“Mental illness touches everybody. Every community, every person. Either you or somebody you love is going to be touched by it at some point.” – Ben Gordon
The lead-in to former U Conn and NBA star Ben Gordon’s ‘Where is My Mind?” is catch-your-breath shocking:
There was a point in time when I thought about killing myself every single day for about six weeks.
I would be up on the roof of my apartment building at four o’ clock in the morning, just pacing to the edge of the ledge, looking over — pacing back and forth, back and forth — just thinking, I’m really about to do it, B. I’m about to escape from all this shit.
Before I opened up my Inbox to read that last month, I knew Ben Gordon as a quiet, smooth, lethal shooter, a star at U Conn who led them to an NCAA Championship and then went on to win the Sixth Man of the Year as an NBA rookie with the Chicago Bulls, and then went on to play for the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Bobcats.
I didn’t remember or didn’t know that the end of Gordon’s career was marked by a bizarre series of incidents in 2017 where he was arrested for pulling fire alarms in a hotel and punching a man or that he was hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation later that year. Not until I read ‘Where is My Mind?“, where Gordon publicly revealed for the first time that he was suffering from bipolar disorder, and detailed his battles with mental illness – including a suicide attempt – while playing and since retirement.
Gordon describes having crippling panic attacks, insomnia, and being manic-depressive:
I started having panic attacks that were so intense they had a weight to them. You know what it felt like? It literally felt like this black cloak got thrown on top of me, and it was suffocating me. But not just physically. It was suffocating my soul. All I could do to relieve the pressure was to sit on the floor and scream at the top of my lungs.
How he felt on the inside did not match his on-court persona, Gentle Ben. This began when he was a kid, and for much of his life he was able to channel a lot of it into basketball. But with his career coming to a close, the thoughts became harder to mask and ignore: “My whole career, I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But now that I don’t have basketball anymore, the wolf is coming out…I was compartmentalizing all my trauma and fear and pain like I was doing when I was in the NBA, but the difference is that now there’s no game. There’s no boundaries. There’s no goal. It’s like I took it so far that my body and my soul literally split off and doubled for real.”
The thing that saved him? Therapy.
Court-ordered therapy after his arrests. Gordon was not a believer in therapy at first:
“A therapist? The fuck I’m gonn–?” You know what I mean? Typical black male. My problems are my problems. They’re nobody else’s business. I got this shit…At first, I thought it was useless. What’s some older white lady gonna know about what I’m going through? How’s she going to tell me anything?
But he soon realized that it wasn’t about being told anything. It was about being given the space to work things out about yourself. And he has been doing just that. It’s helped him: “For me, this is a start.”
“The goal doesn’t have to be perfection. It can just be peace and acceptance with yourself. I know for athletes especially, that might sound like some bullshit. That might sound soft. We’re trained to think that way. It’s almost like we’re brainwashed. But the whole reason I’m telling you my story is because I know — I know — there’s players out there who need help.”
– Ben Gordon
Ben Gordon is the latest NBA player to speak out about mental health in a powerful way.
But he is not the first. That might have been Royce White, who paved the way for others. White was outspoken well before others, and his NBA career was likely cut short because of his steadfast advocacy on the issue. According to White, reducing stigma is crucial, and the best way to reduce stigma is for more people to stand up and tell their own stories: “Stigma stands firmly in the way between mental health and all the care and solutions that are possible…The stigma that being mentally ill or having struggles with mental health conditions is character flaw—or that mental health is synonymous with being crazy or negative is wrong.”
More recently, other high-profile players, including the Cleveland Cavalier’s Kevin Love and the San Antonio Spurs Demar Derozan have been outspoken about. In Kevin Love’s brave 2018 piece, “Everyone Is Going Through Something,” he opens up for the first time publicly about his panic attacks after 29 years of acting tough, hiding, and thinking about “mental health as someone else’s problem.” Since then, he’s participated in panels and been an exemplar and role model for men who want to open up about mental health. He hopes that his sharing his story can help others to “speak their truth.”
Speaking of speaking one’s truth, over in the WNBA, back in August of last year, Liz Cambage of the Vegas Aces, penned her own Player’s Tribune piece, “DNP-Mental Health,” in which she openly discusses her life-long battles with anxiety and depression. She points out that its not until we’re ready to truly open up and “get real about how mental health can be this dark and even losing battle — that we’ll be ready to take the next step in this conversation:”
And I’m going to keep talking about it — in as real a way as I know how.
We’re probably not at a place yet — and we probably won’t be anytime soon — where the official box score is actually going to say something like DNP-Mental Health. But in the meanwhile….. here’s your Liz Cambage injury update:
She was day-to-day with anxiety and depression — and she still is.
To be honest, she probably always will be.
And you know what?
Former NBA great Charles Barkley once said “I am not a role model.”
In general, I’m with Sir Charles. Playing a sport – even playing it very very well – does not mean you are someone to look up to. It just means you’re really good at playing that sport. Yes, Ben Gordon has an iconic jump shot and was a star on the court at both the collegiate and NBA level.
But this is much bigger. These athletes have the opportunity to use their global platform to encourage others to be real, to be authentic, and to open up about their own struggles. This brave act literally saves lives.
As Dr. Andrew Solomon once said, “One of the primary struggles in [dealing with mental health issues] is the sense each of us has that his or her experience is isolating. A society in which that isolation is curtailed is really a better society.” By encouraging and receiving each others stories, we move one step closer to being a better society.
So, for the brave act of telling his story, I do think Ben Gordon is a role model. I hope there are many more like him out there.
We need them.
“I hope it helps somebody out there . . . Get some help. Because you’re not crazy, dog. You’re not damaged. You’re just human like the rest of us.” – Ben Gordon
Photo Credit: Associated Press/Paul Beaty