JC Monahan: Breaking My Silence

For many years, NBC Boston anchor JC Monahan had a secret—and keeping it nearly cost her everything.

Photo by Webb Chappell

I could hear their voices, soft and muffled. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Eventually, they grew louder. Two, maybe three male voices? They were in my home. They were talking about me. I tried to open my eyes, but for some reason I couldn’t. It felt like I was fighting against a current trying to pull me under. Then I heard the word that rocked me back into focus: Narcan.

Two paramedics were standing over me, discussing whether I needed the lifesaving nasal spray. To my left, a friend was kneeling on my living room floor counting the pills remaining inside the little orange bottle. His hands were shaking. That’s the last thing I remember before waking up in the emergency room.

The paramedics didn’t give me Narcan; I was monitored in the hospital while I slept off the pills’ effects and was physically okay. But my secret was out.

I had been suffering in silence for more than a year, first from depression and then from debilitating anxiety. Yet I told almost no one—not my family, not even the people I consider my best friends. The one person in Boston who was aware that something was up didn’t know the half of it until he found me that morning unconscious in my living room.

There is a certain irony to how closed off I’d been. After all, I’d spent the past 25 years in broadcast news. My job is to communicate: It’s what I love to do. But listen to myself talk about my own feelings? That held no interest for me. Instead, I put myself in an emotional quarantine—and it could have cost me my life.

What saved me was learning to open up about what I was going through with the people I loved. Still, I never wanted to share this story beyond my circle of friends and family. I never wanted to do exactly what I am doing right now: tell my story to all of Boston. As a journalist, I’ve witnessed the strength it takes for people to sit down with me during what might be the most difficult or emotional moment of their life. They trust that I will treat their words with dignity and respect, an honor I protect fiercely. But I have never wanted to tell my own story.

The pandemic changed that. I watched how people were forced into isolation, cut off from their support systems, told to stay home and stay away from one another. I knew firsthand the impact this can have on a person. I had already been there and back.

As we head into a second year of the pandemic, people are depressed, anxious, and thinking about suicide at alarming rates. And they are killing themselves. This is why for the first time in my life, I want people to know what I’ve been through. This is why I won’t stay silent anymore.

I was diagnosed with depression in 2007, a year after having my first child. It took far too long for me to get help. It wasn’t until the post-baby blues lingered and I found it impossible to be the kind of mother I wanted to be that I began seeing a psychiatrist. During sessions spent in her dimly lit home office, I learned that depression had been with me long before the baby arrived.

I was committed to getting well, knowing my daughter depended on me. I took on this new challenge like I do most things: headstrong and determined. Over time, with therapy and an antidepressant, I felt more like myself. I had another baby, and I was succeeding in my career. It’s not that my depression disappeared—it’s a disease you have to manage—but I was doing well. Life was good.

Then, in 2017, my emotional downward spiral began. I made two major decisions: I filed for divorce after more than 15 years of marriage and signed off at WCVB, the place that had shaped my career since 2001. Soon after, I took a job at NBC Boston. I knew upending these two mainstays in my life would be a dramatic change, but I had no idea just how much of one.

Sharing custody of my children with my ex-husband meant I spent a lot of time on my own, and way too much time in my head. That was a dangerous place for someone like me, who had an unhealthy expectation of perfection. Nothing I did was ever good enough. Now, I had plenty of time to replay and dissect every choice I’d ever made and count all the mistakes. I might as well have sent an engraved invitation welcoming depression back. I was certainly leaving the door wide open with all of my negative self-talk.

I also moved several times, each time boxing up pieces of my life only to unpack them again, a process I found emotionally draining. I’m sentimental, so I’ve saved a lot of things over the years, and packing was like being forced to watch an episode of This Is Your Life for days on end. Photos, letters, old pointe shoes, my daughter’s candle from her baptism, the swan-boat figurine my mom’s best friend gave to me right before she passed away. It all had to be shoved into boxes.

Throughout this period, I was also stowing away my emotions, packing them tightly up inside me. I didn’t look at what was happening to me as a disease, the way my dad did with his diabetes. I blamed myself for feeling the way I did. So I didn’t reach out to my friends to share that I was struggling, or that I now had a voice in my head repeating over and over: You’re not worthy and you never will be. I felt like I was drowning in my own thoughts to the point that I could no longer breathe. I was convinced no one would ever understand, so what was the point of telling anyone? Depression has the power to distort your reality. I truly believed no one cared, despite having supportive friends and family. But the idea of sharing my feelings felt like burdening the people I loved. So I stayed silent.

Over the next several months, my depression took control of my life—only this time it wasn’t the only thing. I went to my doctor one day when I found myself unable to stop crying. I had assumed this was a new symptom of depression that I hadn’t experienced before. Instead, my doctor told me that I was also suffering from anxiety and gave me a prescription for Xanax to help tame my mind when it went into overdrive. This was on top of the meds I was already taking for depression. I remember the day I was packing for my annual Fourth of July trip to New Hampshire and realized that I had more medications than makeup. I needed a second toiletry bag just to accommodate all of those little bottles with the white safety caps.

Soon, my emotional stress started causing intense physical pain. At the time, I didn’t know what brought it on, and I didn’t care. I just focused on getting through each day. So what if my stomach hurt so much I couldn’t stand up straight, I told myself. There was no one to see me crawl into the shower, so what did it matter? This was between me, myself, and I, and none of us would admit something was wrong. Simply plaster on a smile and head out for the day. But my attempt to disguise my reality didn’t last long.

I soon learned my pain was the result of having ulcerative colitis. I’d been diagnosed with the disease a few years earlier but it was basically dormant and never really bothered me. As it happens, stress causes it to flare up, and man did it flare up. The pressure around my abdomen was debilitating. Every day I struggled to find an outfit that would look good on air but wasn’t tight around my bloated belly. It wasn’t a fun way to start the day and certainly didn’t help me feel better about myself.

One of my greatest joys was finishing work and going home to curl up in the fetal position until morning. The problem was that between the physical pain and the constant churning of my brain, I couldn’t sleep. At least not without some help.

I felt like I was drowning in my own thoughts to the point that I could no longer breathe.

When my doctor first prescribed Xanax for my anxiety, I was unsure how it would affect me. Turns out, it made me sleepy, and that was the greatest gift I could have received. Taking Xanax soon became the only way I could rest.

Over time, I naturally built up a tolerance. At first, it was just one or two pills more than prescribed. Eventually, I just stopped counting. A few more? A handful? Whatever it took to silence the negativity in my head so I could sleep long enough to have the strength to get through the next day.

It never occurred to me that this could become a problem. I was in survival mode and nothing is obvious when you’re in survival mode, even when you’re clearly walking a dangerous path. I was using any shortcut necessary to prove to myself I could handle everything on my own.

One night, I left the Xanax bottle by my bed. Apparently, I took more pills during the night—I don’t remember doing it. By morning, though, my friend called, heard me failing to sound coherent, and knew something was wrong. She alerted another friend, who rushed to my house and tried to wake me up, with little success. That was when he called the paramedics. I wasn’t trying to hurt myself—I only wanted to sleep—but I could have died.

After returning home from the ER, I had to step back from work and focus on getting better. The ulcerative colitis flare-up forced me to make some changes, including starting a new diet. You could say my culinary repertoire has always been limited. Give me some bread, cheese, crackers, and a handful of peanuts, and I have the perfect four-course meal. Thankfully, the diet’s list of approved foods included cheddar cheese and gluten-free crackers—I wouldn’t starve.

The real struggle, though, was the “self-care” prescribed by my doctor. Take walks, she said, watch movies, read a book. I thought the advice was nonsense. I imagined running into a coworker while I was out doing one of these seemingly frivolous things, looking completely healthy despite being on short-term disability. What would they think? There were no visible signs to prove that I was sick. I decided that if I was well enough to leave the house then I was well enough to work. It didn’t take long for me to slip back into my old bad habits: unhealthy meals, poor self-care, and, most of all, refusing to ask for help.

You would think being forced out of work for almost two months, or as I call it, the Crash of 2018, would have been the final wake-up call. But I’m the type of person who, when my alarm goes off before I am ready to get up, hits snooze with hopes of avoiding the inevitable. I did the same thing with my mental health until the inevitable happened: I hit rock bottom.

This time, it wasn’t Xanax that put me in danger. I stopped abusing that the day I woke up in the ER and realized my desperation to prove I could handle it all could have made me lose it all. This time, depression was in full control. It was scarier than before because I was aware of what I was doing. Or what I was not doing: I wasn’t getting out of bed. I wasn’t answering the phone. I wasn’t eating. These were not choices I was making. Depression made the choices for me. I thought I might be broken for good.

The day came when I realized there were only two paths left to take. I could keep doing nothing and give up any hope that things might get better, or I could find the courage to believe life could be different for me. In a split second of clarity, I made my decision, literally jumping off the couch and racing over to my therapist’s office. I wasn’t going to wait another moment to find out if it was truly possible for things to change.

Throughout my life, once I decide to do something, there’s little that can stop me. After the Boston Marathon bombings, for instance, I got mad. Really mad. I said then and there that I would be at the following year’s starting line with a racer’s bib and my sneakers on—despite the fact I’d never run a day in my life. I hate running, actually. But I trained and I finished the race. After so many years of struggling with depression, I knew it was time to focus that determination on myself.

It was clear that I couldn’t fight the disease alone, though: I needed a support system. For the first time, I reached out to my closest friends, inviting them over or meeting them for dinner. They’re used to seeing me all glammed up, wearing heels made for fashion, not function. But this time I was going to let the way I looked reflect how I felt. So I took off the makeup and fake eyelashes, washed off the spray tan, and put the metaphorical mess underneath on full display.

I told them I had depression. I explained how it affected me, that how I feel is not always a choice. I can’t simply snap out of it despite what well-meaning people may think. I knew my friends would be supportive in the moment. What I didn’t know was whether they’d stick around for the long haul once I opened up. But they did, and then some: Many friends shared more of themselves with me than ever before. Open communication built trust, and as a result, our relationships deepened. I now had a crew to lean on when I needed to. I didn’t feel like a burden anymore. Everything felt a bit easier after that. Not easy. Just easier.

By the time the pandemic hit, I had the skills and support I needed to be alone without falling into darkness. I had spent the past two years learning which tools worked for me, and most important, I had the support of my close circle of friends. I marveled at the power these connections had in my life.

Not only was quarantine manageable, it actually helped me take self-care seriously. What had once felt indulgent and self-centered was easier when there were fewer ways to fill the day. The truth was, making time for myself was just as effective, and just as important, as any other treatment. Accepting that simple fact enabled me to let go of the things I couldn’t control. I said goodbye to people who would rather judge me than understand me. It took time, but I came to accept my mistakes. I accepted that while I wasn’t where I thought I’d be at this point in my life, I was actually exactly where I needed to be.

Then it struck me: What would have happened if the pandemic hit just when my depression was spiraling out of control? How would I have managed the isolation and restrictions? In my darkest days, I still had to go to work and be a mom, a daughter, a friend. But during a pandemic, we’re told to stay home. It’s a permission slip to hide from the world. Alone, you can drown in your problems without anyone noticing. Alone, there’s no one to look into your eyes and realize the light is gone.

Stories of people dying by suicide during the pandemic seemed to be everywhere, including very close to home. I watched as my friends tried to process the news that a beloved colleague of theirs had killed himself. It wasn’t just the pain of the loss. They were searching to understand why someone so successful, so loving, surrounded by people who cared and respected him, could be in that much pain. That was the moment I knew I was ready to speak up. It felt wrong not to.

I learned from my experience that people really do want to help—they often just don’t know how. And they never will if those of us who have been to that dark place don’t start talking about it. If we don’t normalize mental illness, who will? For those wondering how they can help someone they believe is struggling, the answer is: Just be there, even if you don’t understand how or why it helps. Ask how they are and let them know you’re willing to listen. Don’t take it personally if your efforts are rejected. Just stand by them. You can’t fix them. Depression is a disease and needs treatment. But your presence matters.

My closest friends don’t live near me, but they still supported me with texts and calls. Voicemails when I wouldn’t answer. Messages that I could replay when I needed to hear a loving voice. They never let up, no matter how many times I tried to push them away.

I’d like to say I’ll be happy if my story reaches one person, but I’d be lying. I want this to reach someone, who will then reach out to someone else, who will in turn reach out to someone else. It took me far too long to understand that life depends on connections. It took far too long for this communicator to learn how vital good communication really is.

If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.