In the last few years, society in general has been more accepting of mental health issues and the people who have them. For many of us who have our own struggles with various mental illnesses, to see baseball players who also struggle with these illnesses find acceptance and not only live but thrive is empowering.
Anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety, are wide sweeping illnesses that affects millions of Americans. Someone you know and love might even have it, and you don’t know it. There are different levels of symptoms. It’s not just intense shyness in public, but a distinct set of disorders that vary.
The poster boy of mental health in baseball, for better or worse, is Zack Greinke. His battle with social anxiety is well known. People like myself who have social anxiety disorder (among other things) look at Zack and see an inspiration, someone who has overcome a lot and has become one of the best players of a generation. For those who do not understand anxiety disorders, he is the butt of every cheap crazy joke, despite the fact that with proper diagnosis and medication, he rarely has symptoms anymore.
Greinke took a year off to get his life under control. His illness affected him to the point that it could have destroyed the one thing he loves the most: playing baseball.
In 2o12, an article published on the MLB.com site referenced this quote from Dr. Charles Brady, a specialist in the field of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Anxiety. [Emphasis mine.]
Anxiety has two parts of it. It has a psychological part, but it’ll change the breathing rate, heart rate and muscle tension, and so it will have a real physical impact on the person. One thing we know about anxiety, it’s not a matter of intelligence or courage or willpower. When anxiety hits, until you understand what’s going on your body, no matter who it is, that person’s going to feel like their body’s falling apart. They’re going to feel like they’re dying. They’re going to feel like they’re losing their mind.
This is all true. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know the horror of trying to calm yourself down. Earlier this year I had one in the bathroom while out with a friend, and it took everything inside of me to take deep breaths and center myself enough to go back out there so that they wouldn’t notice I had just freaked the hell out. Social anxiety, for many people, is like a prolonged panic attack; one that robs you of your joy for life or even coping mechanisms to help you deal with things that, logically, you know isn’t true.
For people with anxiety, whether social or generalized, the fear of being judged, being the center of attention, of being talked about “behind your back” is irrational yet it consumes your everyday life. In many instances, people who have social anxiety, or anxiety disorders in general, have other forms of mental illness. Many times, a person will have social anxiety, depression, and/or some other personality disorder, such as avoidant personality disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder. Imagine being a famous athlete who is already being scrutinized. The mounting pressure put on yourself (or by others) to be perfect can be overwhelming. Now, add this volatile mix into the equation, and you’ll see why it can be a serious issue.
This is the case for J.P. Arencibia. The catcher who is best known for his stint with the Blue Jays has been battling with severe anxiety so bad that he considered quitting baseball.
Instead of being zoned in on baseball, Arencibia would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, questioning himself. How can I get better? What can I do? Why am I not doing this?
Arencibia said he “could not get out of my own head.” He wanted to live a normal life. He was ordering dinner to his house as a way to avoid people who may have seen him struggle on the field. He would rather be a space cadet, Arencibia said, than continue to use Adderall.
He would walk into a restaurant and wonder why everyone was staring at him. No one was staring, Arencibia said. It was just the anxiety he was living with. It was a tough time, he said.
He started seeing a sports psychologist who took him off of Adderall and switched his medication to Lexapro. Arencibia has seen marked improvement in his anxiety issues and is having fun playing the game he loves again.
For every Greinke or Arencibia who takes medication and is able to deal with his anxiety, there’s a Joey Votto, who underwent counseling for his depression and anxiety, or a Khalil Greene, who would purposely injure himself and eventually left professional baseball altogether. Every person is different, and no one deals with their disorders the same, nor does every method of treatment work in the same
Me, for example? When I was first diagnosed with my issues, I took Zoloft, the same medication that ZG is on. While it helps him tremendously, for me it was akin to taking a sugar pill. It did absolutely nothing. Four dosage changes and two other medications later, I found something that helped while I was going through therapy to learn non-chemical ways of dealing with the worst of my anxiety and depression, then slowly (with doctor’s assistance) weaned myself off of the medication (it worked a little too well, leaving me without the ability to feel any sort of genuine happiness or sadness whatsoever, and I did not want to go through life that way).
Millions of Americans have the same issues that Greinke, Votto, and I do. It can no longer be a dirty secret, and I applaud these men who don’t have to be open about their issues, but have learned that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, making it easier for people like me to hold our heads high and not be ashamed, either.