INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Very quietly, there is another #MeToo movement afoot. It hasn’t grabbed the attention of the masses, not like the stories of sexual misbehavior toward women – and we’re not comparing the two issues, not in the slightest. This #MeToo movement has focused on mental health issues, with Cavs forward Kevin Love, Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan and National Hockey League goalie Corey Hirsch all coming out and sharing their harrowing stories of life with mental health issues.
I read all three pieces in recent weeks – Love talking about his panic attacks and generalized anxiety, DeRozan talking about his battles with depression, Hirsch talking about suicide and eventually understanding he has obsessive-compulsive disorder.
And I decided it was time for this: A mental-health #MeToo.
I mentioned it long ago in Denver when I was with the Rocky Mountain News, casually noting my issues with depression while writing about former hockey legend Bryan Trottier, who confided in me that he’d gone through several miserable years while dealing with his own demons. But I’ve never been fully forthcoming, except to my wife, feeling that I didn’t have the right to be so horribly damaged when I had a wonderful marriage, two great daughters and a job I absolutely loved. I feared it would come off as weakness, or whining, or something that didn’t reflect well on me at a time when I should be in the prime of my life.
I had everything I wanted, and yet I felt like I had absolutely nothing, like I was completely empty, incapable of anything resembling joy.
At the risk of overstating things, from the late 1990’s through the early 2000’s, I wanted to die. I’m not a praying person, but as I went to bed at night, I asked God to release me from the fatigue and pain and take me in my sleep. I didn’t want to wake up the next day because I knew what the next day would look and feel like: I’d wake up thoroughly exhausted, my mind foggy, my body deeply, bone-chillingly fatigued, that it would take every small bit of inspiration just to get out of bed and make my way to my computer, where I would struggle to write every word for that day’s column.
It all seemed to start going downhill after a couple of surgeries in the mid-90’s. It’s like I never recovered, for some odd reason. The fatigue was overwhelming. The depression was crushing. And soon, there was anxiety, rendering me almost incapable of leaving the house and interacting with other people. I can still remember going to a parent-teacher meeting with my wife and walking those school hallways, and it was like the walls were closing in on me. I was hyperventilating. I was sweating. I not only couldn’t think clearly, but I couldn’t quite make out what the teacher was telling us about our daughter.
In 2000, shortly after the Indianapolis Star offered me a columnist job, I got a call from ESPN about coming out to Bristol and interviewing for a position there. I told them I had just accepted the Star job and wouldn’t feel right about changing course. That was a lie – well, partially. I would have felt guilty, sure, but the reason I turned it down was that I was a mental mess. How could I do TV for ESPN when I could barely make my way out of bed every day? How could I do a screen test when I was hyperventilating during my every waking hour?
My brain was on fire. I could not get out of my own way emotionally. Sometimes it was sadness, an inability to derive joy from anybody or anything. Sometimes it was anxiety, this enduring sense that I was descending into a pit of madness. Most of the time, it was both.
I will never forget being in New York City to cover an event. I was staying at the Marriott Marquis in Midtown. I walked into the lobby one day, prepared to step into the elevator and realized I…could…not. I could not make it through the lobby, not with all those people in it, and I most certainly couldn’t step into a crowded elevator without feeling like my skin might start crawling. So I went back outside and walked the streets of New York City for an hour or two, fighting tears.
Another time, the Dan Patrick Show called. I tried to talk my way out of it, but they persisted. It might have been the worst guest appearance ever. I was so out of it, I could barely make out what was being asked, and my answers may or may not have had anything to do with the questions. I couldn't catch my breath. I couldn't think. It was a nightmare.
Back home, I remember two or three times when I got in my car and began driving to the Community North Stress Center. I knew I needed help, needed some time away, but every time, I’d go down I-69 from my house in Fishers, reach the exit and then turn around and come back home. I couldn't just disappear, you know? The Star had brought me to town with significant fanfare and had treated me extraordinarily well. There were billboards around town with my face. How could I let them down, and let my family down, by taking a few days – or longer – to get my mind right?
All this time, I was self-medicating in the hopes of making the anxiety or dark thoughts go away, at least for a while. Understand, I’ve always been someone who enjoyed and still enjoys a couple of beers and a good time, but at that time, I was partying with a sinister purpose – with the desire to black out, fade away, get completely out of my head and make the madness stop for a couple of hours.
I tried everything. I went to regular Western doctors. I tried psychiatrists. I went to holistic doctors, one of whom prescribed Human Growth Hormone. I took a trip to the Cleveland Clinic, where they rolled out the diagnosis of Fibromyalgia, which I summarily ignored. I took a run at acupuncture (which honestly helped with the anxiety). I foolishly perused the Web, looking for answers in all the wrong places. They told me Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It was my thyroid. It was my adrenals. I wasn't buying any of that. I wasn't accepting any of that. I resolved that wasn't going to be my story.
Meanwhile, my poor, saint-like wife was left with a shell of the man she married, and while she always handled my issues with grace and love, I was wracked with guilt. How could I do this to her? She deserves so much better…
And the financial cost? Oh, Lord. My health issues sucked us dry. Another reason to feel guilty. Like I needed another one.
What I ultimately learned, though, is that in my case, there was no magic bullet, no miracle pill that would bring me back to the person I once was. If I did anything right during that dreadful time, it’s that I didn’t give up. I would't accept that this was my fate.
Over time, we discovered some health issues, some hormonal deficits that impacted my energy level. We discovered, the hard way, that I had a heart problem. And after several stops and starts with a noted psychopharmacologist, we finally stumbled on a cocktail of drugs that made me feel somewhat normal, that kept the howling wolves at bay.
The greatest change came after my heart issue in 2006. While I was in the hospital, a nurse noticed that I was struggling to breathe during my sleeping hours, and that I was constantly waking up due to the inability to breathe. She strongly suggested I go for a sleep study.
I did, and what I heard brought my so much joy, I’m getting weepy just thinking about that moment: “You haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in years, even decades. You have severe sleep apnea.’’
I’m telling you, once I got used to the CPAP machine – it took a little over a week – I emerged a changed man. I had energy. I had a clear mind. The anxiety was rare, at most. The darkness began to lift. Soon, I was working out again, playing hockey again, socializing again, being me again.
Ultimately, there are two points here:
First, if you’re struggling, and I know many of you are, look for help and keep looking for help until you get an answer that makes sense. Do not give up. Never give up.
Second, I just want to do what so many others before me have done, what DeRozan, Love and Hirsch did in their recent Players’ Tribune pieces: De-stigmatize mental illness. It doesn't matter if you’re a big-time basketball or hockey star, or a decent columnist, or whatever. It doesn't matter that if you’re like me, you grew up with two loving parents who provided their two children with everything they needed from an emotional standpoint. We all have stuff. We all have issues.
There are answers out there, and you need to keep seeking answers, even if it takes several years. It took me the better part of 10 years to get right, and yes, it felt like forever.
I’m so proud of these professional athletes. They have something very important to say. I hope I do as well. #MeToo