Is Depression & Anxiety The New Normal? A professional athlete speaks out:
Is depression and anxiety becoming an indispensable part of our lives? Graham Howes, a professional athlete, artist and founder of Dirty Habits, shares his story and gives us a glimpse of what depression is like in the world of sports.
Read his story below:
In July 2019, I was diagnosed with Major Depression. This was one of the biggest turning points of my life. After years and years of confusion, anger, and frustration, I could finally make sense of why my mind had turned on me. A mind that had always been so powerful and so creative had just stopped functioning. It is incredibly scary when something you heavily rely on, something that controls every aspect of your life, your health, relationships, skills, and wellbeing suddenly fails you with no explanation. I fought it for so long, trying to figure it out until it fully consumed me and left me crippled on a couch with the blinds shut for 2 weeks.
Luckily, I was fortunate enough to have my incredible fiancé Candace in my life. Otherwise, who knows if I would be here sharing my story. She supported me throughout the darkest of days and finally managed to push me to seek the help I needed. I visited a Psychologist who immediately forwarded me to a Psychiatrist, where I heard the words that shook my whole entire world...
"You are suffering from Major Depression"
Ironically those same words were also the best thing that happened to me. Until that moment, I felt as if I had been forced to build a 10,000 piece puzzle that has been flipped upside down. The bigger picture was missing and all I could see in front of me were 10’000 grey, oddly shaped pieces. With this new information, however, the puzzle started to make sense. I was seeing some colour and slowly, piece by piece, I began to see the bigger picture. I knew I had a long road ahead of me but there was finally hope.
The Doc tried to put me on medication but I was too stubborn. I had been through so much worse in the past and I managed. When I got home after my appointment, I scraped together all the energy and physical power my overweight, slow body could (I was over 90kg’s compared to 79kg’s today). I opened my laptop and started my research. I was ready to beat depression by educating myself. I would spend the next month or so 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, meditating, changing my diet, not drinking, taking ice baths. You name it, I have tried it. But before I knew it, I was back on that same couch with the curtains shut. I hadn’t surfed or kiteboarded in over a month. I had zero physical energy or motivation but I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.
"The ocean, my happy place"
So in one last attempt, I scraped myself off the couch and forced myself to go kiting. Back to the ocean- my happy place, the place where I am in my flow and nothing else matters. Or so it did in the past...
I had my first panic attack while kiting on a long downwinder. 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 through my wetsuit. I thought I was having a heart attack. I had to somehow hold it together for another 3 kilometres to get to where my car was parked. Every minute felt like an eternity. It was the scariest moment of my life. Depression had now taken from me what I loved the most.
I got home and googled "extreme sports athletes who suffer from depression or anxiety".
No search results found.
as I looked deeper, I found some news headlines that started to paint a clearer picture:
- “Andy Irons dies alone in a hotel room after suffering silently with bipolar”
- “Sunny Garcia (World Champion surfer) in a coma after a failed attempt at suicide after suffering from depression”
- “XGames Gold Medalist, Dave Mirra dies of suspected suicide’
And the list went on and on.
The miserable truth is that depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses only end up in the media when the athletes' suffering ends with their tragic death. When something like that happens, people talk and post about it for weeks, saying how terribly sad this is and that the person seemed “so happy, and making a huge difference in people’s lives”. Everyone is always so “shocked by this sudden passing”’.
"Statistically, as a male in his 30’s, suicide is the most likely thing to kill me."
Strange as it may sound I have a good idea of what my obituary would say, I’ve written it in my head many times:
“Graham was such a happy, positive influence. He 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”.
Okay, that's a bit morbid, but you get the picture.
The truth is, statistically, as a male in his 30’s, suicide is the most likely thing to kill me. Read that again, shocking right? It is the leading cause of death for men in their 30’s. More than cancer, more than AIDS, more than COVID. And yet everyone is so chicken shit to talk about it...
I get it. It has taken me years to grow the balls to talk about this. But that’s because we, as a society, have made it that way. And I have contributed to that virus for years. Making videos that are ‘cool’, hardcore, and masculine, curating content around our perfect lives that are ultimately a lie. And I will probably 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 and run, makes sales that pay my employee’s salaries because people buy into this lifestyle. We have this unhealthy culture around success that can only be achieved through drive, power, winning, and glorification of one’s self. It’s hard to be competitive and successful while still being empathetic and vulnerable.
I mean don’t get me wrong, this is a very important aspect of the world. Inspiring people to chase their dreams, to work hard, to get through their struggles, to strive for greatness, helping people keep their dreams alive, giving people a virtual escape from their current situation. And very importantly- making people laugh, smile, and feel joy. I value that and I will continue to do that as it is my passion and the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.
Can we make it better?
It is important to understand that people who have never experienced mental illness have absolutely no idea how to digest or engage in this. It can be hard for them to understand such foreign emotions. However, when you look at the stats, you’ll notice straight away that a large percentage of the population is ‘unhinged’ in one way or another, which gives us power in numbers. So if we all make an effort to destigmatize and demystify mental health, and find a new language for it that is not so philosophical and artsy, we can start a movement that can better the lives of those around us. Maybe even save the lives of our brothers and sisters.
I broadened my google search from ‘depression in extreme sports” to “depression in athletes”. Despite the results being 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”
It turns out he also contemplated his obituary. I continued my search, which led me to NBA All-Star players Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, who are now advocates for creating awareness around mental health.
“One common misconception of professional athletes is that we're superhuman. It's hard to see inside. No one really gets a direct look into our daily lives and what we deal with on a daily basis away from the court. We have the same struggles that anybody has. Everyone is going through something that we can’t see” - Kevin Love
An open letter from a professional athlete struggling with depression
This is an open letter. It doesn't really have a point or a solution and there is, unfortunately, no call-to-action yet. 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 cannot keep contributing to this virus.
Does that mean I know what the next step is? Unfortunately not. I am lucky enough to have people around me who I can talk to about this. Am I fixed? Far from it but my journey has just begun. Is this public announcement serving my selfish needs? Maybe…
If admitting my deepest darkest secret, being vulnerable to the judgmental, cruel world of social media, and 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? And by no means am I doing this for attention or pity, or to be treated any different, that's the last thing I need.
My only hope is that someone reading this can relate to it and know that they are never alone. There is no need to struggle through this with any shame or fear. I also hope that those who are in denial, just as I have been for years, thinking that they are strong enough to beat this alone, seek some help. Think about it. When you have a toothache, you go see the dentist. If you have a knee injury, you go to the doctor.
We need to start caring for our minds, as well as our bodies. Just as we need to realize as a culture, mental health is as important as physical health. After all, if someone were diagnosed with an illness, their friends and community would rally together to help. They might even set up a go-fund-me page to assist with the medical bills or to improve their quality of life. Shouldn't we provide the same support for an illness of the brain?
As for what my future holds for me? Well, hopefully, I’ll be making fewer videos about drinking beer, partying and asses. Hopefully, I will utilise Dirty Habits as a platform for athletes and leaders to talk about real shit. Life-changing shit. 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 good music and go back to my beautiful puzzle.
People don’t fake depression, they fake being ok.
Remember that and be kind.
Want to see Graham and listen to him tell his story?
Take a look at his YouTube video "Is Depression & Anxiety The New Normal? An Athlete Speaks Out".
Want to see more content from Dirty Habits?
Graham Howes Instagram: @grahamhowes
Get in Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Join the conversation:
Mental Health in Extreme Sports Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1565357013635575/
*disclaimer - It may come across as I’m writing to a male audience only. My Instagram claims my audience is 96% male but more importantly from what I found online, this stigma is more of a problem amongst men. Women tend to feel more comfortable being emotional and talking about their feelings. Not to say they don’t suffer as much, It’s just easier for me to talk to men who can relate to my story. I also have zero education or professional knowledge about this topic. It is only my experience that I can share, everyone’s story is unique, and true to them.