Mike Anthony: Brave and brutally honest essay by former UConn standout Ben Gordon about mental health could help save lives
Hartford Courant - 2/22/2020
Ben Gordon’s incredibly brave and brutally honest essay published Thursday by the Players’ Tribune is terrifying and enlightening enough to stand as one of the most important explorations of mental health ever offered.
Raw and disturbing, yet ultimately inspiring, it is 2,700-plus searing words that detail Gordon’s excruciating journey, one sentence after the next about pain and suffering and confusion and nearly giving up, beginning with the following: “There was a point in time when I thought about killing myself every single day for about six weeks.”
Yes, the reader is left breathless right from the top, and the rest of a piece titled “Where Is My Mind?” is a harrowing walk through the depths of issues that are more destructive than they are understood.
Gordon has helped people understand. I’d call this perhaps the most generous gift ever offered to the public by a former UConn basketball player. What he wrote will probably save lives.
“Ben has really been through a difficult time,” said Jim Calhoun, Gordon’s coach at UConn. “Like any other illness, he's battling it. He's taken medication at various points in time. He's been in to get help at times. I've had to fight cancer myself and I know how difficult it is and I think, in some ways, [mental illness] is even more difficult because there is no automatic cure and there is no drug they can give you to make it go away.”
When Gordon, now 36, left our community nearly 16 years ago he was seemingly happy, certainly off to accomplish wonderful things.
But we can’t pretend to know what the people who come and go from our lives actually endure. The smiles and the success, the championships and the highlights -- they are so enjoyable and yet such imperfect and oftentimes inconsequential views.
Gordon led UConn to a national championship as a junior in 2004, was selected by the Bulls with the third overall pick in the NBA draft and won the league’s sixth man of the year award as a rookie. He went on to play 11 years and was successful by every measure.
But he was ill, increasingly so, to the point where his NBA afterlife -- the details of which have been documented on a limited basis until Friday -- spun totally out of control.
Gordon wrote of pacing atop his apartment building at 4 a.m., considering jumping to his death. He wrote of tying a jump rope around his neck in an attempt to hang himself.
In a passage that followed that descriptive despair, Gordon detailed a moment of clarity that saved his life.
You’re really about to die.
You don’t want to die.
You don’t really want to kill yourself.
You just want to kill this anxiety.
You want to live, B.
Calhoun read Gordon’s graphic essay a couple of weeks ago. He was one of about 20 people Gordon sent the piece to in advance.
“He's very articulate, a very gifted writer,” Calhoun said Friday afternoon. “For those who know Ben, love Ben, this has been quite a struggle for him starting after [the NBA] and didn't have quite the same purpose. He obviously has suffered through a lot of things, been in for help. There are a lot of us who love him and are out there to support him. I love Ben Gordon like a son. He's been much like a son to me in so many ways, more over the past couple years, particularly.”
Calhoun, in his second year as coach at St. Joseph University in West Hartford, has been in touch with Gordon often over the years. He said both Gordon and Gordon’s mother have visited him and spent time on the St. Joe’s campus recently, also interacting with players.
“I want people to understand that this is a guy who defied all odds, in essence,” Calhoun said of Gordon's basketball accomplishments. “I want everybody assured that he's going to get as much help as he possible can and there are those of us out there, plenty of people, who love Ben, who try to care for him. I think it’s very, very brave and I'm continually proud of him. He's seeking answers to things that are a little more complex. … The answer is to find a solution so Ben can lead a great, prosperous life, because he's got so much to give.”
Gordon wrote of being arrested multiple times and being held against his will for psychiatric evaluation. He dealt with insomnia, paranoia, anxiety, panic attacks, delusions, so much more.
“I was obsessed with killing myself,” he wrote.
Gordon, for years, could channel his mental storm through basketball.
He wrote: “And then all of a sudden you’re at the end of your career, and you’re not getting any minutes, and you got all this anger and pain and fear and regret that you’ve been internalizing and compartmentalizing your whole … life? What do you think is gonna happen?”
Eventually, Gordon embraced therapy.
Thank goodness, he embraced therapy.
“He's a tremendous guy, incredibly smart, driven,” Calhoun said. “I've talked to a couple of the other guys who played with him, because they were very close to him, and his mother pretty consistently over the last couple years and … bottom line, there are a lot of us who love him.”
Of seeing former players go through ups and downs, Calhoun said, “Those kids did more for me than any man could ever imagine. They allowed me to do something I loved. They allowed me to prosper in so many different ways and fulfill my love. When I told them I was recruiting them for a lifetime … that should be a responsibility. I think anybody who knows me knows I care about my kids. And when they're 30 years old, 40 years old, 50 years old, they'll be my kids, my guys.”
Gordon closed with important messages about how he got help, yet “still working through some things. I hope it helps somebody out there. If you’re [relating] to this story, don’t do what I did. Get some help. Because you’re not crazy, dog. You’re not damaged. You’re just human like the rest of us.”
If you or someone you know is ever in need, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has more information and can help at 1-800-273-8255.
Columnist Mike Anthony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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