How My Fathers Suicide Forced Me To Rethink My Identity

I was on track to achieve my goal of being a CMO before age 30, then my father took his life in February 2012. It started as a typical rush-to-work Wednesday for me. I was working as a media supervisor in Los Angeles when my phone rang. It was my brother, calling with the news […]

I was on track to achieve my goal of being a CMO before age 30, then my father took his life in February 2012.

It started as a typical rush-to-work Wednesday for me. I was working as a media supervisor in Los Angeles when my phone rang. It was my brother, calling with the news that no one imagines they’ll ever get: my father had committed suicide.

My entire world came crashing down instantly. My family never thought anything like this could happen, but for months my father had been isolating himself from his friends, family, our community. There were indicators that something was wrong.

I vividly recall walking on the beach with him during the holidays — my last memory of him smiling — and noticing how visibly different he seemed to me both mentally and physically. He told me that he wished he had cancer, an understandable medical condition that could explain his withered look. But there was almost no time between when we realized something could be wrong and his death. It blindsided all of us.

Back to my second home

I moved back to New York City to find a comfortable, familiar place closer to my family. I had previously lived there five years and went back to work in my former office surrounded by some of my closest friends. This was supposed to be comforting, and while everything around me was the same as I had remembered, it felt oddly new. I started realizing I wanted completely different things out of my life because I was filtering it through the experience of my father’s death.

All the career-centered things I worked on for nearly a decade were no longer important to me. I was questioning the world I created for myself as a person in their late twenties, skyrocketing through an impressive career trajectory in the advertising world.  

Not only did I have to cope with the passing of my father and the emotional strain that came with it, but now I was also dealing with a sort of identity crisis. I had worked for so long to make myself into a specific career-minded person, then I realized I didn’t want it at all.

It was barely noticeable at first, but I slowly began to isolate myself over the next two years of my New York life. I’d come home on a Friday after a long work week, and instead of going out with friends, I’d just stay in. Friday nights in turned into weekends alone, and this mentality began creeping into the rest of my days. I was tired all the time, I stopped working out, and the city became overwhelming. Everything felt like chaos, and I was starting to feel far outside my comfort zone.

Just shy of my 30th birthday, I woke up and came to the stark realization I was going through the same process my father had gone through. Just as he withdrew from the family business and the community, I was doing the same. I started to draw connections between his behavior and our personalities, and it made me nervous. I reached out to a therapist for support because I realized I had gotten myself into a bit of a mess.

After sorting some things through with my therapist, I decided to remove myself from the chaos of NYC. I moved back to my Florida hometown to surround myself with supportive friends and family.

Finding Jess

I immediately made the decision to dedicate a significant amount of time in Florida to focusing on my physical fitness and mental health. I was on a quest to figure out my new identify. It’s a tall order to redefine your life, but I was determined to get out of the hole I had unintentionally dug.

I was always very self-aware, prone to analyzing all my behavior, decisions, and relationships. It used to require lots of effort to manually get into this state, but now it comes naturally and feels productive: I don’t overanalyze the things I can’t change. Now I focus on the things within my control. In practical terms, this means I work out multiple times a week, meditate regularly, and surround myself with people who truly support me. I don’t overanalyze the things I can’t change (well, at least not all the time). I have new tools for dealing with inner hardship and emotional stress, and I’m not afraid to use them.

I left behind my advertising career to split time between the Merrell Family Foundation, which raises awareness for mental health issues, and a new company called 81-c that I co-founded with my friend Dan.

In the wake of my father’s death, I reengineered my existence to bring more intention to my personal and professional lives. I’m not motivated simply by climbing a ladder anymore. These days I want to have an impact on the world by making it a better place.

You don’t need to be CMO by 30 to do that.

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