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November 26, 2019

How Brandon Brooks' battle with anxiety has helped me come to grips with my own issues

Eagles NFL
155_11032019_EaglesvsBears_Brandon_Brooks_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks.

I may be a lanky white dude, but I see a lot of myself in Brandon Brooks. The main difference, aside from skin color, size and profession, is that Brooks is infinitely stronger than I am. Not physically — although that's definitely true as well — but mentally. He's so much stronger, in fact, that his strength gives me strength. 

As a kid, I was diagnosed with anxiety by a psychiatrist. That would be my last trip to such a doctor until I was in college because I refused to go back. That's not to say I didn't suffer from severe symptoms of anxiety during the years between those two visits, but rather, I became very good at convincing myself those anxiety-related symptoms were caused by something, anything, else. Perhaps it was what I ate for dinner or just a regular stomach bug or I was simply hungover — and in college, this was always a real possibility — but I would never allow myself to believe it was anything bigger. Even laziness. Yes, I was willing to lean into being a lazy homebody because even that seemed better than admitting to myself that there was a bigger issue at play. 

Following that visit in college — yes, there was again only one — I went back to living life the way I had been for years. It wasn't until a decade later that I finally took stock of what had been controlling various aspects of my life: my anxiety disorder. And I have Brandon Brooks to thank for that revelation. 

It's cliche to say that some bigger, stronger person allowed me to see past my own sense of false machismo, but that's exactly what he did when, back in 2016, he first missed time due to anxiety-related symptoms. At the time, I hadn't had an anxiety attack in a while, so it was easy for me to shake it off and think that maybe, just maybe, this disease that I'd quietly been living with had magically disappeared with age. But as I found out recently during a trip with my wife — just as Brooks found out this past week — it never goes away.  Not entirely. 

My anxiety is different from Brandon's anxiety, and manifests itself in a different way (let's just leave it at that), but that doesn't mean that our struggles are all that different. In fact, there are probably many people suffering from many other mental health issues that can relate in some way to what Brooks is going through. And that's why the most important lesson to be taken from this is not what happened to Brooks before and during Sunday's loss to the Seahawks, but what's transpired in the 48 hours since the game ended. 

First, there was Brooks' post on social media confirming that the "illness" he suffered from on Sunday was actually a setback in his own struggle with anxiety. He didn't have to admit that. He could've simply left it as a vague "illness" and went about preparing for this week's game in Miami. Instead, Brooks was open and transparent about what had transpired. 

Then came an outpouring of support from fans and others who felt empowered by Brooks' candidness, including several players reaching out to tell Brooks they also suffer from various forms of anxiety. But Brooks knew those wouldn't be the only people to see his post — he also knew that opening this door meant he'd be hounded by media on Tuesday afternoon, just as he was back in 2016 when he first suffered from bouts of anxiety that would keep him off the field on Sundays. 

And what did Brooks do? Well, for starters, he didn't back down. He answered every question the media threw his way during a 20-plus minute session in the locker room (you can read the full transcript below). More importantly, however, he didn't just give canned answers that would have moved the focus off himself. Instead, he used his time with the media to open an important dialogue about the stigma surrounding mental health issues, especially in the macho world of the NFL, and to show others out there who are dealing with anxiety — or any other disease, for that matter — that it's not a sign of weakness to ask for help. 

That's why I did something I almost never do: I wrote about myself. More importantly, Brooks helped me realize that it's OK to admit you suffer from a disease, both to yourself and others, without fear of ridicule or shame, especially when that disease is something that's nearly impossible to understand for those who don't live through it. It's why I decided to share this with you, despite the fact that this is something only a few people, like my wife and my parents, know. 

I was afraid to admit it to myself. Brooks helped me admit it to thousands of people. 

I suffer from anxiety, and that's OK.

Moreover, Brooks showed me that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, and I'm going to start looking for a local doctor who can help me moving forward. If writing this inspires just one other person to admit they need help, then it was more than worth it. However, the powerful message Brooks sent out during his media session on Tuesday will likely help many more than that, and that's why I took the time to transcribe the entire thing below. 

It's long, but it's most definitely worth your time. 

How you feeling right now?

"I'm good. I'm in a much better place. I kind of tweeted about it, the biggest thing, which I feel terrible about, is that when my team needed me, I wasn't there. I had a handle on it for two and a half years now — I guess the silver lining is I'm on the right track — but moving forward, I've got a plan in place to ensure that a situation like this doesn't happen. I think that's the important part, is that when you have an issue, to seek help and and to attack it. 

"One thing I think you guys know about me is no matter what adversity I've had since I've been here, I've always tried to face it head on and to attack it, and this is nothing different."

The team announced it as an illness. It could've stayed that way. Why did you feel the need to speak out?

"I think the biggest thing is — I always try to say this first — I don't do this to have people feel sorry for me or anything like that. The reason I try to share what I got through and my story is for people out there who are scared to get help or who feel embarrassed or ashamed to go through any type of mental illness. Hopefully, people who are going through that stuff saw the amazing outreach and outpouring from people across the globe, really, about my situation. So just letting them know that it can be OK and that some things can be prevented if you get the help at some of the earlier signs."

Have you heard from people like that over the last couple of days?

"Yeah. All different people from all over just saying thanks for speaking out, things like that. I guess when I came out and spoke about it in '16, and even now, I never really thought that it would be such a big impact. I kind of just wanted to just tell the truth and share my story for the one or two people that it could help. That's kind of all I ever really wanted to do with it."

[Eagles offensive line coach Jeff] Stoutland was saying a couple of weeks ago that you might not be the only one, that other guys in the room go through it, maybe to a lesser degree...

"It's been a lot of guys around the league who have reached out to me about it. It's a lot more guys than you guys can imagine, to be honest. I'm not going to put anybody's name out there, I've never been that type of guy, but just know it's a lot of guys that go through it — for a lot of different aspects, not just the one that affects me, but for a lot of reasons."

You said you felt the worst about letting your teammates down. What has been the reaction from them?

"They've been nothing but supportive. Since I've been here, I've missed three and a half games. I look at the three, including this one, for anxiety, and then a half game for the Achilles, man. So, any time I'm not out there, I feel that way, especially when it comes to the anxiety. I don't know, I guess because I look at it differently from a physical [condition], I feel like I could be out there trying to battle through it or do X, Y, and Z. You know, even on Sunday, I wanted to show my teammates [that I could]. They saw me coming in, how I looked throwing up from when I got there at 9 until the intros. The team went out without me so I could try to figure something out. Even when I came out, hopefully cameras didn't catch it, but I was throwing up on the sideline between the two drives. The first one I went out there and played, and then I when I sat down I was just throwing up on the sideline until it was time to go back out there. I just wanted to show the guys that I'm not just saying it deeply pains me to not be out there, I will do whatever it takes to try to be out there with those guys. So it was big for me that, although I was going through that and they could clearly see I was going through some type of attack, that I wanted to go out there and try to play as many plays as I could no matter what was happening."

What does it mean to you that your teammates have your back?

"I think when anything pretty serious like this happens, you hear stuff about it being a brotherhood and having each other's backs, but actions speak louder than words. No matter it was me or anyone else going through this, whenever something like this happens, teammates rally around each other, and they've rallied around me since I've been here from Day 1. And I absolutely love these guys. That's why it hurts so much to not be out there when something like this happens."

Why do you think so many professional athletes are afraid to admit they go through stuff like this?

"Because we're supposed to be modern-day gladiators, man. We're getting paid more than the rest of the public and we're playing — you know, I think you guys know it better, but some people call it just a game. We're not supposed to have any emotions, you know, we're supposed to just play and do like we're told. At the end of the day, we're people, we're human beings, we go through the same things that everybody else does, everyday issues that 40 million Americans go through. We're no different, and when we have issues, the only difference is it's front-page news. But there are a lot of people that go through the same issues that we all go through, and I just encourage athletes that go through things, whether it's something like a mental illness or really anything, to speak about it. You never know who you might help, including yourself. Who knows, maybe if I would've started earlier in my life or in my career, maybe this wouldn't be the bar that I start from. Seek help. Speak out. Use your platform for good."

Do you have any idea what set this particular episode off, why it reared its head now?

"Probably the biggest thing, I talked to myself when it happened. And I think you guys saw with the rehab, whatever the bar is, whatever the outlier is, I will try to exceed it. When I got the new contract, I tried to talk myself down about it, like, 'Hey, you're playing great. Just keep doing what you're doing." But I think when I talked to my therapist about it, I think also by talking about it unconsciously, it started to get in my head like, 'Hey, you've got to show everybody you're worth the money." When [I should've said], 'Hey, just go out there and play. No need to change what you've been doing." That's what kind of brought it on. That's the kind of person I am though, that's kind of like my double-edged sword. It's something that's always driven me to try to be the greatest at whatever I do."

When we talk about these anxiety issues around the league, can you appreciate the role you're now playing in opening up a conversation that it's an illness, but it's also like breaking a bone, like just because it's a mental health issue doesn't mean it's not a physical one?

"When it comes to mental health issues, the biggest thing is to embrace and accept it and understand why in order to attack it. It's really no different than pulling a hamstring. You've got to go in the trainers room and put ice on it and do all these different exercises. It's the same thing mentally. You want to make sure that people understand that it's something that 1, you can attack and it can get better, and 2, that just by hoping it gets better, that's not necessarily the best strategy. It's OK to seek help, it's OK to get help, and it will get better."

You mentioned that you have a plan going forward. Do you feel comfortable discussing that? 

"The biggest thing for me is really ensuring the security blanket. Talking to my therapist, getting back to that once a week. And then the night before, just taking medication to ensure that I wake up the next day pretty even keel going into the game."

In 2016, you called it an unhealthy obsession with perfection and that was kind of what set it off. And you talked about the contract extension here. Those conditions, do they still exist? Obviously you still want to prove yourself with the contract, so how do you desensitize that feeling that you might have?

"I spoke about it earlier, that's kind of always been my double-edged sword. It's just something that's always driven me and sometimes driven me a little too much. It's a daily battle man. I've gotten a lot better with it, obviously not having an episode in a couple years, but you know, stuff happens. Like I said, I'll continue to fight day by day. It'll get better, and my biggest goal is to keep that space between incidents... so it's a daily battle, but it will get better."

What was that first drive like for you?

"It was almost like an out-of-body experience. I've been doing it for so long, that the motions I can do without really thinking about it, but as I was going it, it was like I wasn't doing it. It was weird. Not to make it sound like I had a concussion or anything, that was not the case, but it was just a weird feeling."

Did it make it harder not having Lane [Johnson] by your side?

"Ironically, before the game, Lane FaceTime'd me and we had a good conversation. You know, you always [miss] that type of talent, even throughout the week. I guy of that caliber and talent, you don't replace out there. So yeah, we as a team missed him out there, but for me, I'm all good either way."

What are the physical aspects of it, having to go out there and try to play after vomiting that much, you might be dehydrated. Is that the first time you tried to play through it like that?

"I think the biggest thing I wanted to do is, like I said, show my teammates that I will do whatever it takes to be out there. I will do whatever it takes to be out there, no matter what type of state I was in. So if I was able to go in my weakened state, or dehydrated state, or whatever, I was going to try to go. That probably was the first time where no matter what was happening I still came out and tried to play. I think it's also the first time that the team, as a majority, was able to see it live happening during an actual game."

Once you left the game, how did you spend the rest of the day?

"Well first, I just tried to do the same routine I did before the game, hoping it would calm down and get rid of it that way and maybe I'd be able to come back out. Then, after that, I was like let me just get an IV and I'll be good. Then it was, alright, maybe if I just move around, I'll be good. I just tried to do whatever I could to get back out there in any way possible. After that, I had the team psychologist come in there and try to help me get over it and listened to whatever he had to tell me. And then after that I tried to get IVs and get myself ready to come back."

Is this week too soon to try to come back? How are you approaching that?

"Oh, no. The show goes on, man. I'll be fine. When situations like this happen, like I've said, I'll attack it. [inaudible] What happens on Sundays isn't go to stop me. That's still my focus, the Miami Dolphins."

How are you different today than you were that day in 2016 when you first discussions about this?

"Well, I have a lot better handle it..."

Is your perspective different?

"It's much different. I knew I was going to have to come here to talk to you guys about this. The first time, back in 2016, I don't want to say it was like walking death row, but it was tough, because obviously I was a lot newer here. So, coming in, I knew I had to talk to you guys about X, Y, and Z, and the biggest thing was being open about what I'm going through with you guys, why I had the post I did and why I'm trying to help people going through the same situation."

Given that there are so many people around the league that are dealing with similar things, what are your thoughts on the best practices, whether it's from a league or team standpoint, to help all the guys that are dealing with?

"I really think the biggest thing is just having an open environment, an open forum, allowing guys to come forward — hopefully sooner than later — at their own pace and seek the help they need. Just keeping it an environment that everybody's doors are open. Guys shouldn't be afraid to talk about anything with anybody in the building. I think that's the type of environment we have here, so for me, when Doug comes out and supports you — I had a conversation with Howie [Roseman], Doug and Stout [Jeff Stoutland] about exactly what we just talked about, the plan going forward, how I'm going to attack it and what the reason was. So if you have an environment like that, I think it's the best thing."

Do you think that the environment here, both with the staff and the teammates, is unique or different than it might be in most places around the league?

"100 percent. I don't know how many other teams as open as this with a situation like this, helping the player attack it the way they do here."

Did the fact that Lane Johnson wasn't going to play add to your stress level?

"No. I've played without Lane before, and yeah, we are very close. We're similar in a lot of ways — similar in almost too many ways sometimes — but I've played without him before. Like I said, you can't replace a talent like that. But adding to my stress level? No, I don't think so."

As you try to help others, how important is it to show that it's an ongoing battle, that it isn't something that you go through once but something you'll continue to battle the rest of your life?

"I think a lot of times, people get more concerned about failing or having a setback or something not going their way. Well, the biggest thing is that you're going to have setbacks, times where it's not going to be all lollipops and rainbows as Stout would say. So knowing in those dark times that 1, it's OK, and 2, it's OK to see help, and then 3, there are much brighter days ahead. Like, yeah, I had this incident yesterday, but I'm not ashamed or embarrassed about it. There will be much brighter days ahead, and as life goes on, hopefully the time between instances gets greater and greater until there are none..."

After your contract, there was no fear that this was going to come up?

"No, I literally was talking to myself about it, because in '16 right after I got that contract, this happened. So I was like, 'I've been here before, no big deal, you've been playing great." And I also think that because I was doing that, I started thinking about it more. I was talking to myself about it, but it's all good. There was no fear at the time. You know, now I'm thinking about it, there's no fear as well."

You had mentioned a couple years ago that the locker room wasn't unified in understanding your stuff. Is that different now? Does everyone kind of know and understand what you're going through?

"Oh, I see what you're saying. I think back in '16, it was just new. It wasn't talked about a lot, I was new to the team, you know. At the same time, I had to prove myself to my teammates. Coming from a different squad, new guy comes in, he has this anxiety deal. I think guys, now that I've proven myself, know what type of guy I am and people are a lot more familiar with me, things like that. Some people are a lot more understanding as far as what's going on. Even back then, you'd have people who'd say it's not real, but after being with for years and seeing me go through it daily, I think guys know that it is something that I deal with and battle with every day."

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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