Waking up feeling absolutely terrible after a marathon loss. Thinking back on a series sweep that could have gone so differently but didn’t. Wondering if the Cubs’ 16-15 record is a bad sign of things to come, or actually a bit of good luck given how disappointing they’ve looked. Trying to shake it all off. Trying to find a little meaning in the flagellation to which we willingly subject ourselves over and over again thanks to the very nature of this sport. Trying to figure out how the team – and our psyche – bounce back into something approximating a normal and productive Monday.
I could be talking about right now. Today. This moment. Or I could be talking about exactly one year ago. Because this has all happened before.
At least the Cubs were going to win.
I was, for the first time in my life, at a baseball game where I desperately did not want to be. The Cubs were hosting the Yankees for a three-game set, and I was about to watch Hector Rondon close things out in place of a resting Wade Davis. It was May 5, 2017, and I felt tortured by the fact that I was even at this baseball game, let alone there and not enjoying a Cubs win.
I’d arrived in Chicago the night before, practically pushed out the door back home in Columbus by The Wife, who knew I needed to get after some sense of normalcy. Among other very difficult but less dramatic things, we were dealing with the growing reality that our youngest child had significant developmental delays, the cause for which we could not pin down, and the future for which we could not project. It had become clear in the preceding two weeks that something was wrong. I was not handling that new reality well, and even being at a Cubs game wasn’t shaking loose the sticky, burdensome cobwebs.
But at least they were gonna win. What else are sports if not an opportunity – often brief – to commune with other folks who are leaving behind the world outside those walls? I could probably summon a smile when ‘Go Cubs Go’ kicked up on the speakers.
Then Brett Gardner ripped a three-run homer to win the game for the Yankees, and I didn’t have it in me to at least unfurl an ironic smile. I did not appreciate the absurdity of that moment and instead it felt like baseball telling me, “Yeah, I’m in on this, too.”
In the 10 years of this site, that was the only Enhanced Box Score someone other than me did here at BN.
The Cubs went on to get swept in that series, which concluded with an 18-inning marathon loss to drop the Cubs to 16-15 on the disappointing season. One year ago this weekend. Exactly. And the same thing happened this weekend in St. Louis. I would be more in awe of that improbable intersection if it weren’t so damn annoying.
But I’ll tell you this: I feel a heckuva lot better today than I did on this day last year.
I thought a lot of well-meaning things about “mental health” before I had occasion to go talk to someone for help last year. We are all so ego-centric that it can be borderline impossible to recognize in yourself any abnormalities that are challenging beyond that which everyone deals with. “Sure, I worry a lot, but there are things to worry about!” “Yes, I’m fixated on certain problems for extended periods of time, but I have to stay focused!” “No, I don’t feel like hanging out with friends right now, but I’ve got a lot of stressors!” “I feel more or less like I’ve always felt, so … this has to be some version of ‘normal’ right? Why would I want to change that?”
I’ll extend myself some grace for what I used to think about “mental health,” and the grandness of efforts to improve it. I was just so wrong about so much, and I feel foolish for not going down this path sooner. It’s simultaneously not a big deal and also a really big deal.
I’ve got some anxiety issues. It’s silly to be embarrassed to put it out there, so I won’t be. Obsessive thought patterns that I believed to be normal (useful, even!) for literal decades of my life, it turns out, were not so much. And when things got really tough with The Littlest Girl, I broke down.
Happy isn’t the word I’d use for how things played out, but I am absolutely grateful that the confluence of external struggles last year, combined with appropriately forceful support from The Wife, pushed me to make some changes that have proved over the last year to be literally life-changing.
The last time the Cubs won the World Series, before 2016, it was over 100 years ago, and the Cubs actually went back-to-back. That’s a neat factoid, but the whole thing may as well have been 5,000 years ago, because it doesn’t actually matter to us. It surely mattered to the people who experienced it. I hope they enjoyed it as fully as they could have, because they are long gone now.
I bet it was cool, though.
The Cubs did not pull off the same back-to-back feat in 2017, having beaten a better Nationals club in the NLDS (flags fly forever, suckas), and then fallen to a stronger, better-rested Dodgers club in the NLCS. I don’t think too many people will recall the 2016-17 Cubs as often in 100 years as the 1907-08 Cubs were recalled. Er, well, I certainly hope they are not recalled for decades as the template for historic flaccidity in the same way that every damn 1908 Cubs reference was offered.
Maybe the Cubs should win a few championships over the next century just to be safe.
Rare genetic disorder. Just a few words can hit you so hard, and then linger in the air, wafting in and out of your mind for weeks.
After a year of appointments, tests, scans, blood draws, evaluations, and angst, we finally received a diagnosis for our daughter Lucy earlier this year. Although a random genetic mutation could never sum up the whole of who she is (she is a delight!), our Littlest Girl has a syndrome sufficiently rare that it doesn’t even have a name. To the geneticists, the diagnosis was a win – I’ll never forget the phone call in which the doctor told me the news was “nothing bad” – because we finally had a reason for her symptoms. To us, however, the diagnosis simply confirmed our worst fears about the challenges that lie ahead, and added new ones to the portfolio.
Owing to the rarity and relatively recent discovery of the disorder, information on what we’re facing is extremely limited. We know that the developmental delays are going to be an ongoing process. We know other issues are likely ahead. We know that The Littlest Girl’s life, as well as our own, isn’t going to follow any kind of script we would have written two years ago. Where it goes exactly, we don’t know. It represents the height of externally-amplified anxiety.
Yet, here I stand, a year to the day from the lowest point in my life, and I feel as content and at peace as I can ever remember.
Just north of Wrigley Field is Graceland Cemetery, one of the largest and oldest cemeteries in the city. The final resting place of scores of famous Chicagoans – including Ernie Banks – Graceland dates back to 1860, a decade before the then-Chicago White Stockings began play, and nearly a half century before that team would be known as the Cubs. It is a quiet and beautiful place, if you’ve never been.
Myself, I hadn’t been until that day last year.
I was meeting friends after the Cubs-Yankees debacle at a restaurant whose location took me past Graceland on my walk, feeling as low and despondent as I could remember. There were the already-existent feelings of anxiety and panic about The Littlest Girl. There was the baseline level of anxiety I was always feeling then. There was the gut punch loss I’d just watched, alone. And there was the shame associated with being upset about a baseball game when your life is so upended, and your sense of how you get along in this world is so shaken. Even in that dark mental space, I was still replaying the final inning of that stupid baseball game in my mind. And then I was cursing myself for spending even a spare mental minute on the game when there were “real” problems in my life.
Somehow, in that moment as I walked along the edge of Graceland Cemetery, looking at the grass and the trees and the passersby and the headstones marked by dates from over 100 years ago, I felt like I truly understood something I never had before: this life will not only end one day, but it will long be forgotten after that, marked only by the crumbling stone.
It felt surprisingly … good. It felt freeing. Not because I have any interest in dying any time soon, but because the experience helped put my struggles – big like our family, and small like a baseball game – into a more clear perspective. The stresses we feel, the lows we experience … they won’t last forever. They won’t even make it 100 years.
When I got home from that trip, I scheduled my first appointment with someone who could help me.
A year later, it’s actually very difficult to write about that time in my life. And I don’t mean because it’s painful (although I do still feel some pain), I mean because the way I function now is so different that I have trouble placing myself back in those shoes. I barely recognize the thought patterns I used to set my watch by.
I’m still very much me – I was worried about that – but I’m a freer, easier, less cumbersome me. The anxiety hasn’t gone away, but my relationship to it has changed in a very fundamental way. Rather than driving my thoughts and actions throughout the day, the anxiety is now just kind of there, along for the ride. I can see it. Feel it. Notice it. And that’s where I work to keep it.
(I would never presume to tell you that what worked for me would work for anyone else, but, for those who wonder: in addition to traditional routes, I found that biofeedback therapy and mindfulness training (not all that dissimilar from what the Cubs’ mental skills program uses, actually) was especially helpful. You’ll also now find me a strong evangelist for meditation (the Headspace app works well for me). We talk about exercising our bodies for physical health, and yet the idea of doing something to exercise your mind for mental health seems all weird and new age-y. What’s up with that? It’s just a workout for your brain.)
A year later, as far as those Yankees games go, I barely remember any specifics. Sure, I remember the sense associated with the losses, but, when viewed in context at a distance, they were three losses out of 70. So much meaning in the moment, so little meaning as a portion of the whole.
A year from now, we’ll remember this Cardinals series. No doubt about that. But the entire context around it will have changed so much that it’s not as if it’s going to be an integral aspect of our lives. It was a crappy part of the overall wonderful experience of living deeply in a sport. We choose to do this for a reason.
And in 100 years, no one will know or care about any of this. Imagine the epitaph as passersby read it and wonder: “Here lies Brett. He was really pissed off about that one Cardinals sweep.” Get outta here with that.
Thinking about things in this way has not diminished the extremes of the experience of watching baseball (check my Twitter feed from last night), and I wouldn’t want it to. I *want* the wall-punching lows as much as I want the dizzying highs. But thinking about these games and my life in a more, well, morbid way has allowed me to better deal with the challenges our family facing, and also much more quickly shrug about a dogshit loss or a dogshit series in a way that I couldn’t last year, when I carried around tough losses like they were my personal cross.
While we’re in this space, let me say: thank you for being along for the ride this past year. It was a really tough time for a while, but the grounding that this place provides, and the daily experience of the sport with a community has meant a lot. It also helps that I get to sometimes write things like this. The reality is that working through the anxiety stuff and The Littlest Girl stuff is a process – a long, ongoing one – and getting these thoughts out periodically really helps. Thanks for indulging me, and for your support.
Much love to all of you, and also, can the Cubs just freaking beat the Marlins tonight?