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Mental health in the NFL, Part 1: Eli’s story

The first part in our 3-part series on mental health opens up with a personal story.

Four years ago when I picked up a writing career that I had left for dead in my early 20s, my writing went through a lot progressions. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. It took a lot of time and a lot of discovery to get to the point where I am now. I can comfortably say that I’m very happy to be writing the kind of things that make people laugh, or keep people informed about random stats and the complicated splendor that is Matthew Stafford.

I am comfortable, but I’ve felt unfulfilled for some time now. There’s always been a story that I’ve wanted to tell to not just football fans, but everyone. However, I’ve hit every roadblock there was to hit until now.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have been completely transparent about my mental health. For me, it’s something that I feel I need to talk about—not just because talking about it keeps me off the brink of anxiety, but because I want to help promote an open dialogue so that those who cope with mental disorders don’t feel like they’re alone.

Two years ago, it dawned on me. I want to know what having mental disorders is like at an NFL level—not just from current or former players, but from a team or league standpoint.

So over the next three days, I will be heading up something of a mental health week at Pride of Detroit. I’ve put together three different stories with multiple NFL Players, both current and retired. We will also get a look at some of the ways the NFL deals with mental health as a league.

Because I felt that the players that I spoke with were brave enough to share their stories, I felt it was important to start this series off by sharing mine as well. So here it goes.

My Story

I’ll never forget the day. As I awaited for my wife to get home with the pizza we had ordered, I suddenly felt unlike myself. At first, I thought I was just hungry. My stomach ached and I had felt a feeling similar to a feeling I used to get as a kid when I hadn’t eaten — a nauseous feeling that was accompanied by cold sweats and lightheadedness. I went to the kitchen for a snack, but the feeling wouldn’t subside.

Suddenly I had an overwhelming feeling of fear. But fear of what? I don’t know.

My wife got home and we began to eat our dinner, but I just couldn’t shake this feeling. I began to have strong chest pains. My wife’s concern grew to the point where we both started to believe that I was having a heart attack.

It wouldn’t have been a surprise to either of us: I was over 300 pounds, I was smoking a pack a day, I ate Taco Bell multiple times a week, and my dad had suffered a heart attack in his 40s.

We rushed to the hospital. I felt like I was going to pass out on the way there. I was sweating and holding my chest and truly wondering if this was it for me. They ran every single test they could on my heart, but there was nothing wrong. There was nothing wrong anywhere. Doctors concluded shortly after that what happened to me was a massive anxiety attack.

Much like Logic says in his song Anziety, “How could it be anxiety? How could anxiety make me physically feel off balance? How could anxiety make me feel as though I was fading from this world and on the brink of death?” I wondered how my brain could make me feel like this.

I learned shortly after seeking counseling that this was not my first anxiety attack, and it would certainly not be my last. I also learned that the weird things that I have been doing all my life like knocking on wood up to 50 times a day wasn’t just me being weird, it was me dealing with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. To top it all off, I have had ADHD my entire life too.

But at least I knew about that last one. Everything else was a lot to throw onto the shoulders of a 20-something and assume they could manage it alone. It really changed my life. In some ways, my life changed for the worse. I hate feeling the way I do sometimes. It’s especially sad because I know that knocking on wood after I say goodbye to my wife and dog has no bearing on whether they remain safe. I’m just knocking on an inanimate object. But I still did it today, and I’m going to do it tomorrow too.

Just as I will continue to re-write text messages to my wife for fear that if I don’t text every letter of “I love you” correctly the first time, it won’t mean anything or tell my pets that I love them before I leave the house because I’m afraid if I don’t they’ll die.

It’s such a strange thing to be fully aware of what you’re doing and how irregular it is, but your brain won’t allow you to stop doing it. These are some of things I cope with everyday.

Sharing all this information about myself took a lot. Mental health is a sensitive subject and not everyone is comfortable or prepared to talk about it. After all, there are so many stigmas that surround mental health every day. It’s so often looked at as a weakness or severe personality flaw.

Imagine being a person who would like to talk to someone about your disorders, and they think you’re a crazy person that could snap at moment. I have been in these positions. I’ve been turned away at odd places like the blood bank because I told them I haven’t been keeping up on my dosage and they assumed I would be violent. I’ve lost jobs and I’ve been made fun of for having mental disorders. It’s not easy.

I know what it’s like to feel so small in the world and I know what it’s like to openly pretend that everything is okay when it’s not. The story I want to tell is that even the most successful of people—the people who are in the spotlight on a daily basis—know what it feels like too. If they can be open about it despite the stigmas, maybe you can be, too.

Eli’s Story

One person that has dealt with mental health issues is former Detroit Lions linebacker Eli Harold. Eli has dealt with his own mental issues throughout his adult life. As Michael Rothstein reported, Harold has battled with depression since the tragic loss of both his mother and his nephew within months of each other.

Eli brought up some of the concerns about stigmas that all with mental health issues deal with. But more than anything, Eli brought up a point that I myself hadn’t even thought to consider. Do men with mental health issues struggle from a much deeper issue?

“You know, as men, we kinda suppress and kinda take on things by ourselves and not tell our significant others. That’s really what I did,” Harold said. “It’s just being a man, period. I feel like as kids, we’re always taught if you’re a man, you’re not supposed to cry. If you’re a man, you’re not supposed to tell people if you’re hurting. Then you’re weak. I feel like growing up and having that instilled in me, it was just natural. I just felt it was normal.”

To Harold, the issue goes deeper than needing to get help. It starts with not being afraid to ask. And when you’re taught throughout life that masculinity means you can’t be weak, it’s easy to find yourself pushing your feelings down and trying to bury them.

Even though concepts like gender roles and toxic masculinity have changed a lot in modern America, the idea that having and sharing feelings is something that only women do is still sadly a part of the everyday culture. But is it something you can grow out of? Eli thinks so.

“I think it comes with age,” Harold said. “As you mature, and life goes on, you learn new things. You see new things and you meet people. You talk about this here and there and a person helps you. And they don’t even know that they helped you. It kinda helps flush out that negative energy to help you push through.”

In Eli’s opinion, the NFL has grown up. too. While he has not taken advantage of any of the utilities that the league or the NFL Players Association offer, he said there is open dialogue happening in the locker room these days.

“I’ve had a couple discussions since I’ve been here about mental health,” Harold said. “Everybody knows and are aware of it. I feel like that’s huge in our profession. A bunch of alpha males going out here every Sunday and laying it all on the line for each other and our families. And you never know what somebody is going through until they tell you about it.”

Eli says a lot of the willingness to talk started with NBA players Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan opening up in public over the summer about mental health and bringing the discussion to the forefront.

“Starting out with Kevin and DeMar. Those guys, I feel like they were very courageous for doing what they did and saying what they said,” Harold said. “And it’s real, you know. It’s just like the same thing with the anthem. It’s raising awareness and letting people know what’s going on. Mental health has always been here and always will be. Letting guys know that it’s okay to get help and to talk about it. That’s what you need to help you push up that mountain.”

Harold went as far as to say that he believes the stigmas are nearly all gone in the league and there’s a higher understanding.

“No, I don’t think there’s a stigma anymore,” Harold said. “Not in our profession. I feel like a lot of guys have spoken up. I kinda feel like that’s deteriorating, the stigma, you know what I’m saying? We’re pushing in the right direction. Which is great.”

Click here for Part 2: Is the NFL doing enough for the mental health of the players?

Click here for Part 3: Eric Hipple and life after football

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