September 23, 2021

Depression through the mind of a water sports athlete

When I was diagnosed with major depression in July 2019, my life changed forever. It…

When I was diagnosed with major depression in July 2019, my life changed forever. It was one of the most significant turning points of my life.

After years of confusion, anger, frustration, and in a very, very dark place, I could finally make sense of why my mind had turned on me.

A mind that had always been so powerful, so creative, so great had just stopped functioning.

It’s incredibly scary when something we rely on, something that controls every aspect of your life, your health, relationships, skills, your wellbeing, all of a sudden fails you.

I fought it for so long, trying to figure it out until it fully exhausted my every being and left me crippled on a couch with the blinds shut for two weeks.

I was so fortunate to have my incredible fiance, Candace, in my life at that point. Otherwise, who knows if I would be here to share this story.

She supported me throughout the episode, and at the darkest of days, she finally dragged me to a psychologist, who sent me straight to a psychiatrist, and the words he said shook my world.

“You are suffering from major depressive disorder,” the mental health professional told me.

At that point, those were ironically the best words I could’ve heard at the moment.

It was as though I had been forced to build a 10,000-piece puzzle, but the puzzle was upside down, and there were just 10,000 grey, oddly-shaped pieces in front of me.

However, with this new information, the puzzle was flipped, and now I still had a mess of 10,000 pieces in front of me, but now there was some color, and I could slowly, piece by piece, begin seeing a picture.

I had a long road ahead of me but with a bit of hope.

Depression in sports: it's OK not to be OK | Photo: Samuel Tome

It’s OK Not To Be OK

When I got home, I scraped together all the energy and physical power my overweight and slow body could – I was over 90 kilograms by this point, and I’m 79 kilograms today – just to open my laptop, and start to research this and try to beat it by educating myself.

The doctor tried to put me on medication, but I was too stubborn.

“I’m not weak. I have been through much worse than this in the past, and I managed. I’m a survivor,” I thought to myself.

I would spend the next month trying to muscle my way through it.

With this new information, I could take back control of my mind, or so I thought.

I spent weeks reading self-help books, trying meditation, changing my diet, quitting booze, talking, writing, even ice baths – you name it, I tried it.

And then, before I knew it, I was back on that couch in the dark with curtains shut.

I hadn’t surfed or kiteboarded in over a month, and I had zero physical energy or motivation. But I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.

So in one last attempt, I scraped myself off the couch and forced myself to go kite, back to my happy place, the place that fixed everything: the ocean.

The place where – and when – I’m in my flow, and nothing else matters. Or so it did in the past.

I had my first panic attack while kiting on a long downwinder. It felt like someone had stuck their fist down my throat.

I couldn’t breathe or get air into my lungs; my heart was pounding through my wetsuit. I thought I was having a heart attack.

I had to somehow hold it together for another three kilometers to get to where my car was parked. Every minute felt eternity.

It was the scariest moment of my life.

Depression had now taken from me what I loved the most – the ocean, my happy place.

Graham Howes: the kiteboarders believes it's time athletes start caring for their minds | Photo: Dirty Habits

The Search for Survival

I started googling other extreme sports athletes who suffer from depression or anxiety or any mental illness.

“No search results found.”

This does not exist in our world. Well, I lie – it does:

Andy Irons dies alone in a hotel room after suffering silently with bipolar.”

Sunny Garcia [world champion surfer] in a coma after a failed attempt at suicide after suffering from depression.”

“X Games gold medalist Dave Mirra dies of suspected suicide.”

The list goes on and on.

The miserable truth is that suicide, depression, and other mental illnesses only end up in the media when the athletes’ silent and lonely dark road ends in their death.

And then, for the few weeks that follow, everyone talks and posts about it, saying “how terribly sad it is,” and that the person seemed “so happy, and shared so much love and made a huge difference in people’s lives” and that they are all “shocked by this sudden passing.”

Strange as it may sound, I have a good idea of how my obituary would sound. I’ve written it in my head many times:

“Graham was such a happy, positive influence and created a culture that has brought so many people together and inspired people to live their best lives. This is such a shock to the community and his friends. We had no idea he was suffering.”

OK – that’s a bit morbid, but you get the picture.

The truth is, statistically, as a male in my 30s, suicide is the most likely thing to kill me. Read that again. Shocking, right?

It is the leading cause of death to men in their 30s – more than cancer, AIDS, coronavirus. And yet everyone is so chicken shit to talk about it.

“It will make me seem weak. I can’t show vulnerability”; it’s too uncomfortable to ask my mate how he is really doing?”

I get it. Those things are all true.

It’s taken me years to grow the balls to talk about this. But that’s because we, as a society and culture, have made it that way.

And I have contributed to that virus for years by making cool, hardcore, and masculine videos, curating content around our perfect lives that are a lie.

And I probably will continue because that’s what the world feeds off.

And it sells.

Not only do my sponsors pay me to showcase this dream life, but Dirty Habits, the brand I created and run, makes sales that pay my employees’ salaries because people buy into this lifestyle.

Graham Howes: the founder of Dirty Habits wants to get mental health into the sports industry agenda | Photo: Dirty Habits

An Unhealthy Sports Culture

We also have this unhealthy culture around success which is achieved through drive, power, winning, and the glorification of one’s self.

It’s hard to be competitive and successful while showing empathy and vulnerability.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. This is very important for the world.

Inspiring people to chase their dreams, work hard and get through their struggles and their jobs, give people a taste of this life, strive for greatness, help people keep their dreams alive, and give them a virtual escape from their situation.

And very importantly, it is also making people laugh, smile, and feel joy.

I value that, and I will continue to do that as it is my passion. It is what gets me out of bed in the morning, literally.

But can’t we find some balance, and what is that balance exactly?

It’s also important to realize that it’s unfair of us to expect people who have never experienced mental illness and have absolutely no idea how to digest or engage in this to understand such a foreign emotion.

However, when you look at the stats, you’ll notice straight away that a large percent of the population is unhinged in one way or another, which gives us power in numbers.

So if we all – the unhinged – make an effort to destigmatize and demystify mental health and find a new language for it that is not so philosophical and artsy, we can start a movement that can better the lives of those around us and maybe even save the lives of our brothers and sisters.

I can guarantee you that someone in your immediate family or friend circle is suffering.

After all, one in four men has mental illness – that’s around 600,000 million worldwide.

I broadened my google search from “depression in extreme sports” to “depression in athletes.”

Although the results were even more morbid and filled with headlines containing the words “suicide, overdose, addiction, demise,” I found some hope.

“Michael Phelps [Olympic gold medalist] opens up about suicide and his ongoing struggle with depression.”

It turns out he also contemplated his obituary.

I got stuck into the articles and interviews he has done trying to create awareness about this epidemic, which led me to NBA All-Star players Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, who are now advocates for creating awareness around mental health.

“One common misconception of professional athletes is that we’re superhuman. It’s hard to see inside,” stated Love.

“No one really gets a direct look into our daily lives and what we deal with on a daily basis away from the court.”

“We have the same struggles that anybody has. Everyone is going through something that we can’t see.”

Kiteboarding: Graham Howes started fighting depression in his 30s | Photo: Dirty Habits

The Importance of Opening Up

This is an open letter.

It doesn’t really have a point or a solution. There is, unfortunately, no call-to-action yet.

I dream of setting up a foundation one day that can have an influence on the youth.

But for now, all I know is that I cannot and will not ignore or stay silent about this. I also cannot contribute to this virus.

Does that mean I know what the next step is? Unfortunately not.

I am fortunate enough to have people around me who I now can talk to about this. Am I fixed? Far from it, my journey has just begun.

Is this public announcement serving my selfish needs? Maybe.

If admitting my deepest darkest secret and being vulnerable to the judgmental, cruel world of social media makes me feel a bit lighter.

And if showing people a side of me that I’m embarrassed makes me feel a bit less of a fraud.

Then yes, maybe I have something to gain, but don’t we all deserve to be a little happier, a little less lonely?

And by no means am I doing this for attention, pity, or to be treated any different – that’s the last thing I need.

My only hope is that someone reading this can relate to it and know that they are never alone, and they don’t need to struggle through this with shame or fear.

I also hope that those who are in denial, just as I have been for years, thinking that “I’m stronger than this,” or “I can beat this alone,” you aren’t, and you won’t.

If you have a toothache, do you not see the dentist? If you have a knee injury, do you not go to the doctor?

Hope Starts With Change

We need to start caring for our minds, as well as our bodies.

Just as we need to realize as a culture, mental health is as important as physical health.

After all, if someone were diagnosed with cancer or had a heart attack, their friends and community would rally together to help, to be there.

They might even set up a fundraising page to assist with the medical bills or improve their quality of life.

Should we not provide the same support for an illness of the brain?

What does my future hold for me?

Well, hopefully, I’ll be making fewer videos about drinking beer and partying and use Dirty Habits as a platform for athletes and leaders to talk about things that really matter – life-changing topics.

And inspire change and growth.

Maybe talking openly about this topic might inspire someone, just as Michael Phelps inspired me, to be brave.

Perhaps that person may be a role model to younger kids.

Maybe – just maybe – my obituary could instead read: “Graham, gave me the courage to ask my friend how he really is doing.”

And for now, I’m going to put my laptop away, turn off my phone, put on some good music, and go back to my beautiful puzzle.

People don’t fake depression.

They fake being OK. But it’s OK not to be OK. Remember that and be kind.

Disclaimer

This may come across as I’m writing to a male audience.

Instagram says my audience is 96 percent male, and secondly, from research, I found that this stigma is more of a problem amongst men.

Women tend to feel more comfortable being emotional and talking about their feelings.

Not to say they don’t suffer as much. It’s just easier for me to talk to men who can relate to my story.

I also have zero education or professional knowledge about this topic.

It is only my experience that I can share. Everyone’s story is unique and true to them.

Words by Graham Howes (@grahamhowes) | Founder of Dirty Habits (@dirtyhabitstv)