It's not unusual for Chris Hawkey to perform for crowds larger than the population of his hometown.
Known as "The Hub of Two States," Union City straddles the Indiana-Ohio border. Hawkey grew up on the Ohio side in the 80s, playing linebacker and fullback for the Mississinawa Valley Blackhawks and throwing shot put for the track-and-field team. He regularly spent time with friends at the local pool, and at 15 he began singing in his first band, Stone Blind.
And it was – perhaps ironically – in Darke County where Hawkey began to first feel the shadows of mental illness. Early on, he met crippling bouts with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
He experienced compulsions that swelled internally to a deafening decibel. As a high schooler, Hawkey began feeding an indescribable impulse to repeat behaviors four times.
If a gridiron play called for a handoff to Hawkey, he had to lick the fingers on his right hand four times after leaving the huddle. He was sure he'd fumble otherwise.
If he saw an airplane cutting through the blue sky? Hawkey had to cross himself four times or the plane would crash.
He had to read four pages from the Bible before going to sleep.
Whether the driver or passenger in a car, he had to count each mailbox as it blurred past, making sure to group them in fours.
And yet, he had no way of understanding what was happening within his mind.
"Growing up, there wasn't much of an emphasis on mental health," Hawkey explained. "If you were a nervous kid, you were a nervous kid. If you had little tics or quirks, that was just who you were."
He later added: "I hate to put it this way, but it's the way I would have put it back then: I had no idea what was wrong with me."
Hawkey battled the difficulties in private.
"I thought there was just something broken within me. I didn't tell anybody. It was a secret. A giant secret," he said. "I didn't tell my dad, I didn't tell my friends, I didn't tell my girlfriend. But it was obvious in some ways, you know? When she was leaving, I had to give her a kiss four times before she could leave. I had to check the house four times to make sure the doors were locked before I could leave. But I didn't know why."
It wasn't until Hawkey went on to the College of Broadcasting in Dayton, Ohio, that he began to grasp little pieces of what he was dealing with. He discovered names that fit what he'd experienced: OCD; anxiety; depression.
"Even then, I didn't have any idea that there were ways to 'fix it.' And also, there was a stigma to it that, hopefully, [these conversations] are taking that away," Hawkey said. "Maybe the highest hurdle between being who I was and being well was being able to talk to people about it. Being able to admit this was a situation I needed to deal with – and having to admit that I wasn't strong enough to do it myself.
"It took me a long time to find out what my issues were – and a lot longer than that to admit them," he added.
Hawkey describes OCD as playing a "terrible" part in his life until age 25. Over time, however, he found himself able to conquer the compulsions, which "cleared the clouds" from his everyday life.
"It was a life-altering, life-changing moment for me," Hawkey recalled.
"It was being freed from the birdcage in a way that, I can't even describe the joy that I felt."
“It was being freed from the birdcage in a way that, I can’t even describe the joy that I felt.” - Chris Hawkey
Step by step
As the compulsive behavior decreased, though, he noticed an increase in bouts with other mental illnesses.
"The OCD [had been my coping mechanism for] the anxiety," Hawkey explained. "So the anxiety got worse, the depression got worse, and it really just got to a point where I knew that I needed to find someone to talk to. I needed to find help to deal with all the different demons I was fighting in my head. And that was a huge change in my life, for the positive – to first admit that I needed help and, second, to go actively find it."
For Hawkey, that meant trying medication for the first time and finding its benefits. He also saw a therapist – and then another one, and then another one, until he found a counselor he clicked with. To this day, he encourages others to not give up if the first therapist isn't a good match.
A significant step in Hawkey's mental health journey meant not only understanding the disorders but also giving himself permission, per se, to experience the gloom he sometimes faced. He had often wrestled with inner dialogue:
What's wrong with you? You've got a great life. Stop being sad.
But he learned to stop telling himself that another cup of coffee or "trying harder" would snap him out of dark days.
"It's been a lot of different steps on my journey," Hawkey said. "It got a little sunnier each step that I took. One of the weirdest things about that is when I realized that I didn't have to be happy every day. And that I was never going to be happy every day. Saying that to someone who isn't one of us, if you spend a lot of your time depressed and with anxiety, a lot of people tell you, 'Hey, buck up, man. Let's see a little zip. … C'mon, why are you so sad? You've got a great life. You've got a great family.'
"You hear that a lot, and you're like, 'You're right. I don't know why I'm like this. I should be happy every day.' When you realize that the gray is where most people live most of the time, it takes the pressure off, and you don't try to force yourself to be happy," he continued. "Because what do you do when you force yourself to be happy? You make yourself more depressed."
Out of the gray & into the sunshine
When Hawkey shared his experience with depression with KARE 11’s Jana Shortal in 2017, it caught some by surprise.
After all, this is a man who spends his mornings on KFAN's The Power Trip, laughing and cracking ridiculous jokes. He's the lead singer of the Chris Hawkey Band and performs on a regular basis. He brings silly energy as a host of Vikings Connected.
Most who know Hawkey will tell you he's an encourager who almost always pairs a smile with his baseball cap and black leather jacket.
So, is Hawkey happy? Most of the time, yes. But not always. And that's OK.
"You become a pretty good actor. You know? From a very young age, I hid the OCD. Which, again, I can't overstate how debilitating it was," Hawkey said. "I have very, very highs and very, very lows. As I've gotten older and gotten more of a handle on [these challenges] and I've found the correct medicines to help fill in the holes that I needed to fill, it's been easier for me to be more up than down. But I legitimately do give myself permission to be down and sad on days when that is how I'm feeling. I remind myself that it's not a permanent thing, and I remind myself that there's always tomorrow.
"I find that knowledge to be really comforting, and a lot of times that knowledge that tomorrow's going to be better, and that maybe even later today is going to be better, is the thing that gets me out of my 'spin,' as I like to call it. Out of the gray and into the sunshine," Hawkey said. "I'm a pretty happy guy. Almost always, that's real. Sometimes I'm acting – I won't lie."
As Hawkey has become more and more comfortable with his own story, he's working to normalize the conversation around mental health.
He understands the stigma, but he's passionate about breaking it down.
Hawkey noted that the term itself, "mental illness," carries with it such a negative – and sometimes scary – connotation. When people hear words or diagnoses associated with mental illness, it's difficult to not jump to conclusions.
"But the weird thing about that stigma, to me, is when I did the interview with Jana … and started really walking that into the public and talking about what was going on, I realized very quickly that there are way more of us than there are of people who don't go through something like this," Hawkey said. "That stigma can be erased just by looking around and talking to people and realizing, the guy in the next cubicle over and the lady on the bus with you and your neighbor, they're probably suffering in some way, as well.
"If we all talk to each other a little bit more, I think the stigma goes away. And you go from being ashamed of it to being, not proud, but a vocal advocate for yourself and for other people," he added. "Because you want to walk around and say, 'Yeah, I hear you. I feel where you're coming from. I feel the same way. Here's what helped me. What helped you?' It creates community, in some ways."
Support system & song
Music has been the epicenter of Hawkey's community. And whether creating or consuming, it's also been a source of catharsis.
He doesn't mince words when emphasizing, music has saved my life.
"A bunch of times," Hawkey said. "The loneliness that I felt as a young man with everything that was going on inside me and how weird I felt, how odd I felt, I found bands of every different stripe."
There was "Calling on You" by Stryper.
"It was like they were talking to me," Hawkey said.
There was "I'll Be There For You" by Black 'N Blue.
“When I heard that, I was like, ‘I hear you up there; thank you.’ So in reality, at its very basic form, music has saved my life. It’s been there for me. It’s given me a way to communicate my feelings, even before I knew I was doing that. I look at songs that I wrote when I was in my 20s, and I was saying things in my songs that I couldn’t say to people in real life." - Chris Hawkey
"Music coming in from other folks has made me feel less alone; music going out of me has given me a way to communicate my feelings without having to look somebody in the eye and tell them," he added. "Because for a long time, I couldn't do that."
Hawkey's song "Happy," which he debuted on World Suicide Prevention Day in 2017, communicates his experience with depression.
I search for the sunlight
Only find shade
I stand in the spotlight
Just wanna go away
My smile is painted on
My will is nearly on
Can't carry on for long
Why am I lost?
Why am I down?
Why am I lonely in a crowd?
How does the darkness always find me?
Don't know how to be … happy.
Whether in song or conversation, Hawkey now finds it tremendously important to be honest with people. And, in turn, to be a support system for those who need it.
He noted that he's approached almost every show by someone – or multiple people – who resonate with "Happy." Immediately, Hawkey said, even if he never sees that person again, they've become part of the same fraternity.
Hawkey also emphasized the significance of loved ones who will hold you up when times are hard.
"Your best friends, the people who really listen when you're talking to them, those are the important ones. Those are the ones who you need to talk to," he said. "If you're talking to somebody and they're really listening to you, that's the person you can open your heart to. And it starts with the first person you talk to, the first person who's willing to listen, the first person you feel comfortable talking to, and then that gives you the gumption to talk to more people. And it goes both ways.
"It helps just to talk, even if they don't know the answers. In fact, they probably don't know the answers, even if they want to," he continued. "But that's not the point. … Just having a community, my gosh, that helps so much. Because you don't feel alone anymore. Man, that's the darkest place, isn't it?"
It's for exactly this reason that Hawkey jumped at the chance to be a part of the Getting Open series. In a phone call explaining the concept weeks ago, he vowed to be "all in" on an initiative around mental health.
Especially during a global pandemic and other societal stressors, Hawkey acknowledges how many people are likely struggling – some of them, possibly, for the first time – with mental health matters.
His first piece of advice? Talk to someone.
"Once you open up a dialogue with people, you're going to say things to them you didn't even know were true. They're going to say things back to you, and you're going to relate, and you didn't even realize they were true to you, as well," Hawkey said. "But this is not a small club that you have joined if you are experiencing this for the first time. There are a lot of us out there.
"There are people like me, I'm 50 years old and have been living with this most of my life, and if I can help you, I certainly will. So please, reach out," he added. "It doesn't have to be a professional. It can be just your buddy, and it can be a strange guy on the radio who talks fart jokes most of his life. Reach out. People are willing to listen."
You are not alone. If you or a loved one are struggling today, please reach out for support.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness): nami.org
NAMI MN: namimn.org | 651-645-2948
This is the sixth installment of our Getting Open series. Check out earlier features and keep an eye on the Vikings digital platforms for upcoming features:
By: Lindsey Young