In this episode, Brian Beckcom speaks with Toby Ramirez-Johnson, author and suicide prevention advocate, about mental wellness and suicide prevention.
Toby is the author of "The Last Seven Days," a book she wrote after her brother, a U.S. Army Sergeant who served two tours of combat in Afghanistan, committed suicide. To raise awareness about the troubling mental health disparity that many of our brave servicemen and women face, Toby founded a non-profit organization called "Keep Our Troops Alive" (K.O.T.A.). Toby's organization offers a focus on coping and provides support to families who have experienced the death of a loved one as a result of suicide.
Watch this episode on YouTube
Brian and Toby discuss:
- How to talk about issues that make people uncomfortable
- A checklist of signs to watch for when you believe someone is susceptible to suicide
- A veteran's transition from warzones to civilian life
- Toby's Book: "The Last Seven Days"
- Isolation and the dangers of suppressing negative emotions
- Social media's role in today's mental health crisis
- Toby's non-profit organization: "Keeping Our Troops Alive" (K.O.T.A.)
- How to cope with the loss of a loved one
- The value of "protecting your peace" through troubling times
- And other topics
Toby Ramirez-Johnson is a New York native who currently resides in Florida, where she serves as the area director of human resources for Omni Hotel & Resorts. In addition to her professional success in the hospitality industry, Toby is a Pastor, public speaker, author, and entrepreneur. After her brother, a veteran, committed suicide, Toby took it upon herself to found K.O.T.A. This non-profit organization spreads awareness about suicide prevention among veterans and supports families who've lost loved ones due to suicide. To connect with Toby or to learn more about K.O.T.A., please visit www.KeepOurTroopsAlive.org and don't forget to like their Facebook page.
Read the show notes!
Brian Beckcom: Hey everybody. Brian Beckcom here and I have got Toby Ramirez-Johnson. Toby, how are you doing today?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Fabulous, Brian. Thank you so much for having me.
Brian Beckcom: I really, really appreciate you coming on. And like we were just talking about right before we went on the air. This is September 2020. September is National Suicide Awareness Month. And specifically, you have an experience with a military suicide. Specifically, your brother.
And you just wrote a book about it. You started an organization, Keep Our Veterans Alive. Is that right?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Keep Our Troops Alive.
Brian Beckcom: Keep Our Troops Alive. K O T A. KOTA.org. And. I just think the timing is perfect, Toby, because not only do we have something, like, I forgot what the exact numbers are. I'm sure you know what they are. 20 veteran suicides a day, still? Something like that on average.
But this has been a really hard time for a lot of people that aren't in the military. We've got the quarantine, we've got the people who have to stay at home. We've got the unrest as it relates to some racial issues. Politics is absolutely insane right now. And people are having a hard time. And so, you reached out to me and said, you know, I think this would be a perfect time to talk about suicide and these issues. And so I really want to talk about this quite a bit with you, but before we get into those topics, how you doing?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: I am doing great, coming from the beautiful state of Florida and ignoring all these storms that are heading every other place it seems but us this year. But things are well. And it's interesting, as you mentioned, being what September the month is known for with suicide awareness and prevention, and this was not planned. It wasn't this great strategic book release that we're going to time it. It literally just fell into place. I didn't even realize the timing of it until everything kind of happened. So, that's why I know it was definitely with a purpose.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. Well, and it's one of those issues that people don't really like to talk about that much, right? It's a little bit uncomfortable to talk about these sorts of things. There’s still a stigma and there was a stigma for years about mental health issues. And I think we're finally getting to the point in this country where we recognize that mental health not only is as important as physical health, but may and in many ways be more important than physical health. But there's still this stigma about talking about suicide and things like that.
Talking About Uncomfortable Issues
Brian Beckcom: So, let me ask you kind of right out of the gates, how do you deal with talking about an issue that is uncomfortable for a lot of people? Like, how do you handle this issue?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Well, I think that's really now what I'm finding is our mission is to create a safe space to have these conversations. So, you know, it’s where people -- you're right. It's uncomfortable. There's such a stigma.
You know, if someone has cancer. Think about it, if someone has cancer, even if they're going through radiation, sometimes that's even uncomfortable to have that conversation. But when it's mental health and you can't physically see it, it becomes more uncomfortable. So, this is where awareness is so important. And I just feel that right now, I'm trying to collaborate with as many people as possible to be that mouthpiece so we can get the information out.
The more I'm learning myself, I'm saying, “Wow, I wish I knew that eight years ago when my brother took his life.” I mean, literally, it's a checklist of: Yup. Yup. Yup. And I said, “Wow, but I didn't know that information.” So, now I'm like, we need to get that out so other people can have that valuable knowledge. And knowledge is power. The more you know about it, now you become more comfortable in speaking about those things.
And that's why I say, you know, we're trying to bring light to a dark topic. No one wants to talk about death. No one even wants to write a will. No one wants to buy a life insurance policy. Why? It's associated with death. And suicide is that immediate death. So, it's a very scary thing. But when we say, you know, it's okay to talk about it. There's hurting people that at the end of the day, it's not that they even want to die. They want the pain to stop. So how do we help them get to that point that the pain can stop?
Brian Beckcom: You know, there's a notion in Buddhist philosophy and in some other Eastern philosophies and also in stoicism called -- I think it's called memento mori. But essentially the idea is to contemplate death and think about it. And, you know, when I first heard this concept I was like, “Man, that is so macabre. That does not sound like something I want to do.” But when you do it, what it does is it makes you appreciate life.
And so this is an uncomfortable topic. No doubt about it. Suicide, death, and things like that. But we're going to talk about it and my hope is that by the end of this conversation, it'll end up being a positive conversation.
I got to tell you, Toby, you know, I had a problem probably 10 plus years ago, and I've written about this publicly, with panic attacks. I got into a situation where I was having panic attacks every single day. And I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. And it made me realize that I used to think like a lot of people that this mental health stuff and this PTSD stuff, this was all a little bit exaggerated. You just needed to tough it out and just be a tough guy, right? And, you know, my personal experience made me realize that that's kind of stupid, actually. I mean, mental health is a real condition and you can get real treatment from real professionals about it.
About Toby Ramirez-Johnson
Brian Beckcom: And so I think it's a really important topic, but before we get into some of that, tell us a little bit about your background, where you're from, where you grew up, stuff like that. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Sure. So, I hail from Brooklyn, New York.
Brian Beckcom: Nice.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yes. So, New Yorker over here. And I was raised in Connecticut. We moved there when I was about twelve years old. Was a child of a teenage mother. So, my mom had just turned 18 in May and I was born in June. So, I think -- and coming from her Hispanic background, I think we were destined to be a statistic and we really broke a lot of barriers where, you know, my mom worked really hard. Wanted to provide for me to make sure that I had the best. And I definitely didn't have the latest sneakers, but there was always a roof over my head and there was food in my stomach. And she made education very key for me. And I always loved to read. I always loved to write. I think I probably wrote a book when I was nine years old. Just love to fantasize.
And I was an only child. So, she had gotten married and had a child. And back then you didn't really find out what the sex of the child was, you know, until the baby was born. And all I knew at the age of 11, I wanted a little baby sister. I wanted a little doll. That's what I envisioned. And when they called from the hospital, they were way too happy, because my stepfather, I knew, wanted a boy. So, when he handed the phone to my mom, I said, “It's a boy, isn't it?” And she's like, “Yes.” And I'm like, “Eww.”
But, you know, the minute they brought -- and he was a fighter. He was premature. He only weighed five pounds. His lungs weren't developed. My brother, Kenny. And when we finally brought him home, he literally became like my son. We were inseparable. We were so close. And so that was kind of my journey. And stayed in Connecticut for some time. Ended up in the hospitality industry while I was going to college. It was a job and it ended up turning into a career. I love dealing with people. So I've been doing hospitality, oh my goodness, since 1990.
Brian Beckcom: Wow.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yeah. So, took a little break for a little bit.
Brian Beckcom: So, you've been doing it since you were two years old?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Exactly. I knew I liked you, Brian.
Brian Beckcom: You know, I was looking at some of your stuff this morning and you’re pretty high up there in the hospitality industry. I think I read that you're currently in charge of, what is it, marketing for the Omni Hotels?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: I'm an Area Director of Human Resources. So, I work at a beautiful resort which in normal circumstances would have close to a thousand people. And as we were talking about depression and anxiety right now, I mean, I'm seeing it all around me where people aren't working, especially in this industry.
But I've always had a passion for people. And then my husband and I also, we pastor a church in Orlando. We are the parents of two amazing children. My one daughter got married last year.
Brian Beckcom: Congratulations.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Thank you. And then my son, I boo-hoo cried when he left for college August of last year, even though he was going an hour and a half away. And then I think I boo-hoo cried when he came back in March like a boomerang because of COVID. I got used to just me and my husband in the house. But it's been great having him back. So, now he's doing online classes.
So, I'm very passionate when it comes to people. You know, the last couple of years I've been really passionate about financial literacy, especially in the minority community. Breaking some barriers, chains, giving them the knowledge, you know being -- the greatest feeling was helping people who were renters now owning homes. You know, I was passionate about that. And this book I wrote eight years ago, it was literally just tucked away somewhere. Never thought I would do anything with it. And now this has flourished into something else.
Brian Beckcom: You know, you talked earlier about reading and writing and you were very young and I'm the same exact way. I think I read my first 300-page book when I was, like, in third grade and I'll never forget which one it was. It was The Hobbit. And the reason I read it is because my uncle who I very much looked up to had read it and said it was good.
And so I started reading it and I got hooked on reading at a very, very young age. I got hooked on writing at a very, very young age. And I think, you know, my dad made a deal with my brother and I. My mom died when I was 10, so it was just the three of us, but my dad made a deal. He said, “I'll buy any book you want if you read it.” And so he really encouraged that. And I tell people of all the things that I've done, from an academic or scholastic or whatever you want to call it standpoint, reading is by far number one.
And I'm a little bit worried to be honest with you, Toby, that fewer people read books now, right? To me, it's like -- and we could talk about this for a very long time. But how cool is it, right? That I could literally, or you could literally, pick up a book written by the best physicist the world has ever known, Richard Feynman, or Einstein, or something like that, and literally get the thoughts of some of the smartest people in the world put into your own brain. I mean, to me, that's almost -- I still think about that somewhat of a miracle, how that works.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yeah, it's amazing. And, you know, especially now we're in such a digital age, you know, so everyone has their Kindles and I am about the old fashioned book. There's something about touching a book, the smell of a book, turning the pages, marking it. So yes, I'm very old school when it comes to that.
And actually, COVID really provided me that opportunity to go back to the love of reading, just because you get so caught up in life. I was fortunate. I worked the whole time. It was a shorter work week and I had more flexibility, but just with more time in general in life. So it was definitely going back to something I love.
Brian Beckcom: I got to -- I'm the same exact way. I used to read on an iPad and then I got to the point where I was like, you know, I can't focus the same way I can focus when I actually have a physical book. And so, same thing that you just said. I like the smell of the book. I like the touch of the book. I like going in the bookstore, just ’cause I like the way it smells in a bookstore, you know?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Books and coffee. It's like heaven being in there.
Brian Beckcom: Exactly. And when you think about it, think about the technology. I have a computer science degree so I've been in technology for a very, very long time. But think about the technology of a book. It doesn't need to be charged. It's available at all times. It conveys whatever information the author wants to convey. I mean, it really is remarkable technology that still works great.
Mental Health Issues and the Military
Brian Beckcom: Well, Toby, I wanna kind of get straight to a couple of what I think are very, very important questions. And one of the questions that I have about suicide and people that might be at risk, you mentioned earlier about kind of a checklist of stuff. And so, I’ve been wondering for a couple of weeks now, I've been thinking about this podcast, some of the questions I have, and one of the questions I have, and I think a lot of people will have, is when you're interacting with somebody, are there certain signs or behaviors that, in your experience, you can look at and say, “This is something that I might need to pay a little closer attention to,” or, you know what I'm saying? Like, what do you tell people to look for to identify if somebody might be at risk?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: One thing that was prevalent with my brother was the mood swings. It was, you know, talking one moment and left field the next. And jokingly I'm like, “What are you, bipolar?” You know, and just saying those things, because not really understanding.
Brian Beckcom: And just so people know, your brothers met two tours of duty in Afghanistan. Was he in the Army or in the Marines?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: He was in the Army. He was a Sergeant in the Army, yes.
Brian Beckcom: But he was in combat twice in Afghanistan.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Oh, yeah.
Brian Beckcom: So, he comes back and let me just ask, when you describe the mood swings, was he like that before he went to combat or was this a pretty massive change?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: What we have found is that there were issues before he left. This just magnified it to a whole new level. And that's where I would just -- for my own personal -- I would just want to really understand what type of screening is done for those going into the service. You know, a lot of times, years ago was when you had a bad kid, what would you do? You send them to the military. That'll straighten you out.
Brian Beckcom: Exactly. My father-in-law did that exact thing to my brother-in-law. And it worked on him, but it took a little while.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yeah, but that’s what you did, right? It teaches you discipline. It teaches you to be a man. You know, my brother came back. I saw the transition of him being from a boy to a man. I mean, it was just amazing to see that.
But then I also saw that those issues that were there before were just magnified. So where before he may be a little moody, here, you know, if you woke him up, he may jump up and punch you in the face because he just didn't know where he was. So, you know, I think that screening process of more than just a number because we have to meet our quota to get recruit is are you really screening them to see those preexisting conditions, so to speak?
The other thing is, depression, a lot of people -- it's evident, you know, people that are spending more time sleeping. Or, now they can't sleep. It's kind of one or the other. You know, eating binges or lack of eating. Excessive weight gain or weight loss. A loss of desire to do some basic things that used to be the norm. And, you have to understand is a lot of times people aren't going to outright and tell you, “Oh, I'm depressed,” because a lot of times they don't realize that they are.
81%. of people that succumb to suicide, they've left some type of sign or warning. There's been something, a cry out for help. But a lot of times we don't want to step on someone's toes or we're embarrassed, or, you know, “Oh, I'm not sure. I'm not a doctor.” And it's like, “No, get them help before.” I wish I could have done -- and I did, actually, try to do all those things and hence that’s why the book is called The Last Seven Days That I Spent with my Brother. But if I knew now what I -- if I know now what I knew -- if, back then. Oh my gosh, it would’ve been -- even as much as I helped him, it would have been a whole new level, because I'm more armored up with that information.
Brian Beckcom: I love -- so, that's a really important point. I think there are people, and I would maybe even include myself in this group, at least years ago, they're just kind of not willing to say anything. I mean, they’re, like you said, “I'm not a doctor. I'm not going to get involved. I don't know whether I'm right or wrong.” And in a situation like this, it seems to me pretty clear that you need to err on the side of action, right? I mean, if there's a question in your mind and somebody is struggling, don't be afraid to reach out and try to help.
And for people that are just listening to the podcast, not watching on YouTube, I've got a veteran's crisis line phone number behind me. And if you go to KeepOurTroopsAlive.org, you've got a bunch of resources, too. But the point is the resources are out there. I'm not sure that the problem is that we don't have enough resources. It's just that sometimes people that are in this condition, they just don't want to use the resources. You know what I mean? It's a little bit of a dilemma. If you're depressed, it's hard to get the energy up to reach out and get yourself help.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Exactly. And, you know, I think it's varying also because those from the military, when my brother passed away, at the wake, there were so many servicemen coming through and they were hurting. They were battered. Of course, because they lost, you know, their brother, but just in general. And he was number seven in their platoon that had committed suicide.
Brian Beckcom: Are you serious? Wow. That's unbelievable.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yeah. Number seven. And that was eight years ago, so who knows what that count, you know, if that had increased. And what they told us was, “You're trained that you need to toughen up. You're trained to be desensitized to a lot of things because you're going to war to kill people.” And they're not telling you're going to war, that will include children and women that are being killed also. So when you learn to mask all of those feelings, and basically numb yourself, when they come back and they start feeling something uncomfortable, often what they do, they try to numb themselves. And a lot of times that can be through drugs. It could be alcohol. It could be through sleep. It could be eating again. I mean, there's so many things.
Brian Beckcom: Violence, some of the time. Yeah.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: And then the other part was that many of them told us that when they came back, they were messed up, but they were told, as they go through a screening to be released is, “This is what you say if you want to go see your wife, your children again.” So it's kind of, you know, “No, I'm okay, because I want to see my wife, my children. But I'm really not okay.” And then they're put back in society where they're embarrassed of the things they've had to do. And they're reliving those images over and over and over again.
How is that a conversation to have with your significant other? “Oh, I killed 20 people.” You know what I mean? So, it's very isolating. And then the brotherhood comes, “Well, now I'm going to drink with the men and women that were there with me.” But, you know, alcohol is a depressant. So then that even makes it worse. So, it's just a vicious cycle.
Brian Beckcom: There's a great book, I think it's called Tribe by a war correspondent whose name is escaping me right now. But he talks about the difficulties that members of the military have when they come back to civilian life. And I've talked to a number of combat veterans on the podcast. I know a bunch of combat veterans. My dad flew 200 combat missions over Vietnam. And one of the points, this is a very short book and I really recommend it. Sebastian Junger is the name of the author. And he's written a bunch of really, really good books.
But, anyway, it's a short book and I recommend it to all the military people that I know because he talks about how, I mean, just imagine, Toby, being in this high intensity environment where you could get killed literally at any moment. And you're in this group of people that you become so close to. And then go back to the United States and back to normal life. We just expect, we expect our veterans just to go from this intense, like, one of the most intense experiences a human being could ever have with combat. War. And then you're just supposed to go back into normal life? That's what we expect of them?
That's, not -- I don't think that's reasonable and part of this, I think, Toby, and maybe you can speak to this a little bit is maybe we need to put a little more focus as a country on not just sending our men and women, young men and women, primarily, over to kill people overseas, but maybe we should put a little more emphasis on what we do with them when they get back.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Absolutely. And that's what the heartbreaking part is, is that it doesn't seem that emphasis is there. Or, it's very, very hard for them to get services that they need. And everything's very scattered. And I recently discovered timeframes that for you to tap into some of those services and you may try to tap in six months later and they're like, “Well, it's too late now. Now it's not available to you.”
And, you know, think of this year of COVID, how horrific it's been for so many people, you know, losing their jobs. People are fearful of losing their houses. Their children are now being homeschooled. People are terrified of getting ill. So, this crisis has been very depressing and stressful for us, but imagine being in another country, literally in a war zone that you can't even sleep at night because you don't know what's going to happen. And then you're in combat and now you may lose your friend. This is someone that you are riding along with. You're looking out, and now the guilt that you have. But no one's dealing with those psychological issues when they can come back.
Or, you know, my brother had to go to three different psychiatrists. They were all prescribing three different things because they just could not get them on tune with one doctor straight through. So, you know, it's just so heartbreaking that those who really want to cry out and try to get the help they need, it’s just so hard for them.
Brian Beckcom: No doubt about it. And the other thing you said, which I think is very perceptive is especially with the military and, maybe sports and things like that, there is a mentality. And I've played sports and know a lot of people in the military that, look, just like you said: “Hey, toughen up. Okay? Quit being a wimp.”
And I don't know if you saw this, but last year, two very prominent NBA basketball players, DeMar Derozen and Kevin Love came out and said that they had had some mental health issues. And, you know, thankfully the reaction was very, very positive, but for an athlete at that high caliber to come out, it's almost like you're admitting to being weak or having a weakness. And the same thing with the military guys. It is hard -- and women. It is hard for them to admit that they have a mental health issue. There's still that stigma. Or at least there's this thought that there's this stigma.
But, I'm here to tell you. And by the way, when I had my issues, I just clenched my teeth and found meditation and I never went to a doctor like a dumbass guy, sorry for the language. But, I look back on it in retrospect now that I know what I know, and I'm like, “Man, that was stupid.” I could have gone to somebody like Dr. Carleah East and had a couple of appointments and she would have probably gotten me straightened up pretty quickly. And so, you know, there's this idea that there's this stigma, but I think this is kind of -- people are starting to catch onto this idea that look, you know, there are mental health issues that are real issues there. They're just as real as physical issues.
The Last Seven Days
Brian Beckcom: Well, Dr. -- I mean, sorry, Toby.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: You can call me that, that’s fine.
Brian Beckcom: Pastor. Tell us as much as you can about the story and the book. That, like, what happened? It's called The Last Seven Days. It's about your brother's situation. Kind of walk us through your experience with that situation.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Sure. So, I had received -- I was living at the time in Omaha, Nebraska. My brother was living in Connecticut. He had come back already from serving his second tour. He had been home for some time. He had a college degree, University of Connecticut. He was working at Sikorsky Aircraft, which is very prominent, huge location in Connecticut, working on planes, and kind of a generational thing. My uncle, my stepfather had all worked there for years. And he owned a townhouse. He owned a home. So. He was engaged to be married. So, everyone's like, “Wow, he's living the life. Everything's great.”
And I had received a phone call on a Friday from his fiancée who I'd never met before, because I didn't live in the state. And she said, “Your brother's in the hospital.” And I said, “Well, what happened?” She said, “Well, he got some pills from the psychiatrist and we think he tried to kill himself because he started acting erratically after taking these pills that we had to call and have an ambulance take him.”
So, you know, I chatted with her and after I hung up the phone, I said, “Okay, what should I do?” And I kept trying to call. I couldn't get through to him. I didn't realize they had taken his phone away. I couldn't get through to the hospital he was at. The next morning, I sent him a text. I said, “You better answer me. If not, I'm going to head over there.” Kind of an empty threat. I didn't hear back. And there was something in my gut that said, “You need to go.” So, I looked at my husband. I said, “I need to book a flight.” And he said, “Nope, let's pack the car.” And here we were, we had three children and drove 24 hours from Omaha to Connecticut.
Brian Beckcom: Damn good husband right there.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yes, he's amazing.
And so when we got there, I showed up at the hospital and I'm looking around me and I can't believe I'm in a psychiatric ward. And they bring me up to see him, and my brother is over 6’2”, a big burly guy. Walks over with just this empty look in his eyes. He could barely talk above a whisper. And my heart just broke as I held him, because I know he was broken. And we talked for about 15 minutes. A friend showed up, which I was glad to get out of there because I just wanted to cry and I was determined, “Okay, I'm going to do what I need to do to help him.”
And he was released that Wednesday. And I told them he was not ready to be released. They were concerned because he had a huge amount of guns in the house. He was a collector of guns. He would take them apart. He was really obsessed with guns, and that's what their concern was. So, we had all the guns removed. But I said, “He's not ready.” But in the family meeting, he joked with them and laughing and that's what he would do. And that's what a lot of people in pain do, they mask it with humor. Look at all the comedians that have committed suicide.
Brian Beckcom: Isn’t that something else. What a great observation that is. That is a very, very true observation. Isn’t that something? Yeah.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yep. But, it's crazy. The moment we walked out of that hospital, his eyes just dropped. He had a downcast look on his face. And it just switched. And that was Wednesday. And we continued to stay together for the rest of the week and try to get him some things he would need as we were ready to go home. And we already had it planned out that that Sunday, I was going -- me and him were going to church together. I was going to do groceries, clean his house, and then head to make the trip back. And, that didn't happen.
I knocked on his door, he didn't answer. And I said, “Okay, I'm not going to force him to go to church.” And I went into his office and started working. And a few hours later, my son who was 11 at the time walked in the room. And I said, it was nobody but God that shielded him from seeing my brother who was already dead for hours on the floor. And he calls out to my husband and he says, “Dad, I think Uncle Kenny left.”
So, my husband said, “Well, bring the dog downstairs.” And my husband went and called out my name. And I was three levels down. And so, I knew. Just hearing my husband's voice, I knew. And I asked my son later, I said, “How did you know uncle Kenny died?” He said, “Well, mom, when you ran up the stairs, you said, ‘Please don't tell me my brother’s dead.’” I don't even recall saying that.
And I went to go in the room. My husband said, “No.” And I said, “No, I need to get in here.” And my husband's a big guy, I pushed him out of the way, ran in the room. And it was too late. My brother probably had passed away about 12:30 and this was now -- 12:30 in the morning. And this was now 11:00. So, I mean, just hours had passed. And it literally just changed me as a person, you know, from having somebody I love and always being that mothering protection that I felt, you know, even through the funeral, I had to make sure that people knew there was more to him in his life versus how he went out in his death because people think suicide is weakness. They think suicide, you know, “You gave up too easy.”
And I used an analogy the other day, you know, with the actor that just passed away, Chadwick. And I said, he was this great actor. He just seemed like a genuinely nice person. Everyone liked him. He was educated. And when he died, people were heartbroken. But when they found out that he had been sick with cancer, it's like, oh my God, he became a hero. It's like, “How was he doing all of this and he'd been sick?”
Well, you have people that are just like Chadwick, but maybe their issue is mental health. And they succumb to suicide and they're not being called heroes. They're being called weak. So, you know, it's just so sad that, as you said, stigma. But I am happy that there is more dialogue going on to bring more awareness to it.
Brian Beckcom: I cannot believe I got a little bit of a chill bump there when you were talking about that, because I've never heard mental illness described that way. And I could not agree with you more. When somebody -- you were talking about Chad - I think Boseman, Chadwick Boseman, the actor who died of colon cancer. And he kind of kept that from everybody until the very, very end. And you're right. People looked at him like, “What a guy.” I mean, this guy was so positive, in the meantime he's fighting stage four colon cancer and nobody knows about it.
But what's the difference between having, you know, some sort of cancerous growth in a part of your body and having some sort of cancerous thoughts going through your head? And just like you said, mental illness can be the cause of death just like cancer could be the cause of death, or any other disease, because it is a disease. And what a great way to put that.
So, let me ask you what, so, there was one attempt and then, shortly after that, there was a successful suicide attempt. During that timeframe, how many days went by between the first attempt and then the actual suicide?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Well, it was all in the same week, so the first time that Friday, and what he told me, and I don't know if this is the truth. And he said, “I honestly, wasn't trying to kill myself the first time.” He said, “The medicine the doctor gave me, I actually started to like myself.” And I just broke my heart.
He said it was explained to him that his brain had a malfunction. That the part of your brain that has joy, happiness, that it wasn't working for him. So he said when he got this medicine, it was like candy. “I finally felt good.” He says, “I looked in the mirror and I liked what I saw and I wanted to keep that feeling because I hadn't had it in so long.” So, because he took so much, then that's when he ended up in the hospital.
But then the last, that Sunday morning, So that happened on Friday. We got there Saturday. And then he died the following Sunday. So that's the seven days. That Sunday, that genuinely was an attempt. His fiance had broken up with him that week. She just couldn't take it anymore. You know, the erratic mood swings. Just everything. And I totally get it.
And that was definitely intentional because he even wrote on his hand to be buried next to his best friend. And part of my brother's guilt was, you know, aside from the war and what he saw was his second tour was a voluntary tour and he convinced his friend to go with him on the volunteer tour and his friend was married, had children, and a week before they were due to come home, his friend died in combat.
So, that was my brother's best friend. So, that was just like, “It should have been me. It should have been me.” To the point that when my brother passed away, we didn't even realize. He actually had a huge life insurance policy to go to that family. And, you know, the wife who knew my brother so well, and she was so devastated, she couldn't attend the funeral. It was still too raw from her own husband, and that was about a year and a half had passed. But she came to see us and, you know, here we were to be able to inform her of this and she just broke down. She was like, “That's who your brother was, always taking care of people.” And it's sad when you give and you give, but you're empty and nothing's filling you back up.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. Well, and that's a really poignant story. One of the things, and I've done, you know, I'm not an expert on this. I'll just say that right up front. I'm a computer science, philosophy, and lawyer, but I've done a lot of reading on this because I've had some personal experiences with this, and I've done a lot of writing on it, too. And one of the things that I've found is that when people get depressed, typically they're telling themselves a story in their head of some sort. And it's a story like you're talking about. “It's my fault my friend died.” Okay?
Now, you and I both know that's nonsense. His friend made the decision to go over there on his own. It is not your brother -- it was never your brother's fault what happened. But, when you get into this loop where you start telling yourself a story, sometimes it's hard to break out of that mental loop. And then the other thing I've found, Toby, is people that are really depressed tend to think that they're the only ones that feel the way they do. Like, they start to feel very, very isolated.
Brian Beckcom: One thing that I've found that can be helpful with that, and I want to hear you comment on that, is when you find out that you're not the only one going through hard stuff. There are a lot of people going through some very, very difficult times, especially now. There's something about this feeling that you're not in it alone. That there are other people in the situation that have figured out a way to work through some of these issues. And so speak to that just a little bit, if you don't mind.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Sure. I do want to go back to what you said about that story, right? You replay that story in your mind. And that happened to me. Because the night my brother died, I heard a large thump upstairs and it was actually when he fell. He broke a table and fell on the floor. And I carried the burden, “Well, if I just went up there to see what was wrong, he'd be alive.”
That's not the case. I mean, even the EMT said it was just too gone at that point. And that kept me in bed. After we went through the funeral, everything kept me in a state. I started getting depressed. And, you know, I finally went back to work. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I would come home. I would drop my pocketbook. I walk right to the room, walk right past my kids, I figured my husband would feed them, and literally lay in the dark.
And what broke it was my husband came to me one day and he says, “Okay, we can't keep having you do this.” So, thank God for him that he didn't let me stay in that cycle where some people would have been, like, “Oh, well, she has to get through it.” It got to the point like, yes, we need to mourn and grieve, but this was becoming a bit more.
Brian Beckcom: For sure.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: So, how do we talk about it? I got up and I said, “Okay, let me find a group. I need something.” And that's part of how this book also was birthed because there was nothing I can find for siblings. Everything was if your spouse passed away by suicide, if your child passes away, if your parent. And siblings have such a unique dynamic. I mean, there are secrets that my brother and I never told my mother. She'd kill us if she knew, right?
Brian Beckcom: I have a younger brother, too. And we're the same way. I mean, my younger brother, we have secrets that we will never tell our dad.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yup. Yup. So, you know, and I needed that from that perspective. So, that's where, you know, I went to a group. It was interesting being in that environment. And I saw that people were really stuck in time. You know, it was exactly a month to the day that my brother had died that I went to that group. And afterwards, the facilitator, she said, “When did you say that he passed away?” And I said, “It's a month today.” And she says, “Oh, my God.” She said, “You're so much further than those that are even here.”
I mean, but it was traumatic. There was people there that have had three people in their family die of suicide. And, you know, my brother passed away by pills. I mean, not that there's a better way, but, you know, when it’s gunfire and all these other traumatic things. And I realized, I said, you know what? I have to find a way to help people not get stuck in that place. And talking is good, but we want to talk so we can move you in a better direction.
Are there days that I still cry? Absolutely. I can tell you, And I haven't told anyone this. My book, I haven't read the published copy. I don't think I can. I read an excerpt of it. I haven't been to my brother's gravesite. He's buried in Connecticut. That's one thing I can't do. And my mother and I got into it one day because, you know, she lives in Florida and when she goes to Connecticut and I said, “I don't want to remember him that way.” You know, so I think everyone has to find their own way of coping. But at the same time, I think, you know, pain produces purpose. This was a deep-rooted pain and how can I help somebody else that maybe they won't even have to go through this route because they can help their loved one.
Brian Beckcom: So, I'll tell you a story that I haven’t told very many people, either. When my mother died, I was 10 years old. And I remember she was from -- we were living in Texas at the time, but she was from right outside of Philadelphia. Her family is from right outside of Philly and she had two sisters and an older brother. One of her sisters passed away this year of COVID, actually, although she was pretty unhealthy and so that was just kind of the final straw.
But anyway, we were in Pennsylvania and right outside of Philadelphia for the funeral and I didn't want to go to the gravesite. I remember we went to the one, I forget. What do you call it? The first part of the funeral where they do the service and, you know, I was sitting in the front as a 10-year-old kid and I'll tell you the other thing is, I don't think this is an accident. I broke out that day with the worst case of chickenpox you could ever imagine. I think it was my body just stressed out. But, the point is I did not go out to the gravesite as a 10-year-old child. I was like, “I just, I'm sorry, I just don't want to do this.”
And, you know, for me, and it took me a long time to figure this out. I never really thought, Toby, that I was at all traumatized by my mother's death. And now that I'm 45, 47 years old, I've had a chance to reflect on this a little bit. And I was traumatized. And so maybe some of the problems that I had in my late thirties and early forties with panic attacks and things like that were from some unaddressed trauma.
I mean, I remember when I was a kid thinking when my dad would go to work, “Please, God, let him come home. I do not want to be an orphan.” Right? I remember having those conscious thoughts. But I never looked at this, you know, when I was in school and when I started practice, I never felt like I was some sort of a person that had been traumatized before. I was always an optimistic, still am an optimistic, positive person. But these things that happen to us, like you said, they're very deep-rooted. And sometimes we don't even know they're there and they have effects on us that we don't make the connection between. Right?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Exactly. We see all this -- it's kind of, when you're sick, you see symptoms, but you don't always know where it's coming from. And we often treat the side effects or the other symptoms, but we don't get to that rooted issue. And then now you're like, “Wait, this is probably why this has been happening.” And, you know, then you discover what it is. And so no, I totally can see that.
I think I've learned where my barriers are. You know, maybe there will be a point I would go there, but I just knew I wanted to remember him in other ways. And I think part of it is learning how people grieve, also. You know, people grieve very, very differently. So, for some would say, “Don't cry,” or some would say, “You're crying too much.” You know, it's where you are with your point of time.
My son was very close with my brother and that deeply affected, you know, to the point when he read the book a few weeks ago, it literally really brought him back to that day and he was like, “Wait, wait a minute,” and had to put it down.
So, you know, we've all been affected very, very different. My husband acknowledges he suffers from PTSD because he walked in the room and he was very close with my brother. My husband and I've been together for 23 years so, I mean, he knew my brother when my brother was a teenager. So, they had a very close relationship. So, you know, we've all just had to deal with it.
But what's amazing, it wasn't until we did the book launch and we all started talking, it was very similar to a talk show set up and really talking about mental health. And we started really talking amongst ourselves in the family. It was just kind of everyone's isolated, dealing with their own pain, but we never came together. I think part of it, they wanted to protect me and I wanted to protect them. And at the end of the day, even eight years later, we're now experiencing a new level of healing because we are talking more about it.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. And one of the things that I'm pretty sure of. I mean, there's not a lot of things that I'm sure of in this world, but one of the things I'm fairly certain of at this point is if you have some emotions, particularly negative emotions, there's kind of two ways to deal with that. One is to deal with them directly and head on and feel those emotions. And the other is to try to suppress them and you can suppress them with drugs, alcohol, all sorts of bad stuff, gambling. Like we were talking about violence, sleeping. Like, these are all strategies where you're essentially trying to suppress these emotions.
And, you know, it's like anytime you try to suppress them, you try to push it down, you try to hold it in. Eventually it's going to pop, right? Eventually. So suppressing the emotions and the feelings is not, in my opinion, the best way to handle these things. It’s dealing with them directly. And once you do that, once you say “Well I'm very, very upset today because I'm thinking about this or that. I'm thinking about my mother dying, or I'm thinking about how my brother committed suicide. I'm feeling bad about that,” rather than going and grabbing a beer or drugs or something, probably a more helpful way to deal with that is just to sit there and say, “Okay, what am I feeling? Why am I feeling this?” And to actually work through the emotions rather than try to suppress them.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: And, you know, the beauty of the world we live in now is there's so many resources to be able to do that. If you don't even know how to do that. Especially COVID, I think so many people got exposed to doing your doctor's appointments online and they're like, “Wow, I'm never going to a doctor’s office again. This has been great.”
Brian Beckcom: This is awesome.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: And, you know, as you mentioned, Dr. East, the other day said, “I need to make a virtual appointment with her. She's amazing.” But, a point about that is a good friend of mine. She told me, she said, “You're really walking in this place.” She's like, “You need to make sure once a month, you're talking to someone professionally just to keep you.” And I'm okay with that.
And a lot of people are ashamed of that and it's like why? I said -- and as you mentioned, the basketball players. You're seeing a lot more celebrities and athletes that are coming out saying, “Hey, I have, you know, some concerns there and I've had some struggles,” and I'm grateful for that because they truly are the ones that people say, “Okay, if they could do it, then I can do it. If they're experiencing it, then I can experience it.” So, you know, I welcome that they're doing that because it really is helping this population.
Brian Beckcom: And it's just like what we talked about earlier. Talking about it, getting it out there in the open is way better psychologically for you than trying to keep it inside, trying to suppress it. So, you know, this conversation is really good because we're talking about things. We're not trying to hide things. And I found that sometimes you think people will react to something in a negative way when they actually won’t.
So, I'll give you a quick story. I dipped chewing tobacco like an idiot for 25 years and I quit four or five years ago and I put a post up about it on social media. And I was a little nervous about it, to be honest with you. And I got just an outpouring of support. Right? And I felt kinda like I was weak for being addicted and not being able to quit this. And in fact, there was a lot of people that said, “Oh, man, I went through the same experience. This is how I deal with it. I'm so proud of you.” And blah, blah, blah.
And so I think sometimes we tell ourselves a story when we're depressed, that if we talk about it, people are not going to look at us the same. My experience is the exact opposite. People will run to support you. People want to help you, right?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: It's, I think, natural for us. And what's great, you know, we're having this conversation and there's not the word “doctor” in front of our names. We’re everyday people. We have careers, we have families, we have lives, and it's impacted us in some way. So, when we create that environment that this can be an everyday conversation with someone. Now, I purposely try to interject it when I'm speaking with somebody because I want them to feel, “Oh, okay. It's okay for me to say something.” Because naturally when we see people were, “Hey, how you doing?” When does anyone ever respond, “Oh, I’m horrible today.”
Brian Beckcom: Exactly. Nobody.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Right? No. But, you know, you're asking that and some people are really hurting, right? You know, inside. So, no, this has definitely been just great because I just love the dialogue. And look how simple it is, and it's flowing and this is what we want people to know. It's okay. And that was the topic of our webinar last week was, “it's okay not to be okay.” But let's do something about it. Let's just do something about it and help you get back to a healthier mental state because when you're healthy, mentally, everything else then comes into perspective.
You know, a lot of people that commit suicide, they're just caught in that one thought bubble. So think about if you ever have a negative thought bubble, we all have them. But being caught in that one thought bubble. And, you know, I heard a doctor say, “When someone came to me and was like, ‘I want to kill myself.’” And the doctor said, “Do you really want to kill yourself? Or do you want to stop the pain?” “Oh, no, I want to stop the pain.” “Okay. Let's treat then the pain. And let's think of one positive thing that you enjoy about life.” And it's like, “Oh, I really do like my life. I just don't want to feel like this anymore.” “Okay, great. Well, let's take care of that.”
Just like if you're sick, you know, if your toe is not feeling well, it's causing you a lot of pain. You're not saying, “I want to die because my toe” -- no, “Let me treat that. So then I could feel better.”
Brian Beckcom: Absolutely. And, you know, you said so many great things. One thing, I think, I want to flag what you just said about, you know, you want to address the pain. It's not that you want to end your life, it's that you want to stop feeling that way. So I want to flag that real quick and we'll talk about that in a second.
Mental Health and Social Media
Brian Beckcom: But one of the things I feel like I have to mention is I've had a couple friends that have struggled with mental health issues as well as they get older and, I mean, when I first found out about it, I was stunned. And the reason I was stunned is because I follow these people on social media and it looks like their lives are fantastic. Like, I couldn't believe it. I'm like, “Man, you look” -- and so the point of me bringing that up, Toby, is that social media, I think, is contributing to this because nobody puts their worst pictures on social media. Everybody puts this story about how great their life is.
I think not only is that not true for most people, but if you're in a depressed state and you start looking at all your friends living this great life and everybody's smiling and happy and on the beach drinking Mai Tais, it makes you more depressed cause you start thinking, “Well that,” -- but in reality, most people, that's just a tiny snapshot of their life. There's a lot of folks on social media that look like they're having a great time. They're struggling, right?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yup. It's, you know, no one puts that first picture they snap of themselves. It's the one that's been filtered and edited and they've taken 20 times before they get the right image. And, you know, our mind, that's -- we capture those images and it just plays. And, you know, someone who's battling mental illness, that's part of it. It's just these same images that continue to plague their mind. So, social media definitely has a huge part of it
We have to be also careful the messages that people put out that are dealing with this. You know, when my brother passed away, I had a Facebook, but I wasn't really on Facebook the way I'm on Facebook now. And he wasn't huge with social media, but he had a page, but I was at a restaurant that evening and he posted on social media something along the lines, “Going to sleep like a corpse. Have a happy Sunday.” And so many people were, like, making jokes on it, you know. “Well have the best night's sleep ever.” I mean, it was just nonstop. And I got so mad because so many of them knew that he had just come out of a mental hospital.
I didn't see the post till after he passed away. And once again there was that guilt. “Well, if I saw the post, I would have called.” I don't know what I would have done. But, you know, you feel that guilt, but a lot of times I've seen people post things on social media that doesn't sound to be alright and I've reached out, “Hey, are you okay? I saw” -- and I'll tell them, “I saw you posted online.” And I'm okay with confronting people, you know? I don't care if they feel “Well, you're getting in my business.” No, I want to make sure you're okay and you're going to live.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. And that's what we were talking about earlier. It's okay. Like, you need to err on the side of action. Err on the side of, you know, everybody knows there's a difference between getting in people's business too much and then just reaching out and saying, “Hey, are you okay? Is there something I can do for you? Can I help you? I'm here for you if you need me.” You know, so you can do it in such a way that you're not intruding too much on people's lives.
Keep Our Troops Alive and Serving Other People
Brian Beckcom: Well, Toby, tell us a little bit about the organization that you started. Kind of its purpose and what you are doing with the Keep Our Troops Alive organization. And by the way, is the website -- the website is KOTA.org?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: It's actually KeepOurTroopsAlive.org.
Brian Beckcom: So, it’s the full name of it, okay. KeepOurTroopsAlive.org. Tell us a little bit about that organization, if you don't mind.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Sure. So, we are definitely in the infancy of the organization. We launched it when the book launched, which was August 8th. And really, as I mentioned earlier, I was just putting a book out. And when we heard all these cries for help, we said, “Okay, we need to do more.” So my husband came up with the name and we had someone design the logo and initially it was focused on military, but what we're finding is there's so many more people that have been reaching out to us as well.
So first and foremost, it's really about messaging. It's creating these conversations. So, especially in COVID, we're pretty limited of doing anything in person. So, for now, once a month, we want to host free webinars online to, you know, this month coming up in October, we're going to talk about what is depression and what are the signs of depression. Just, you know, the question you asked. So people would be able to know and be aware of that.
We will have some doctors. We had a celebrity chef who's also very active in the military who was able to give us some insight also of his experiences on the one we just did. So, messaging is one thing, creating that safe space to have the conversation. The other part is we want to be a support for family members that have lost someone to suicide. So one thing we're looking to start is doing online groups. Where it would be once a month or once a week that we can bring people together and kind of lead a conversation and help people as they're navigating through that process.
So, we just put a board of directors together. We have counselors on there. We have people that specialize in social media. Really an array of a background. And our ideal situation is really to target strategically throughout the United States. So, I'm based in Florida. We have someone involved also from New York. We'd love to get someone Chicago, California, Texas, and start some chapters and ideally would be able to do things in person once we get through this pandemic.
Brian Beckcom: Well, that's awesome. That is -- and, you know, one of the things that's been really cool about this podcast, for me, talking to all these leaders is you start to see patterns. People that are leaders like you kind of, you know, there's some fundamental things that everybody kind of has in common. And one of the things, and I was talking to a district attorney, a guy named Dusty Boyd, who said, “I know the podcast is called Lessons from Leaders, but I really consider myself a servant.” So, this idea of serving other people, servant-based leadership, is consistent pretty much across everybody I've interviewed.
And that's the same way -- that's what you're doing. You could have easily just, “My brother committed suicide,” and just retrenched and not done anything about it and raised your family and done your work, but you're out there trying to help other people. And one of the things I've found, Toby, and it took me a very long time to realize this. I didn't realize this until I was in my probably early forties was, “Hey, guess what, Brian, it's not all about you, dude. That's not what this life is about. It's about how you can help other people.” Right? And the great thing about that is, at least in my experience, is when I help other people or I try to help other people, I feel better myself.
And so, you're a true servant-based leader and this organization is really cool. Again, it's KeepOurTroopsAlive.org. If anybody is interested, there's a website up. It's a new organization and I just couldn't commend what you're doing more.
I have a couple more questions for you. We've gone almost an hour, which is a time we set aside. Do you have a few more minutes?
Toby Ramirez-Johnsosn: Sure, absolutely.
Identifying Suicidal Risks and Dealing with Suicide
Brian Beckcom: Okay. This is, to me, a very, very important question that I want to get out in this podcast. Tell people in your experience, what are the two or three most important things that people should know about either finding or identifying people that might be susceptible to suicide or how you deal with a suicide after it happens. What are the two most important things about those two, two or three or however many you want to talk about, but in your mind, what are the most important things people should know about that?
Toby Ramirez-Johnsosn: You know, whenever someone dies, it's just a very, just a sad time. You know, my grandmother died a few years ago and we were just so devastated. She was the matriarch of the family, even though she was about 4’8”. And, you know, we just loved her. And, we got together and it definitely was a celebration of her life with all the grandkids, but, you know, it was hurtful.
But I think when someone dies by suicide, they're just so many unanswered questions, especially if a note is not left. Especially because a lot of times people never saw there was any symptoms. They thought this person was happy. So, you know, I think allowing yourself to grieve, finding resources, and for yourself going to speak to somebody and understanding and processing those feelings. Because if not, you can easily be caught in that vicious cycle.
And the other thing people need to realize is mental health can also be hereditary. Now that I look back in my family line and I'm like, “Oh, I see that. And I see that.” But once again, we didn't talk about that in our family. It was, like, unspoken. Those were just the pills that someone needed to take every day, but they weren't for diabetes or something. It was for something else.
I think being able to look back and see -- just think about cancer, right? So, if someone of your family has cancer, they normally tell you, you know, when you go to the doctor, they ask you, “Does anyone in your family line have cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes?” Maybe you need to do that self check, “Does anyone in our family, have they suffered from this?” And now that I know what the signs are right, now I can identify. Maybe it wasn't put out there, but now I understand what those are.
And knowing it's okay to interject yourself. I wish I could interject myself one more time to have my brother here. To hear his voice again, to get one of those hugs, to hear his laughter, his crazy jokes. The fact he wasn't there to see my children graduate, or my daughter get married and my son go to college. I mean, my brother was the type of person, he’d probably be hanging out in his nephew's dorm with him and looking at chicks to go out on a Friday night. You know, that was just him. And my son would love every moment of it.
So, you know, it's reaching out, getting educated. And if you happen to go through something like this, it is devastating and you can heavily be affected from it. So, make sure, you know, you may need to get some help yourself and that's okay. Whether it's speaking to somebody one time or maybe longer, it's really what you need.
Brian Beckcom: You know, and you said something there which I think is very perceptive, but a couple of things that are very perceptive. Number one, you've talked about the hereditary nature of depression and that's certainly true. And like we were talking about earlier, Toby, I don't think there's any real difference between, you know, they ask me every time I go to the doctor, “Do you have a family history of cancer?” And I check yes, my mother died of breast cancer. I don't know that there's any real material difference between that and “Do you have a family history of mental health issues?” There's no real difference and that's really important.
And the other thing that I think I feel compelled to say, and this is actually me talking not as an expert, but this is what an expert, Dr. Carleah East told me. And this is also in her book. She talks about the fact that some of the time it's just a matter of getting better sleep, better nutrition, better hydration. Lke, there are things you can do physically to help. But now there are other situations where you truly do have some wiring that's off in your brain and then maybe you need some medical interventions and stuff like that. But, the point is there's a lot of resources. It's not like you just have to go to a doctor and they're going to give you some sort of drugs, right? There's a lot of other things that they can do to help these issues.
Being Resilient and Optimistic During Tough Times
Brian Beckcom: Well, Toby, let me, because you're such a positive person. You're smiling right now. You've got a beautiful smile. Tell us a little bit about, I mean, we're in -- and I've asked almost all my guests this question. We're in the middle of a pandemic. We're in the middle of a bunch of national unrest. I mean, gosh dang. Now we've got fires in California. We got hurricanes coming. You know, all this weird weather and then you put the politics on top of that. So it's a, man, it's a tough time for a lot of people.
So, what are your thoughts on what the next six, eight months, 12 months? Like, how are you talking to your people about how to be resilient and optimistic and how do we get through this very, very tough time we're going through right now?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: I have always been one that I carry a lot on my plate. I deal with stress very well. And I found myself, like, starting to have anxiety, panic attacks. And I'm like, where is this coming from? I think the burden, especially working in human resources and having to let so many people go from work and married couples. People that are expecting children. I mean, it was just so much for me and because I do just have a genuine passion for people. So I read a book and it was called -- actually it was an audiobook. I was listening on my way to work over two weeks. It was called The Miracle Morning. And it was just--
Brian Beckcom: I love that book. I've read that book. Great book.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Yeah. It's a great book. And I said, “Okay, I'm going to repurpose my mornings.” And that really transitioned me where, you know, I have a great office set up at the house and I would go in there in the morning, and I was just teaching this yesterday. I had a training class here at work, and I said, “Listen, I'm not into, like, the new age and the yoga.” I said, “But, this stuff works.”
And I would put some, whether it was a stream of music or a rain, and purpose on breathing. And when I shared with them the number of thoughts that go through someone's mind, I said, “I had to learn how to quiet my mind.” And it sounds easy. But you don't realize the number of thoughts, 40 to 60 thoughts are, like, going through your head every minute.
I would start my morning with doing that. I started with essential oils and spraying my pillow every night with lavender and vanilla. And my husband was looking at me like, “What are you doing?” Now he will not go to bed unless I'm spraying his pillow, putting lavender on his feet. It’s, like, this whole thing. But I had to do that to get myself in my right frame of mind because watching TV and seeing everything, it can become very scary.
So, I found I had to center myself. I can't control what's going on in the world right now. I just can't. You know? It's scary when you think about it. But what I can control is the number of inputs coming into my body of that information. I can control the number of times I'm looking at my phone daily on social media, what's going on there.
I'm very protective of my peace. I tell people often it took me a long time, even before my brother passed away, to get to a sense of peace. And I've learned that you can go through a storm and you can still have peace in your life. The storm’s going on on the outside, but I can be peaceful on the inside. So as I look, you know, we're going to have a very interesting election in the next, what, 40, 50 days, that's really going to transition where we go into next year. And I just tell people, “Ground yourself. Because if not, it'll be very easy to get caught up with the world and with what's going on.
And find something that you're passionate about to make a difference. As you said, people want to help. So, we can't save the whole world but, you know, with all of the racial tensions going on, is there something there you could be a mouthpiece? If you're passionate about voting, how can you get involved with that? We're talking about mental illness, how maybe you can get involved with that. I think when everyone feels they're carrying their own little piece of the puzzle, then regardless of what's going on, you feel like you're doing your part.
Brian Beckcom: The Miracle Morning is a great book. And for people who haven't read it, the basic idea is to get up early and to reserve some time in the morning, essentially for yourself to kind of get your day started.
I'm not sure I should say this cause all my male buddies are gonna make fun of me, but I like to do yoga and I like to meditate with essential oils in the room. And I try as hard as I can, Toby, not look at any screens for the first couple hours after I wake up, because I want to journal. I want to meditate. I want to get started the right way. I used to, literally, my alarm would go off and it was on my phone and I would pick up my phone. I'd still be lying in bed, barely awake. And I just put that thing right in front of my face. The next thing I know, I'm all stressed out because I'm reading Twitter and, you know, Twitter is essentially a tool for stressing you out. And I’m looking at emails and texts, and I'm just like, “It's crazy.”
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Your day hasn't even started yet.
Brian Beckcom: And your day hasn’t even started, yeah. So, I mean, like, today, one of the first things I did, I knew it was going to have a podcast with you. I didn't do research online about you. I sat down and meditated for 20 minutes because I wanted to have a clear mind. I wanted to have a good start for the day.
And there's, you know, some people will pray. Some people will do other -- there's all sorts of different ways. So it's not like you have to do a certain thing in the morning. But the point of it is try to get your day started right. I mean, try to be conscious about the decisions you make and the first part of your day. And that is really, really good advice.
Brian Beckcom: Well, Toby, it's been great having you on the show. Like I said earlier, there's patterns with leaders and one of the big patterns is true leaders are leaders that are focused on helping other people, not helping themselves. And you truly fit that definition to an absolute T. And so everybody, again, the website is KeepOurTroopsAlive.org, and you can find a lot of information on the website. And the book is The Last Seven Days by Toby Ramirez-Johnson.
And, Toby, tell us about -- there's all sorts of resources, but what other resources would you recommend to people if they either knew somebody or they themselves were a little bit worried about their mental status? What are two or three resources, other than your book, other than the organization you've created, that you would recommend to people?
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Well, you know, I love the fact that you have the crisis line right behind you, because that's kind of your one stop shop where you can call them and they can really just point you in the right direction of where to go. There's also a great organization out of Dallas, Texas. Major Eric King, he runs it. It's called Vets What's Next. And he served I think four or five tours and he literally came out of the military, also was going to succumb to suicide. He said if his 10-year-old son didn't walk in the room, he probably would have. And what he's done is he's taken all the resources that instead of having to go to A, B, C and D, he's put them all together in one spot. So, his website is VetsWhatsNext.org. From, “I need a scholarship for my child” to, “I'm dealing with suicide, mental health. I need a form from the military.” So, that's definitely another great resource I would recommend.
Brian Beckcom: Awesome. Well, Toby. You're a beautiful human being. I really, really support what you're doing. I mean, you're doing this and you got a full time job and you're doing this with a full time job and so really, really good stuff. You're really getting some positivity out in the world. You're making a difference. And I can't commend you more. I mean, just keep doing what you're doing.
And again, thanks for coming on the show. I really, really appreciate it. If it's okay with you, I'm going to try to get this episode out as quickly as I can. I'm going to jump this one. I've got some other episodes I'm going to release, but I'm going to put this one out as fast as I can, because I think this is really important information. So, Toby, it was a pleasure.
Toby Ramirez-Johnson: Absolutely. Thank you again for having me. This was wonderful. Thank you.
Brian Beckcom: Awesome.