How sports saved my life during mental health crisis after childhood trauma

·5 min read

Sports saved my life.

Not just playing sports growing up, but especially and specifically, being an obsessive sports fan helped me survive severe traumatic childhood events while growing up in Houston.

My love and devotion to the Houston Oilers, Astros and Rockets was a lifeline to a normal existence amid a horrible mental health crisis that went undiagnosed and untreated for years.

The trauma left me isolated and stricken with a panic disorder, severe anxiety and depression as an adolescent. The love for my teams, however, kept me narrowly tethered to reality. And to life. They kept me alive.

In 1986, the Rockets had their best team in years with young stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. I was 14 and dealing with normal teenage angst while also trying to handle a mental health crisis in secret. Following the team through the playoffs temporarily distracted me from my distress. I would devour all of the pregame shows, the postgame shows, both on television and the radio. I obsessively recorded everything, too. Not just the television broadcasts, but all of the radio as well. Being able to relive any of those moments was an affirmation that I was still here. I was still alive.

I still have all the recordings — several thousand VHS tapes and hundreds of audio cassettes — that chronicle every moment of the sports world in Houston from 1986 to 1994. If that wasn’t a cry for help, I don’t know what is.

A few months later in ‘86, the Astros were clinching the National League West and playing the Mets in the NLCS. I had grown up a devout Astros fan. I had memories of their heartbreaking defeat to the Phillies in a dramatic five-game 1980 NLCS, but this ‘86 team I knew inside and out. I went to sleep listening to Milo Hamilton and Gene Elston calling late West Coast games on an Astros radio tucked next to my pillow. Their voices and the sounds of the game kept me linked to sanity. To life.

The Rockets lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, and the Astros lost to the Mets in the NLCS. Instead of worsening my mental condition, the shared agony of crushing disappointment with other fans was, oddly, a familiar, comforting feeling. I distinctly remember thinking then, in the aftermath of the Astros’ Game 6, 16-inning elimination loss to the Mets at the Astrodome, that the rest of the city now feels like I do every day.

I remained a dedicated fan of all three teams, especially the Oilers, who after six years of horrible football, finally made the playoffs in 1987. I couldn’t get enough. I read the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post sports pages every day at the breakfast table. I watched the 5 o’clock news sports segments. And then again at 6 p.m. I watched ESPN’s SportsCenter every day, just in case my Oilers were covered. The daily radio sports talk shows were on as soon as I was home from school until KTRH/740 AM’s Sportsbeat ended at 8 or 9 p.m. each night. I have many cassette recordings of the Chronicle’s John McClain’s Monday night Oilers show with Jerry Trupiano and Tom Franklin on KTRH. McClain still covers the Texans for the Chronicle.

My love for these teams helped me bide time until I was ready to deal with the trauma with real help in the form of therapy.

Why is this top of mind now? A few days ago, Dallas Mavericks’ star Luka Doncic surprised gravely ill children with gift bags at hospitals in Dallas and Plano. Teams and athletes all over the country routinely make similar gestures and in-person visits. The Cowboys and Rangers visit Cook Children’s every year. It’s a reminder of what an escape sports are and the wonderful distraction our sports stars can be from the sometimes ugly, heartbreaking side of life.

Locally, no athlete has been more up front about the importance of taking our mental health seriously than Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. He has taken it a step further for fans, in fact. Not only is he providing devout Cowboys fans escape and excitement on the field, but he has openly talked about dealing with mental health issues. Over the summer, Prescott responded with a rare personal message to a fan on Twitter who was struggling with her own mental health. Prescott has been writing “Ask 4 Help” on his taped wrist for games this season. He has become an outspoken proponent of mental health awareness since his brother Jace died by suicide last year.

Eventually, I got the help I needed while at college. And over time, my fandom waned as I became a professional journalist covering sports for a living. Don’t get me wrong, I still love sports. But my rooting interest began to disappear after the Oilers left Houston for Tennessee in 1996. I tried to care about the Texans when they started in 2002, but it wasn’t the same. I didn’t need it anymore.

When the Astros finally won their first World Series title in 2017, childhood friends called and texted me — many in tears — wanting to celebrate after years of excruciating losses. For their sake, I faked my elation. I was, indeed, happy for the city. But, truthfully, I was indifferent.

I had already long ago celebrated a more important victory: Survival.