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Alumni Success Excellence and Expertise

Farmer School alum discusses own mental health challenges to help students

Johnny Sirpilla used his own journey and struggles to write his book "Life Is Hard, But I'll Be OK"

Sirpilla talking to students
Alumni Success Excellence and Expertise

Farmer School alum discusses own mental health challenges to help students

Johnny Sirpilla co-owns a business, is a partner in another, sits on the board of five entities, and is a successful author. But back in the mid-1980s, he was a first-year accountancy student at Miami University, dealing with something that he couldn’t quite define.

“I found myself burdened with thoughts that I didn't really know what to do with, thoughts that were coming in. And I wanted to push them out, but then they'd come back. I didn't really know what that was,” Sirpilla said. “We didn't really talk about mental health in the mid-eighties, and if we did, it was maybe depression.”

He told students at his Executive Speaker Series talk during Stress Less Week at Miami that what he now knows was anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder manifested itself in strange ways. “When I was leaving Miami, the anxiety in me said that my senior year, I need a job for graduation. But I didn't need one job offer. I need a lot of job offers. So I set a goal that I needed eight offers from all the big eight accounting firms. I wanted four offers from banks. And I picked retail as another segment that I wanted three there. I wanted 15 job offers. And I got 15 job offers,” Sirpilla said. “I was wired that I had to have all that. You could probably see that there's a little something wrong with me already right there, that I was driven that hard.”

This seemly-all-consuming drive could have kept him from his future wife if he’d let it, Sirpilla explained. “I met Susan a month before graduation and I asked her, ‘Do you have a job?’ She said no. I asked, ‘You've been looking for a job?’ She said no. I was thinking, ‘This is never going to work out.’ I thought, ‘I just found my soulmate,’ And we got to the job question and I'm realizing that this girl, as amazing as she's been, how is she going to catch up to me?”

“What I didn't understand is her approach was exactly what I needed,” he said. “She told me, ‘You thought you had it all figured out. Well you didn't. This is another way to get to success.’ I was so proud of her. I started to understand that there's a different way to go through life other than my crazy intensity.”

But in his head, Sirpilla said, he still had goals to meet, such as he and his wife having had all the children they intended to have by the time he was 30. They met that goal when triplets Nicholas, Mary and Peter were born.

And then soon after, all three died.

“We'd make deals with each other to stop going to the cemetery, because we were doing it too much. We didn't think it was healthy. And I'd be on my way home from work, and I’d be like, ‘I'm just going to stop and see them 10 minutes. Susan won't even notice that I'm a little late.’ And I'd get there and she was laying on the ground,” Sirpilla said. “When you see that kind of pain and someone that you love so much, you can imagine where your mind can go.”

The couple entered therapy, where Sirpilla learned that they could deal with their loss and pain by reframing the experience. “The therapist said ‘Johnny, you don't have to let go of Nicholas, Mary and Peter. You can hold onto them and hold them in your heart as tight as you ever imagined. But you have to let go of the dreams that you had for them in this life. Parenting them school events, sporting activities, their weddings. Those things aren't happening, but you can hold onto them,’” he said. “So I started thinking that if I can hold onto them, I can maybe make this work, to be their dad and have a relationship with them.”

Sirpilla eventually took his experiences and what he learned from them to create his book, “Life Is Hard, But I’ll Be OK.” “I wanted to write this book for all of you that will be along the journey, that have friends going through tough times, whether it's divorce or an engagement, breaking up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or not getting the job that you want. The book is written to create hope for you, to help people along the road in the journey,” he said.

Among the lessons learned:

  • The quality of your thoughts will determine your happiness. -- “That is a quote from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius from the year 161. For 2,000 years, we've been struggling with managing our thoughts and our happiness,” Sirpilla said. “Neuroscience tells us that if we program positive thoughts in our minds, it will literally change in our mind so that we start seeing positive in things if we start feeling that way.”
  • Don't believe everything that you think. – “I started to realize that every thought that I had, I didn't have to process it in my mind,” Sirpilla said. “There are thoughts that I have that I could literally let go, because a really important rule of life is that if you have a challenge and you can do something about it, change it, fix it. If you can't, if there's nothing that could be changed, then you need to let it go.”
  • Using mindfulness to predict your future actions. – “Here's a trick that I use with mindfulness that helps me set expectations. Every doorway that I walk through, I need to know what the expectations of me from others are,” Siriplla said. “And those expectations are about my own actions, about ‘How am I going to act in that setting? How am I going to serve those people?’”

But Sirpilla noted that even now, mental health can be a struggle. “What gets me in my OCD is the thoughts. I don't have the compulsive actions, I have the obsessive thoughts. So it gets in a loop and I just can't stop it,” he said. “I'm still dealing with some of the same stuff that I solved yesterday, that I solved this morning. That's what mental health struggles are. And you’ve got to use the resources that are available to you.”

In the years since the triplets’ loss, Sirpilla and his wife have adopted a child and had two more children of their own.

“I would ask you to be much kinder to yourself than I've been for the last 57 years. And I'm going to work, in as many years as God gives me, to continue to be better to myself and realize that I'm really not there for my family, for my colleagues, for my friends fully, when I treat myself poorly.”