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Chris Graham: My lifelong battle with mental illness

chris graham espnI’m 49 years old, have had issues with mental illness all of my life, and only came to realize it, and own it, in the past couple of weeks.

Anxiety, specifically, came to the fore for me in the aftermath of having been diagnosed back in March with blood clots, which fortunately for me were caught soon enough to have not caused anything serious in terms of my short- or long-term physical health.

The lasting complication has been to my mental wellness.

Even as I recovered relatively quickly from the blood clots, I couldn’t wrap my brain around how they’d developed.

I mean, come on, I’m 180 pounds, a runner and cyclist, eat right, the rest.

The doctors said it didn’t matter, that whatever the cause is, the treatment is anticoagulants – blood thinners – and as long as I’m on them, there is virtually no chance of having another.

“Virtually no chance” to the average person is great news.

To a person prone to crippling anxiety, not so much.

I can’t possibly document the hours I’ve spent trying to figure out what caused the clots, and then how whatever odd feeling I may have been having one day or another may be another one coming on.

And then, it just happened that I was dealing with a shoulder muscle injury that my anxiety-ridden mind of course naturally assumed was another bad thing about to happen, probably related.

It took several weeks to narrow that one down as a shoulder muscle injury, and not something more sinister.

Several weeks of hell.

I’ve been at the doctor and in ERs the past few months more times than I care to admit.

I’m currently dealing with a second bout of an out-of-season common cold that has had me a bit on the shelf, almost certainly a result of my immune system having been weakened by constant worry.

My family doctor recognized a couple of months ago that I appeared to be headed down this rabbit hole, and recommended, and then prescribed, an anti-anxiety medicine, which I took for a couple of days, then stopped, the reasoning being, abject silliness on my part.

To spell it out, my fear with the meds was, I am who I am, I like who I am, so … what if this medicine changes who I am, what makes me me?

The epiphany that just might set me free came last week as I prepped for a follow-up visit with my doctor, which had been set weeks prior, as a check-up on how I should have been progressing with the anti-anxiety medicine regimen.

I began by coming up with a list of all the things that were wrong with me physically and that I’d need to have checked out.

Being a 25-year veteran news reporter, I was thorough, too thorough, though that eventually ended up being for my own good.

Because as I checked and double-checked the list, I came to a realization.

What if I was bringing this all on myself?

Every single doctor’s visit, ER visit, had come back with the same prognosis.

My vitals are always good, the bloodwork shows nothing untoward.

I even talked myself into getting a thorough cardio exam, stress test and all.

It was, undoubtedly, the easiest cardio exam the folks at that clinic have ever done.

So as I continued prepping for my follow-up with the PCP, I dove down another rabbit hole: anxiety.

This is something with an extensive family history, as it turns out.

My father, at least one of his siblings, at least a few from among my first cousins, all were, have been or are being treated for issues related to anxiety.

It’s a vague memory, because I was 3 or 4 when this happened, but I remember my dad spending a week in the hospital due to stress-related issues.

In my own case, I have long had issues with little, but also big, things, like traveling on busy interstate highways, plane flights, mountains, dating back to when I was a child.

The anxiety has been such that even knowing that I have something to do a few days down the road that would involve interstate or mountain travel would result in trouble getting to sleep.

And even as a kid, I had this unnatural and unhealthy fear of dying. It was also unwarranted, because until the blood clot issue a few months ago, I’ve never had anything resembling even a minor health issue, to the point that I remarked to one of the nurses when I had to stay overnight for observation with the blood clots back in March that it was my first night in a hospital literally since the first couple days after birth.

The more I thought about it, processed it, I realized, man, this is heavy, this yoke that I’ve been carrying.

Practically every time I leave the house for anything more than a trip to the grocery store or the YMCA, I think about the bad things that can happen.

Vacations, trips to DC to watch a Nationals game, the flight to the Final Four a couple of years ago, they’re all absolute torture for me.

This isn’t even counting the year-plus of mental torture that was COVID-19.

I’d sit for hours on the couch, usually with a margarita, a cider, both, trying to get a handle on COVID numbers, concerned about the world, and ultimately about the impact that it would all have on our business, which almost went under in the 2008-2010 recession, and took years to recover.

This is what I want to preserve?

That was the epiphany.

A doctor had offered me a lifeline in the form of medicine that might help rewire my brain in a way that could free me from this burden, and I was worried that, yes, it might actually change me, and not for the better, that, quirks and all, I kinda like who I am, and I’m not sure I’d like this other guy.

Odd as it sounds, what if the part of me that makes me a good writer, observer of the world, diving down various and sundry rabbit holes, checking and double-checking facts, suppositions, is also the part that is prone to being wrecked by anxiety?

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this internal debate, incidentally. I’ll cop to having thought this through a few years back, focused more on the travel anxiety than the many other manifestations, and I came to the same conclusion.

What if I lose what makes me me?

Now I’ll cop to another reason that I was holding myself back on this: pride.

My doc didn’t prescribe anti-anxiety medicine out of the blue. I’ve known for some time that I was in need of help to deal with anxiety, and I’d asked for help as I was struggling to process things after the blood clots.

After a couple of days of taking the medicine, though, I convinced myself again, as I had so many times before, that I didn’t need pills, that I’m a smart enough guy to figure this out without medicine, that people who need pills are … weak.

I’m reminded here of the anecdote about the guy who refuses to get in a lifeboat in a flood because he has faith that God will save him, and when he drowns and sees God in heaven, asks, what’s up, and God says, who do you think sent the lifeboat?

Needless to say, my efforts to think myself through my anxiety were only making things worse, which is not a surprise, considering how other such efforts in my past also failed miserably.

Another illustrative anecdote: to try to convince myself that driving over mountains isn’t as bad as I was making it out to be, I’d look up elevations for hilly locations around the area that I’d had no trouble traveling over to convince myself that, see, no issues with this one, and it’s just as high as Rockfish Gap between the Valley and Charlottesville.

You probably know where I’m going to go here next: instead of helping me get over the mountain, I added new anxieties traveling over hills that I’d had no issues with before.

I’d set similar bars with doctors’ appointments in recent weeks.

The next one was going to be the one that would set me free, until it wasn’t, because the goalposts in my head had moved.

Anixety, I’m coming to realize, doesn’t submit to reason, any more than people can reason themselves out of having diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer.

You don’t tell yourself when you have a physical illness, I’ll just think myself through this, around this, past this, so to try to overcome a mental illness like anxiety by convincing yourself that you can think your way out of the box is the height of hubris.

What I’m learning is, it’s not weakness at all to seek help with mental illness.

I’m also learning that I’m not alone.

I’ve been privately sharing my struggle with friends, and learning that many of them have also privately struggled with issues like anxiety, depression.

One friend surprised me when he told me that he’d been dealing with depression since we were in college. Another wishes she’d taken the step to face her issues with anxiety years ago, and wonders where she’d be in her career and her life if she had.

Which, when I heard her say that, made me wonder about myself.

I’m a happy guy, but how much happier could I be if I didn’t spend hours Googling symptoms, fretting the details of a drive to Charlottesville or Lexington for a football game, a trip to the beach?

And I’m not even going to go into my social anxiety. I know it sounds weird for a guy who makes a living as a writer, TV broadcaster and podcaster, but I’m awkwardly shy in social situations, to the point that I avoid them like the plague.

I’m not even a week, at this writing, into my first run at finally treating my anxiety with low-dose anti-anxiety meds, so I’m not there yet, wherever that is, though I’ll say that the early returns are good.

Over the weekend, I finished a book that I’d gotten for Christmas, and I’m plowing into a second one that was also a Christmas gift.

That, an hour of billiards, a deep dive into the history of the “War of the Worlds” 1938 radio broadcast …

The brain is still working, still curious.

I’m thinking of where I am now as rehab, and rehab isn’t easy.

I tore the ACL in my right knee in high school, and had four months of physical therapy, in which I had to – not making this up – learn how to walk unassisted again, and I still say the hardest part wasn’t physical, but rather mental, trusting the knee again, to be able to plant, push off, cut, without things breaking down again.

It might have been a year before I wasn’t thinking about it every time I played basketball, maybe longer, and all these many years later – 31 and counting – there are still lingering issues, physical and mental.

I suspect, as with the blood thinner, that I’ll be on an anti-anxiety med for the duration.

And I’m OK with that.

I’m kind of looking forward to being able to do some things that a lot of you reading this take for granted, like being able to have a muscle cramp without assuming it’s a blood clot, to be able to travel without assuming that everybody else on the road is out to kill you, maybe one day actually being able to look out from the Blue Ridge Parkway and appreciate the view from the top of the world without having a panic attack.

It may not make for a longer life, but, man, how much more enjoyable might it all be?

The reason I’m writing this: to let you know that, if you’re dealing with mental illness, you’re not alone.

I’m so glad that my doctor started me thinking in this direction, but it’s taken talking with people who experience mental illness firsthand to get me to realize that mental illness is not a stigma, anymore than a person should feel lesser because they have heart disease or cancer.

Admitting to yourself, to the world, that you suffer from mental illness is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.

It’s how you get the help that you need.

I’m finally getting the help that I need.

If you’re struggling, I encourage you to do the same.

Story by Chris Graham

Augusta Health Augusta Free Press Kris McMackin CPA
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