Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day – a day to raise money and awareness for mental health programs in Canada. I thought I would take this opportunity to share my own story about mental health, and the way this has intersected with (and at times affected) my life as a baseball fan.
I have anxiety.
No, this doesn’t mean I get butterflies before a class presentation, or feel a little awkward at a party where I don’t know anyone. Both of those are situations in which it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious. The formal diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (handed to me by a psychiatrist when I was 9) means that those, or any other kind of unpredictable situation, can cause me to be crippled by nerves at best, and at worst have a total panic attack.
That’s not to mention the general feeling of fear and unease that sits in the back of my brain and can pop up at random times with no warning. Couple that with a moderate case of ADHD, and I have a lot of energy to put into worrying. Uncertainty and anticipation are torturous. I’ll be honest with you – it’s not pretty. No mental illness is pretty.
GAD can be manifested both socially – explaining why I was a shy child, how I sometimes feel suffocated in crowded places, and still struggle to make eye contact with people I’ve just met – and randomly. Throughout my life, the more random anxiety-inducing triggers have included taking public transit, ordering at fast food places, and sudden loud noises.
Among the worst of those loud noises? Fire alarms. As a child, fear of their abruptness, volume, and piercing shrillness would send me into a full-blown panic attack before I even knew what a panic attack was. In elementary school, my teachers would tell us “we’re going to have a fire drill this week.” I used to then spend the week tensely staring at the bell on the wall, hoping with every fiber of my being that it wouldn’t go off. I never wanted to be caught off-guard, and somehow convinced myself that if I remembered to think about it, I could stop it.
At the 2016 trade deadline, I had this obsessive worry that the Blue Jays were going to trade Devon Travis. It didn’t make sense from a depth perspective, but that didn’t matter. Anxiety isn’t rational. I know that losing a favourite player isn’t the end of the world either (even if he is a ray of sunshine), but I was afraid it would devastate me. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and check my phone in a panic. Just like with the fire alarms, I thought that acknowledging the possibility could prevent it from happening. I gave that fear so much attention, and breathed such a huge sigh of relief that when the deadline passed (with Travis still very much a Blue Jay), that I felt foolish afterwards.
Other loud noises that petrified me as a kid included popping balloons and fireworks. I remember going to my first Jays game, in the late 90s, on a crystal clear day with the Dome open. They shot off fireworks from the edge of the roof after the national anthem, and my dad warned me that they would probably do it again if the Jays homered. I suddenly found myself hoping, for the first and last time in my life, that the Blue Jays wouldn’t hit any home runs.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen an increasing number of my Twitter friends who have been open with discussing their anxiety and other mental health struggles. This atmosphere is partly what’s enabled me to feel more comfortable talking about my own.
Then I began to wonder – are we drawn to baseball because we have anxiety? I’m not a part of any other sports fandom, so I can’t say for certain, but it seems like baseball would be more painful for the anxious than a fast-paced game like hockey or basketball. There’s so much waiting! Maybe we’re all just a little bit masochistic. Or maybe, in some small way, as we face our fears hundreds of times a game, we’re steeling ourselves for the things, big and small, that scare us in the real world.
There’s a current of anxiety running under every moment of a baseball game. This pitch – will the batter hit a home run? Will he strike out? That guy on second – will he steal third? Will he suddenly get picked off? It’s enough to drive a skittish person mad. Every pitch is delivered with varying levels of tension. It’s like the end of a spring that’s been stretched very tight, and then as soon as it’s let go – chaos. Or relief, or disappointment, or absolutely nothing. Depending on the score, that spring can become more and more tightly stretched as the game goes on, until the peak of stress makes it liable to snap before the pitch is even delivered. For playoff baseball, multiply that by a thousand.
When you have spent most of your life trying to figure out every conceivable way things can go wrong, just so you can be prepared, it’s easy to apply that habit to the near-limitless possibilities of a ballgame.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten myself all worked up with nerves about a situation, and it turned out to be completely fine. The same thing happens when Roberto Osuna is facing down Aaron Judge with a one-run lead, a man on first, and two out in the 9th. Anything can happen on that pitch, and Osuna knows it. Judge knows it. Everyone watching knows it. But Osuna deals, Judge swings harmlessly over it, and the game is over. It’s fine. Everything is fine.
Sometimes when anxiety is plaguing me about something I need to do, I will motivate myself with a reward after doing the task. If I do that terrifying presentation in class, I can stop at Coffee Culture for a latte on the way home. If I send that dreaded email to my prof, I can take a five-minute break and watch something on YouTube. Going to a baseball game is its own reward. If I make it through the stress of public transit, all the worry about dropping/losing/misplacing something important, and stay calm about being in a crowd, I get to spend a few blissful hours at my favourite place in the world. I can convince myself to push through the anxiousness because I know whatever’s on the other side will be worth it. Who knows, maybe if going to games required making phone calls, I’d get better at those too.
I know firsthand that a lot that can go wrong when going to a game. I’ve been stuck at a station in the middle of nowhere for over an hour when the GO bus randomly didn’t arrive. I’ve had my ticket fall from my pocket while walking down Front Street (and don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t instantly spotted it on the sidewalk 20 feet behind me). I’ve watched subway doors close between me and my dad – and then realized with a sinking heart that I was holding both our phones. I’ve gone to games without being certain of how I’m getting home that night.
It kind of takes the fun out of things and it often exhausts me, but I want to be there, so it’s worth it. Which is why I want to take a moment to thank all the friends who’ve helped me through those mini-crises; whether it was talking me through the panic of a no-show bus, offering me a ride home, letting me use their phone to triple-check the train schedule, or just having their company be my reward for getting there. You have no idea what a difference you’ve made.
I remember what happened last June, when Osuna admitted that he had been dealing with anxiety off the field. It’s no surprise that he works in a stressful environment, but something was following him in his daily life, rather than on the mound. The words he used to describe that feeling – “weird and a little bit lost” – were all too familiar to me. “I wish I knew how to get out of here and how to get out of this.” That’s exactly it. Sometimes your brain just doesn’t want to work, and you have no idea how to fix it.
Familiar, too, was the notion that he wasn’t anxious while pitching. As stressful as his job is, routines are comforting. It’s easy (for me at least) to lose myself in something familiar and be distracted from the noisiness in my head. It’s why I listen to podcasts on the bus, and why I read or watch TV to quiet my mind before going to sleep. In fact, baseball is typically one of those things I use for distraction. It’s reliable – I know when it will be on, and where I can find it. The uncertainty of everyday life is where the real issues crop up. Apparently, that was the case for Osuna too.
What happened next is what surprised me. The Blue Jays, and an overwhelming majority of their fans, rallied to support him. John Gibbons basically told reporters to back off and leave him alone. Osuna credited his teammates with offering their support, and two in particular – Russell Martin and Jason Grilli – with sharing their personal experience on the subject. It’s easy to forget that athletes like Osuna still are human, and have very human struggles. It was heartwarming to see that those around him were willing to help and be understanding about something people are still so reluctant to talk about.
The most significant statement during that time wasn’t a statement at all – at least not one we could hear. A day after admitting that he wasn’t feeling like himself, Osuna took the mound in Kansas City and pitched, just like himself. It wasn’t a save situation (the Jays were up by six runs), but he threw a clean inning of one hit and three strikeouts. Russell Martin ran out to meet him on the mound. They shared a hug, just like they do every game, but this one symbolized a lot more. As they lined up for high fives, Martin put his arm around his pitcher, and hugged him again when the lineup was over. I’ve watched it countless times (several of them through tears), and still have no idea what Russell said, but that hug spoke volumes. It said “I’ve got you. We’ll get through this together.”
Each ballgame starts with a clean slate, and there’s always another one. If today’s game was a heartbreaker, you can hope tomorrow’s will be better. Even if it was a heartbreaker, battling until the last out is something to be proud of. I can’t guarantee that everything will be fine tomorrow. But I can hope it will. Most importantly, I can always hope that even on days when I feel too anxious to function, there will be someone waiting with a big smile, and an even bigger hug, willing to help me get through it.
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