DNP-Mental Health | By Liz Cambage – The Players’ Tribune

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ave you all in the States ever heard of a rip

Or I think it’s riptide for long. But it’s this thing where, one moment you might be having a normal sunny day at the beach, no big deal. You’re chilling, you’re swimming around with your friends. And then the next moment — what you don’t even realize, is that slowly but surely the current has been dragging you out into the ocean. And now the water is getting deeper and deeper….. and your friends have all disappeared….. and it doesn’t feel so sunny anymore….. and you can’t move….. and you can’t breathe….. until suddenly it’s just you, alone, under these enormous, dark waves…..

And you drown.

That’s a rip.

It’s also the closest I can come to describing what it’s like when I’m depressed.

I’ve battled mental health problems — first, anxiety, and later the depression that anxiety can trigger — on and off for about half my life. Which I don’t think is breaking news to anyone: it’s something I’ve been honest about, both privately and publicly, as much as I can. So much so that I think I’ve almost developed this kind of….. persona around it, do you know what I mean? It almost feels as if, in its own way, my life has been a “mental health conversation.”

And sometimes it feels as if we aren’t as far along in that conversation as we might think. We’re comfortable with the general idea that mental healthcare is important — and telling people that you’re dealing with mental health issues has become pretty acceptable. But underneath all of that? There’s still a lot of stuff that I think we don’t see, and don’t talk about. And that stuff can be ugly.

I know that, on the surface, people are “ready” to talk about mental health.

But are they really

Are people really ready to talk about how, starting at around 15 years old, I would just get blackout drunk some nights? Or that I’ve woken up with an IV in my arm, after a weekend of partying, not being able to remember a thing? Or that my first attempt at sobriety was at 18?

Are people ready to talk about how, after I was drafted into the WNBA, I spent almost every night of my rookie season alone, in tears? Or all of the times I’ve locked myself inside my house, and ghosted on the world, just crying my eyes out for hours? (I call that my “Existential Crisis Mode” — when anxiety curls into depression and I become this heap on the ground, convinced I’m worthless and useless.)

Are people ready to talk about how I was put on suicide watch in 2016? How I called up my mum, and — in the hardest conversation of my life — told her I didn’t want to live anymore? And how even now, even “feeling better,” I still carry the shame and guilt of having put my loved ones through something so terrifying?

I don’t think it’s until we’re ready to truly open up about those types of experiences — until we’re ready to get real about how mental health can be this dark and even losing battle — that we’ll be ready to take the next step in this conversation.

David Becker/NBAE/Getty Images

If it helps, I’ll try to start. Here are a few ways — ways we don’t normally talk about — that my basketball career and my depression have crossed paths:

My mental health played a role in my decision on where to play this year. I couldn’t make it work, in the end, in Tulsa or Dallas — in the middle of this foreign country without my support system. I remember flying back from Melbourne to Tulsa for the 2012 W season. And when we got off the plane during our layover in Sydney….. I’m not sure quite how to explain it….. but I just could not get back on. I couldn’t go back. 

I’d just competed in the Olympics with the Australian national team. We won bronze, but by our standards we’d failed. I’d failed. I’d failed my country, and everyone who was counting on me. I was only 20. Having to then carry that with me to the WNBA, into this new season when I wasn’t happy and didn’t feel supported….. with anxious feelings from my first season now rushing back to me all at once….. I panicked.

Literally — I had a panic attack on the plane.

Eventually I returned to the W to play in Dallas, because of my coach Fred Williams. But once Fred got fired, I knew that my support there was gone — and that the only way I could stay in the league would be if I were living near my family on the West Coast.

I take medication for my mental health. I’m one of the many millions of people in the world right now on medication to help treat depression and anxiety. I’ve been taking those meds for years. They keep my self-doubts from spinning out of control. They allow me to feel steady at those times when my mood would otherwise skyrocket or plummet. They help me sleep. Really, my meds just make me feel like a healthier and freer version of myself.

My mental health has negatively impacted my ability to do my job. First, on Saturday against the Wings, and then again on Monday against the Mystics. I took a DNP-Rest….. but here’s the truth of what it should have said:

DNP-Mental Health.

Two weekends ago was All Star Weekend in Vegas. They call it a “break” — but for the players participating, it’s not. And as a player on the host team, there’s even an added set of pressures. I’d been traveling with the Australian team just before the weekend began, and went straight from my national team duties to a packed schedule of events and appearances. On top of that, some close friends from home were visiting. It was a lot.

And truth be told, a lot has already happened this year, off the court.

My grandmother has been in and out of the hospital for these last several months. To see her struggle with her health, so far away — to feel like I haven’t been there for her when she’s needed me the most? It hurts.

Also, right before All Star, my long-term relationship with my on-and-off boyfriend came to an end. 

I feel like I went into the break already broken.

Truth be told, a lot has already happened this year, off the court.

It’s hard: For someone who travels as much as I do — who has to make her living on the road eight months out of the year — relationships are incredibly important. But at the same time, they’re incredibly hard to maintain. 

Still….. it’s funny the lies we can tell ourselves. Mine? That even with all of those responsibilities on my plate, and thoughts and stresses in my head, I figured I was still in a place where I would be able to handle the weekend. I mean — I’d been sober for months. I thought I’d be fine.

I thought wrong. The weekend spiraled into partying….. which spiraled into drinking….. which spiraled into exhaustion…..

And maybe even then I would have been alright — except for one thing.

I was off my meds.

Why? Well, for as stable as my meds allow my mood to be, they can also have a dulling effect. I wake up groggy in the mornings. I move a little slower. I don’t dream — which is a big deal for me. Dreaming is my way to be in touch with myself. It’s my connection to God. And when I go too long without it, I miss it. So earlier this year, after things had been good for a while….. I stopped taking my medication.

I just wanted to feel a little more. 

That weekend, I felt too much.

Our first night back from the break, I had an awful game at home. I went 1 of 12 — and each time I missed, I just remember feeling this need to taunt myself: You scared to make a shot?? Another bad decision, Liz!! Things like that. I questioned everything. Thought I was ruining every play. Then our next game was in L.A., and it only got worse from there. I picked up two early fouls in like 90 seconds — and it’s funny, because after anything like that happens, the crowd always thinks they’re getting to me. But of course I’m over here thinking, Uhhh, sorry! No room left for anyone else to say their horrible things in this head. We’re totally booked. It’s already full of me.

After that game, I felt like my brain was in free-fall.

And I’ll be honest….. from there, I just completely lost it. 

I found an empty hallway outside the locker room, still in my uniform, and started to panic. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stop crying. I was having the most uncontrollable anxiety attack — a full-on breakdown.

I had to call for help.

My agent came and got me, and took me back to our team hotel so I could take some anxiety meds. I try to avoid that unless it’s an emergency, because my body and mind live in a fog for the next 14 hours. But better to live in a fog than get carried away by the tide. 

That’s what happens — that’s the cycle. 

And eventually either you break it, or it breaks you.

That night led to some difficult conversations with some people who care about me — and some conversations with myself that were long overdue. Ultimately, I decided on two things. I had to go back on my meds. 

And I needed to take some time off.

So that’s where I was: Away from my team, and away from the game of basketball, to focus on getting myself right. Starting medication all over again means basically being bedridden for 18 hours a day. It means feeling heavy and tired. And it means adjusting to a new normal that requires, for the most part, rest. A lot of rest. 

Rehabbing an injury like any other.

Jeff Bottari/NBAE/Getty Images

And that’s why I wanted to write this. 

It was really important to me to not just “clear the air” here. I didn’t want to say “just enough” about what happened so that people would stop asking questions. I didn’t want to shout out, “HASHTAG MENTAL HEALTH!!!!” — and then have that be the end of it.

I wanted to tell you the real truth of what’s been going on with me. Because what’s been going on is not some secret, or mystery. It’s not some huge scandal.

What’s been going on is just….. my life.

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week is the NBA’s new rule — which says that every team has to have a mental health professional on staff. I’ve seen a lot of people praise the league for the rule, and for being so forward about mental health in general. And I’m one of those people. I think it’s a great thing they’re doing, and it’s going to help their players, for sure. They deserve a ton of credit.

But at the same time, I won’t lie — it’s disappointing to me that we’re praising anyone for “progress,” when so many women are being excluded from it. I mean….. doesn’t the WNBA deserve this same program?

And even beyond the W — even beyond sports: Isn’t mental healthcare just elemental? Isn’t it one of those things where we should just decide that every person needs access to it, and then….. find a way? Every school, every workplace, every sporting program, just — everyone. Everyone should have a mental health professional. It’s a doctor! Do you know what I mean? It’s literally a physio for your brain.

It’s treating someone as a human being.

It’s disappointing to me that we’re praising anyone for “progress,” when so many women are being excluded from it.

And that really sums up what I wanted to say here, I think. I wanted to let everyone know that my mental health….. it got caught up in the rip last week. And it wasn’t pretty.

It was actually pretty ugly. 

But I also wanted to let everyone know that I didn’t drown. I’m still here, and still fighting this battle on a daily basis. And with the help of my family, and friends, and doctors, and amazing teammates and coaches and support system on the Aces, I’m going to keep fighting it. 

And I’m going to keep talking about it — in as real a way as I know how.

We’re probably not at a place yet — and we probably won’t be anytime soon — where the official box score is actually going to say something like DNP-Mental Health. But in the meanwhile….. here’s your Liz Cambage injury update:

She was day-to-day with anxiety and depression — and she still is.

To be honest, she probably always will be.

And you know what?

That’s O.K.

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