Two Takes on Depression

Treating the very condition you live with––A clinician's dual perspective

On the Couch...with Cliff Richey

Professional tennis star takes on his most challenging opponent: Depression.

I'm not a good tennis player, but I do like the game. And when I was a kid growing up, I spent a lot of time watching tennis greats on television, especially when the US Open rolled into my hometown.

One of the fiercest players I remember watching was Cliff Richey. On the court, he was a relentless competitor, passionate and quick. You could feel the intensity of every move he made and sense the warrior within him in the way he stared down his opponents. Watching Richey was electric. You never knew what would happen next. Sometimes, he'd doggedly battle volleys up and down the court. Other times he'd bark at the linesmen, or boil to the point of losing his temper over a missed shot.

Richey was the original bad boy of tennis - long before Jimmy Connors. Years before John McEnroe. The persistent and stubborn way Richey competed as a professional athlete earned him the nickname "The Bull". Over the course of his 30 years in professional tennis, Cliff "The Bull" Richey won over forty-five tennis titles, and became a two time semi-finalist in the U.S. and French Open. His greatest opponent, though, wasn't one that he met on the court. It was simmering within, darkening his days - and already beginning to steal his spirit and sense of well being. It was depression.

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The illness of depression was shadowing Richey as a young boy, as an amateur athlete and during his years as a professional tennis player. Like many, he didn't realize his thoughts and behaviors were symptoms of a serious mood disorder. Richey chalked up his irritability, anxiety, and melancholy moods to the rigors of being an athlete in training. He attributed much of his misery to the grueling lifestyle of a celebrity tennis player. It was only when his depression deepened in the late 1990's that he realized that something was very, very wrong. Racked with despair, anxiety and fatigue from sleeplessness, he began fearing the night. Richey didn't want to know what time of day it was and began taping black trash bags over the windows. For about six months, he'd stay in bed all day and weep. It was during a routine dermatological check-up that Richey learned he was experiencing a major depressive episode. He was almost 50 years old.

Just like Richey approached the game of tennis, his determination in beating depression became his next match. He began treatment with talk therapy and medication, and soon found himself feeling better. He is still a fierce a competitor, but this time he's fighting against mental illness. Richey has written about his life experiences in the book "Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion's Toughest Match," which is a thrilling and meaningful read.

Serani: What made you decide to write your autobiography - and most of all, highlight your struggles with depression?

Richey: After realizing that I'd been depressed a good part of my life, I wanted to take what I lived through and help others find their way. Depression is a bully and it can con you. I wanted people to know that with hard work, you can beat it and outsmart it.

Serani: Sounds like you're talking about depression like an opponent in one of your tennis matches.

Richey: Well, in a way, yeah, that's exactly true. When you're faced with adversity, you have to move forward. When I was in a tough competitive match, I might be cramping, getting bad line calls - but no matter what was going on, I had to muster enough positive emotions to get to where I needed to go. A champion will do that... summon the will and determination to fight. When you're in a competitive match, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. That's how I look at depression. Sometimes it gets the better of me, on other days I keep it in check. But depression hasn't defeated me. It'll never defeat me.

Serani: We know that men and women experience depression differently. Do you think people knew you were depressed back then?

Richey: I can honestly say that no one knew I was depressed. Myself included. My professional life as an athlete afforded me a lot of camouflage. Being aggressive, irritable, driven or difficult was attributed to my being a premiere athlete. You know, I'd be a monster on the court, but then let off steam drinking and being a good ol' boy, which was, you know, very acceptable back then. I never thought for a second that those behaviors were symptoms of depression. But did anyone know I was overtly depressed? No. We didn't know back in the 70's and 80's what depression was all about. It was a different time. But Arthur Ashe was one of the only people close to me who worried that I'd burn myself out if I kept behaving like I did. And he was right. I did burn out

Serani: For many people, the structure of their life and how they live through things makes it hard to detect depression. Sounds like you went through that.

Richey: Yes. For me, I was playing competitive tennis all over the world. I thought what I was experiencing was a result of jet lag, or playing through physical illness - feeling lost and lonely on tour in countries....I thought life was just that way. It never really occurred to me that something else might have been going on. Only when I retired from tennis, did others start to worry more about me - and I began to really notice concerning things in myself.

Serani: I often tell people I work with that the planet they live on is the only one they know. So, sometimes you don't realize that you can feel better because you never knew it could exist outside of yourself.

Richey: Exactly. Through therapy you learn that there are other ways to cope - and that opens another world for you to live in. 

Serani: How did your family react to your diagnosis of depression?

Richey: Well, my Dad didn't really understand the depths of my depression back in 1995, but he made it a point to check up on me every morning. You know, it was okay that he didn't get it because he was there to support me - and that's what mattered. My sister and my mother recognized that depression was an illness and could talk more openly about it. So I got a lot of emotional support from them. Also at that time, my wife was a huge source of support and guidance when I was sick and fragile. But as I look back, I realize my depression was hardest on my kids. They were too young to appreciate my illness or understand what my emotional absence was all about. Bottom line was they needed a better father and I wasn't there for them. 

Serani: You describe how writing this book helped you reconnect with your children. Tell us about that. 

Richey: It was a real chance to come back around and re-invent my relationship with them - and there's no doubt that a lot of healing and recovery occurred writing my book. The beautiful thing is that in recovery, almost everything in your life becomes a second chance. That's the message I want others to know... that healing has no time limits.

Serani: You've become an advocate in the fight against mental illness stigma.  

Richey: Yes. And I have to say society really doesn't let many people talk about mental illness. It isn't set up yet to let others come out and be public. There's still this myth that if you have a mental illness there's something fundamentally weak or lacking in you. That, in and of itself, perpetuates stigma. Because of my celebrity, it was easier for me. I didn't have a job to lose. I didn't have to worry what the social or financial fallout would be. People tell me it's a brave thing, what I've done, writing this book and talking all over the country. I don't see it that way though. It's something that I felt I just had to do. And it feels so powerful when I see how my story inspires others. I can see people in the audience and their desire to get better. To try harder with the new tools they've been given. So, I get back more than I give. 

Serani: What would you like readers of Psychology Today to come away with if they are living with depression or love someone who is struggling with the illness?

Richey: I'd want them to know there is hope. There is recovery. There truly is a way you can get through depression. There is life beyond that dark, bleak hole. People need to hear that there others out there, like you and me, Deborah, who've been through the fire and have come out. The work you do, the writing and research - it's bold and brave. It's important for us to show others that they can learn to live with depression.

Serani: How do you approach living with depression each day?                         

Richey: I've got what I call my "three legged stool". The first is that I use everything I've learned in [talk] therapy. How to think, problem solve, cope and defeat those negative thoughts. The second is I always make sure to take my medication. It's something that works to keep me in a good place. Third is I keep a healthy lifestyle. I eat well, rest and make sure I exercise. The healthier you are physically, the better chance you have with your mental health. They are related. Defeating depression takes hard work - and it's important for people to know that so they can get to the other side. When you're feeling so miserable, sometimes all you need is someone to say "Look, this is the plan, just follow it. It's hard work, but you'll get there."                                                

Serani: In closing, what words of wisdom you can offer?

Richey: My Dad was my tennis coach. Probably the biggest weapon he taught me in tennis - and I've used it in my battle with depression - it's the last five words in my book - never, ever, ever give up.

 

 

 

Editorial Note: Dr. Deborah Serani is the author of Living with Depression" by Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deborah Serani, Psy.D., is a psychologist and psychoanalyst who lives with depression and specializes in its diagnosis and treatment.

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