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To the Philadelphia Eagle Who Publicly Talked About Anxiety, From a Diehard Giants Fan

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Brandon Brooks is a Philadelphia Eagle which means, as a diehard New York Giants fan, I shouldn’t, under any circumstance, like him. And while I will never root for him on the field, today he has my utmost respect.

I live with anxiety. As young as age 3 I showed signs of the mental health disorder, and it has reared its ugly head in various intensities over the course of my life. I developed an eating disorder at the end of middle school and since this event, anxiety has never separated itself from my being.

With experience and a low dose of medication, I’ve been able to become comfortable living with this addition to my life. My mental health is a piece of who I am. The panic attacks and social anxiety are something I live with every day.

It wasn’t always so easy for me to be accepting of my diagnosis. Not that I was personally made uncomfortable by my condition, but I was fearful of the reactions I would receive from others. I hadn’t been brought up in a community and greater society that was honest about mental illness. In health class, we talked about stress and the physical changes that were occurring within our bodies. But depression was glossed over. OCD was ignored. Eating disorders were minimized. It seemed like anything beyond what was considered a “normal” level of feeling was taboo. The emotional changes that come with adolescence are perhaps more important than any development we can see on the outside. And the negative education of these issues is just slightly even more powerful than saying nothing at all.

Slowly this has started to change. Celebrities have begun to share their experiences with all forms of mental illness, from bipolar disorder to depression. But even as Hollywood has become a more welcoming place for these revelations, it feels as though the professional sports world is still many years behind.

Mental health brings with it a feeling of shame because very often it is linked to this idea of weakness and that somehow falling victim to a mental illness symbolizes the very opposite of strength, a trait most athletes are fighting to promote. Over the years, coaches and managers have preached mental toughness on and off the field, demanding their players overcome. Not to mention the fear of losing confidentiality for players who are particularly famous. As a result, many choose not to come forward, refusing to admit to their coaches or even to themselves that they need help.

It can often go unnoticed until it’s too late. Some players fight the “mystery ailment” and experience debilitating symptoms for years without ever knowing the true cause.

But on December 14, Brandon Brooks took a step to change that…. in an 11-minute meeting with the press from his locker, announcing he has been diagnosed with an, “anxiety condition,” one which sidelined him from two games with the Eagles this season, as well as with the Houston Texans in previous seasons.

In his announcement to the press, Brandon was unapologetic of his diagnosis. He didn’t keep this piece of himself from the public, although he had every right to. Brandon wasn’t going to run from his truth because he knows it is nothing to be ashamed of and it doesn’t mean life is over for him. Rather a new, better life will begin because of the tools he now has available to him.

On both game days and off days alike, Brandon would wake up around 4 or 5 in the morning plagued by uncontrollable vomiting. No medication helped to ease it, and the episode would last for a full 24 hours before ceasing. Afterwards, he was left so weak he, “didn’t even have the strength to stand up.”

He had experienced this symptom on and off for years but recently decided to find out what was wrong. After one of his missed games with the Texans a couple of years ago, Brandon was diagnosed with an ulcer, leading him to assume subsequent episodes were also caused by an ulcer or something physical in his stomach. It wasn’t until he received help and evaluation from the Eagles’ medical staff that he learned his symptoms were actually caused by severe anxiety and his desire for perfection.

Not only did Brandon share the name of his illness and his symptoms, but he also spoke extensively about the way in which anxiety affects him, clearly and honestly dismissing some of the misconceptions and assumptions about this disorder in particular. He took the time to make sure the public understands. Because for some, anxiety is experienced as a form of panic and intense worry. For others, it is caused by social interactions.

“…[An] anxiety condition is not nervousness or fear of the game. I have like an obsession with the game,” he said. “I’m a perfectionist and anytime that I’m not perfect, in my head it’s not good enough. And it kind of just wears on me from there… I don’t remember good plays, I only remember bad plays, plays that I should have done them right. The film is constantly playing in my head.”

Additionally, Brandon did not shy away from sharing the treatment plan he has chosen to follow. While many find the issue of psychiatric medications to be a taboo subject and keep their choice of prescription drugs a secret, he shared that he is currently on two different medications to help his anxiety.

I think it’s immensely important to have public figures who are honest with their struggles, not just their triumphs. Brandon Brooks is one such individual. He signed a five-year, $40-million contract with the Eagles in the spring. For some, there is a belief that if you’re famous enough or wealthy enough, you are immune to mental health challenges, that if you reach a certain height, you can’t be touched. And that is just not true.

He also wasn’t fearful of sharing his choice to undergo counseling to help address his “unhealthy obsession” with football. So often there is a feeling of shame that can come along with seeing a professional for help, leading many to avoid seriously confronting the issues ailing them, and as a result, they never truly overcome their obstacles. To hear him say, “I realized I couldn’t defeat it myself” and needed to ask for help is a very sobering and inspiring action, one that can make it easier for others to seek assistance in battling their own demons.

There is so much maturity in Brandon’s story. In a league that has been chastised for incorrectly addressing a variety of issues, both internally and publicly, from domestic violence to concussion protocol, Brandon’s response to mental health and the help he received should not be devalued. Much was done right.

The reactions of Brandon’s teammates are also a wonderful example for anyone who is trying to support a friend through mental illness. After meeting with his teammates to explain his illness to them, he says everyone has been nothing but supportive. “I love the organization, the organization’s been great… The head coach, my position coach… everybody’s supported me. My teammates have rallied around me.” Brandon’s security in sharing this personal information without fear of repercussions proves just how safe you can feel in putting yourself first when you are surrounded by the right people.

Brandon Brooks and I are very much opposite. There is very little that connects us. He plays in the NFL. I have no athletic ability whatsoever. I’ve lived my life in the suburbs, while he grew up in the city of Milwaukee. Brandon clocks in a 6 feet, 5 inches, 346 pounds. Meanwhile, I am barely 5 feet, 3 inches, with a slim frame. He is black, and I am white.

When I look at Brandon, I don’t see a version of myself, someone I wholly identify with. Our experiences are very different. But his authenticity and normalizing of those with mental health challenges has no doubt earned him my admiration. I have personally begun to share my story and advocate as a person living with mental health challenges, hoping to end the stigma so many face. I am honest and unapologetic in the telling of my experience. And watching Brandon’s honest and candid press conference on Wednesday, where he encouraged questions and sought to educate, I happily welcome him into our community and acknowledge all he can do to further support the mental health movement.

In a world where speaking out about mental illness is still a fairly new occurrence, where the list of celebrities who are open about their mental health struggles is fairly short, there aren’t many who are positively affirming the normalcy of these issues, who are comfortable enough in themselves to share their truth with the world. And in being honest, succeeding in telling thousands of individuals out there living with these illnesses that it is OK.

I already found my strength and became comfortable with my diagnosis, largely without an example of what it looked like to live with a mental illness. But I do not for a second underestimate the power Brandon’s admission will have on the thousands of young adults who have been and will be told they have an anxiety disorder. His living and succeeding with anxiety tells them, you are not broken, shows them that if he can do it, you can do it, too.

And Brandon himself is chiefly aware of the role he can play in destigmatizing mental illness, particularly for the next generation. He said, “Hopefully, if I can reach some kids out there that are going through the same thing and let them know it’s OK, life goes on, fight through it. Just like I’m trying to do.”

Trying and succeeding. Thank you, Brandon.

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Photo via Twitter

Originally published: December 23, 2016
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