The tennis champion turned his competitive drive to defeating depression after being diagnosed in midlife. He shares his methods in a new book.
Tennis champion Cliff Richey turned pro at 18 and became one of the world’s top players. After stepping back from tennis in 1989, he switched to competing in celebrity golf tournaments. Meanwhile he was living with depression, as told in his memoir Acing Depression. He has a new book out, Your Playbook for Beating Depression, written with Mary Garrison, LCSW.
When did your depressive symptoms start?
The onset of my depression was gradual in the beginning. I was always a high-anxiety person, but I wrote if off to being in the profession I was in. At about the age of 25, I started losing the skills that it took to play at the top of the pro tour. That was the spark for me to start slipping into depression.
How did you manage keep playing?
I self-medicated [by drinking] every night. I took Valium to sleep. And of course my training is to play through most anything. I had enough energy to compete, but holed up in a hotel room otherwise. I knew something was really wrong, but I didn’t know what it was at that time.
You weren’t diagnosed until age 50, three years into a severe depressive episode. What took so long?
I look back and I can’t believe I didn’t catch it. My family knew that I was sick. My dad sort of mentioned depression to me once, but he didn’t know enough about [treating] it. I did counseling for a year for “burnout” and antidepressants were only mentioned once.
Was it hard to accept the diagnosis?
I was thrilled to have a diagnosis. I identified my opposition. I wanted to try to defeat it and use every weapon I had. I studied it. I tried to get very well-versed in what depression is and when it’s going to come at you and why it comes at you and what the different issues are. My dad was my tennis coach and he always told me, “Change your losing game.” And I was as far down as I could get.
So what “weapons” did you deploy?
I give thanks every day that I landed on an antidepressant that works. I feel like I had good cognitive therapy. I did a lot of studying on my own. I encourage everybody to read up [on depression]. And get to know your triggers.
I use humor. Thankfulness. Understanding that I can do things moderately if I choose to. Living a healthy lifestyle. I’m always on guard. I still have a few minor episodes of depression each year, but I know how to manage them. For me, I need to isolate, get away from it all, build up strength to get back to living again.
It can be harder for men to admit to having depression. Athletes, too. Was that a factor for you at all?
My desire in life was to become a top pro tennis player and I did. After that, if I have an illness called clinical depression, it doesn’t diminish what I wanted to do in life. I’ve always felt like if you need help in an area and there’s help to be had, you’re a very much stronger person if you seek that help. You’re weaker if you sit by and don’t ask for it. … The stigma of this disease is maddening because so many suffer. I want to try to do what I can to come against this thing that is wreaking havoc in so many people’s life.
Your new book is a how-to on recovery. What’s your most important advice?
There is hope and there is recovery. There is. I would say if you seek help, you probably have a 90 percent chance of living a very healthy life. And you will wish that you had done it sooner
Printed as “Back Chat: Cliff Richey”, Summer 2017
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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