If I can help one person from following through with what I almost did, then it will make a difference. —Craig Rydalch
Craig Rydalch had entertained suicidal thoughts before, but never to the point of acting on them.
When Rydalch's home construction business fell on hard times in 2008, stress and discouragement pushed the former Utah basketball player to the darkest depths.
“At that point, I decided life wasn’t worth living anymore,” Rydalch said. “One day, I left my guys at the job site and went to my father-in-law’s barn and tried to hang myself.”
Rydalch survived through what he could only describe as divine intervention.
The husband and father from Oakley, Summit County, is one of nearly 15 million American adults who live with major depression and one of 42 million who live with an anxiety disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Since that unforgettable day, Rydalch still has moments of deep despair. But with support from family and friends, his LDS faith and professional help, he continues to cope with his mental illness. He has also benefitted from the experiences of others.
Rydalch recently shared his experiences with the Deseret News in hopes of helping others dealing with the same challenges.
“If I can help one person from following through with what I almost did," he said, "then it will make a difference."
Rydalch remembers feeling sad at times as a young man and not knowing why. He was insecure and “thin-skinned,” he said.
“People would say things and they would stick, or I would read deeper into things that were said or not said to me," Rydalch said. I would take it personally. I battled through it with basketball and athletics.”
The 6-foot-4 athlete excelled in football and track and field at South Summit High School, but he earned the most accolades in basketball. In addition to all-state honors, Rydalch was recognized as an honorable mention all-American and named Utah’s high school athlete of the year in 1985. Several college programs recruited him.
Although Rydalch was a big man on campus, his negative thoughts persisted. He remembers driving through Kamas one day with his girlfriend and future wife, Kena Woolstenhulme, and telling her he didn’t want to live anymore.
“It looked like I had everything going for me, but there was no joy,” Rydalch said. “It was just a feeling, but I didn’t know what I was dealing with. She reassured me that everything was OK.”
Rydalch signed to play basketball for Weber State but served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England before playing. He continued to battle depression and anxiety for the next two years.
“What it came down to were feelings of guilt, such as not teaching enough lessons or not baptizing enough people, but not really having anything to feel guilty about,” Rydalch said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. I came home and blamed myself. I didn’t feel I’d had a positive experience on my mission.”
Upon his return, Rydalch changed his mind about playing for Weber State and accepted an opportunity at Dixie College. He redshirted one year and played one year at Dixie. During that time, he began making poor decisions and stopped living the standards of the church, he said.
“The pendulum swung from the spiritual side to the other side,” he said.
Playing for Majerus
After Rydalch's two years at Dixie, then-head coach Lynn Archibald offered him the chance to play at the University of Utah with his brother Mark, beginning with the 1989-90 season.
As it turned out, Archibald was fired and replaced by Rick Majerus.
Rydalch and others were nervous that Majerus would dismiss the new recruits, and a few were kicked off the team for skipping class or arriving late to team functions. Rydalch wanted to play for the Utes but admitted he was “scared to death” of Majerus at first.
“It was his first year, and he was a tough coach to play for,” Rydalch said. “He would attack you personally, which didn’t sit well with me.”
Two weeks into practice, things were not going well and Rydalch considered quitting — even though quitting was not part of his vocabulary.
He determined to meet with Majerus and attempt to smooth out their differences, even though his father warned him it might cost him his spot on the team. In the coach's office, Rydalch asked Majerus to treat him with more respect and curb the offensive language.
“I told him when he did those things it upset me and I wanted to fight,” Rydalch said. “I wasn’t there to fight. I was just there to play basketball. I was surprised when he softened up.”
Following the meeting, Rydalch and the coach were able to coexist. Over the next three years, Rydalch was a consistent contributor and was twice named a team captain. In the 1991-92 Utah basketball media guide, Majerus describes Rydalch as “gutty and tenacious one of the guys who made up the heart and soul of the team.”
Rydalch found his way back into LDS Church activity while attending Utah. Woolstenhulme, who had just returned from a mission to South Africa, was a positive influence. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1990.
Rydalch even accepted invitations to speak at firesides and other Latter-day Saint gatherings.
Although he was happily married, playing well on the court and making better decisions, Rydalch said it was difficult to feel the Holy Ghost. Negative and suicidal thoughts persisted. He was still largely uneducated regarding mental illness.
“I told myself I needed to quit being a wimp and get over it,” Rydalch said. “When fighting a mental illness, the Spirit is hard to find.”
In the years following Rydalch's basketball career, the couple had three sons and the pressures of life settled in. With the basketball spotlight gone and feeling starved spiritually, Rydalch stopped going to church again, much to the alarm of his wife.
“I would stay at home, lay in bed and stare at the ceiling while Kena took the boys to church,” Rydalch said. “I put on a good face, but I felt like all these people were judging me.”
The gradual decline was hard for Kena Rydalch to understand. She had thoughts of leaving him. She saw her husband as very loyal and tender-hearted, but he also hurt deeply, she said.
Depression was not totally new to her. While in college, she had dated a returned missionary and honor student who took his own life.
Still, the situation with her husband didn't make sense to her. They were both returned missionaries and raised by Mormon families. This isn’t why I married him, she thought. What’s his problem?
“When he stopped attending church, that required a lot of soul-searching,” Kena Rydalch said. “Through a lot of prayer, I came to understand I was the one with the bigger problem. I was always judging Craig without really understanding what was going on. I was more concerned about hauling two kids to church alone and what (the situation) might look like to family members. Learning I was the one with the problem was a big turning point for me in helping him.”
Myths and cycles
According to the Mayo Clinic website, "Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest."
Rydalch's parents, however, assumed their son's depression was a self-confidence issue.
“They didn’t believe it,” Rydalch said. “ 'He’s accomplished everything he has ever wanted to accomplish.' But it was deeper than that.”
At age 28, Rydalch sought professional help from a psychiatrist at the University of Utah Hospital in the mid-1990s. He was diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication. However, he didn't undergo regular therapy.
Around 2002, Rydalch's parents contacted University of Utah President Chase Peterson, a close friend, who highly recommended a psychiatrist named Gregory Ellis. Over the past decade and a half, Ellis has been an answer to the family's prayers.
But Rydalch's problems were far from over. Over the years, he found himself in a cycle. Rydalch would take the medicine, feel better, assume he was fine and discontinue the treatment, mostly because he didn’t like the stigma of being labeled as mentally ill. Going off the medication often led to a crash and more serious suicidal thoughts, Rydalch said.
"Part of this frustrating process is learning you've got to stay on top of it," he said. "You can't afford to walk away because you feel better."
Around 2004, Rydalch left the family business to start his own home construction business.
In 2007, he was involved in a work-related accident and suffered a concussion. The head trauma made his depression and anxiety worse, he said.
"It altered his ability to cope with life," Kena Rydalch said. "His tendencies to go to these dark places were amplified after that incident."
Rydalch continued in the dangerous cycle of feeling better and then not taking his medication. Sometimes he wasn't completely honest with his psychiatrist, Kena Rydalch said.
Amid the economic recession of 2008, Rydalch’s business was steeped in debt. Some deals had gone south and he wasn't taking his medication, according to his wife. It was during that time of guilt, stress and depression that he went to his father-in-law’s barn to hang himself. What happened next was both scary and spiritually powerful, Rydalch said.
“At the point of jumping off the hay bale, I swung but the rope around my neck came untied. Something pulled it off, and I fell to the ground,” he said. “I had a distinct feeling that those who had preceded me in my family had intervened. Someone was looking over me, and what I was doing was not right. I realized it (suicide) wasn’t going to be an escape for me and my death would have been a big disappointment.”
With the support of his wife, family and Ellis, Rydalch resolved to keep going.
In order to pay creditors, the Rydalches sold their home, along with a spec home his company had built, forcing the 44-year-old Rydalch, his wife and their three teenage sons to move into the basement of his parents' home.
“I didn’t go bankrupt, but living with Mom and Dad at 44 was somewhat humiliating,” Rydalch said.
His father hired him back into the family business. The Rydalches were able to resolve debts and build a new home. It was not, however, an easy or smooth process.
In 2013, Rydalch was telling his LDS bishop about his battle with mental illness.
“You know what? There are a lot of people dealing with this,” his bishop said.
He asked Rydalch if he would share his story with the ward. It would be the first of many such opportunities.
Few in the community were aware of Rydalch's condition. They learned that mental illness affected more people than they realized. Most importantly, there was an outpouring of support and understanding.
Rydalch learned that other family members had dealt with mental illness and never talked about it.
“It’s a stigma,” he said. “It’s viewed as a weakness rather than an illness.”
A tender mercy was extended the following week during the October 2013 LDS general conference when Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles delivered his talk titled “Like a Broken Vessel.” Elder Holland’s remarks seemed to validate what Rydalch had shared a week earlier. He described hearing the talk as a “yes” moment.
“I couldn’t believe it. I’ve since read and listened to it over and over,” Rydalch said. “The Savior loves each one of us and he understands. He has felt those depths. It gave me and my family hope.”
Since then, Rydalch has had a rough spell or two, but he said he hasn't felt this good in 20 years. He can feel the Holy Ghost more in his life. He does not shy away from sharing his story, and he has increased empathy for those who have struggled with similar challenges.
Rydalch has heard about straight-A students who leave on a mission and come home early feeling shame and guilt. While he was recently speaking to a group of young single adults, eight of 20 acknowledged struggles with mental illness and two were crying uncontrollably, he said. On another occasion, a man in his 30s thanked him for sharing the "most useful information he had ever heard at church."
Rydalch wants to help them all.
“People are suffering, and I want to give them hope. There is help,” Rydalch said. “The main thing I want to convey from a personal standpoint is that anyone can be faced with mental illness. When that happens, you have to rely on faith in the Lord, the Atonement and non-judgmental support from family and friends.”
Stories and suggestions
Rydalch draws strength for his own challenges by reading about the experiences of others with mental illness. He recommends reading “Valley of Sorrow: A Layman’s Guide to Understanding Mental Illness,” by Alexander B. Morrison, and “Cheat the Asylum of a Victim,” an article by BYU associate professor Mary Jane Woodger that chronicles George Albert Smith’s struggle with depression when he was a young apostle.
Kena Rydalch suggested that spouses or family members of those dealing with mental illness should educate themselves and keep a long-term perspective.
"I can see why divorce happens," she said. "It would be easy to say 'I'm done' because it is a living hell for family members. But when the sun comes out, you experience joy like never before. Gratefully, most days are like that when Craig is well."
Unconditional love, sympathy and understanding from others is also critical, she said.
"Depression can ruin a family," Kena Rydalch said. "There is no way you can handle it on your own. A lot of families can be saved if they understand what it is. Craig and I will be married 25 years in June. I would not change those years for anything because there were life lessons I needed."
In some ways, Craig Rydalch's mental illness has been a blessing to his family.
One son, Judd, experiences depression and anxiety. But because the family is so educated now, the symptoms were easily identified and he has the help he needs. Judd Rydalch was able to help a mission companion who was struggling with mental illness.
When not himself, Craig Rydalch was extra hard on his second son, Lucas. Instead of resenting his father, Lucas Rydalch learned patience and compassion. As a Mormon missionary in New York, he has used that knowledge to assist three missionaries dealing with mental illness. At one point, his mission president asked Elder Rydalch to write about how to help a missionary cope with depression. He wrote eight pages on the topic, citing examples from his own life.
Because of the struggles he has witnessed, Beau Rydalch, Craig and Kena's third son, wants to be psychiatrist. He is currently serving a mission in Ecuador.
"I wasn't easy to love," Craig Rydalch said. "My three sons have been a great support to me. It's humbling to be so supported by your children."
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