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Delonte West, mental illness, and my struggle with depression

"I had some experience in dealing with people who have mental illness and depression, but I didn't see the signs in myself. I couldn't ask for help because I didn't know I needed help." - Clara Hughes


{Editor's note: I know that this is not directly related to the NBA today or the 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers. However, it's a very courageous article from Justin about an extremely important topic. I am more than happy to let him use Fear the Sword as a platform to share this story.}


I've probably stared at my cursor flashing about 100 times now. This represents the breaking of my silence, the exposing of the most important aspect of my life. It is my defining trait whether I want to admit it or not. I'm 22 years old and I suffer from Bipolar Type II disorder.

I was diagnosed as bipolar in the summer of 2009.

At the time of my diagnosis one of my favorite CavaliersDelonte West, was arrested for speeding on a motorcycle with two loaded handguns and a loaded shotgun in a guitar case. A year prior to that West had left training camp to treat a "mood disorder" that he had battled since his childhood. While others cracked Desperado jokes, I worried for his health and well being. You see, not everybody is given the same physical talents. While some have their drive push them to the elite of their profession with seemingly endless potential, some must adjust and accept a role in order to survive. Delonte West had found a spot in this league, excelled in his role and made the most of his talents; only to have everything he worked towards stripped away as his demons caught up to him.

Approximately 1 in 10 Americans suffers from clinical depression. 80% of people that show signs of clinical depression do not seek help. The number of patients in North America that are diagnosed with clinical depression increases by 20% each year. In my country of Canada, 20% of the population will experience some form of mental illness in their lives.

Depression is a physical illness. It poisons your veins and makes your arms and legs heavy, your chest sinks and your mind declares war on itself. My methods to cope have almost always been of a self-destructive nature, and in my darkest times it felt like I was watching myself from outside my body, as alcoholism and other destructive devices began to control my life. I craved positive reinforcement and, unfortunately, there was not exactly an ample supply of that at home growing up. I just wanted anything that would let me know that somebody didn't hate me as much as I hated myself. As a result of this I tended to overcompensate in relationships and friendships. I've sabotaged many good relationships due to my personal insecurities, laying the blame on other things and refusing to look myself in the mirror. I could see myself doing it at the time, yet I couldn't change, couldn't adjust. I was a deer in the headlights standing there until the speeding semi lay waste to me.

Lies, betrayal, and self-loathing are tattoo'd to your chest. You try to cover it up, carry yourself with a smile and tell everyone that you're fine.

My friend TJ Maughan summed up the word "fine" perfectly in his brave article (Which inspired me to share this very issue today).

"Fine". I hate that word. If I could personify it, I would duct tape its limbs, roll it up in a carpet and throw it off a bridge.

Fine is a word that is used to describe exactly what you are not. That vanilla, flakey, laissez-faire adjective that keeps your enquirers at bay. It's safe and sequestered. The kind of term that gives people just enough in terms of chit-chat but doesn't raise any red flags as to the state of your psyche.

But often the drive to push themselves to the elite level of being a professional athlete comes from an even greater drive to escape who they are inside.

The one outlet I had that wasn't destructive was always sports. When I first started playing basketball I was awful and didn't have any of the competitive fire necessary to compete.  I wasn't comfortable enough with my own voice, nor did I understand the amount of work necessary to be part of a team, forget lead one. Through many struggles, tears and confrontations with my hyper competitive father I began to develop a drive within myself. I didn't just want to make the team, I wanted to be great. Through it all I was battling crippling depression, a depression that I dismissed. Everyone goes through struggles right? I would spend countless hours shooting whenever I could. Whether it was in a gym between classes, before school, at the park late into the night. Just me, a ball, and a hoop. This was my nirvana, everything was put on hold as long as I had the leather in my hands. It's the same thing with many athletes, and their depression doesn't get diagnosed until something tragic happens. But often the drive to push themselves to the elite level of being a professional athlete comes from an even greater drive to escape who they are inside. In an interview with SLAM this summer, West expressed this very sentiment:

"My whole life the court is the one place where people couldn't laugh at my skin complexion, or the birthmark on my face or the red hair," says West in a calm voice. "When I played basketball, because I worked so hard, it's always been the one place where people couldn't laugh at me.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about Delonte West still, as well as other athletes that struggle through mental illness. It's great to see Michael Beasley get a second chance with the Miami Heat, there's a strong support structure there for him and I hope that he is getting the help he needs. The problem is that these issues are always there -- there is no simple cure. During the good times, they're easier to hide. And it's often only when things are at a breaking point that they bubble up to the surface. This doesn't have to be the case.

It would be naive to think that things like mental illness and homosexuality are isolated incidents in sports. There are likely thousands of people that suffer in silence, scared to be persecuted. Trapped in their own personal hell stemming from the inability to share part of what makes them who they are. It's hard to believe that people still legitimately fear persecution for openly acknowledging their pain or sexual orientation. If you can't trust your peers for support then it's impossible to ever feel completely comfortable in your job and/or your personal life.

I've embraced my illness. It's blessed me with empathy for others and a unique perspective of the world.  Every time I step out of the bed in the morning I go to war with my disease. Getting medication and help is only part of the battle, you must work with yourself to try and be the best you can be every day. Sometimes I need to kick my own ass to stop myself from being a buzzkill. I wouldn't change a thing about my past, my struggles with depression and my flaws because it's made me into the man I am today. And I'm proud of that man. But those who struggle in silence might not ever be able to get to this place in their lives until they open up and seek the help they need.

February 28th is Bell Let's Talk Day in Canada.

A day dedicated to creating a conversation about mental illness. You can contribute to the cause by tweeting out #BellLetsTalk. For each tweet Bell will donate 5 cents to mental health initiatives. May is mental health awareness month in the United States and I will be promoting causes at that time as well. People need to know that this is a sickness, not a weakness. If this helps even one person get to a better place in their lives then I will feel I did my job in sharing my story. I'm always willing to lend a helping hand so if you need to ask me any questions, feel free to contact me. My email address is in the masthead.