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How Ultimate Helped Me Beat Depression

by | December 5, 2013, 2:00am 3

Well, not ‘beat’ exactly. You don’t come back from depression in quite the same way as you do a torn hamstring or a busted knee. Even the best therapist in the world can’t take a broken mind and reconstruct it so it works as good as new. They certainly can’t just tell you to stay off your head for a few weeks or months and avoid any heavy thinking. But I am me again. Perhaps a different, more thoughtful, more emotionally attuned me, but me. And I don’t know if that would have happened without ultimate.

Here’s when I knew I wasn’t going to make it on my own: it was the last day of Burla Beach Cup 2012 in Viareggio, Italy. We’d finished our last game a few hours before and were having a post-lunch snooze on the beach. I’d been with my best friends, playing my favourite sport, in one of the most beautiful parts of my favourite country on earth for five days. But there was a void where what I had always thought of as me used to be. I was so empty inside I couldn’t even cry.

Here’s when I knew I’d be okay: it was halfway through the Sunday of the UK’s Open Tour 2. I was in a field in Nottingham that was totally exposed to the elements. Thanks to the constant gusting wind it was raining sideways, so heavily that my two-year-old boots were beginning to fill with water. I was covered head to toe in cold mud, and my ankle was throbbing because an opposition defender fell on it. The match was of no real consequence, and to top it all off I was sleep-deprived thanks to a roommate whose snores registered on the Richter scale (you know who you are). I was unarguably, unambiguously happy.

Happy means something different when you’ve been depressed. It’s not the same as when someone who’s never been ill like that laughs at a joke or dances at a gig. I could still do those things too, in fact like every other depressive to an untrained eye I’d look as if nothing had happened, but I’d still be more or less vacant inside. To be properly happy (or for that matter properly sad, as opposed to depressed) you need some sense of self, some kind of internal reference point against which to measure your emotions, and for a long time I didn’t have one.

Ultimate gave mine back to me. It helped me work out who I was again. I was playing for a new team whose role-based style meant that I could play to my strengths, and although over the course of Open Tour we shot ourselves in the foot more than once (coming bottom of two- and three-way ties on points difference, butterfingers, and a dropped pull on universe point of a virtual top 8 playoff we still haven’t forgiven [NAME REDACTED] for) I felt like I was making a real contribution to us getting into those positions in the first place. It may not sound like much, and in the grand scheme of things it probably wasn’t – it was C Tour after all – but it was the extra foot of rope I needed to pull myself out of the hole I’d been in for over a year. Because that’s how depression works: you fall; you hit the bottom, sometimes very hard; you call for a rope; and slowly, fitfully, you pull yourself up. Sometimes you slip and a month’s upward progress can go in an hour. But because at some point you may not have been aware of you decided you wanted to live and you wanted your mind back, you keep climbing.

My illness took many things from me: my degree, my dignity, my sense of self-worth, and my ability to take pleasure from things I had previously loved doing. The only thing that remained constant throughout was sport, which for me, apart from the few weeks of the cricket season that weren’t disrupted by the weather, meant ultimate. There were days where playing and practicing, and the obligatory beer afterwards, was the only time I got out of the house or said more than a cursory ‘hello’ to another human being. There were whole weeks were the only positive words I heard were from my teammates, most of whom had no idea I was ever ill and were simply doing what teammates do. The encouragement often didn’t really register through the static and self-flagellation that was what passed for my thought pattern at the time. But now that I’m healthy, or as healthy as I’m ever likely to be, I’d like to say thank you to all of them, and to everyone at my old university team who put up with me turning up to practices and socials and parties even after I’d left. The reaction of the committee when I told them why I was leaving was genuine, it was spontaneous, and even in the deeply messed-up state I was in at the time it was deeply touching.

I’ve played a number of team sports since I was eleven years old. Had I carried on playing rugby when I came to university I probably would have denied my illness to myself for even longer than I did, and by the time I hit rock bottom it might have been too late – my university’s men’s rugby team have a bad reputation even among others of that often boorish breed. Had cricket, which following the very public struggles of England stalwart Marcus Trescothick (if ever a sportsman were worthy of a knighthood it is he) does an excellent job at the professional level of fighting against the mental illness omertá that sadly still largely prevails in the lower reaches of the amateur game, been my only outlet, the winters would have been even longer and even emptier. By the time summer came around again it might have been too late.

Football? Forget it. The guys I play eight-a-side with on Sunday are good company, but as a support network they’re worse than useless. It took the tragic and utterly avoidable deaths of Robert Enke and Gary Speed before football even began talking about depression, although it hasn’t done too badly since thanks to the likes of Clarke Carlisle and Stan Collymore (note to all North American readers: I’m British, adjust terminology accordingly).

Not that the padded and helmeted oval-ball version is immune: as once might expect from a collision and concussion heavy sport, brain injuries are worryingly prevalent, which can’t do much for anyone’s mental state. The sport was rocked by Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide in 2012, but when the New York Daily News ran a story a week later examining the link between what he did, what his body had been through and what he might have been thinking, the NFL declined to comment.

I was lucky that when I lost my way I had a few years worth of ultimate connections to call on, some of whom I count among the best friends I’ve ever had.  Simply by being around and being themselves they helped me hang on to myself and rebuild. It’s not over yet for me. It might never be fully over. As we’ve sadly seen this week with Jonathan Trott, even if you think you have a handle on it those coping mechanisms are not necessarily permanent. But I have a fighting chance – all because I thought in the first week of university, ‘Ultimate frisbee? Hey, why not!’

And here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. In fact the numbers alone mean that I’m not. Let’s just take the UK and USA. As of 2012 UK Ultimate had around 3,000 registered members, and there will be uncounted thousands more who play recreationally on a regular or semi-regular basis. Across the Atlantic, the number of officially registered players climbs to around 35,000 (as of 2011), and total US numbers have been estimated by as being as high as 4.8 million by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Given that according to official figures in both countries one in every four people – you read that right: one in four -suffer from some form of mental illness at some point in any given year, it’s pretty likely that someone reading this article knows all too well what I’m talking about. We owe it to them, and to everyone else who plays this amazing sport, to have this conversation. The game saved my sanity – and if we start talking and listening, it might save someone’s life.

Thank you, ultimate.

Editor’s note: this piece was published in conjunction with The ShowGame, the UK’s premier ultimate blog.

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