The Way Out by RJ McDaniel February 16, 2021 Editor’s note: This story includes a discussion about attempted suicide and mental health. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. I woke up and everything was dark. My eyes were open; it felt like they were open. But I couldn’t see anything. Where was I? What had happened? There was a horrible taste in my mouth, and it was bitterly cold. There were strange sounds, whirring, sharp, mechanical noises, and I could hear large things moving around me. People, maybe, but I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t see anything. “Can you tell me what the date is today?” a voice said. So I’m in the hospital, I thought. Okay. I had been in the hospital enough, woken up for enough early-morning blood tests, to know this drill. They have to confirm that you know who you are, that you know where you are, even though they already know who you are and where you are. Okay. Okay. It had been, the night before, January 30th. “It’s January 31st,” I said, with strange difficulty, my voice garbled and unfamiliar. “It’s February 2nd,” the voice said. I remembered, suddenly, what I had done. Oh, fuck, I thought, and the darkness in front of my eyes seemed to grow. I couldn’t move, but the void around me was moving, shifting, ready to consume me. There was nothing that could ever exist; there was nothing else to be imagined. There was no way out. Oh, fuck, I thought, I’m still alive. *** Six years later — six years to the day — I stare at my computer screen, scrolling through tweets. I am comfortable and warm. I live in a lane house with my partner. We have two cats. My eyes hurt, but only because of the blue light. When I look outside, I see the sun shining; later, I think, when I am done writing, I will go for a walk, and see if there are any new birds at the pond. I’ve gotten very into birds lately, ever since the pandemic started. They are everywhere, these intricate, wonderful little creatures. You just have to take the time to notice them. Most of the time, nowadays, I do. Most of the time, I am happy. Something stops my scrolling. It’s a story from Jeff Passan at ESPN. It’s about San Francisco Giants outfielder Drew Robinson. About how, less than a year ago, he tried to kill himself. How he could be dead right now, but he survived. Drew Robinson and I are very different people who have led very different lives. But his story resonates with me. He, like me, agonized over the decision to end his life; when his life didn’t end, he agonized over that, too. He went through the daunting process of rebuilding, of revisiting his purpose for being; he faced, and overcame, the realization that there is no linearity to the process of being alive — that there will be times when despair immobilizes you again, when you regret not dying. He wants to use his experience to reach out to others, to help them get through, to realize that they are not alone. And his medium for that message — a medium whose flaws he knows all too well — is baseball. *** It took a week of terrifying hallucinations and semi-alertness until I felt totally conscious again. One by one, they took the tubes out of me. I moved from the ICU to a normal hospital room that I shared, separated by a curtain, with a Christian pastor, whose illness I can’t quite remember. He couldn’t help overhearing my conversations with the various doctors who came in to check on me; he told me that I was a brave young person. I did not feel like a brave young person. I felt terrible. I was, physically, stuck in a hospital bed, while my mind churned, around and around, the same series of thoughts. I was guilty, horribly guilty about the ordeal I’d put everyone through; I was terrified by the idea of going back to the life I’d wanted so badly to escape. I had solved nothing — I had, in fact, made things worse. But, of course, this is not something people want to hear from a person who has recently almost died. So I didn’t say anything. From the hospital, I went to a psych unit full of adults, where I felt very alone. Then I went to another psych unit, this one full of children, where I also felt very alone. I tried to be honest with the various professionals who interviewed me, but my main desire, above everything, was simply to lie in bed — an activity that, luckily for me, being in the hospital provided ample opportunity for. And then, eventually, I went home. There seemed to be no other option, at this point, than to keep living. No matter how stuck I felt, life kept happening. Sometimes, the things that happened were good, and they made my life easier. I managed to graduate high school. I managed to get into university. Summer began, and I got a minimum-wage job, which was better than no job, but not ideal. I would have to pay for that university degree, and the tens of thousands of dollars I now owed the government of Canada loomed, far larger than my little paychecks. I had spent so many years planning for nothing other than eventual non-existence. To have hopes, dreams, interests — it seemed like a waste of energy. I didn’t see myself living that long. And yet, there I was, a little piece of wood that had somehow survived the rapids, now drifting, passive and powerless, down a river with no end in sight. When I closed my eyes, it felt like I had never left that moment on February 2nd, staring into an endless nothing. That was where baseball found me. It was like magic, like a genie’s bottle had been opened. Once, I remembered, I had been a vibrant kid, pitching against the wall, dreaming of futures that all seemed within reach. I could feel that again, I thought. My heart raced. I saw, in my laggy, pop-up-ridden illegal streams of the 2015 Blue Jays, a way out. *** Despite the fact that Fear Strikes Out, Jimmy Piersall’s memoir of living with bipolar disorder as a major leaguer, was published in 1955, and despite the fact that MLB implemented its mental-health-focused Employee Assistance Program in 1981, it has taken until the last decade for mental health conversations to truly take root in baseball. Part of this recent surge, I’m sure, is related to a shift in the public discourse on this topic in North America. Far from being taboo, even as suicide rates have risen over the last 20 years, Mental Health Awareness(TM) has become ever more ubiquitous, regularly promoted by monopolistic Canadian telecom giants and sponsored posts on Instagram. It is now easy good PR for a corporation like MLB to profess a commitment to mental health causes. But the growing awareness and visibility of mental health in the sport has been largely driven by increased openness from players. Zack Greinke remains perhaps the most prominent active player to be open about experiencing mental illness, stepping away from the game for a time to treat his depression and anxiety in 2006. But there have been others, too, both in the game and outside of it. With the collective realization that supporting players mentally could be the next frontier in player development, there have never been more resources devoted by teams to mental skills coaching and sports psychology. There is clearly an effort underway on MLB’s part to at least appear invested in mental health. In 2019, MLB held a well-publicized summit of mental health professionals to discuss how best to provide resources to players; in 2020, the league, in a joint effort with the MLBPA, announced a $3 million commitment to causes supporting mental health and survivors of domestic violence. Last year, the Red Sox created a series of mental health PSAs starring players, the first team to address the topic with a concerted campaign. This year, players and staff will have access to mental health resources as part of the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. On MLB’s online Player Resource Center, there is a page, titled Mental Wellness, detailing various kinds of mental health supports available for players. There are links to little animated informational videos offered by PsychHub, with titles like “Major Depressive Disorder: More Than Just the Blues.” For minor leaguers, there is a resource line; for major leaguers, there is a 24/7 confidential helpline. Last April, the official MLB Twitter account, for the second time in its history, used the phrase “mental health” in a tweet. The tweet urged followers to “preserve your mental health” by “remembering” the NIH’s guidelines. “MAKE TIME TO UNWIND,” proclaimed an image of Ronald Acuña Jr. laid over a background of random shapes. Outside the internet, the pandemic raged on. Remember to follow the guidelines of the @NIH in order to preserve your mental health. Let's keep each other safe and help flatten the curve. pic.twitter.com/vDNGuVgGnE — MLB (@MLB) April 10, 2020 *** The night before ESPN published Drew Robinson’s story, Britt Ghiroli and Katie Strang of The Athletic published a different kind of baseball story. In this one, five different women who work in sports media alleged harassment from former Mets manager Mickey Callaway. Just two weeks earlier, ESPN had published a similar story about Jared Porter, then the Mets GM, who had sent unsolicited, explicit texts to another woman working in sports media. Porter admitted to sending the texts, and was fired; Callaway denied any wrongdoing, and was suspended. Both are under investigation by MLB. It was a sickeningly familiar storyline, a sickeningly familiar online news cycle. When club executives were interviewed, they were swift to condemn the behavior detailed in the stories, ready to agree that change was needed. And yet, curiously, there was never any inkling, never any idea that something untoward was going on. The incidents were reduced to cases of individual bad actors. Why the bad actors felt empowered in their workplace to harass; why those being harassed felt silenced, afraid for their jobs, and, in the case of the person targeted by Porter, left the industry entirely; why, if no one knew anything and no one could have done anything, the harassment was so persistent, so apparently well-known — is not interrogated further. The industry moves on. Since these stories broke, MLB has updated their official policy on harassment and discrimination. They will be implementing mandatory training for employees, and posting fliers in clubhouses. They are opening a 24/7 anonymous hotline to report harassment. “Speak Up,” the graphic provided to The Athletic to accompany the hotline announces — the burden of responsibility for change, as ever, on the people suffering. In an essay for The New Yorker in 2015, former Cub Adrian Cárdenas, writing about preserving one’s mental health as a pro baseball player, discussed something he called the “possibility problem.” Players, Cárdenas said, though they know that mental health professionals are with the team ostensibly for their benefit, will choose not to talk to them. They are constantly aware, in all their interactions with team employees, of the possibility that something said in confidence will make its way back to the club, throwing their job into jeopardy. In Cárdenas’ case, though he experienced mental health struggles after being called up, he felt that a previous week off from baseball to deal with his mental health had delayed his call-up in the first place. “From that point on,” he wrote, “I kept my mouth shut.” He left baseball in 2012, the same year he debuted in the majors. Seven years after Cárdenas left baseball, former Mariner Rob Whalen, who was then retired from baseball in order to treat his depression and anxiety, described his experience with the Mariners to Yahoo Sports — an experience that he felt was profoundly negative. His openness about his mental illness, he felt, had been weaponized against him; he felt that the same would have been the case in any organization. “I was doing a lot of this alone the last two years,” he told Yahoo, “just trying to find peace off the field on my own.” *** There are many stories out there about suicide, and the overwhelming majority are about people who die. It is easier for others to turn a death into a digestible narrative. The person who died can no longer speak for themselves, and in their absence, their life becomes symbolic. The lives of people who survive a serious suicide attempt, though, are less easily distilled; like all lives, they are works in progress, ever-changing, without straightforward trajectories of growth or regression. Surviving a suicide attempt doesn’t make you a saint. It doesn’t cure your sadness; it doesn’t make your problems go away. It is a profound, traumatic, complicated experience, and it is hard not to orient the narrative of your life around it, to think in terms of a Before and an After. It forces you to come to terms with the deep-rooted extent of your despair. You can see, more clearly than ever before, how your actions reverberate, how they affect the lives of others in ways that you couldn’t imagine. You see how the circumstances of your own life are shaped by forces both intimate and distant. And then, somehow, you just keep on going. You get up every morning and brush your teeth. You scroll through the tweets, and you take the bus to work, and you try to notice the birds. Life continues, even as you carry that knowledge with you — the knowledge that you found your life so unbearable you not only wanted to die, but took actions that, definitively, should have killed you. The knowledge that you’re still alive, and that you may never know why. That the “why” might, in fact, be unanswerable: a question that you shouldn’t ask, that you nonetheless can’t help asking yourself. What I do know is that six years ago, I genuinely believed that I, and I alone, was the ultimate origin of the hopelessness I felt. That there was nothing that could improve my life, no one I could turn to, no point in talking about anything. That, in fact, the only thing that could make my life and the lives of the people around me better was to end it completely. It took surviving not only the horror of suicide, but the painstaking effort of the years afterward — falling again into the pit, crawling my way out, falling back in again — to realize: It wasn’t true. Maybe the sickness was inevitable, the arbitrary result of genetics. But the crushing, profound loneliness of it all wasn’t. I didn’t have to be isolated by homophobia and transphobia, made to feel that my life was inherently worthless. I didn’t have to carry trauma around as a secret weight, convinced that what had happened to me was my fault. I didn’t have to struggle so bitterly to access treatment in a hostile bureaucracy. The environments that made me feel as though I had no future were not, as I had thought before, somehow being poisoned by me specifically, the universe giving me what I deserved. They were constructions made possible by people who chose to make them that way. They could be changed. And there were places — places that already existed in the world — where I didn’t have to be afraid to talk about how I felt, who I was, who I might want to be. All along, it was not me who was broken. *** There is a particular question that gets asked of people who have suffered in silence: those who come forward about having experienced discrimination or abuse, perhaps, or who speak openly about struggling with severe mental illness. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” it goes. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” It is so hard to talk about these things, even in vague terms. To be open about stigmatized experiences, especially in the public eye, is not only to reopen the wounds in your own memory. It is to leave yourself vulnerable — to scorn, and to misunderstanding, and to rejection. And to so many other consequences, reinforced every day in an environment where one is dismissed, where power differentials are weaponized. Where you are reminded that you are expendable — that, for example, you could lose your job at any moment, and with it your income, your health insurance, your stability; that no one might believe you, and you would be ostracized; that, given your social position, your situation might very well worsen if you were to speak openly. These fears don’t come from nowhere. They are not flaws within the people suffering. They are based in reality, in observation. And speaking out under these conditions of fear — telling not only other people, but the world, in the hope of making things better for others who come after them — is an act of incredible bravery. The responsibility for creating change so often lands on these people, but it shouldn’t. It should be the responsibility of everyone else in that institution to reflect, honestly and comprehensively, on how they have contributed to an environment that has failed someone so profoundly. It should be on them to change that environment so that people are not failed in the same way again. To profess a true commitment to mental health, not one that is shallow and empty, is to commit to valuing the totality of human life. As long as institutional problems are individualized, as long as they are written off as always someone else’s responsibility — as long as the question is “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” — there will still be people who suffer in silence. *** Of course, all of these problems exist outside baseball. This is a fact that is often used to excuse away their persistence in this sport, or, more often, as a gesture toward them being too large to fix. My own perspective on whether things can be fixed or not is, for better or for worse, a result of my experiences. I thought I could not be fixed; I thought I could never be happy; I thought there was no life I could lead that would be bearable to live. I was so convinced of this that I decided to end my own life. And that was it, I thought; that was it. It wasn’t it. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why. But I am alive. I am alive in ways that were, for almost half of my life, completely unimaginable to me. Baseball was, and is, a part of that. It was a way of reconnecting with a capacity for hope and joy I thought I had lost. It showed me a glimmer of a future that I hadn’t believed was possible. It brought me, somehow, right here. And maybe I’m just naive; maybe, in another 10 years, my perspective will have flipped. But there is such immense potential, I think, in something that can bring so many people so much joy and connection — something whose entire existence, really, is predicated on that joy. There is so much power. Not just to make empty gestures and PR plays, not just to react to toxicity and to follow cultural trends, but to effect genuine change. I still remember how it felt back then: like a veil had lifted, like I was seeing something through my little window so clear and special that felt almost impossible. I think baseball could still be what it sometimes looks like, out in the sun, on certain days, when the possibility seems endless.