#BellLetsTalk, Escapism, And Healing With Baseball

The most difficult year of my life was 2015.

A tumultuous family situation led to a remarkably difficult holiday season in 2014, which resulted in far too much alcohol being consumed and far too little happiness to go around. I don’t even remember much of Christmas. It was a very bad time.

On January 4, I returned to Springfield, Illinois, for the second semester of my Public Affairs Reporting master’s program. I would be interning for WICS-TV there for the semester, but while all of my friends in the program were starting their internships on January 5, for some reason the other WICS intern and I weren’t given the go-ahead to start until a week later.

As mountains of snow piled up outside the vintage, newly remodeled home I shared with three roommates, there wasn’t much for me to do that whole week but sit in my living room. I binge-watched The Walking Dead on Netflix and consumed more alcohol, all the while never fully recovering from what was eating away at me.

Family life was difficult. I wasn’t able to be a positive presence for my girlfriend at the time. All my friends were starting new experiences and, irrational as it may seem considering I was only a week behind them, I felt like I was missing out and screwing up by just hanging out all day. I started feeling like I wasn’t worth all that much to anyone; I sure didn’t feel like much to myself.

The free time did nothing but increase the weight of dread that was consuming me since the previous October. I knew I suffered from very bad depression and anxiety; I had been experiencing periods of profound sadness and anxiety since junior high, including a particularly awful episode in 2012, but didn’t want to accept that any demons I felt I had suppressed might be reemerging.

On January 14, I decided to indulge in some Knob Creek in honor of the season premiere of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s the one where the gang tries to take on the Wade Boggs drinking challenge while on the plane — an instant classic.

When the episode finished, I went upstairs to do some writing, and almost immediately the dread came rushing back, and I was drunk. The weight was so heavy on my conscience and, seemingly, my whole self that I had the thought of just climbing up to the roof and … jumping. I hated that dreadful feeling more than anything. The constant feeling that something is about to go wrong or that I’ve already screwed something up.

I needed to feel something different, and for whatever reason my wiring thought that was an acceptable means of doing so. Before I could even motion to actually do it, I texted two of my friends. I didn’t tell them what was going through my head; I just needed someone to talk to and take my mind away from the bad thoughts. It worked.

It was on that night I decided to stop drinking indefinitely, go back on antidepressants, and start to stitch myself back to some semblance of normalcy.

And things began to look brighter. I was on a heavy dosage of Lexapro and made some changes to my routine, which included writing personal blogs every morning and cooking myself a good breakfast, and I began to find my footing. Spring was good — I was enjoying the company of friends again and getting out, and I finished my master’s program on time with flying colors by the end of June.

Then I was unemployed, and had to move back home, to a place where things hadn’t gotten better even though I did. Suddenly, all of the progress I made was thrown out the window.

Between July and the start of my full-time employment with WBOI in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in October, I worked a freelance gig to make some extra money and began writing for some baseball blogs in my spare time. I tried to stay busy, but the life of a freelancer for a small suburban weekly doesn’t lend much consistency or activity.

In the meantime, I was getting in a lot of fights with my dad. These were not small tiffs. These were eruptions where vile things you’d never expect to hear or say to family were said, belittling things that made me reevaluate my own self-worth. I never considered jumping off a roof this time, but I wasn’t far away from that.

It just didn’t make sense; I had done what was always expected of me, and then some. I got two degrees, even though sometimes I questioned my ability to even get one. And somehow, that just wasn’t good enough. I was still a failure who didn’t deserve the respect of an adult who achieved things. Try going to bed with that thought every night.

2015 was, beyond any doubt, the worst year of my life. The cycle of bad-good-bad moods was overwhelming and created the most uncomfortable roller coaster of emotions I’d ever had the displeasure of feeling.

There was one constant that helped get me through everything, even just a little bit, and that was baseball. I’ve always had a profound love for the game; that’s why I write for this site and I’m grateful every day its founders and editors give me the opportunity to publish my work here.

Since I was four years old, I remember watching Chicago Cubs games with my Grandpa, and on a nice summer day we would transition from the TV to radio broadcast and play catch outside. During my summer vacations, we would go to Vitumn Park and play games, where I pretended to be Cubs or Braves players. He was in his early seventies, and damned if he didn’t play with me every summer day.

He even shared tall stories of having played baseball professionally. I was always skeptical as to whether this happened, but never looked into it. For as much as I love the truth-seeking part of what I do for a living as a journalist, some myths are best kept in place, however tall they may be in truth.

Grandpa and I had a bond that will likely forever be unique to the two of us. Sadly, he passed away in 2005, a tragic instance I have long since come to terms with. But when it happened, I lost the most valuable influence and presence in my life at just 13 years old. I didn’t know it, but it was the start of my first bout of depression and anxiety. I didn’t leave the house the rest of the summer.

Following his death, I really had a difficult time watching baseball. It’s not like Dusty Baker’s 79-win Cubs gave me much incentive for watching, anyway. Still, when he left us, I felt like I lost that part of me we valued so much, together. I felt guilty enjoying baseball without him; the thought made me anxious and uneasy.

It wasn’t until the 2006 ALCS when I began to find that love again. When Magglio Ordonez hit the walk-off home run that sent the Tigers — a franchise of grand futility my entire life — to the World Series, the excitement came back, and the guilt vanished. That home run was the coolest thing, the kind of magical event you would never be able to script yourself. Grandpa would have wanted me to enjoy that.

Magglio’s legendary home run gave me some closure with the loss of Grandpa. It proved that I can live on and not feel guilt for enjoying something, even if that person was no longer there to share in it. It helped me defeat my first bout with depression. A simple home run.

Since then, baseball once again became a consistent and essential presence in my life, and I’ve had the luxury of experiencing moments, regular season or postseason, that define general periods of my life. Almost in the way a song takes you back to a wonderful time you reflect on with great reverence, baseball has served as that agent for me.

And it carried that same impact in the summer of 2015. The Cubs were actually good — really good — for the first time since I was in high school. Because of my flexible schedule, I had the luxury of watching most of the games, day or night.

No matter how low I was feeling about myself, and how cynical I felt about my relationships at home, the Cubs helped me forget about all that for three hours a day. Whether it was a Kyle Schwarber bomb to center field, or eagerly anticipating Jake Arrieta’s next start, or watching Hector Rondon get out of a bases-loaded jam against the Giants, there was something comforting about that group.

It wasn’t just the Cubs, either. I made a point every day to watch High Heat with Chris Russo (yeah, yeah, I don’t care, I like him) and Intentional Talk and met a lot of cool new people on Cubs Twitter that I like to consider friends. I also watched out-of-market games if the Cubs weren’t playing.

Toronto Blue Jays games after David Price and Troy Tulowitzki went there were always a thrill. I remember one game where Josh Donaldson hit a screamer that would have been a grand slam down the left field line, and the crowd went insane on the contact. It was a foul ball.

You can’t get that excitement anywhere else. It’s a different world on a baseball diamond, one that never ceases to fill me with warmth during the worst of times.

I’m pretty sure it happened subconsciously, but despite graduating high school, college, and graduate school, moving on to a full-time job in a new city and state, and embracing sabermetrics and changing everything about how I look at the game, I think I’ve made it a point to remember what baseball made me feel in my youth and never lose sight of that.

And that’s why baseball has been able to get me through the hardest times of my life: remembering and latching onto why I fell in love with it in the first place.

It’s the summer afternoons at Vitumn with Grandpa. It’s scanning through my collection of baseball cards with my buddy Sean, or playing pickup games in my friend Dale’s backyard. It’s seeing Sammy Sosa hit a colossal home run onto Waveland Avenue and celebrating the moment with no reserve or restraint. Those moments planted the seeds to define my fandom for what it is today. Staying in touch with them allows baseball to serve as a form of escapism when things become genuinely horrible. That’s what it did for me in Summer 2015.

I decided to share these stories today because #BellLetsTalk is such an important thing. You can write it off as “just a hashtag” or whatever. That’s not the point.

The point of #BellLetsTalk is to open the dialogue and defeat the stigma that mental illness and problems like depression and anxiety make an individual less human than anyone else. The things you enjoy to help you through hard times — like baseball, in my case — and why you enjoy them are meaningful, as long as they’re meaningful to you. It’s a reminder that people are there for you, even when you feel they aren’t. You are worth something.

I used to be terrified of anxiety and depression. After last year, I’ve decided to embrace them as part of me and move on with my life the best I can, knowing it’s always looming. I feel better prepared to attack it if it ever decides to emerge again. I’m at peace with it, but that didn’t happen overnight. It came with reaching out and seeking help.

I’m not afraid anymore because I had people to turn to, who told me it’s okay to suffer from these things. You’re not “weird” or “ridiculous” or “stupid” or “weak” for feeling sad or overwhelmed. You’re human, like me and like the person sitting next to you. And I can tell you with great certainty that you are not alone. 

If you are battling with some demons and are looking for advice or simply someone to talk to about them, feel free to email me at [email protected]. I want to be there for you the way others were for me. Nobody should feel like they don’t have someone to help them through their fears and struggles.

And if you don’t want to email me or find the prospect overwhelming, I leave you with this: it’s all going to be okay. I promise. #BellLetsTalk

2 Responses

  1. David_N_Wilson

    That’s great stuff, Zach. It was my grandpa who introduced me to the game as well, early 1960s on his back porch, listening to the Cubs and cards on AM radio with crickets chirping in the background… and my grandfather ALSO had the stories of playing. He played minor league ball in Texas, a pitcher, but was unable to go to spring training when he was invited because he was in the army. Baseball just seems to create deeper memories and connections than other sports… thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  2. Alpha IQ

    This issue can only be addressed by ‘real’ accessible programs that operate year round and don’t close on weekends .. #Alpha_IQ

    Reply

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