nobody I can share this with.” Meanwhile, I'm still talking to the woman in the other text and I'm like, “Is there anybody you could talk to?” She says, “There's nobody.”

I swear, it sounds like I made the story up, these two women run together every single morning. They had never told the other one they were struggling. To me, it shows you don't know. The crazy thing is now they are huge advocates of what we do. They are active in what we do and they share their story loudly. It's so important that we do that because if one of them had turned to the other, they may have neither gotten to the place where they would that dark.

I'm so glad you did share that. That was a story that gives me chills. It makes you think about a lot of things. There's one thing that made me think about and this is interesting that my tagline for my business is, “Inspiration through honest conversation.” I think about all the things that people don't have conversations about and the things that they don't bring out to the surface. This is where inspiration comes from.

You get inspired to do something when you hear someone share honestly about what is happening in their lives. I feel as though what you are sharing will inspire someone to act in a way. Maybe it's not just in service of suicide prevention or getting help for themselves, maybe it's also to help other people in other areas because they know it's now possible to do something like this. That is the beautiful part of being able to bring someone like you on the show.

One of the things it does if you think about it, parents who have kids who are drug addicts don't tell anybody. Meanwhile, the neighbor across the street has a son who's also a drug addict. They could talk. They could have these conversations because that's a big issue. People who are going through marriage problems, people who have abusive husbands and abusive spouses don't share. Sometimes you start sharing this and you do find out you are not alone, whether you are dealing with depression, anxiety or other issues in your life. If you can start sharing that, you will find that there are people who get what you are going through.

The last question that I have for you is going to be a little more lighthearted. I feel like this is something to understand you a bit more. What's a book that has impacted you or has been meaningful to you in your life?

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The crazy thing is that in the book I'm reading now, you did give me a hint that this was coming up and I was like, “Am I going to be able to get the book?” Truthfully, it’s a book that's impacting me now because I'm reading the book about Walt Disney’s biography. It has been amazing, partially because I own a business and the other part is that he's also so strong. He keeps saying, “I'm fine. I'm good.” Meanwhile, he's having an emotional and physical breakdown, he is not asking for help.

It has been impactful to me because I watch what he does and I realize, “That is a major business but my business is going through all the same things as he was. It's okay.” You can compare these things. That has been very helpful to me to watch what he has gone through and go, “This was a good decision I'm making to reinvest in me.” That's the most impactful one. I have read it a long time but I read a lot.

I don't know where to begin. This has been an amazing journey with you on the show. Your insights have been profound and it's hit me emotionally. Thank you for bringing yourself to the show.

Thank you for letting me come and share the story because it's so important.

I also want to give people an opportunity to find out where they can find you.

It's so easy. One of the things that we did, you can find us at BurgersAndBands.org but people keep saying, “Maybe you should change the name because it doesn't sound very suicide prevention.” I'm like, “We want it to not sound sad but the fact that we could get BurgersAndBands.org it was meant to be.”

We will get that out to everybody. I also want to thank readers for coming in. I hope you are inspired to get out there and do something amazing in the world. Thank you.

Thank you. This has been great. I appreciate it.

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About Ann Brennan

1582287240222Ann Brennan is the CEO of ASMM Digital Marketing, a digital agency that helps small businesses create a community around their brand, building engagement through services including social media, website management, content creation, graphic design, and other forms of digital marketing. Ann is also the founder of Burgers and Bands for Suicide Prevention, Inc., a non-profit organization and community event created alongside her son Ethan, dedicated to raising money and awareness for mental health and suicide prevention. Ann sees ending suicide as her life purpose and is passionate about encouraging companies to embrace cause marketing and be the change they wish to see. Additionally, Ann is the host of the podcast Small Business Connections.

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