Alliance Profile – Kristjan Sokoli
Drafted in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of the University of Buffalo, Kristjan would become the first Albanian-born player ever to play in an NFL game, with the Seahawks, He’d go on to sign contracts with three more teams: The Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, and New York Giants.
What past life experiences, physical traumas or genetics do you believe have had an effect on your mental health?
Well, I think there are plenty I can list. And I am sure I’m not alone. Isn’t that the beauty of this thing. We get to support each other and accept that it’s okay to be open and to be vulnerable, and through this unified action we can become stronger, together.
So, let me begin. I was born in Albania to an old school family. An old school family even for an Albanian, with a lot of traditions, some that I am proud of some that I think actually hold us back in the modern world. I have recently fully come to grips with this but I certainly had something resembling ADHD growing up, ever since I can remember. Hyperactivity, struggle to focus, always being a little weird and quirky. And for so long as a kid, as a teen, as a young adult, and even now as an adult (though now I fight this unhealthy urge) I have wanted to fit in and be “normal.”
Now I want to say I truly believe in moderation. I don’t think I should expect the world to conform to my differences and I want to make that clear. The world does not and cannot conform to our own problems or our abnormalities. But to make the point, I think we can learn to accept that we are ALL different, but in our differences we may fit in and contribute in our own unique ways.
By fit in, I don’t mean “become normal” and “act like everyone else.” But there is a balance that I think we should strive for while also remaining true to our natural self and our natural strengths and weaknesses. So moving on with life events, at 6 years old my dad left the country for the USA and me and my brother were without our dad for 3 years. Our mother left when I was 8 and my brother 4 and so we were without both parents for that year. We had a great support group in our uncle, aunt, cousins and our very loving grandma. So it was not traumatic but I know it had an effect.
I remember constantly day dreaming and yearning to be reconnected with my parents. Then when we came to America at 9 years old, 5 for my brother, we had to learn a new language from scratch but I think even more we had to adapt to a new culture. Everything was different. It was also a really exciting time, as we looked forward to coming to America and shared a lot of excitement, but we also struggled a lot to adapt. I remember coming home crying many times the first few years saying to my mother that I can’t make friends and nobody likes me. Looking back I am sure my quirky ADHD-like differences were also was a factor in this, along with the language and culture barrier. But moving along, I did adapt and by middle school I certainly had found my group of friends, definitely a weird and awkward group looking back, and I am darn proud of our group of friends. A diverse group which I think is really neat. My lunch table in middle school consisted of an Italian American, an American, an Indian, a Russian, and a Guatemalan. I loved it. How fortunate I was to come from a small Eastern European country, where my parent’s families had only lived in one town for many generations, and here I was making friends with kids from all over planet earth.
Then I found football. Just when I thought I was starting to fit in and be cool, I got even cooler. I got to feel even more “normal.” In 7th grade I was probably the worst kid on the team and I had intense fights with my dad about every week about him not wanting me to play football. That is another thing that heavily affected me. My father had a very different idea of who his son would grow up to be. And now that you have an idea of my upbringing, you can imagine why.
At 34 years old he had given up everything and a very comfortable life in Albania to come to America and start over from nothing to give his family an opportunity at a better life. I also think he had selfish reasons for this, as do we all, but will leave that for another time. And I say that with no bad intentions, we all are selfish to some degree and I think accepting and becoming more aware of this is a good thing. It actually allows us to be more selfless, but again for another time.
So by high school I was quickly a football soon to be star, with everyone around me telling me what great potential I had. What a proud moment it was to be offered a full scholarship to the University at Buffalo. I accepted it instantly on the phone not even knowing where Buffalo was. I loved the feeling of success and especially the feeling of making my parents proud. I also loved the idea of proving my father wrong and showing him that something good had come of the sport that he saw as a damaging senseless gladiator sport. He was proud, my mother was proud. It made me proud.
In college I continued my pursuit of success, and more specifically the NFL. As a kid I remember always saying this prayer “God please help me get to the NFL.” I created an identity around it, and looking back now I realize that it was really my everything. I did not know it so much at the time, I definitely thought I was more well rounded. I was pursuing my finance degree and had many interests outside football. But now that I finally have to walk away from football I realize how dependent I was on it. It made me “normal.”
Although I still twitched and do to this day, I still couldn’t do a great job consistently focusing on a conversation, I still struggled to connect with people and with social awareness, I felt like I was more than enough. I was well on my way. Don’t get me wrong I had friends, I had a girlfriend and high school sweetheart that I really cared about, I was not anti-social, but looking back now I realize I did not really know myself like I thought I did. I quickly rushed for comfort in small moments of social discomfort without even knowing it. My point that I am getting at, and probably taking too long, is I built an identity around football. I do not see this as a terrible thing, I really don’t. Football also gave me so many opportunities I never would have had, it helped me see most of America at such a young age. I have a huge network of people from all walks of life and football really is a catalyst. It got me out of Bloomfield NJ. And I don’t dislike Bloomfield. I am forever grateful to my hometown and will always be a Bengal.
But as you can see my life event of football as much as it has greatly helped me, and I would not change one thing, I have been extremely blessed, it has also been a source of comfort for me without knowing it. I have leaned on it for comfort when other segments of my life were calling on me for growth.
At 25 I finally went to a doctor to see if I might actually have ADHD. It is not a critical form, I can function and I am grateful. But it does certainly impact my life. My first day on vyvanse, I felt like my eyes were finally open. I could have a conversation and only focus on the conversation, not overthink about what’s happening behind the person I am talking to, or randomly start wondering why they wear their hair a certain way. Instead I could focus on the moment, and be present.
This said vyvanse is not by any means a miracle drug, it does not take away the inevitable challenges we all face in life. I realize that at times I am lost between trying to be “Albanian enough” since it is my heritage and also be “Americanized” so I can fit in with the people around me. I think the truth is I am neither and I am both. Parts of me are American and parts of me are Albanian.
Parts of me seem “normal” and “correct.” Parts of me seem odd and awkward. And I think we can all find some truth and comfort in this. We can try to find ourselves all we want through a certain identity, but I think at our core we all are multiple identities. We all have different things that feel normal to us. And I think becoming self aware of this is a huge step towards happiness and enjoying your life experience. So yeah, being Albanian, ADHD, the pressure of making my loving and supportive parents proud, the pressure of making my country and Albanian family and friends proud, the American dream, football, and many other life events I think have caused trauma for me. But they have also made me who I am.
They have also pushed me to experience some really amazing moments in my life that I never want to forget. And I think for me true peace and comfort comes in accepting that all of these are a part of me. And that I don’t need to be more attached to one than the other. It is this peace that allows me my best chance at being present, open minded, and ready to truly take in life’s next experience.
How did the effects on your mental health appear in terms of symptoms?
These events will always a part of me and I think accepting that is the best way forward. Accepting them also helps me let go of some burdens that may keep me from being able to move forward and give today my best. It is funny how life is, sometimes the best way to forget is to accept, the best way to overcome is to forgive, the best way to fight something off is to let it in, all the great things we have read from the great minds that came before us, kind of hold true and connect us all and still hold true today. Many of the effects themselves, I kinda shared above.
When and why did you decide to ask for help to get relief?
It’s been on-going. One thing I want to make clear is that I think I am really fortunate. Although I have had my limitations I’ve also been given a really cool tool box in my genetic code. So I don’t share my story as to tell you hey, look I accepted my issues now just do that and move on. I know everyone’s struggle is unique.
And trust me when I tell you that by no means am I a solved puzzle living happily ever after. I have to work on this awareness and progress every day. Eating healthy helps. Meditating helps. Physical activity helps. Work helps. My point is, I have plenty of challenges ahead. We all do. The peace I think comes from accepting where we are, where we have been, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. By no means do I want to offer my story as if I have just figured out my issues and you should too It is a constant process, and it is also okay to fail.
What methods helped you individually get/feel better?
As far as my concentration struggles go, I know everyone has their own viewpoints and I respect that! But I would not be fully open if I didn’t say that I do think medicine has been my best help. I want to be clear about this. I do not mean that I take my vyvanse, and my ADHD is gone, I can eat bad, practice bad habits and my medicine saves me. But what I do mean is that although I do practice meditation, I do yoga, I do hobbies, exercise, I read about different coping mechanism on reddit, all of that helps. But I have to say that nothing helps ME, as much as medicine. I am not some pharma fan boy, I am sure big pharma has it’s issues and I don’t want to make this political. But I do want to share my true experience with this in the most open honest way possible so that it can have the best chance at helping someone that may be able to gain something from my story.
In the fall of 2019, I took 3 months off from vyvanse. I quit cold turkey. The first week was awful but I was pumped that I was “beating the drug.” The next few weeks sucked. Basically the whole 3 months sucked. I’d say I got better at living without it for a few weeks but after about two months I couldn’t help but notice that I probably was never going to operate and feel the way I felt with the drug. Last but not least I want to point out a segment I listened to and watched on youtube that just made a lot of sense for me! And really was a catalyst for me deciding to get back on vyvanse. “The Neuroanatomy of ADHD and thus how to treat ADHD – CADDAC – Dr Russel Barkley.” I won’t go into depth on this but I really would urge anybody that has ADHD, thinks they have it, or especially any parents with ADHD kids to watch this. What it came down to for me was the realization that ADHD is something that can actually be shown in the brain as an abnormality. It affects more than your ability to focus, it affects your short term memory, which is critical in being a productive person. I really connected to this.
For those that swear they have figured out how to treat themselves without the drug, I say good for you. I do not intend to urge everyone to take some pill or there is no hope. Even without the pill, keto diet did help me, and many other things helped too. Meditation also helps a lot and I have been doing that on and off for a few years now. I am proud to also say I am on 22 days straight of meditating with Sam Harris’ waking up app. Definitely the most consistent I have ever been. I am mindful of my weaknesses, like my natural desire to be a little selfish and not be considerate of those around me. Given the success I’ve had with these other tools as well, maybe it is possible to treat it without medicine. But the science behind the medicine makes a lot of sense to me given the challenges I face.
Why did you decide to go public with your story? Who were/are you hoping to help and how?
I wanted to help others that might find some insight or similarity in my story to theirs, and for personal gain. I would be lying if I pretended that I am not hoping that sharing my story here will afford me some more unique and interesting experiences in my life ahead. I also know that sharing my story helps me grow my awareness of myself and live my own truth. I would be happy to give my time to anybody that feels I can help them with any questions they may have or any thing they want to discuss. But yes, I have personal selfish reasons for my actions too. And I think we are all better off the more in touch we are with this truth.
How did people react when you went public with your story?
I think everyone will be a little different and similar all at once. I’m sure some will be huge supporters and appreciate my story. I’m sure some will think it’s too much or that I am missing it somewhere. For me finding peace in knowing that there will be many reactions, positive, negative and in between is kind of cool. And let me not forget to mention, that plenty will just not care and move on. And that’s cool too lol. But yeah, I do hope my story helps someone find just a little more insight into their own lives and helps them get just a little closer to living their truth.
Here is me being selfish. Trust Your Work is a brand I started up last fall with Fanarch, which is a pretty cool startup idea that helps athletes like myself…start a brand! Because that’s what athletes do nowadays, start clothing lines! haha.
But in all seriousness, I did come up with the phrase, I connect to it, and I try my best every day to TRUST my work. Here is my link: Kristjan Sokoli
And of course who doesn’t want to grow their social media following. I am on IG and Twitter @kristjan90
And just so this is not all about myself, one person I have really enjoyed listening to and reading his books is Sam Harris. He can be a bit extreme with some takes, and I don’t necessarily agree with all of his work, but for the most part I am a huge fan and really feel like his work has helped me a bunch! Free Will and Waking Up are the books I would recommend. I’d recommend Waking up first. Also hit me up on social media and I will send you a free month trial to his meditation app, which has been the best I’ve found as far as meditating. PS I do not get any kickback or money for promoting Sam Harris! Though maybe one day I will get to meet him for all of this and that would be pretty cool lol.