Joining a crowded table

I don’t know a whole lot about Shawn Andrews, the offensive lineman for the Eagles who made news for the past few weeks because he had not yet showed up at training camp in Bethlehem. My knowledge of football players is pretty much limited to the fleeting vignettes that flicker across the TV screen.

But Andrews is one of the guys that stands out. Athletes usually aren’t too comfortable in front of TV cameras and aren’t too keen on talking to the media in general. Some guys engage in the process and come out looking pretty well, but for the most part watching a ballplayer talk to the press is like watching a root canal.

Andrews, however, seems to enjoy it. He’s fun, interesting and engaging. He does impressions, cracks jokes and has fun. Andrews is also pretty good – at least good enough to be an All-Pro – so it makes the press want to talk to him even more. He even has a nickname, “The Big Kid,” which never goes unnoticed.

The Eagles media guide reads:

One of the NFL’s most dominating and athletic offensive linemen on the field, Andrews is also one of the most unique and jovial personalities in the locker room and community, claiming to be “a big kid” who enjoys life to the fullest.

He sounds like my kind of guy. He works hard at his sport, and has fun with it. In other words, he gets it.

So when the story came out yesterday that Andrews had missed all of training camp (so far) because he was dealing with depression, well, my heart skipped a beat. Apparently the fun-loving, All-Pro offensive lineman from Arkansas has something in common with a goofy, writing/running freak from Lancaster, Pa.

Then again, there are a lot of people out there like Shawn Andrews and me. In fact, the statistics indicate that approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population suffers from depression/anxiety.

We’re just adding another one to the ranks.

I don’t know much about what Andrews is going through, but it sounds all too familiar. It’s called atypical depression (the categorization of the illness) for a reason. Atypical is the operative word. On most days one can be a highly-functioning and stellar worker who jokes and laughs about nearly everything. He can be the life of the party all of the time.

But the next day it sometimes seems that the only way to get relief from the pain is by a f—ing bullet to the head.

That’s the part that’s the most perplexing – how does one rationalize the illness? By all accounts Andrews probably lives a charmed life. I know I do. I have a great wife, two intelligent and healthy young boys, a job that can be pretty fun, and a (reasonably) sharp mind geared toward writing and telling stories. I own a house, two cars, a reasonable financial portfolio, fitness that belies my age and all the trappings of the middle-class American life. Certainly there is nothing to really worry about.

Yet every day the biggest fight is to get out of bed. Other days it’s a battle to perform the most basic daily tasks. Sometimes it takes every bit of strength to stop crying or overcoming a deep, seemingly profound sadness.

Andrews displayed some sadness last season when an injury could have cost him some games. That makes sense because sometimes depressed people need a daily activity to keep themselves together. The idea that he could miss a few practices or games was very difficult for Andrews and completely understandable in retrospect.

Reports are Andrews is taking medication and is getting professional help. Chances are Andrews is taking Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft. Been there, done that. And chances are he’s fighting the side-effects of these drugs that may or may not include gripping headaches, lethargy and fatigue. Been there and done that, too.

At least in my instance the biggest task about being prescribed drugs is getting off them. That’s where the professional help comes in and that seems to be the biggest reason why Andrews is still in Arkansas. People in Philadelphia seem to have an unhealthy obsession with the hometown athletes (maybe they’re depressed) and the idea that someone might see him walking into a doctor’s office was too much for Andrews to bear.

Plus, the Eagles were so supportive of coach Andy Reid when his sons were arrested last year. I’m sure they will be just as understanding with an employee suffering from a mental illness…

Right?

Look, depression doesn’t make sense. At least it doesn’t make sense if you have it. But what really doesn’t make sense is the apparent fines levied from the Eagles. Andrews could have torn his MCI or snapped his tibia like a wishbone and no one would have batted an eye.

But depression? A football player?

I have had plenty of nagging running injuries that have required me to visit with doctors, chiropractors and other specialists. I have also taken anti-imflammatories, done yoga and lifted weights in order to get healthy so I could go out and run some more. But never (ever) has an athletic injury caused me to think I was going to die. Never has a muscle spasm made me hyperventilate in a movie theatre because my heart-rate was racing so fast that I thought it was going to burst out of my chest.

And never, ever has a so-called sports-related injury ever made me hide in my room with all the lights out because I felt like I was going to have a heart attack…

Yeah, I think I missed work that day. I can remember thinking that a broken leg (or worse) would have been better.

If Andrews is anything like me, he’s had the illness his entire life. He’s also probably gone through times much worse than the one he’s dealing with now, as well. Sometimes there are periods of melancholy or darkness that so inexplicable and unfathomable that it’s otherworldly. It’s as if you can watch yourself from the outside and wonder, “Who in the hell is that? What is his problem?”

Wish I knew.

It seems as if that outside-looking in moment is the only bit of clarity involved with depression, but even then there are no answers.

As Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote oh-so accurately in her book Prozac Nation, depression is unseen by the naked eye, like cancer, but then, BOOM! It has you:

Some catastrophic moments invite clarity, explode in split moments: You smash your hand through a windowpane and then there is blood and shattered glass stained with blood with red all over the place; you fall out of a window and break some bones and scrape some skin. Stitches and casts and bandages and antiseptic solve and salve the wounds. But depression is not a sudden disaster. It’s more like cancer: At first its tumorous mass is not even noticeable to the careful eye and then one day – wham! – there is a huge, deadly seven-pound lump lodged in your stomach or your shoulder blade, and this thing that your own body has produced is trying to kill you. Depression is a lot like that: Slowly, over the years, the data will accumulate in your heart and mind, a computer program for total negativity will build into your system, making life feel more and more unbearable. But you won’t even notice it coming on, thinking that it is somehow normal, something about getting older, about turning eight or twelve or fifteen, and then one day you realize that your entire life is just awful, not worth living, a horror and a black blot on the white terrain of human existence. One morning you wake up afraid you are going to live.

In my case, I was not frightened in the least bit at the thought that I might live because I was certain, quite certain, that I was already dead. In the course of life there is sadness and pain and sorrow, all of which, in the right time and season, are normal – unpleasant, but normal. Depression is an altogether different zone because it involves a complete absence: absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest. The pain you feel in the course of a major clinical depression is an attempt on nature’s part (nature, after all, abhors a vacuum) to fill up the empty space. But for all intents and purposes, the deeply depressed are just the walking, waking dead.

And the scariest part is that if you ask anyone in the throes of depression how he got there, to pin down the turning point, he’ll never know. There’s a classic moment in The Sun Also Rises when someone asks Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt, and all he can say in response is, “Gradually and then suddenly.” When someone asks how I lost my mind, that is all I can say too.

Look, there are a lot of people in bad shape with depression, many of them in a much worse situation than Andrews and me. But make no mistake – the last thing people with the illness want is sympathy or undue attention. They just want to (somehow) get better. Besides, there are too many of us out there for it to be so stigmatized.

3 thoughts on “Joining a crowded table

  1. I enjoy reading your blog already, but this was a stellar post John. My hats off to you.

    I also suffer from depression and agree with everything you said about the illness. The last thing I want is for people to ask me if I’m okay or feel sorry for me; I just simply want to feel better and I’m sure it’s the same for Shawn Andrews.

    I heard his two interviews on ESPN 950 and Daily News Live and he definitely seemed like a guy going through a lot. Although the fans in Philadelphia get a bad rap sometimes (and deservedly so on occasion), we are a very understanding group of people when one of our own goes through a tough time. I think of the standing ovation Rich Ashburn got when one of his kids passed away, and the amazing ovation Tug McGraw received when he made his return from cancer. I expect that Eagles fans will give Andrews a lot of love and support over the next few weeks.

    Again, great post. It was a pleasure to read.

  2. Thanks Chris, I appreciate your note. I’m very hyper-sensitive to most things to begin with and the fact taht I can’t rationalize or reason with depression is damned frustrating.

    But what am I telling you for? You already know this.

    I hope you are right about Shawn Andrews and the support he gets. So far I’m a little (OK, A LOT) disappointed by the (non) response by the Eagles and some corners of the media. It’s disappointing that some people just refuse to understand or educate themselves on things that will affect their friends and family.

    Hopefully, Shawn comes out of it OK and can continue to lead a productive life.

    Thanks again for the note.

  3. Yeah, I’m disappointed in that too. I think a lot of players are simply trying to give Shawn his privacy and not say anything public on the matter, which I can respect. However, Andy Reid, Jeff Lurie, or Joe Banner should probably come out and make a statement on the situation, which I don’t think has happened yet. The Eagles are one of my loves in life, but they are very arrogant and treat the fans and the media like they are stupid. It’s very maddening sometimes.

    The worst thing for me, and I think it applies to the Andrews situation too is all the people who just assume that being depressed means that one is just sad for a little bit and they’ll just snap out of it instantly. When I’m at work, my coworkers constantly lambast me, telling me to cheer up and all that stuff. Easier said than done I’m afraid.

    Anyway, thanks for the response and again for a great post.

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