Bowling at the death: The depth of Steve Harmison's depression
In Speed Demons, the English fast bowler writes at length about his struggle with depression.
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In Speed Demons, his autobiography that is being serialised in the Mirror, English fast bowler and Ashes hero Steve Harmison writes at length about his struggle with depression.
Harmison is not the first cricketer to talk about the subject, before him Jonathan Trott did so too. It’s a welcome development in the world of sports — macho sportsmen have usually swept the issue under the carpet.
It’s an important moment because depression is one thing we don’t want to talk about. People have a problem accepting it, which is why those who are afflicted choose to maintain a discreet silence.
The myth of the tortured artist means that we accept depression (to an extent) in writers, painters and musicians. The goad of depression is considered somewhat necessary if you are going to sublimate your melancholy into art. But it’s just that — a stereotype.
No human being wants to be miserable by choice. The physically fit sportsman — at the peak of his powers — succumbing to it shatters the creation myth of the drug addled musician.
Creative weaklings aren’t the only victims. As Harmison writes, depression "doesn’t care if you’re a millionaire, a successful doctor, a nurse, a postman, airline pilot... and it doesn’t care if you’re the number one bowler in the world."
One can live with depression all one’s life and not seek help. One normalises it. Not every depressive conforms to the received idea of the affliction: a person, holding her head, sitting alone on a room, shedding bucket loads of tears. American TVCs for antidepressants exaggerate this image — and so do the spoof ads on YouTube that mock anti-dep advertising.
It’s true that pharma giants can be manipulative of consumer needs in order to create a market for their products. Perhaps all the Americans who were on Prozac didn’t need to be. Their dogs certainly don’t need to pop pills but concerned pet parents mix it in with the biscuits.
It can all sound a little over the top, but it doesn’t take away from a real condition that can be extremely debilitating, simply because depression gets in the way of life.
Once you accept the reality of a chemical imbalance, the need for medication becomes obvious. Just because a company is selling you a pill, doesn’t become an argument against the pill. Medication brings with it clarity.
Think about when you got your eyes tested. When the right lens slots in, you see the letters of the alphabet for the first time without the blurry edges. One’s need for correct lenses is not a giant conspiracy invented by Crizal.
Depression can be cured but people refuse to seek help. Some take refuge in alcohol or drugs; others can throw themselves into work to the extent that you simply don’t know why you’re working so hard.
It eventually starts affecting the quality of your life. It’s only in extreme cases of bipolar disorder that the sufferer and her family are forced to seek assistance. The derailing and loss of control is so dramatic, it leaves you with no option.
Even highly educated people tend to slight the condition. Their response is: Oh, but aren’t we all depressed. This seems to me to be a deeply pessimistic view of the wonder that is life. The problem here is not with the pathology of my mind, but the pathology of your cynical response.
There is a moment in Harmison’s biography, where he expresses some doubt about Jonathan Trott’s depression: "I hope it was mistranslation, but I have a nagging doubt Trott left the tour because he thought it was tough rather than because he was ill. I want to believe he was poorly, that how he explained it came out wrong, but he seems to have tied cricket and mental health together: mental illness happens whatever."
This is slightly different from the general public’s scepticism about depression. Harmison feels that maybe Trott’s depression was circumstantial — tied to the pressures of the Ashes. But it’s the reason why more people don’t seek help — the fear that they will be judged to be failures, and perceived as having deep personality flaws that don’t fit the values of the corporate dog-eat-dog world we live in.
Last month saw Chris Cornell being snatched away — another suicide. Cornell’s band Soundgarden was part of the grunge era, known for making dark, at times nihilistic music.
When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out with a shotgun, Cornell had said: "We played a kind of dark, moody music. Our identity… kind of was a band that created a soundtrack for that type of weird, awful scenario."
In a deeply-felt obit on Cornell, author Rich Larson wrote on his blog about how despair and anxiety can gnaw away at one’s insides, also one’s family. We keep depression to ourselves because we don’t want to be a burden:
"It doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a mom, an accountant or a rock star. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written about it your entire life as a means of keeping it at bay. Depression makes you feel totally alone. You hit the breaking point, and then, like Chris Cornell, you die alone in the bathroom."