WATCH: Depression in athletes - are they hiding something?
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By Graham Howes
When I was diagnosed with Major Depression in July 2019 my life changed forever.
It was a turning point in my life. After years of confusion, anger, frustration and being in a very, very dark place, I could finally make sense of why my mind had turned on me.
A mind that had always been so creative had just stopped functioning. It’s incredibly scary when something we rely on, something that controls every aspect of your life, your health, relationships, skills, your wellbeing, all of a sudden fails you.
I fought it for so long, trying to figure it out until it fully exhausted my every being and left me crippled on a couch with the blinds shut for 2 weeks.
This is my story:
I was fortunate to have my incredible fiancée, Candace, in my life at that point, otherwise I don’t know if I would be here to share my story. She supported me throughout my darkest of days,and dragged me to a psychiatrist. His diagnosis shook my world, ‘You are suffering from Major Depression’.
Ironically, at that point, those were the best words I could’ve heard. It was as though I had been forced to build a 10,000 piece puzzle, but the puzzle was upside down, and there were just 10’000 grey, oddly shaped pieces in front of me. However with this new information, the puzzle was flipped, and although I still had 10,000 pieces in front of me, there was some colour, and I could slowly, piece by piece, begin seeing a picture.
When I got home, I scraped together all the energy and physical power just to open my laptop, and started researching to beat it by educating myself. The psychiatrist had suggested medication, but I was too stubborn and I would spend the next month trying to muscle my way through it.
With this new information I could take back control of my mind, or so I thought.. I spent weeks reading self help books, trying meditation, changing my diet, quitting booze, talking, writing, even taking ice baths.. you name it I tried it.
And then before I knew it, I was back on that couch in the dark with curtains shut! I hadn’t done any sport in over a month, I had zero physical energy or motivation. But I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. So in one last attempt, I scraped myself off the couch and forced myself to go kitesurfing, back to my happy place, the place that fixed everything, the ocean. Or so it did in the past... I had my first panic attack while kiting. It felt like someone had stuck their fist down my throat, I couldn’t breathe or get air into my lungs, my heart was pounding and I thought I was having a heart attack. I had to somehow hold it together for another 3 kilometers to get to where my car was parked, with every minute feeling an eternity. It was the scariest moment of my life. Depression had now taken from me, what I loved the most - the ocean - my happy place.
I started to google other extreme sports athletes who suffer from any mental illness. ‘No search results found’ This does not exist in our world. Well I lie, it does... “Andy Irons, dies alone in a hotel room after suffering silently with bipolar”. “Sunny Garcia (World Champion surfer) in a coma after a failed attemp at suicide after suffering from depression”, “XGames Gold Medalist, Dave Mirra dies of suspected suicide’ the list goes on and on.
The truth is that suicide, depresson, and other mental illness only end up in the media when that athletes silent and lonely dark road ends in their death. And then, for the few weeks that follow, people talk and post about it, saying “how terribly sad it is'', and that the person seemed “so happy, and shared so much love and made a huge difference in people’s lives” and that they are all “shocked by this sudden passing”’.
Strange as it may sound, but I have a good Idea of how my obituary would sound, I’ve written it in my head many times, “Graham was such a happy, positive influence and created a culture that has brought so many people together, and inspired people to live their best lives, this is such a shock to the community and his friends, we had no idea he was suffering”.
The truth is, statistically, as a male in my 30’s, suicide is the most likely thing to kill me.
Read that again, shocking right? It is the leading cause of death to men in their 30’s - more than cancer, AIDS, covid-19.
And yet everyone is afraid to talk about it. “It will make me seem weak, I can’t show vulnerability”, “it’s too uncomfortable to ask my mate how he is really doing?” I get it, those things are all true, it’s taken me years to talk about this. That's because we, as a society and culture have made it that way. And I have contributed to that virus for years.
Making videos that are ‘cool’, curating content around our perfect live’s that are a lie. And I probably will continue because that’s what the world feeds off. And... it sells! Not only do my sponsors pay me to showcase this dream life, but Dirty Habits, the brand I created, makes sales that pays my employee’s salaries, because people buy into this lifestyle..
Don’t get me wrong, this is a very important aspect in the world, inspiring people to chase their dreams, to work hard and get through their struggles, and to give people a taste of this life. To strive for greatness, helping people keep their dreams alive, giving people a virtual escape from their situation. And very importantly, it is also making people laugh, smile and feel joy. I value that and I will continue to do that as it is my passion, but can’t we find balance, and what is that balance exactly?
It’s also important to understand that for people who have never experienced mental illness, have no idea how to digest or engage in this, and it’s unfair of us to expect them to understand such a foreign emotion. However, when you look at the stats, you’ll notice straight away that a large percent of the population is ‘unhinged’ in one way or another, which gives us power in numbers.
So if we - ‘the unhinged’ make an effort to destigmatize and demystify mental health, and find a new language for it, perhaps we can start a movement that can better the lives of those around us and maybe even save the lives of our brothers and sisters. I can guarantee you that someone in your immediate family or friend circle is suffering, after all 1 in 4 men have a mental illness. 600 000 Million world wide.
I broadened my google search from ‘depression in extreme sports” to “depression in atheltes” and although the results were even more morbid, and filled with headlines containing the words “Suicide, Overdose, Addiction, Demise” I found some hope. “Michael Phelps (Olympic Gold Medalist) opens up about suicide and his ongoing struggle with depression”. I got stuck into the articles and interviews he has done trying to create awareness about this epidemic, which lead me to NBA All-Star players Kevin Love and DeMar Derozan, who are now advocates for creating awareness around mental health.
This is an open letter, it doesn't really have a solution, there is unfortunately no ‘call-to-action’. I dream of setting up a foundation one day that can have an influence on the youth. But for now, all I know is that I cannot and will not ignore or stay silent about this, I also cannot contribute towards this virus.
Does that mean I know what the next step is? Unfortunately not. I am fortunate enough to have people around me who I now can talk to about this. Am I healthy? Far from it, my journey has just begun. Is this public announcement serving my selfish needs? Maybe… If admitting my deepest darkest secret and being vulnerable to the judgmental world of social media makes me feel a bit lighter... and if showing people a side of me that I'm embarrassed of, makes me feel a bit less of a fraud.
Then yes maybe I have something to gain, but don't we all deserve to be a little happier, a little less lonely?
My hope is that someone reading this can relate to it, and know that they are never alone, and they don’t need to struggle through this with shame, or fear. I also hope that those who are in denial, as I had been for years, thinking that “I’m stronger than this”, or “I can beat this alone”, you aren’t and you won’t.
If you have a toothache, do you not see the dentist? We need to start caring for our minds, as well as our bodies. We need to realize as a culture, mental health is as important as physical health. If someone were diagnosed with cancer or had a heart attack, their friends and community would rally together to help, to be there, they might even set up a go-fund-me page to assist with the medical bills or to improve their quality of life… should we not provide the same support for a illness of the brain?
What does my future hold for me? Well, hopefully I’ll be making fewer videos about drinking beer, partying and hopefully use social media as a platform for athletes and leaders to talk about life changing issues and Inspire change and growth.
Maybe talking openly about this topic might inspire someone just as Michael Phelps inspired me, to be brave. Maybe that person may be a role model to younger kids, maybe, just maybe, my obituary could instead read “Graham, gave me the courage to ask my friend how he really is doing”
And for now, I’m gonna put my laptop away, turn off my phone, put on some music and go back to my puzzle.
People don’t fake depression, they fake being ok.
Remember that and be kind.