Choose Your Struggle with Guest Jay Shifman

This week's podcast brings us Jay Shifman, a fellow podcaster and a storyteller with the Choose Your Struggle Podcast. In the episode Jay shares his struggles with mental health and addiction, reflects on his Ted talk on the history of substance misuse and why words are so very important. Join us for an interesting conversation with Jay.

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Tina: Hey Everyone, I?m Tina.

Serena: And I?m Serena and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Tina: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you?re here.

Serena: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Tina: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as parents with lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Serena: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You?ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website,

Serena: Tina and I find that sharing our stories of lived experience with others really helps to reduce the stigma around mental health and to make it that much easier for others to also share their story. In fact, that?s one of the reasons we started this podcast!

Tina: Absolutely! We are big believers in storytelling and today we are joined by a guest who also believes in sharing his story of lived experience with others. Jay Shifman has founded a company called, Choose Your Struggle, which has two distinct goals. Ending stigma and promoting honest and fact-based education around the topics of mental health, substance misuse and recovery and drug use and policy. Jay is also a fellow podcaster, speaker and event host. Jay, welcome to the podcast!

Jay: Well thank you so much for having me. It is an honor to finally sit down and record with you and I am excited to see where we go today.

Serena: We are too. We often start our podcast by asking our guests to share a bit of their personal story, but I?d like to get at this from a slightly different direction today. So your podcast is called Choose Your Struggle as is your business. So what does it mean to choose your struggle?

Jay: Yeah so the name of my business, my brand, my podcast all that kind of stuff comes from my personal story. I was born in a very lucky situation. I am the oldest of four boys with two loving parents and we are incredibly privileged in the sense that I never had to worry about if there was going to be a roof over my head or where my next meal was going to come from. I grew up with more means than 99% of the people in this country and significantly more than the rest of the world. Because of that I had the privilege of choosing what my struggle was going to be because those basic building blocks of life were not my particular struggle.

And then in my late teens going into my early twenties when I started to struggle with substance misuse and eventually addiction, I lost that privilege of being able to choose. My choice was made for me. It was to avoid withdrawal, to simply get through the day and try to be just a person every single day. A person that the rest of the world didn?t just outwardly dismiss, right, because of my health situation. And when I got in recovery again I realized a couple of years into recovery what I really regained was that privilege of choice, that ability to choose what I was going to get out of bed and struggle for and that is where the name of that comes from.

Clearly I have made that choice for me. That choice is to struggle with these topics. But basically what it boils down to is reminding everybody that there always is, even if it is a very small one, the ability of choice, right? Most of us are in a situation where those basic building blocks are not things that we have to struggle for. And because of that, we get to choose what we are going to struggle for every day.

Tina: Awesome. I am curious because we are the Mental Health Mamas afterall. If you can take us back to your pre-teen and teenager. And we understand that you felt very privileged. We get that. And what we know to be true, right, is that many people who make choices have struggled with their mental health in some way. If you are privileged, it does not preclude you from being depressed or being anxious or whatever. Can you just relate to any of that piece of it?

Jay: Yeah. That is right. I have struggled with various issues of mental health my entire life. I have been diagnosed with a whole host of them. Some of which I now agree with and other ones I don?t as much. All of these diagnoses came in my pre-teens and early teenage years. And those were ADHD, OCD, depression, anxiety and those were the ones that I really dealt with in the largest sense when I was a preteen and a teen. And unfortunately for me, you know, what also is happening during that time, which we can all remember just how fun puberty is, right? And for a person who is also struggling with these issues of mental health, it made my teenage years more difficult than the average person.

Now when I say unfortunately for me, I mean my therapist saw all of this. You know. A teenager who very clearly was struggling in some sense. And also a guy who he himself had put on medication for the ADHD a couple of years prior and instead of recognizing this perfect storm that he had helped create himself, he saw all of this as a larger issue. One that he gave the name of mood disorder to and then officially shifted the diagnosis to bipolar disorder in my late teens. Now that one was not true. Clearly he was missing some things there or seeing signs that were actually not there. But the other ones were, I am fairly confident, were correct. He just got a little over his skis so to speak.

Tina: So it is complicated right? Part of what I am hearing you say is, yes, you did have some diagnosable mental health struggles. You were seeing somebody for those. And it is hard sometimes because, and again, I will disclose that we are not doctors but we are parents who have experienced this for ourselves. One thing can look like another thing and with medication or lack thereof, it can shift things. So i just want to point that out because it certainly was our experience and I don?t know about you Serena.

Serena: Yeah. We definitely had very similar experience in terms of, you know, like you said Jay, when you are a teenager, when our kids are teenagers, trying to distinguish what is sort normal moodiness as you might refer to it in a teenager and what is something more and how do we approach as parents and so I am curious if you have any thoughts on how parents can help sort of guide that. Because it sounds like what happened to you is that you kind of went down a path that wasn?t accurate and of course there is no blood test so we can?t determine a diagnosis. What can we do as parents to prevent that from happening? Do you have thoughts on that?

Jay: Yeah and I appreciate your sort of warning going into this. None of us are doctors and we could do a whole other episode on the medical system and sort of the good parts of it and the parts that are lacking. But very sort of service level, there are two things that I always advocate when I talk about these issues as someone who has lived through this. The first of which is a no brainer in that it doesn?t happen and that is simply: get a second opinion. I talk about this all of the time but my aunt, thankfully, last year entered remission for cancer. And what was so beautiful about her fight was that she got second, third, fourth, fifth opinions on every single procedure, every single recommended everything. She had a whole host of doctors. And there were times when three doctors would say one thing and two would say another and she would have to do more research, right? And yet, over 80% of people who get a mental health diagnosis do not get a second opinion. And when you think about it, something like a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. In a very real sense, that is just as severe and life changing of a diagnosis as a diagnosis of cancer is. And yet, my family went, ? Ok Doc. I guess he has bipolar.? And I don?t blame them for that. Clearly if 80% of people are doing it there?s a bigger issue here. And so that would be the first tip. Simply say to your therapist, ?Wow, that is a heavy diagnosis. Literally no disrespect but I am going to go and talk to somebody else and see if they agree. And if they do, I?ll be back.? Right? We can?t be afraid of hurting our therapists feelings if they are giving us a life changing diagnosis like that.

So that is the first one and the second one is simply?.I make this clear all of the time but I am not anti medication. I think for a lot of people these medications are incredibly important and life saving. However, I am anti medication as the first choice. I saw this therapist who put me on medication every other day with a new dosage and new ?. Try this pill and the fact is again, those medications can be helpful they are so over prescribed. Let?s try other things first. The story I always tell is I have a buddy who knew my story and a couple of years ago he took me out to lunch and we sat down and he said, ?Look. They want to put my son on Adderall.? And his son at the time was seven. I said, ?Look man. I am not a parent. I cannot know what you are going through. I can tell you that I was a preteen and it was too young for me and I can?t imagine being put on medication when I was seven. I just, in knowing what I know now about the higher rates of struggling with addiction if you are put on medication too early and those kind of things. And he took this all in and he ended up telling the school no and he ended up transferring to a different school that was better attuned to dealing with kids with a little bit more rambunciousness. I am happy to say that that kid is in his mid teens and is still not on medication and doing great. So there are other options. I think we live in a society that is a little too knee jerk at times. Let?s just put them on medication and move forward! So if you have the opportunity to try other ideas first, let?s do that instead of immediately putting somebody on medication.

Tina: Yeah and I think it's time that we make that opportunity. We create that opportunity. And I don?t want to get into the whole medical system but I think that many people are bound by what the system says we can do. I don?t really believe that second opinions are really a thing really. I mean you can always change therapists, that is true. We can attest to this just from the city we lived in there was ONE child psychiatrist. So it wasn?t like we had a lot of choice. I guess I would say? we as a family challenged that. But I also think that things that worked for my child that my family could afford like acupuncture or yoga classes and that kind of thing are NOT paid for by insurance and that is a big deal for some families right? So seeking alternatives that might work or even the fact that we know with ADHD, Michael Phelps talks about it all the time. His mom put him in a pool and had him swim, swim, swim right? Everyone can?t afford to do that. To sign their kids up for the soccer class or ? those are expensive things.

Serena: Yeah. Thank you for those suggestions Jay. Let?s switch gears a little bit and talk about the language that we use around mental health and so Tina and I talk a lot about the words that we use and how important they are. To use a strength based language as well as person-first language. As in, you would talk about somebody as a person with depression rather than a depressed person. And I notice that you use substance ?misuse? rather than abuse which is the word we hear most often. So why do you make that distinction?

Jay: Yeah. I appreciate so much ? I do a lot of these interviews and so often this question comes more often from what I would say, a defensive stance. Why do I have to change?You know what I mean? So I really appreciate that y?all were like, ?We do this too!? Thank you for that very much. I really appreciate it. There are two reasons?the biggest reason I would say that this is important is that language has very real life implications. The stigma against mental health and substance misuse/addiction is what causes people like me to not get the help that we need. So when people say, ?Oh it?s just language. It doesn?t matter.? No. It actually does. It really really does and the clearest example I can give is the way we talk about people with substance misuse and addiction is so ingrained in sort of our view of people themselves that I was a couple of years into recovery someone said the word ?addict? to me, I didn?t picture myself. And I had gone through this myself. I had lived this and yet when someone said ?addict? I pictured the stereotype. When I realized that, it really knocked me on my ass. I was like, ?How can I be a person in recovery and still not see myself as the person who experienced this?? And it is because of the way we talk about people with addiction and drug users. And the reason we are changing from substance abuse to substance misuse is the word substance abuse, the term was purposely created to create more stigma against drug users. We don?t have time to do this entire history here but I gave a Ted talk last year on the history of the war on drugs and why understanding the history is so important in knowing its implications today. And basically the through line is pretty strong that this history prevents people like me from getting the help we need today.
The history of the war on drugs was created for many reasons the biggest of which was ? and I have to give it up to our long dead legislators here they were overt in their racism and sexism. A lot of times it was literally in the law. You look at some of the earliest drug laws from the 1800s and the words they use would shock you. And there is really not a lot of debate around that which is very nice. I mean when it is in the law you can go Oh yeah that was their reasoning. So when you understand this sort of hatred and the racism and bigotry that comes into this you understand why they were creating terms like substance abuse. And the rationale was if you could make people who struggle with addiction even grosser, even less human in their eyes, it is a lot easier to criminalize people. If they are less than a human, people won?t care about them as much. And when you think of the word and its etymology there is not a lot about the term that makes a lot of sense. When we think about abuse, we think about some horrible acts that are done to other people, right? Spousal abuse is one of the worst things you can do in our society. And yet, when we think of substance abuse, there is nothing in there that equates to that, right? As I love to joke, when I was struggling with pills they weren?t picking up a hammer and beating me on the head with it. There was no abuse there. So what you are actually doing is misusing a substance, right? The substance is an innate object and has no ability to abuse you. What you are doing is misusing a substance. And when you change that verbiage, its a lot easier to understand that by themselves there really isn?t anything wrong with any of these substances, right? I am a person who can thankfully have a drink of alcohol and not need ten of them like I did with prescription pills. But the person three barstools down from me who is struggling with addiction to alcohol, that drug is not abusing him in a different way than to me. We are ? he is misusing this substance that I am using easily and safely.

Tina: Yeah. That is awesome. I appreciate that distinction and that history is interesting right? We did an episode, maybe our first season Serena, about the othering, right? And I think it just tends to ?other? and that person who does that thing that I don't do, right? So yeah. Thanks for making that distinction. So you are clearly doing well now and are in long-term recovery. I am just curious, what did it take to get there and stay there? What we know to be true is everyone isn?t successful. It is a hard road, right? So what helps?

Jay: Oh man well those are sort of two different questions. What gets me there and what helps me stay there are two very, very different things.

Tina: Yeah, yeah. So answer both if you could.

Jay: So what helped me get there was the love and support of my grandmother. My story is very long but the short version was that I was in a long-term care facility and I knew that I wanted to number one leave and number two get off of the medication that I had been on now for over a decade. And the prevailing wisdom that unfortunately still is the prevailing wisdom for too many people is what we call tough love right? Well, then you need to let them hit rock bottom and all this BS right? And if that had been the case, right? If everyone in my life was sort of buying into that, right? Well we are not going to take you in. If you leave you are on your own. And what that would have meant was that I would have been alone. I would have been homeless. I could have been on the street going through withdrawal and all of that stuff. And quite frankly I would not have made it. That is not a recipe for success. Luckily for me, my grandmother was like, ?Absolutely not. You are going to come here. We are going to put you up and we are going to give you as much time as you need.? And because of that I was incredibly lucky and there is a version of this story where I don?t make it because the tough love BS prevails and I go into withdrawal too heavily on the street and die. So luckily she gave me this space and I was able to go through what was called step down which is the opposite of cold turkey.

Cold turkey is very dangerous. Why it became the thing that everybody knows is beyond me. I have known too many people who have passed away because they were told, ?Well, you have got to go cold turkey.? And that just doesn?t make any medical sense. When your body is relying on a substance to live and you rip it away, you are going to die. It is that clear. So I wish more people knew how dangerous cold turkey was. When you do it in a hospital setting, when you are monitored by doctors giving you the vital resources you need, that is one thing. But doing it at home is so dangerous.

So I went through step down and it took me almost four months to get off of all of the drugs I was on. And again, thanks to my grandmother who allowed me the space to do this, I made it into recovery. But the actual recovery started the minute I got off of the drugs not getting off of the drugs, right? We like to think that the day you get off of the substances is like, hang the victory banner. War is over! And in reality that?s getting to day one. You can?t start recovering until you are off all of the medication if that is the path you are going. And that is the direction I was going in.

For me it took a solid five years to get to a point where I actually felt healthy. To get to a point where my body, my mind, my maturity, my age?everything kind of caught up with each other. It took almost five years. And a lot of that was, as they say, one day at a time, right? Making choices to prioritize my health. Getting back into exercising, trying to eat better. You know for me that meant realizing where my boundaries were in terms of substances. Could I drink safely, which I can. Stuff like that and it took five years and since then it has been a ? I have prioritized what I like to think of as big picture mindfulness. And that is just constant awareness of alright. I know I have a history of substance misuse and addiction. Am I using this substance safely, right? I mean if I ever find myself in a situation where I can?t drink safely, what do I do? If I am able to try these other things or even experiences that have shown can develop issues of addiction. And also keeping track of my mental health, right? I do all sorts of mindfulness techniques including rating my mood everyday at the end of every day. I have an app on my phone where I rate how my day was. And keeping an eye on those patterns. I know that if I am consistently down on the bottom of my rating, I have got to do some work because it means I am not doing very well. I know that if I am at the top I need to keep an eye on that because being at the top can feel like a plummet even if I am just getting back to baseline. So there is a lot of work that goes into it but ?.I can say with absolute certainty that it is worth it.

Serena: Yeah. Thanks for sharing all of that. So I want to talk about your very first episode of your podcast, Choose Your Struggle, and you talked about the challenges for people around being able to share their story the way you have been able to share yours. They way you figured that out. We know there?s a great deal of shame and stigma around mental health and substance misuse. So I am wondering if you have suggestions for other people in terms of finding ways to share their stories?

Jay: Yeah. I was so lucky. I have a friend back in my home city of Cincinnati (I am actually wearing the shirt right now by coincidence) who runs a storytelling organization. It is called Cincy Stories and they get well known or influential Cincinnatians to tell their stories at these live storytelling events. He knew my story. We had been friends for a little bit and he asked me multiple times to tell mine and I said, ?You have got to be kidding. That is never going to happen.? Right? And that is stigma at play. That is that knowing that this is how we talk about people with issues of addiction in their past with people who have struggled with mental health in their past. And I kept saying no and finally I got over that fear thanks to some people in my life encouraging people to do so. And I went up on stage that night. It was election night of 2015 so going on seven years ago. And told my story and as I walked off stage ( I remember this moment perfectly) my first thought was, ?well that was the end of my life.? I was sure that I had just committed this cardinal sin. At the time I was working in politics and non profit fundraising which are two industries that really rely on your public persona. I thought that I had just thrown it all away. And in fact, what happened was the exact opposite. I had grown up wondering what it was like to win the world series. I was a big baseball player. And the crush of people around me as I got off of the stage?I was like, ?Well. I guess I know what it is like to get the final out of the world series.?

The next day I got an email from Ted inviting me to do another one of their events in Cincinnati and the ball just kept rolling from there and clearly, here I am seven years later and this is what I do now. So I can tell people that not only will those life ending repercussions not happen ( I mean will there be detractors. Of course. There always are.) but I can tell you that there will be so many people that love you for it. But on the other side, the personal side, I felt?.I can?t even describe the weight that just disappeared. This thing that I had been carrying around at that point for five years about myself. This negative idea of myself evaporated in one instant. It allowed me?it was a bit closure to be honest to sort of move forward and say, ?Alright. I am open about this. I?ve admitted to it. I am at peace with it.? And that was a really beautiful moment. So I would definitely encourage everybody to do it. And it is why I spent a lot of time during COVID creating my podcast and creating my storytelling events that I did virtually for the last two years to give people this opportunity. And I had at this point over 15 people come through these events (more than that now, 20) a couple of whom it was their first time ever talking about their struggles opening. And couple of those people, one of whom is now out following my path and is doing this more for a living and it is really beautiful to watch because these moments can be so transformative. When you own up to your own experiences you can kind of say, ?F Stigma. This is who I am.? It is incredibly liberating and it can be a very beautiful moment.
Tina: To two gifts in one: One is the gift of relief. Telling?being true to who you are. Telling your story and the second gift is, which we find all of the time is, that storytelling connection right? People want to connect. So speaking of connection, I am curious after all of this our listeners will want to connect with you. So Where can they find you?

Jay: Yeah! So I have a couple of websites. My personal website is My business is Choose Your Struggle spelled just like it sounds. You can find me on all of your social medias by just searching Jay Shifman or Choose Your Struggle. The podcasts are wherever you are listening to this one, I have got a couple of them. Just reach out. I always love hearing from people. I always say if you are going through something and you don?t think anyone in your life understands, clearly I have been there and if you need someone to talk to I am here so definitely would love to hear from you.

Serena: Great! Yes! And we will put all of those links in our show notes too so that people can connect with you easily. So before we bring this episode to a close, I wonder if there is anything we haven?t asked you today that you would like to make sure you say and put out there to the world.

Jay: Oh Man. I always again want to reiterate the part about reaching out. You know when I was at my lowest, I was sure that there was nobody who cared if I continued living and that is what led me to attempt suicide twice and that second time overdosed. And what I can tell you from experience is that you always find afterwards that there are not only so many people who want to be there but there is a lot of hurt from people like, ?How would you not know that I am here and that I want you to keep living and to reach out.? Right? So it is unfortunate that that clarity comes if you are lucky enough to live through a suicide attempt. So I can promise you that if you are thinking that right now, that there is nobody in your life that cares, there is. You will find out if you reach out. But if you truly feel that, as I said earlier, reach out to somebody who understands whether it is me, whether it is my wonderful hosts here today, anyone in your life, big picture here, anyone in your life that you follow on social media who you know is open about this. We always take the time to talk to people because we have been where you are so definitely reach out. Do not suffer in silence.

Serena: Absolutely. Yeah, I will reiterate that point. Please reach out. Connect. So Jay, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your story and all the work you?re doing to encourage people to share their stories!

Jay: Well thanks so much for having me. This was a pleasure.

Serena: And so podcast friends, we are, as always, grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leave us a review, subscribe and share with others. You will find lots more content on our website You can also connect with all of our socials on our website as well! And we would love for you to leave us a message on our voicemail. Share a bit of your story with us or just call to say hi. You will find that number in our show notes as well.

Tina: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Serena: Thanks so much for listening!

Tina: Bye!