To say Justin Peck lives life at full-throttle would be inadequate. Yes, he’s a champion off-road motorcycle and race truck driver; yes, he’s a serial entrepreneur with numerous businesses including his own racing team; and yes, he outworks just about everyone on and off the track. But perhaps among his more noteworthy achievements is his openness navigating the perilous terrain of mental illness, which he documents in his recently released memoir, Bulletproof. Humble and well-spoken, Peck talked with ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan about his remarkable journey, his penchant to do good, and what he loves most in the world.
Lia Martirosyan: When did you first notice your symptoms?
Justin Peck: For the bipolar side of things?
Peck: The symptoms started when I was roughly 13, but I didn’t understand what they were back then. Thirty years ago, you were never quite sure exactly what was going on. As I got older and started realizing what was going on with the way my mind was working, I can look back and say that 13 was my first manic phase. But I do know that prior to that—ages eight, nine, ten—I was still that goofy kid who didn’t have much of a social life and was awkward. I knew my brain was just a little off.
Martirosyan: So you had a gut feeling something going on?
Martirosyan: Interesting. How does it affect your daily life?
Peck: Right now, the impact on my daily life is probably more positive than negative. It took me a long time to ultimately understand it, realize what it was and put a name to it. Daily life can be hard. I think that sometimes the people who are broken the most evolve the most. The disorder has made me who I am today. Dealing with it on a day-to-day basis consists of getting out of bed first thing in the morning. Once my feet hit the ground and I get showered, cleaned and out the door to start my day, things typically work well. But it really is the first five minutes after I open my eyes in the morning that’s the biggest struggle.
Martirosyan: Do you have a medical regimen?
Peck: Oh, yeah. I have to take meds. I wish I didn’t, of course. I think any bipolar person will tell you they hate taking their meds. I hate taking them because it ensures I don’t have a manic phase. A manic phase is something I like. So I do take meds to control that part. And then my racing helmet is part of my medication regimen as well. There’s something about being able to take my helmet and put it over my face right before I race that takes away the outside chaos and keeps me focused. It’s pretty amazing.
Martirosyan: That sounds amazing. I’ve read about people who stop taking their meds when they feel better, and they’re feeling better because of the meds. What’s your take?
Peck: Oh, I do it all the time. (laughs) I guess it’s one of those things I shouldn’t admit. What happens is, you take your meds, and the reason why you start the medication is because you’re at the low spot. You’re where suicide seems like an option, or where you can’t get out of bed for months at a time, and your friends and family look at you and say, “Look, things have to change.” Change always happens at the hardest times of our lives, right?
When you’re in that struggle, you tell your doctor, “All right, Doc, this is what I’m doing.” The doctor always asks, “Are you taking your medication?” And then you say, “Well, no, I stopped because I was feeling OK.” And then he says, “The reason why you’re feeling OK is because the meds are working. Start taking your meds again.” So you start taking your meds again. You get past the struggle, and you start feeling normal again. Your day-to-day activities go on and you start feeling like you’re on top of the world.
For me, I hate to be controlled by a pill. I want to be able to think I have control over my own fate, and I have control over my own mind. So I stop taking the pill because I think, “How can this little white pill change my world? This doesn’t control me.” I’m slowly starting to realize that even though I’m older now, it’s not so much the little white pill controlling me, it’s more just something that helps me maintain, focus and find my balance.
Martirosyan: That’s a great revelation. Have you always been into extreme sports?
Peck: Oh, yeah. (laughs) I was always that kid. I was so goofy as a kid, I was severely bullied because—I mean, I was weird. I get that I was weird. But the one thing everybody knew within my small group of friends was no matter what circumstance or what situation we were in, if we were in a position where there was something scary or crazy to do, they could always look at me and say, “Justin, I dare you.” And I would always be the first one. I’ve jumped off cliffs in Lake Powell. I jumped off cliffs at the age of 12 that were over 150 feet tall. I calculated the math, and I hit the water at 87 miles per hour. No fear of consequences. I don’t assess risk at all. So when it comes to the adrenalin, the motorcycles, the racing and the extreme sports side of me, it doesn’t seem extreme to me. It seems like something that slows my head down fast enough so I can focus better.
Martirosyan: Interesting. What motivated you to write Bulletproof?
Peck: It was probably 10 years ago, roughly, when my youngest brother, right before his 21st birthday, overdosed on opiates and died.
Martirosyan: I’m sorry.
Peck: Oh, it happens. It’s an epidemic. It’s happening all across this world. It’s pretty rapid now. But after my brother passed away, I remember sitting at home and thinking to myself, “All right, if I were to die, would my kids know who their daddy was?” As a young kid, or as a young person, we see our parents as our parents. But we don’t really understand the struggles and hardships that our parents go through because there’s such an age difference and a generation gap.
My main focus was to write an account of my life so when my children get to be my age, they could read it and understand, “This is why Daddy is crazy. This is why he acts the way he acts.” It could give them an understanding of how I’ve always lived my life. There were no intentions of actually writing a book. I just wanted to write journal-type stuff, and get things down. I started, and one chapter turned into a couple chapters, which turned into seven or eight and then 20. Eight years later, I had 38 chapters done.
I handed it to an editor. She read it and explained it was quite powerful, and it would not only help my children, but it would help a lot of other people, because a lot of people think and feel the same way I do. The difference is, I have the voice. I’m OK with giving up my sanity to help other people. That’s where the book has evolved to so far.
Martirosyan: I’m trying to let that part sink in, where you said you’re willing to give up your sanity?
Peck: (laughs) Let me explain. If you look at the normal populace who suffer with some type of mental illness, there’s a stigma behind it. Would you agree?
Peck: It’s one of those things people don’t talk about. The influencers—whether they’re a celebrity, athlete, artist or band member with a physical or a mental disorder that they know about it—I would say probably 90 percent of them do not talk about it. For a long time we never understood why. If, 10 years ago, someone would have said, “Hey, you know what? Scott Stapp, the lead singer of Creed, has bi-polar disorder.” If he had come out 10 years ago and said, “Hey, this is what I suffer from,” I would have listened to him. I would have said, “Wow, you know what? If Scott Stapp can do this, I can do this.” I did not realize and understand why people weren’t talking about it.
About six or seven months ago, I was speaking at an event, and that’s when it hit me. I realized why people with a disorder do not talk about the disorder. It’s because every single time I tell my story of trying to commit suicide, that’s burned into my brain like it’s a movie, and it plays over and over again. Every time I tell that story, I relive the story and the emotion. I relive the depression and the manic phases of it.
We don’t talk about it because it’s hard, and it really does affect our mental state if we decide to talk about how it affects our lives. What I’ve decided—and this is just me personally—is that I am OK now with sacrificing my mental stability for the good of other people around me. I am willing to tell the stories and explain how I felt and had beaten some big struggles in my life. And I’m willing to deal with a few days of mind torture thereafter. I’m OK with the sacrifice if I can look into a crowd and hope one person decided not to kill him/herself that night because of my words. That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to give, and I’ll give it every single day.
Martirosyan: Thanks for the explanation. I can only imagine what you have to deal with afterwards. Is there a line or two in the book that stands out to you?
Peck: There are a couple lines I always share with people that have been a mantra to me and that I repeat to myself on a daily basis. One of them is “Adapt and overcome.” Situations and struggles will always arise. We’re humans. It’s built into our DNA. There’s nothing that is typically ever easy. We have problems and issues, we adapt and then we overcome them. When we do that, we become better people. We grow in character, experience, and in so many other ways.
Another big one I try to explain to people is that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, in my opinion. Moderation is for those people who don’t believe in their abilities. If you’re going to do something, if you have a task in mind to start a company, become an amazing guitar player or a great chef—whatever you want to do in life—take your gifts, take your passion and put everything you possibly have into it. If you overdo, then you’re going to learn and master it. If you go into each task with moderation, then you don’t believe you can actually accomplish your goal. Those are a few things I try to explain. I don’t know if “teach” is the right word. Those are a few things that have always run through my mind that keep me going every day.
Martirosyan: I like it. Do you consider racing a form of therapy?
Peck: (laughs) Yes, racing is my therapy. Absolutely. I race 38 weekends a year right now. I’ve been a pro driver for seven or eight years. I’ve been racing for 25 years. Without racing, I honestly don’t know what I would do. I’m asked that question quite often. “What happens if you break a bone?” I’ve broken 78 bones. I’ve had 19 surgeries. I’ve got 12 rods, nine plates, 300 screws, cadaver parts, and I physically have died twice—all from racing. I refuse to quit. I overdo, because it’s a position. I refuse to give up on my sport that I love.
Martirosyan: Amazing that you found something in life that you are so passionate about.
Peck: I’m very fortunate.
Martirosyan: Does it matter if you win or lose?
Peck: We always like to win. (laughs) There has never been a time that I have sat at the starting line and said, “You know what? I’m gonna take eighth place today. I’m OK with that.”
Peck: Any time I put on the helmet, it’s always first place or no place. And I’ve had really good success over the course of my years. I’ve probably physically started over a thousand races in my day. I’ve got a couple hundred trophies and awards and things from winning races. I understand what it feels like to win. I also know what it feels like to lose, which is really hard as well. But the goal is always the top of the box, to stand with your number one finger up.
Martirosyan: I like that answer. I want to step back to when you mentioned the stigma around mental health. Do you think it’s changed over the years?
Peck: Slowly changing. It’s a really slow process. I’m still trying to figure that one out. I try to think logically. I know I overanalyze a lot of things, but I’ve never understood why it’s taken so long for people to accept mental health and mental disorder. A couple years ago people kind of stood back and went, “Oh, wow. OK.” It was when Mr. Robin Williams had killed himself. We’re talking about one of the most incredible men ever, a guy who made millions of people laugh, an incredible talent and an all-around good human. But he was able to hide a disorder that no one knew about. What if he had been able to stand up and speak about it? What lives would have been affected then?
Honestly, I think it took a lot of people back, and they said, “If this guy can do it, there must be something behind it.” There was more research, and I think that since that time the ball is starting to roll, but again, we’ve got an uphill battle. I’m really good with challenges, so when people say, “You know what? You’re not gonna be able to change the world and end the stigma,” in the back of my mind is, “Challenge accepted. I’ll prove to you that it will happen.”
Martirosyan: That’s awesome. What question are you never asked that you want to be asked?
Peck: (laughs) Oh, wow! I’ve been interviewed a lot, and that one I—geez. That’s kind of a put-you-on-the-spot question. (pause) I don’t know.
Martirosyan: You can brag if it’s something you want people to know.
Peck: I try to be very humble, because I understand I have a fan base, that I have people looking at me all the time. It’s very important for me to convey that I am a humble man. I grew up with nothing, and I was fortunate enough to grow into a business and start my own companies and work hard and create and know what I’ve created. I think what I wish people would ask more about is how I love my children.
Peck: And I know that probably sounds goofy.
Martirosyan: No, it doesn’t.
Peck: With my book and having the disorder, I have to talk a lot about myself all the time. I’ve never been much of a person who likes to talk about himself. I like to always stand in the back of the room and listen. Because you can learn a lot by silence. Watch the crowd, watch the people, and then walk up to someone and listen to what s/he has to say. You can learn a lot about someone in the first five sentences they say.
When I speak, it’s a lot about me, which is sometimes hard. But the main reason I’m doing this big push on the mental health side of things, is because I want to create a legacy for my children. My children are the absolute loves of my life. Without them I am nothing. So I guess that’s the question I wish I would get. “How does it feel to be a daddy?”
Martirosyan: How does it feel to be a daddy?
Peck: If you take rainbows and glitter and unicorns and pixie dust and all the fun things and then attach that to screaming and yelling and fighting, that’s what being a daddy feels like.
No, it’s amazing. I look at it as, when they’re born, I am in control of these people. I could go to jail if something happens to these people. I have to take care of them. I have to understand that they need to be fed and they need to have shoes and go to school. And so it’s always a fun process. Being the age I am now and having the age of children that I have, it’s fun to listen to their mentalities and their concepts of reality compared to the concepts of reality I had when I was their age. I learn a lot from them. I learn a lot about technology. For heaven’s sakes, I get that Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and all these things are huge. I totally understand that, and I do them as well. Even last night, my daughter and one of my sons and I were watching a movie and laughing at the movie, and my daughter pulls up Snapchat and says, “Dad, check this filter out.”
I’m like, “I don’t know. What does that even mean?” Taking pictures and showing funny faces and funny voices. It’s crazy that you can look at technology as one of those things that can pull us apart as people, but I know that for me, we sat on the couch for 45 minutes laughing so hard because of the silly things that were happening. And because of that, I’m closer to my kids now. It’s little things like that that make me appreciate my children and help me learn from them. I don’t always have to be the teacher.
Martirosyan: It’s nice that you realize that as well. How old are they?
Peck: I have four children ages 23, 21, 16, and 11. My oldest is about to turn 24. And then I have a three-year-old grandbaby, a five-year-old grandbaby, a three-month-old grandbaby, and a grandbaby that’s due in May. And to top it all off, I’m only 43 years old. It’s not like I’m an old guy. I still race professionally. Still fast at what I do. It’s not like I’m an old guy. I just started real young, and my kids started pretty young, too.
Martirosyan: Are you ok with them racing?
Peck: Out of all of my children, and it’s the funniest thing, because I would have thought as they were growing up: “This one will race. This one won’t.” The first three, I was hoping that one of them would race. But they just never did. The fourth one—my very last child, a boy—the second he was born, I just knew. It was the craziest thing. By the time he was one year old, he was not even walking yet, but there was this Daddy instinct. “All right, he’s gonna be my racer.” I put Dylan in his very first racecar when he was four years old. He has been racing ever since. The kid has almost seven years of experience behind him, and he’s 11. He’s won championships. He is fast. He is humble.
So yeah, it’s great. It’s nice for me, because it’s fun for me to win. I enjoy winning. But there is just something about watching your little man stand on the top of that podium with a trophy in his hands that completely beats every last trophy that I’ve ever won in my life. It’s amazing.
Martirosyan: Any motorcycle racing?
Peck: I race motorcycles. I raced professionally for about 14 years on motorcycles.
Peck: Yeah, some motocross, mostly the long distance-type stuff in deserts. That’s how I was introduced into the racing scene, because of dirt bikes. They’re an inexpensive way to race and compete. I did that for a very long time, and that’s where the broken bones come from. When I was 32, I had broken both of my legs in a race, and realized, “All right, enough’s enough. You can’t do this any more.” I recovered from the broken legs, and then started racing on asphalt, and that was fun. It’s still fun to do 180 miles an hour. But there’s nothing like the dirt. I did asphalt for about six years and then transitioned back over to off-road racing with trucks, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Martirosyan: Quite a journey.
Peck: It’s still going, too. That’s what’s fun!
Martirosyan: What question are you always asked that you prefer not to answer?
Peck: (laughs) The question I’m always asked and it’s not that I don’t want to answer it, but it’s the hardest question I get. Here’s a quick, brief story to lead up to my answer:
Eleven and a half years ago, it was a normal day. I had felt kind of down. Hadn’t been diagnosed with the disorder yet. I woke up, leaned over and kissed my wife at the time, walked upstairs, kissed the kids goodbye, went out back, got my dog and threw her in the back of the truck. These were just normal day-to-day things I had done for years. I was a big construction guy, owned a couple of construction companies, but while I was checking on my construction jobs, I felt a sense of despair, of not being worth anything.
Instead of dwelling on that, I decided to drive up to the top of the canyon I’d been to a million times before. I got to the top of the canyon. I know exactly where it’s at because I’ve been there thousands of times. I let the dog out of the back of the truck, and as she was running around, I was trying to feed off of her joy. What’s it like to be a dog and run around in the mountains? I’m sitting, listening to music, and in the moment I was thinking rationally about life, those thoughts turned into irrational thinking for a split second. In that second, I reached into my glove box, grabbed my pistol, loaded it, put it to my head and pulled the trigger.
Peck: I had given up. I had decided I did not want to be here anymore. I was done. Done feeling the way I was feeling. It was one of only two times in my life that I’ve quit. I don’t quit. Anybody who knows me knows that Justin does not quit, ever. He doesn’t quit when he should quit. But at that moment, I pulled the trigger, and all I got was a click. I didn’t get the result that I wanted. So I unchambered the bullet, and it landed in my lap. I picked it up and examined it, and I could see where the firing pin had hit the back of the bullet. I don’t have any explanation for it. I wish I did. I wish I could tell you why it didn’t go off. I have my personal beliefs, and I know other people have their personal beliefs, but for some reason that one bullet out of the thousands of bullets that I had at that particular time decided not to fire.
The question I’m often asked that is the hardest to answer is, “After you pulled the trigger, how did you feel?” I try to put it into perspective for people, because society’s pretty crazy with guns anyway. But when I explain this experience and tell them that when I pulled the trigger the gun didn’t go off and that it was probably the most incredible feeling I’ve ever felt in my life, people give me funny looks. (laughs) They don’t understand, and I don’t expect them to understand, because it was my struggle to bear. But I do know that when the gun didn’t go off, I knew then, and I still know to this day, that I was ready to die. I was OK with it. I was OK with being done. But things didn’t pan out the way I thought they would. But the second the firing pin did not work and the gun did not go off, the adrenalin coursing through my veins was probably one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever had in my life. And that was the beginning of understanding who I am, because I drove down the canyon sobbing, not understanding, and on the phone with my doctor I explained to him what I had just done, and he immediately said, “You need to come down and sit and talk to me. We need to figure this out.”
That’s where we went through a six-month to a year process of narrowing down what disorder was affecting me the most. And because of the exact timing of that event, I am here today, able to talk about bipolar disorder and how it’s affected my life. In return, I am hoping to be able to affect as many people as I can to keep those people away from the top of the canyon, to keep a gun out of their hands, to keep the bottle of pills in their closet. That’s the goal. That’s the purpose.
Martirosyan: That’s a powerful story to be able to share.
Peck: Thank you.
Martirosyan: Was your doctor a psychiatrist?
Peck: No. He’s actually a good friend of mine. Believe it or not, he’s the same doctor who delivered all of my children. He’s a general practice MD, and I trust him. He’s still a part of my world. Once we figured out the drug path, he understood it was out of his realm, so I went to other doctors who specialized in mental health.
Martirosyan: Speaking of your drug path, what drugs are you taking?
Peck: There are a few things I don’t talk about. Not because I’m embarrassed. I don’t care if people know what I take. But I have to be careful. I want people to listen to what I have to say in a way that inspires them within themselves. I don’t want them to look at my life and say, “OK, I’m gonna have to take a gun, put it to my head and pull the trigger, and hopefully it doesn’t go off for me to change my life.” I don’t want that. I want to be the inspiration. I’ve gone through every single type of medication you can think of. Some of it works well, some of it doesn’t. My suggestion to people, because I’m asked that question a lot, is first find the drugs that work for you, and then also understand and realize that the drug that works in 2016 may not work in 2017.
Always be self-aware, always have a good group of people around you, whether it’s one or two people or five or ten. I call them my tribe, my little tribe of people, who know who I am and know that when the triggers are happening, they are the ones to bring it to my attention. “We think your medication is not working any more.”
Martirosyan: Let’s end on a light note. Is there anything else you’d like to share or put out in the universe?
Peck: I think everybody in this world should experience an adrenalin overload. Life is an amazing journey, and if we can stop the intolerance in our society, if we can stop pointing the finger at someone else, if we could just stop and look at a situation, even to the smallest extent of the next person you meet, whether it’s someone at the gas station or a TSA agent or whatever circumstances you’re in, just look at that person and tell that person, “You know what? I appreciate you. I appreciate you for who you are.” If we can bring smiles, hope and happiness to one person, that one
person will pass it on to the next.
I know what brings happiness to me. When I’m able to have a smile on my face, the normal day-to-day chaos goes away, even for a brief moment. I think that’s the same with everybody else. If there’s a TSA agent sitting in that line, and he’s checking IDs and boarding passes, he doesn’t want to be there. He sees hundreds of thousands of people. So I try to be that one guy he remembers on that one day. “Wow, that guy was really nice to me. He said something that made me laugh.” If I can pull him out of his thoughts and his struggles just for a second, my day is made, and hopefully I made his.
Martirosyan: Lovely. Are you coming to Southern California any time soon?
Peck: Yeah. I just moved my race team. We were based out of Utah, and I loaded up my semi trucks and all the equipment and moved it to Ramona, California.
Martirosyan: I just got a crazy idea. What if I take one out for a spin?
Peck: You know what? I can absolutely put you in one of the racecars. I typically don’t let people drive them because they are a handful.
Martirosyan: I can imagine!