Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Playing Hurt

John Saunders was a very good sportscaster on ESPN.  I just completed his autobiography titled, Playing Hurt.  The book recently came out, and as those who follow sports may know, came out posthumously. Saunders passed a year ago in August.

There were some conjectures at the time of his passing that his death was a suicide since the book is about his lifelong battle with depression. In Playing Hurt Saunders describes his painful relationship with his parents. His dad beat him when he was around, and his mother is portrayed as indifferent. Both parents were irresponsible with money. The dad, a deadbeat, both in terms of child support and keeping promises to help with college tuition. The mother not above stealing from her kids and, in one staggering episode, telling her two boys that their younger sister had leukemia and needed a good deal of money to stay alive. Once they gave the mother the money it became apparent that this was a ruse.

The title is a very good one. "Playing Hurt" is a phrase that athletes use when they put themselves on the field despite injuries, managing to fight through the pain to excel. This is what Saunders apparently did.  His depression may have been a residual of his upbringing or maybe just congenital, a function of some chemical imbalance.  But he is often sad, often crying, and then bucking up to function personally and professionally. He was revered by fellow broadcasters and loved by his wife and two daughters.  I thought he was a much better than average sportscaster.  He did not get in the way of the game and remembered that sports fans are fans because of the event, not because of the personalities of announcers.

The epilogues to the book, not written by Saunders, make it clear that his death was not a suicide yet a reader might have doubts because of all the times in the book that Saunders speaks about considering taking his own life.

The book very effectively describes what it is like to suffer from depression. It is a disease that seeks sadness.  No matter how positive things are, the depressive finds the negative aspects and dwells on them.  Good feelings from success on the air are ephemeral, replaced by a sense of how he could have been better, and how he does not deserve the fame, and how he was a bad son, and how he is an irresponsible friend.

We all go through periods that are dark when we cannot see the light even when it is shining in our faces. But for depressives, these periods are the norm and not exceptions. Depression is not brought about because the loss of a lover, or failure on an exam.  For depressives the loss of a lover exacerbates a tendency to find sadness even when you are loved unequivocally.  At one point a doctor tells Saunders that a depressive cannot will themselves to be happy any more than one can will themselves to be tall.

For the first 100 pages or so, I found the narrative a bit whiny. But the more I read the more I understood the hell he must have gone through.  A professional hockey prospect, a successful business person, an alluring lover of many beautiful partners--it did not matter. Fortunately, towards the end he was making some progress until, if you believe the autopsy, he succumbed to an enlarged heart.

If you suffer from depression or know someone who does, I recommend the book. Easy to read, short of 300 pages, you can knock it off in a few days.

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