There are plenty of points in my life where I was proud of some aspect of performance or character. Taking care of my wife during cancer and my father during his stroke come to mind. That took a lot of focus and dedication.
There are other aspects of life where my head was not truly in the game. Coaches would sometimes yell that at me or other athletes. “Get your head in the game!” they’d say.
Pro athletes who can’t seem to focus despite considerable physical talents are sometimes branded “head cases.” I looked up the definition of “head case” on Urban Dictionary and found this little gem: head case Someone who hogs the ball in basketball.Yo man you are a true head case.
I played basketball through high school and admittedly was alternately a star player and sometimes a head case. Having modeled my playing style after Pistol Pete Maravich, there were times when I did unnecessary behind-the-back passes or between the legs dribbles. Coaches would bark “Make the simple play.” Largely I’d listen. But the game was a lot more fun with a bit of flair to it.
At the same time, I competed in track and cross country. And again, at times I was a star and at others, a head case. With a mild case of ADD going on, I missed a couple turns in some races. That cost me a major dual meet win against a key rival.
Yet for all the excessive creativity and spacey disengagement, there were many times when my leadership was critical to team achievement.
Through the first three years of college cross country, I ran in 5th to 7th man position. But there were some ugly moments tossed into those years, including a junior year when I was clearly, but for the first time, aware of my propensity for depression. Mixed in were the financial challenges my family was facing with a father out of work. Then I’d worked a summer job in a paint factory. The work was at times brutal and the social environment so critical and abusive I emerged from six weeks on the job with a variety of concussive self- esteem issues.
These cropped up a few times during that season. Had someone pulled me aside and asked, “What’s wrong?” I’m not sure I could have told them. The inner spaces of my head just seemed dark. I’d run well a couple races and then go soft or slow. At the conference meet however, the darkness of anxiety and depression essentially took over my head. I was not ready to run in any sense of the world. Where I’d been completing five-mile races in 26:00 or so, I staggered home in 28:30. Those last two miles were some of the most difficult steps of my life.
Yet I recovered well enough and ran nationals respectably enough. I had survived the first real bout of depression in my adult life.
Following college, I kept training and racing to the point where my roommate at the time saw it as self-indulgent. Again life had tossed me a situation or two that I handled by blasting through with my head down and eyes focused only on the road ahead. Running was both a symptom and a cure for everything going on in my head.
Perhaps you know the feeling too. It’s not a cliche to state that running is cheaper than therapy. But the truth of the matter is that we’re all head cases of one kind or another. Even people that seem to have their entire lives sewn together with fine stitchery tend to have a few loose ends. They hide them well, or much better than others.
A few get so good at hiding their flaws they come to believe they are perfect. Or, they excel at convincing others of their exceptionalism that no one dares question their appearance or convictions. That was the case in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. It took a child to proclaim the truth that the Emperor, who was a royal head case if there ever was one, in fact, was walking naked down the street.
It is thus important to realize that really important and often wealthy people are sometimes the worst head cases of all. Those of us who labor in relative obscurity, or who don’t have 10,000 Twitter followers, might tend to think that our relative (or personal) failures in mental health and acuity are more damaging than those of the rich and powerful.
But I recall a specific instance where a certain feeling of release and relief came to mind through running. I was training with a group of runners at the University of Illinois-Chicago track each week. For some reason, the darkness in my head at the time convinced me that keeping quiet was the best way to focus during those sessions.
It was actually a bit of passive-aggressive behavior. But I didn’t know what that was at the time. In case you’ve never actually understood that term either, this simple definition helps: In psychology, passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a habitual pattern of passive resistance to expected work requirements, opposition, stubbornness, and negative attitudes in response to requirements for normal performance levels expected of others.
In other words, being passive-aggressive is a tendency to try to control the situation by a false or calculated passivity. And I ran with the group for several weeks while talking very little between intervals. It could be said that in those moments, I was acting like a true head case.
But one day we all lined up for a mile interval, and I’d been opening up a little as I’d gotten to know the other runners. There were one or two guys faster than me, but not by much. So we took off for the mile and ran a 4:30, in practice.
Then coach Tom Brunick was a bit upset with us. “You’re going to leave your race on the track doing that,” he warned. But as we jogged around the backstretch the five or six guys that had finished together all started laughing. “That was fucking great,” one of them chortled. “A 4:30! In practice!”
We came around for the next interval and ran the prescribed 4:45 mile. And the group moved in concert. Something in me relaxed during those laps. We were well within ourselves now. The 4:45 felt easy. We joked and talked in athletic whispers during those laps.
It felt wonderful to be a part of that workout. There were many like that over the years. So many that I can’t summarize them here. That is the predominant impression of all those years of running. Joyfulness and engagement.
Yet it is important to recognize one’s propensity for depression or anxiety in order to address it as life goes along. Over the years I’ve come to understand my own head a lot better. Early in my 30s I approached some of those feelings with therapists, but didn’t have much luck finding one that understood my relative needs. “You seem really well adjusted,” one of them told me.
And that was true. I’d learned to adjust. The deep and intense mood swing of youth were under control. But the habit of letting anger flare lay rooted in my conscience. There were wrongs that held on in from my upbringing that had not been solved. They vexed me in those school years, manifested in a deep desire for approval from anyone. And lacking that, the cycle was prone to repeating itself.
These are difficult admissions to make in life. Yet they are important to personal growth and actualization. Good mental health is serious business. It takes effort to understand your own mind, and where its weaknesses or propensities lie. You can’t expect everyone around you to just adapt to whatever potentially fucked up notions or behaviors vex you. That’s not fair to them, or to yourself.
We’re all head cases in some respect. But that doesn’t mean you need to go through life letting mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety or anger rule your existence. In my case, it has taken a combination of personal forgiveness, self-examination, recognition of mental health patterns, changing thought processes and practical engagement in faith to find a better path to quell the head case issues that once dogged me in life.
I’m proud of that work. And while there is always more work to do, it has also provided me the ability to better enjoy my running, riding and swimming as well. It means a lot to arrive at a point where depression triggers don’t drag me backwards or down. And it helps to be able to cure anxiety where it doesn’t need to exist.
I still have a passion for social justice that gets carried away sometimes. I’ve studied religion and politics for so long, and come to understand some of the lies that are told on behalf of God, and why they happen. So I can’t claim to be completely free of being a progressive head case. But at least I admit that. My passions run high because it makes me crazy to see people being mistreated. That may hearken to a single instance in my life, a violent moment that disturbed my sense of safety and reason to the point where all reactions to such abuse, be it verbal, religious or political, are focused into protest and action.
But that’s where I’m a bit proud of being a head case. Because it is head cases who have the guts to speak out sometimes. The Founding Fathers of America were in many ways profound head cases, driven by injustice to create a nation based on merit and equality, not royalty and Emperors with no clothes on.
Here’s to the head cases of this world. May you find both understanding and peace in your own way. And may you work to make the world a more just and rational place.
And barring that, may you hit your interval splits with panache.