Like it was yesterday, I remember him craftily dribbling the soccer ball down the field, a pure athlete to be sure. The number of times I got to see him play were few and far between, as our family had moved to New York in the early 1990s, just as he got fully involved in his activities. I was pleased to hear he even took up lacrosse in high school. I remember his dad telling me how much he loved seeing him laugh with his teammates and enjoy the sport. There is nothing better as a parent than when our children are involved and happy. This was how life was supposed to be for a maturing youngster.
When everything changed early his sophomore year, it was confusing to everyone, not the least of which to my nephew, Mike. Life had been on cruise control, with ready friendships, a diversity of activities, and schooling that came very easily to him. He was blessed with so much. Suddenly, there was no joy to be found in any aspect of his life. The friendships that came so easily to him were no longer of interest. He decided not to pursue sports any longer and even dropped off the school band, an activity he embraced the prior year.
The problem with depression is, when it strikes, it is most often a new reality for everyone involved. For Mike, his world changed in a moment, while for others I expect it is somewhat more gradual. It is not only frightening and confusing, but this ailment overwhelms the mind, the very engine used to draw logic and reason. And it is not simply a mood change, as most experience; rather, the condition completely overwhelms your thought pattern, drains your body, and saps your spirit.
Too often I hear from someone, a parent, a friend, maybe a family member, about a youngster who is battling depression. My thought immediately goes to the unfair nature of their fight. When an athlete injures a knee, gets a concussion, or endures some other physical setback, the community is there to support them. While no one wants to experience such an injury, at least the setback can be shared with others.
For those who suddenly take on the burden of depression, beyond all the debilitating aspects, the loneliness is overwhelming. There is no cast. No crutches. Nothing visible. It is all internal. And there is the belief, to a large degree the realization that no one will understand. You feel no one else is involved in a similar plight. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The reality is, at this very moment, someone we all know very well is engaged. It may be a best friend or a perhaps a more casual acquaintance. But know for sure, there are people in your everyday lives fully immersed in this struggle, and you are not even aware.
As I write about sports, it is usually about noteworthy athletic performances, state championship bids, and highly capable competitors doing their best to achieve their goals. But within that subset are many other stories. For every star athlete, there are 50 others just doing their best just to stay competitive. Their stories are every bit as important. And, then within both groups, there are realities we cannot see. Their tales of courage need to be told as well. Those with depression represent just one of those groups.
As I think about our young people in our community and as I am involved in the world of youth sports, I often have a vision of our community being unique in its awareness and support for those with depression. I see us being conscious when someone seems withdrawn. I envision us looking for the signs of change, noticing when someone’s communication patterns, interests, or level of participation, are suddenly different. I consider us taking note of when someone’s non-verbal communication changes, perhaps just an overall appearance of sadness. I see us asking questions, getting involved, even when it is not our own child, making it a point to bring awareness to the situation.
Mike gallantly fought his battle with depression. And, even with a loving family intimately involved, it was too much to endure. He died of suicide several years later. I miss him immensely. And, his is just one story. We all know far too many.
My experience with this ailment began at a slightly more advanced age than Mike’s. I am still immersed in it all these years later. I have often wondered why this was my burden to carry. We all have our own. Maybe it is to write this column. Maybe it is to bring support to the next youngster who is blindsided by this condition. If that is the case, it has all been worth it. Knowing Mike’s selfless nature, I suspect he would feel the same. The question is how we bring that support. Powerful movements begin with an idea and the passion of caring people. Perhaps this can be one of them.