by John J. McLaughlin
Sitting quietly in the back of the room, amidst excited friends and my nearly giddy 7 year-old son, I prayed fiercely, something I’d been doing almost constantly for two years. This time, however, there was no hospital, no obvious emergency, no terror; there was only a game, Super Bowl XLIX. And the Seahawks—everyone’s team here in Seattle— were about to win.
But I prayed secretly for them to lose, because the stakes for my son felt frighteningly high. This could be the tipping point, I thought, and given his passions and our family history, he could end up like my wife, or my grandmother, or worse.
The game had been dramatic from the start, and now it came down to this: 2nd down, Seahawks trailing the Patriots 28-24 with five seconds to go, the ball on the one yard line. In the Seahawks’ backfield was Marshawn Lynch, he of Beast Mode, who could barrel through defenders like a tank. He’d been stopped on 1st down, but that had only delayed the inevitable. He would simply line up again and do what had made him famous— put his body on the line for his team— and it would be over. Dad, we’re gonna win, my son shouted, and slapped me a high-five.
On the field, a dynasty was at stake. The Patriots had been the best team of the past fifteen years, but the Seahawks had dominated the past two. Much as I had soured on the NFL recently, I found myself caught up in it. This felt like a game that, for my wife’s sake, I could not watch, but for my son’s sake— and in some ways, my own— I could not not watch.
If you saw the game, I don’t have to tell you what happened next; if you’re a Seahawks fan, you’ve probably sought therapy for it: Russell Wilson’s fake hand-off to Lynch; his rifled pass toward Lockette, slashing across the middle; the perfectly-timed interception by the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler to seal the Seahawks loss; the voice of the TV commentator repeating: I can’t believe the call.
My son’s joyous, blue-and-green-painted face drained instantly, and he cried out in disbelief along with my friends. But I got what I’d wanted: the Seahawks were defeated, and now he might stop begging to play tackle football, at least for a while.
And yet this was not what I wanted: these friends had been my family’s crutches through two excruciating years— providing child care, meals, rides, prayers upon prayers, even visits to the hospital where my wife had ended up more than once, nearly dead from clinical depression.
The room emptied out quickly, and I felt like a hypocrite, even a traitor. But I couldn’t help myself: I was relieved. There would be no pressure to go to a victory parade, or to act like a fan of this sport I’d once loved but that now filled me with nausea, moral dissonance, and fear for my son’s health, even his life.
* * *
I first fell for football at six, watching the Dallas Cowboys win Super Bowl XII. They were led by Roger Staubach, the cagey quarterback and Navy pilot who fired pinpoint passes, and by Tony Dorsett, the brash, lightning-quick running back fresh off his Heisman trophy season at Pitt. The team was full of stars, and I learned all their names, plugging them into imaginary games in my back yard. I absorbed the game’s militarism, machismo, and tribalism, as any boy might. And I was faithful, in spite of what it cost me: growing up in Virginia in the golden age of the NFC East, I stood alone against my father, siblings, and uncles (who loved the Redskins); my grandfather and cousins in New Jersey (Giants); and my Catholic school nuns (Eagles). The Cowboys were the self-proclaimed “America’s team,” and you either loved ‘em or hated ‘em. Everyone in my childhood world seemed to hate them, but I donned a martyr’s pride and endured.
Ironically, I didn’t enjoy actually playing tackle football. When I joined the “Ankle biter” league as a 1st grader, it felt alien compared to the neighborhood touch football I loved. The uniform, for starters, sucked all the fun out of it: the helmet narrowed my vision, the mouth guard stifled my breathing, and the pads— for shoulders, elbows, thighs, tail bone, and especially the plastic crotch protector— restricted my motions to those of a tottering robot, like C3PO of Star Wars. The game’s action was painfully slow: it took more time for us little robots to lift ourselves off the ground after every play than it did to run the actual play. And the hits, whether given or gotten, were just plain painful. At season’s end, after a tooth got knocked loose, and my mother said, No more, I happily returned the uniform. But I stuck with the Cowboys.
Something about football fascinated me, and I watched Sunday after Sunday, playing along with my Tony Dorsett jersey and Nerf football. Perhaps as a boy I knew unconsciously what I can now articulate as an adult: football, more than any sport I know, attracts players and fans alike with the possibility of heroism, and keeps them with the promise of security. Like other sports, it taps into our primal need to be tribal, united against a common enemy. But because it legitimizes and glorifies dangerously sacrificial risks to enact almost unrestrained violence upon that enemy, or to absorb the enemy’s violence in return (just listen to the crowd when someone delivers a bone-breaking hit, or “puts their body on the line”), it promises, paradoxically, tremendous safety. No member of the tribe makes you feel safer than the one who would die for you.
As a boy, I was very physically and emotionally sensitive, and painfully shy. But I was fast, agile, and naturally coordinated, so I excelled at basketball and soccer, which didn’t require as much contact. (Once during a high school soccer game, a good friend called out, “Come on, McLaughlin, hit somebody for the first time in your life!”) Watching the NFL gave me a sanctioned, vicarious venue for the inner violence beneath my quiet exterior, the hits I would not make (or take) myself. Though I was a dutiful eldest son and an A-student, as a football fan I was vicious, and even celebrated injuries to the Cowboys’ opponents.
I followed the Cowboys faithfully through my college years: from Dorsett’s All-Pro seasons and his 99-yard touchdown run on Monday Night Football, to his struggles with injuries and eventual fading away as the Cowboys slumped miserably. After college, however, I moved west to work with the homeless, which started to change my perspective on professional sports; the salaries, merchandise, and hype began to provoke my uneasiness rather than excitement. A few years later, I moved to Latin America, where the NFL meant nothing, and I found myself losing interest. Though I had never been poor myself, as a young adult I became profoundly shaped by my work serving and accompanying people living in poverty. I had become a man, and had put away childish things. Football, for me, was one of them.
* * *
I first fell for my wife on Mothers’ Day, at church, about a year after returning from Latin America. For weeks, we’d been exchanging cautious smiles and small talk over post-Mass coffee and donuts with friends. I was a tepid, terrible flirt, and she, who was born and raised in Colombia and used to the full-court press from men, found my methods of courtship inscrutable.
She wore glasses that morning, which I hadn’t seen before, small tortoise-shell frames that complemented her obsidian hair and honey-toned eyes. Those eyes— her whole face, in fact— had a luminescence, and at her side, wearing a yellow cotton dress, was the reason why. Her four year-old daughter was a skinny-smiley buttercup with her biological father’s indigenous Mexican features. Seeing them together for the first time, I began to admire the relationship they shared, and some part of me wanted to be part of them.
I finally found the courage to ask her out, and after one year together she inquired, in her inimitable point-blank way: What else do you need to know? She was a 33 year-old single mother; it was time to fish or cut bait. Tell me more about your father, I said. Ah yes, she said, there is that.
* * *
I first fell for my son, like many parents, at his birth. When he slip-burst into the world, a rush of shocked joy shot from my gut to my face in an instant. Those things people had told me— about which, frankly, I’d been highly skeptical— turned out to be true: I felt an immediate, total love for this little boy, whom I could carry in the crook of my arm. He kept me up insane hours, cried inexplicably, made a mess constantly, but I still considered him, as the cliché predicted, perfect.
But perfect quickly became complicated. My wife’s milk refused to flow, even though she had breastfed her daughter for six months; it merely trickled, and the discrepancy, as well as our son’s constant hunger, allowed her little sleep. Her face, normally olive-toned, paled. She asked repeatedly: Would I think she was a bad mother if she couldn’t breastfeed our son? Would my family? She consulted with midwives, doctors, and a lactation specialist, but no remedy produced more than a temporary, minor improvement. We started using formula occasionally, which she took as a defeat.
She called me into the bathroom one night, a week and a half since coming home. Look at that, she said, pointing into the toilet. That just came out of my body.
I could not believe what I saw, so I put on a rubber glove and fished it out. It was blood red, Jell-O-like, and the size and shape of my fist. What the hell is this, I asked her.
I think it’s a blood clot. What is happening to me?
We got in the car immediately. My parents, visiting from Virginia, stayed with the kids.
At the hospital, the attending nurse tried to convince my wife that though this clot was unusually large, it was not abnormal; she might consider wearing extra pads to absorb future emissions. Extra pads, are you kidding me, my wife snapped back. The doctor would not see her; we left just as terrified as we’d arrived.
The clots got smaller but kept coming, and within 48 hours we were back at the hospital. A gynecologist told my wife she was not ill by any measurable standard, but a D&C (dilation and curettage) procedure might stop the clotting. By this time, our respective parents had returned home, and we had started believing that this was our version of the new baby grind; the first month, I’d heard, is hell, but you get through it, and some day you’ll look back upon it and laugh. My wife consented to an outpatient procedure, and after an hour we went home.
It was early June, the temperature in the 70s, but within minutes of arriving she began shaking uncontrollably.
Help me, she said. I’m freezing.
I wrapped her in blankets but she did not stop. It took both of us to hold the thermometer steady: one hundred and four degrees. We put our son back in the car and floored it.
She was diagnosed with sepsis, and admitted to the ICU, where she received a blood transfusion during a three-day stay. She survived, but neither her breast milk nor her sleep improved.
The following week, her face became more pallid, her mood more withdrawn, her behavior more bizarre. Always a foodie, she hardly touched the delicious meals friends brought us, and worried constantly about returning the correct leftover container to the correct person. She asked repeatedly if I considered her a failed mother and wife because her milk wouldn’t flow. Finally, three weeks post partum, she brought me into her therapist’s office, where she prostrated herself, and said she wanted to end her own life.
I struggled not to vomit. I had had no idea.
Twelve hours later, after dozens of phone calls, visits to two hospitals, and interviews and questionnaires from nurses, social workers, administrators, and doctors, I found myself at her bedside in a bare, echoing room in a psychiatric ward. Her depression, diagnosable but never more than mild in the six years I’d known her, had transmogrified into postpartum psychosis, the psychiatric equivalent of a heart attack. Yet among the professionals she encountered, only her therapist seemed to treat it as an emergency. All day long I kept telling people: she needs to sleep, just give her something to sleep, but it was met with academic detachment, as person after person told us the same thing— You know, dear, most new mothers can’t sleep— and asked the same questions— Do you use any drugs? Do you have a gun at home?—and reminded us to remove any and all laces, drawstrings, cords, and sharp objects from her belongings, lest they be confiscated. Finally, near midnight, a nurse arrived with some pills in a paper cup. My wife had not taken any psychotropic medicines in nearly a year, having tapered off Prozac and Trazodone in preparation for pregnancy. She looked suspiciously at the pills, then at me. What’s the point, she said. Nothing can fix me. I’m going to die anyway. I asked her to take them for the kids and me, if not for herself. There’s always hope, I told her. She laughed without smiling, shrugged her shoulders. I guess it’s like Eucharist, she said, and swallowed them down.
The nurse ordered me to leave the ward, assuring me that someone would keep suicide watch throughout the night. Hospital policy, she explained, prohibited me from spending the night. Eventually, I agreed, but not without wondering, when I crossed the doorway, if it would be the last time I saw my wife. A better man, I thought, would fight until he won the right to sleep on the floor of his wife’s room. That night I was not that man.
Just before 3am my phone rang. My wife had broken a fever and been sent to ICU; in a couple of hours she would get another D&C, this time under surgical conditions. For three weeks she had insisted that something was wrong with her uterus, but the doctors had denied her requests for an ultrasound to inspect it, until now. The results vindicated her: she had retained placenta. In layman’s terms, the placenta hadn’t all come out— and the presence of even small remnants precluded her milk from flowing freely. In a sense, her breasts believed her womb still held the baby, and were waiting for it to come before letting the milk flow.
No more babies for me, she said when she awoke from the procedure. They cleaned me out good. I’m sorry I let you down, John.
The attending psychiatrist prescribed a heavy dose of antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, and I returned the rented breast pump. She soon began to sleep better, emerged from a crisis state, and after eight days was discharged. Not healed, not by a long shot, but no longer suicidal.
Turning out of the parking lot, she said, I never, ever want to see this place again. Amen to that, I said.
* * *
As it happened, never again could not hold. During our son’s kindergarten year, a number of life factors conspired: the relentless stress of my wife’s job in the dysfunctional Seattle school district’s special education department; a two-month international work project for me, leaving her to manage the household alone; our daughter’s burgeoning college search; and an email message from the principal of our son’s Catholic school stating that his behavior was becoming more than his teacher could handle. The unmistakable subtext was: if he doesn’t shape up real soon, he’s gone.
We knew that he was very bright but very immature, and that the combination was challenging for anyone. But we were convinced that if we could find him a better teacher, he would be fine. Next year, we thought, we’d enroll him in a new school.
In the meantime, we went into crisis management mode, helping his teacher create incentive systems to encourage good behavior, and talking about his situation during seemingly every free moment. He improved, but not enough, and by mid-January, his anxiety was so high that he began to wet the bed, which he had never done. Then one day he exploded, threatening the teacher with comic-book-villain-like violence. We pulled him out before he was kicked out.
“Next year” was now upon us. I rearranged my schedule so I could home-school him, inexpert though I was, while my wife searched frantically for a private school with an opening. She feared what might befall him at the local public school, given the mismangement and unruliness her colleagues who worked there reported. She inquired at twenty schools, but none could take him.
Late that month, my wife began telling me, often tearfully, I’m sorry I’m so weak, I’m sorry I’m letting everyone down. I tried to reassure and encourage her with a combination of long listening, extra shouldering of chores and child care, and peppy redirection. I had noticed she’d lost weight, wasn’t sleeping well, and seemed generally anxious, but she was still going to work, and was still sharp enough to build a thick white binder of resource materials for our son. (My home school curriculum was heavy on field trips to the park and the zoo, she let me know.) I could not understand why, no matter how much yoga or therapy she did, she still perseverated on far-fetched catastrophes (our son would end up in jail, we would become homeless) and blamed herself, solely, for all of our struggles.
I had no idea what was really going on.
* * *
Many years ago, when I lived in the Dominican Republic, a coffee farmer once told me his plants had taken sick. When I asked what he meant, he plucked a fruit from a branch. It looked perfect: plump, bright red, slightly oval, like a small grape. He pointed to a pin-prick hole at one end. See this? That’s how the bastard gets in. Then he squeezed it. Normally, depending on the pressure, two sticky-slick coffee beans would push out, the object of his labors, which he prepared for market by the quintal. Instead, the whole thing collapsed into a pulpy mess. A tiny bug had burrowed in and eaten the beans almost entirely. He wiped his hands and gestured toward his field, full of plants bearing branches heavy with such fruits. My friend, he said, now do you see?
If my wife is to be believed, someone who has not experienced severe depression cannot appreciate how the disease makes you into a veritable stranger, even to yourself—how it slowly and silently hollows you out. She is a splendid cook, and a lover of fine food, but in early 2013, two months after pulling our son from kindergarten, her tastebuds rebelled, eventually turning all food, even chocolate, into a despicable sight. As she dropped ten, twenty, then thirty pounds, down to 104 with a prominent sternum, she thought: Who is this? This is not me. Watching her cook my birthday dinner a month later in joyless, mechanical fashion—without her usual singing and humming, often snapping at our children for invisible infractions— I thought: Who is this? This is not her.
Severe depression breaks you down, pin-prick by pin-prick, eating away at not just your identity but at your sense of reality, so that the slightest squeeze— a dropped toothpaste cap, a glance from a colleague or spouse— crushes you. It becomes yet another brick in the steadily- rising stack enclosing you, imprisoning you. No one can see, much less appreciate, the suffering within those walls, and the sense that it is interminable. My wife likens it to a full-on brain fire, a vortex of catastrophic thinking, and an elephant squatting on her chest, causing not only extreme perseveration but literal shortness of breath. If you are even conscious of how it affects your family, so much the worse. Despair burrows in, inexorably, and little by little the disease performs its most pernicious trick, convincing you that suicide is the only possible— in fact, the only reasonable— escape.
The day after that birthday dinner, my wife phoned her mother. They talked a long, long while; I could feel the crushed hopelessness in her voice, even through the closed bedroom door. Eventually, she passed the phone to me. John, her mother said, you may need to take her in.
What she meant was: you may need to hospitalize her. In that moment, I finally connected the dots. To be “hospitalized for depression” means to be taken, voluntarily or not, to a facility to prevent or recover from a suicide attempt. For whatever reason, in all the dozens of appointments in which I sat by my wife’s side, no one ever made that clear. No one said that “severe” or “clinical” depression is less frequently, but most accurately, called “suicidal” depression. No one told me, straight up, your wife has an illness that can lead to suicide, in the way one might say, your son has a stomach virus that can lead to cyclical vomiting. Once when he was ill, my son’s nurse advised me to take him to the ER if his temperature reached a certain level. My wife’s caregivers never said: put away everything sharp, don’t let her drive, and keep a close vigil on her, because she might be planning to kill herself. Or: Get to the hospital if you suspect she’s making a plan, before she’s dead. Somehow, I was supposed to figure that out myself.
Perhaps that’s because the reality of mental illness is so heartbreaking, and so mysterious, that US culture, which wants to believe there’s a fix for every problem, still can’t genuinely embrace it. Perhaps people, myself included, simply can’t accept that no matter how hard you work, no matter how wealthy, intelligent, physically or spiritually strong, well-advised or properly-medicated you are, the disease slips through your hands like water, and the vortex churns on. Once the fire starts to genuinely rage, nothing short of hospitalization can stop your descent into hell. (And sometimes that fails too.) During the first year of my wife’s intense illness, the son of celebrity pastor Rick Warren took his own life, at 27, after a long struggle with severe depression, despite the family’s access to, in Warren’s words, “the best doctors, the best medicine, the best therapist, the most people praying.” Robin William’s suicide occurred concurrent with my wife’s third hospitalization; her ward practically buzzed with the news, much of the talk amounting to: If he can’t make it, what chance do I have?
Ask any psychiatrist, and they’ll tell you, if they’re honest: the brain is the body’s most complex and elusive organ, and even the best treatment plans are little more than educated guesses. And they are slow— many medicines can take weeks to realize their efficacy, because of the complex way that serotonin and its receptors work within the body. As it happened, the best guess of my wife’s doctor—a graduate of an elite medical school, a 25-year veteran, and a sincerely caring man—did not work: the new medicines were too aggressive in some respects, too mild in others, and her brain-fire was far too advanced.
* * *
Later on that same night I had talked with my mother in law, I sat at my desk, improvising a strategy. I will look at my wife’s face when she wakes, I thought. If she’s wearing that hollowed-out, possessed death face of six years ago, I will hospitalize her. Or I will try.
I put out calls and emails to trusted friends, looking for someone to take our son for the day, to get our daughter to and from high school, to help me get my wife to the hospital if she refused.
When she woke, I saw the face. As the kids ate breakfast, I closed our bedroom door, and asked if she had a plan. She confessed it. Let me take you in, I said. No, she said, what’s that going to do? I need to see my Monday students.
We negotiated. She would drive to school, call me when she arrived, see her morning speech therapy students, then call me again. As she left the house, my gut twisted. Could I really trust her, in this state?
I broke the bargain immediately. I got her colleague on the phone and asked for back-up when I arrived to take her. An hour later I showed up with my son, found her classroom, and asked her to come with me for our family’s sake, if not her own. She did not resist.
For six years after my wife’s post-partum hospitalization, I had lived in denial. When we left that parking lot and she said never again, I’d said amen, and believed it deeply enough to put it out of mind. On my better days, I remember that even the trained experts fumble in the dark, so who could blame the rest of us for adopting an attitude of benign indifference, or denial, toward depression. Especially since the word itself is inadequate to the task—the same term used to describe a geographic variation, or an economic slackening, also denotes an illness as potentially debilitating and deadly as cancer and diabetes. Other times I look back and wonder why the hell I didn’t understand that “never again” was a fantasy: Kathy’s father was clinically depressed for decades of his life and had attempted suicide multiple times. She was a textbook high-risk case.
Sometimes it is still difficult for me to empathize with her, despite having accompanied and cared for her during every step, every day, of her illnesses and recoveries. I can’t always remember she does not want to be depressed, that she would do anything she could not to be. Sometimes I lack patience and want to join the chorus of well-meaning folk who suggest that she get better by thinking more positively, or watching funny movies, or simply bucking up because this too shall pass, even though I wouldn’t think to do likewise to a person with a serious physical illness. (Hey, get up out of that wheelchair and go for a jog, it will make you feel better!)
When I was seventeen, my uncle discovered that my grandmother had driven around for weeks with an uncooked chicken in her car. Once her Alzheimer’s was diagnosed, I remember how sullen my father became when we took her in, before she entered full-time care. Her repeated stories of his childhood diarrea from green apples discomfited him; her diaper crinkling loudly against her wool dress embarrassed me. Watching a loved one lose her mind is something I would not wish upon anyone. Over a period of sixteen months, I saw my wife lose hers three times. Each time, just before hospitalization, having discovered her suicide plans through a combination of pressure and pleading, I felt that same unfettered, full-body anguish from years before, as if I would vomit from sadness. The soul of the woman I had fallen in love with, built a life and had a child with, had been siphoned away, leaving a hollow, death-faced shell who tried to convince me that everyone would be much better off without her.
I hope to never see that face again, on anyone. Especially my son.
* * *
In autumn 2013, as my wife trudged through an arduous recovery from two springtime hospitalizations— trying one medicine after another until one specific cocktail of four started to work— the Seahawks were on a tear, and the fever in Seattle was palpable.
Though it is recently famed for its cutting-edge tech and philanthropy, and gradually becoming a multi-cultural city, Seattle’s dominant culture is still Scandinavian: polite, stoic, cool to the touch. When I moved here years ago, another east-coaster told me, people will never honk at you in traffic, but they’ll never invite you over to dinner either.
Yet when it came to the Seahawks, especially as the wins piled up, all bets were off. The crowds at the home games were measured as the league’s loudest. “12th Man” tribalism ran rampant, sweeping up even unlikely recruits. Socially-conscious friends would tell me one moment how disgusted they were with the NFL’s domestic violence and concussion cover-ups, the next about how pumped they were for the Hawks game. And the swag— jerseys (costing $75 and up for kids, more for adults), hats, scarves, t-shirts, face paint, and more— sprang up like dandelions as the the Super Bowl approached: on students and teachers at school, city bus drivers on their routes, clerks ringing up sales, priests and ministers presiding at service, baristas taking your order, gas station attendants, bank tellers, librarians— just about anyone, anywhere, doing anything. Seahawks talk became the primary glue of relationships, even between strangers. Did you see that game, someone in the grocery store line asked me one Sunday evening. Yeah, I lied, totally amazing. The cashier, wearing a jersey, nodded vigorously. Beast Mode, man, she said, and both offered high-fives as I took my receipt.
Had the circumstances been different, I would have been swept up as well. But in November 2013 Tony Dorsett revealed that he was experiencing clear signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and joined the ex-player class action suit against the NFL. When I read that news, I suddenly and vividly remembered his poster hanging on my childhood wall, and the scratchy-tough feel of the Cowboys jersey I wore when my brother and I re-enacted games in our yard. Now, my hero couldn’t remember how to get around town, experienced symptoms of depression and dementia, and became unpredictably violent with his family. And he was amongst the lucky ones. Others had become addicted, or developed full-blown mental illness, symptoms of their own CTE. Some of the players who had committed suicide shot themselves in the heart rather than the head, to facilitate a brain autopsy and increase awareness of CTE.
That season, it finally happened: Seattle narrowly vanquished its arch-rival, the San Francisco 49ers, to advance to its first Super Bowl in nearly a decade, then obliterated the Denver Broncos for its first-ever championship. The team celebrated with a downtown parade that Wednesday, and legions of students and teachers from around the metropolitan area ditched to be there. My son protested furiously when I refused to take him. My wife wouldn’t have gone even if she’d wanted to: her recovery was still extremely fragile, and that kind of raucous, chaotic experience might easily have set her back, perhaps significantly.
* * *
As it happened, she relapsed anyway, four months later, despite taking exquisite care of herself with medicines, yoga, meditation, therapy, and more. She had tried nearly twenty medicines and endured side effects ranging from hampering, to incapacitating, to suicidal ideation. So she demanded— as she’d done seven years earlier regarding the ultrasound— that the doctors take her seriously, stop trying new medicines, and give her electroconvulsive (shock) therapy (ECT), reserved for the most severe and treatment-resistant patients. She even agreed to be hospitalized, and stayed three weeks. As it happens, the experts don’t know exactly why ECT helps, only that it does. An electrical current is passed through the brain, inducing a seizure and altering the neurochemistry enough in many patients to treat the depression. The treatments, only minutes long, are so intense that they require general anesthesia, and cannot be administered more than three times per week; a total of twelve was described to us as being an average course for therapeutic benefit. My wife required more than twenty.
That September, after hospitalization, I drove her to weekly outpatient treatments. She always emerged in a groggy, irritable state, so it was my habit to remain quiet on these rides home, and to keep the radio barely audible. One morning, the newscaster announced that NFL actuaries had admitted that nearly one in three current players would eventually develop CTE. I glanced at my wife, sleeping in her seat, and remembered how we had both believed in “never again.” And I wondered, given this news, how many families were living the same lie.
In that very moment, driving through central Seattle, I knew I could never enjoy watching football again, seeing others risk the journey of losing their mind. And just as definitively, I felt afraid to give it up.
Sapped and ground-down by what had befallen us, I longed for some of that pure, life-giving energy I saw in my son, with his Seahawks passion. And I feared alienating myself from the Seattle friends who had helped carry us through these times. Our family situation was still fragile.
But now, anytime I sat to watch a game and waited for that good juice to hit me like it once would, I felt nauseous instead, unable to keep from wondering which of the colliding players would develop CTE in later life. When the big tackles elicited rabid cheers, I felt ashamed, remembering the long hours I’d watched games, all the Cowboys gear I’d begged my parents to buy, and how I too had once cheered those devastating hits.
To me, CTE was now like climate change: the scientific evidence was overwhelming, and only innocent or willful ignorance could keep one from connecting the dots.
But try explaining climate change to a seven year-old boy who loves race cars, as mine does. You tell him the cars’ pollution will eventually, years from now, disrupt the ecosystem of the planet he’ll inherit and endanger many lives, including his. He tells you he loves race cars, and so do all his friends. You tell him the game of tackle football leads to brain damage, which could ruin or even cut short his adult life. He rolls his eyes and asks if this is going to be another one of your long lectures— he’s asked around, and other kids don’t get these in their homes. You need to move quickly, so you tell him scientists have shown (he loves science) that every hit, on every play, causes neural fibers and cells to stretch and twist, restricting critical blood flow to the brain and causing buildup and clumping of tau proteins. Does he remember you telling him about Junior Seau and other NFL stars who died from brain damage? Well, scientists found more tau proteins in their brains than chips in chocolate-chip ice cream. (But only in those players, you don’t tell him, who didn’t blow their brains out as a way to end their suffering.) Unbidden, you start to picture some adults— good, thoughtful people you respect and admire, like his teacher, his pastor, his uncle— standing behind him, giving you a suspicious listen, and for them as much as him, you risk one more detail, throwing in that these concussions everyone now talks about are actually the brain’s response to a hit, not the hit itself, which is part of the reason why some players develop CTE and some don’t, why some get it in their 40s and some in their 60s, and why one— the youngest known so far— died from it at 17. You say it all depends on how susceptible your brain is, which science can’t predict for certain, but since his mother and grandfather have had multiple episodes of suicidal depression, and his great-grandmother developed Alzheimer’s in her early 70s, his brain is at-risk. And just for good measure, you say that, given all this, combined with the NFL’s lavish profits and assiduous cover-ups of its various scandals, the prospect of his not just playing but even watching this sport twists up your gut tighter than the triple knots he ties on his sneakers. Once you descend from the soapbox he’ll shake his head, sigh, and tell you again: he loves the Seahawks, and so do all his friends. The adults will give you looks, tell you to buy your kid a jersey for crying out loud, and to lighten up— it’s only a game, after all.
* * *
That winter, as the Seahawks returned to the Super Bowl, our family desk looked like an NFL retail shop. Our son had become the “problem kid” in 2nd grade: running from class, cursing at the teacher, picking on younger students. His teacher, a rookie, had no idea how to handle him, and he pushed her buttons at will. During my wife’s hospitalizations, he had remained calm, even when visiting her and absorbing the intense energy of the psychiatric ward. Now, months later, he seemed to be experiencing a delayed reaction to his mother’s trauma, experimenting with how “bad” he could be yet remain loved, how unsafely he could act yet remain safe, wondering how long it would be before the other shoe dropped and she was hospitalized again.
In desperation, my wife and I bought Seahawks shirts, socks, water bottles, Legos, hats, headbands, stickers, posters, washable tattoos, a lunchbox, and more (yes, there is more), and piled them on the desk as prizes he could earn. Little by little, we saw his behavior improve, and much as we hated giving the NFL our money, we were ready and willing to buy even more.
Even with all this swag, it wasn’t hard for my son to notice that, without cable TV and a Seahawks jersey, he was getting left out. And it wasn’t hard for me to connect the dots, given his burgeoning athleticism, and be worried. This was a boy who, since he was four, could dribble two basketballs at once, punt a soccer ball across the yard, and throw a baseball on a line. Sometimes as I walked past the youth football practices in our neighborhood, with boys, starting at age five, smashing each other to the rhythm of coaches’ whistles, I imagined a coach putting his arm around my son and telling him what a fine quarterback he could become, filling his head with stories of the friends, girls, and college scholarships football could make possible. His doctor has predicted he’ll grow to 6’3”, ideal quarterback height, and I know that almost nothing grants boys social capital in this country like football. He had been begging since kindergarten to join his friends’ team. My wife and I had held out so far, but the Seahawks’ success only fueled his desire.
* * *
It’s game day, Super Bowl XLIX. A victory will crown the Seahawks repeat champions and the NFL’s reigning dynasty. Dad, we’re gonna win, my son says to me all morning long. Yeah, I say, this sure is a big game.
I go with my family to Mass, and during the social hour afterwards the mood is festive: people wear Seahawks swag and can’t wait for kickoff. Our son badly wants to attend a game party, and it seems almost cruel to deny him. After all, he is seven, he loves sports, and wants to fit in with his friends, all of whom will be watching. He feels this is a game he cannot not watch.
And surprisingly, it becomes that way for my wife and me too, despite all good arguments to the contrary. We want to accompany him in a moment he feels is important. His desire to fit in is natural; even if the NFL is reprehensible, his enjoyment of it, as a seven year-old boy, is not.
At the party, we greet our friends and sit to watch. I do it sheepishly, fully aware of the hypocrisy I’m engaged in. The room is filled with people who have carried us, especially the host family, who took in our son repeatedly during my wife’s long months of hospitalizations and recovery, letting him spend the night, share meals, and generally be an honorary member of the family. Yet here I am, eating beef brisket in their living room, pretending to be on their team while secretly betraying them, hoping their beloved Seahawks will get trounced badly enough to smear the blue and green face paint on their daughters’ cheeks, and cleanse my son of any notion of playing football.
When the interception is thrown, I breathe relief: it’s over, finally. There will be no parade, no conversations to fake my way through, no jubilation amongst my son’s friends. The Seahawks will fade for a while, maybe long enough for him to latch onto something else: baseball, basketball, Legos, piano— something, anything, else.
* * *
Two weeks after the game, we received a call from our son’s teacher. He had hit a student, again.
When he came home that day, he told me it was a group effort: he and his friends decided another kid was annoying them, so he got nominated to deliver the blow. They were priming him, cheering him on; he knew, logically, that it was wrong, but he didn’t want to let them down. He didn’t want to be left out.
He looked at me, and asked: Why is it OK to smash somebody in a football game, but not at school recess? That’s a very good question, I said.
These days, I often wonder: What can I do? The truth is, I cannot deny my son’s fascination with the sport I once loved. When he re-enacts NFL games in our yard as I did, I smile for a moment, in spite of myself. I believe there is a poetic beauty to football’s best passes, runs, and catches; there is a satisfying finality, a certain cleanness, to a well-executed tackle that brings down a runner in one fell stroke. But the space in my heart once occupied by childhood sports heroes now belongs to my wife, who lives with mental illness, and to our children, who by simple heredity are at risk for it.
These days, though my wife is more stable, I still find myself praying, sometimes fiercely, especially during football season. That day my son hit the child, I prayed for Tony Dorsett and thousands of former players like him, with bodies broken, minds addled, or even lives lost to suicide, and for their families. I prayed for children here in my neighborhood and across the country, playing this dangerous and irresponsible sport unawares.
But mostly, selfishly, I prayed for my son, hoping he will not end up maimed, mentally ill, or dead, as some football players do every year, and I vowed to never let him risk any of those fates on a football field.
Well, I vowed to try. After all, one day he will be a man, making his own decisions. And that day, I will wonder, as I do now: What can I do?
John J. McLaughlin grew up in Virginia, and lives with his family in Seattle. He is the author of the novel Run in the Fam’ly (Univ. of Tennesee, 2007; Texas Institute of Letters award for Best Novel), and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various publications including The Washington Post, America, and National Catholic Reporter. He is co-founder and director of Education Across Borders, an international nonprofit organization.