The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down. Countless people have lost loved ones and many have lost jobs. It’s an incredibly tough time for everyone.
In early March, my family and I flew home from Hawaii to California. When we boarded our plane, my wife was wiping down the seats, the windows and the TVs in front of us. I was like, “What are you doing?” I thought it was a little bit above and beyond at the time. But ever since, we’ve pretty much been holed up.
Dealing with the repercussions of this virus and how it has changed our lives is difficult enough. But in early April, I went through one of the toughest days I’ve had in years.
I wasn’t sick, though. It had nothing to do with COVID-19.
I had to drop something off at my in-law’s house nearby, so I got in my car for the first time in three weeks. I was so excited just to get in the car and get out of the house, even if it was only for 10 minutes. The police pulled me over for not using my turn signal when I was switching lanes. It was only a ticket, not the end of the world.
The problem is, that put me behind schedule. I was supposed to get home by 4 p.m. to celebrate Passover — my wife is Jewish — on Zoom. I got there at 4:30, and the family was asking where I was. They weren’t mad or anything, just curious.
But still, I broke down.
The last time I’d cried was in August 2013 after retiring from a match in Winston-Salem. I’m not an emotional person. I don’t cry.
That made this really jarring.
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Some of you may know that I have struggled with mental illness. I’m going to talk a little bit about that in this story and also pass along some tips that have helped me and might help you, too.
My anxiety disorder first surfaced in 2012, when I was playing some of the best tennis of my life. The year before, I cracked the Top 10 and qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals.
My issues bubbled earlier in the season, but they came to a head at the US Open. During my third-round match, I had my first and only anxiety attack on a tennis court.
I was playing Gilles Simon in primetime under the lights inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, the biggest tennis-only venue in the world. All the attention was on me. Those were the moments I spent my whole life working towards. I dreamed about being in that situation.
Somehow, I got through that with a win, earning a shot at Roger Federer. But a couple days later when I was heading to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for that match, I was freaking out in tournament transport. I was having anxiety attacks closer and closer together, about every 10 to 15 minutes.
I had the biggest opportunity of my life right in front of me, but I couldn’t play the match. I withdrew from my favourite event, and I wouldn’t play again the rest of the year.
When I got back to California, I didn’t leave my house for almost four months. I had no interest in going outside, and only did so to see my psychiatrist. My wife was an angel during the whole thing. I don’t know if I’d still be here without her. That’s how bad I was. My wife basically put her life on hold to be my support system, and I can’t thank her enough for that. Some of the worst stories about mental health involve people without a support system.
It took daily improvements to give me the confidence to start living again. It took repetitions of going to bed and waking up okay, being alright throughout the night and not having constant episodes. They became fewer and fewer to the point at which I was able to think I was ready to go out into the world.
I was in such a bad place in 2012, but I was able to get myself in a good enough frame of mind to return to action at Indian Wells the next year. I didn’t really care about my results, but mentally, especially come the summer, I was doing well enough to position myself for success.
I played in Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Cincinnati — all really hot places and difficult places to compete — and had no hiccups. Then I got to Winston-Salem, where I still felt really good mentally.
I was playing Jarkko Nieminen in the third set and I wasn’t having any issues on the court anxiety-wise. I lost my first service game of the third set and he went up 2-0, serving. That happens. It’s tennis. Everybody loses serve at some point. I remember crushing a return winner to get back on serve, but that was pretty ironic.
I knew I was starting to have an episode. My anxiety had returned. I was suddenly overwhelmed. I had made so much progress since that miserable US Open and throughout the summer. I really thought I could get back to where I was. I told myself it wasn’t worth it to put myself through that again. It wasn’t fair to me. It wasn’t fair to my loved ones. What I’d gone through the previous year was like a living hell.
I was just happy to be back on the court. I was excited to be back travelling and competing, doing what I love to do and what I was good at. But my mental health was more important. I knew I had to pull out of the match against Nieminen right away. In that moment, I thought I was done. I couldn’t beat this disease and get back to my career. I saw my wife right after the match and she was wondering if everything was okay. That was when I broke down.
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No, I don’t have this. It’s not happening. This isn’t real.
One of the keys I learned dealing with mental illness is how important it is to identify it. You almost are trapped in a state of denial. The stigmas surrounding mental illness make you try to convince yourself that there’s nothing wrong with you, and that makes the disease even more dangerous.
I needed to identify what I was going through and understand it. Mental illness is very real, but it’s also fairly normal. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five American adults live with mental illness. That’s tens of millions of people who deal with it.
One of the toughest parts about dealing with my mental illness was not knowing anyone who had battled something similar. I wasn’t able to rely on the experience of a friend or family member. I didn’t have a role model in professional sports to look to in that regard. I wasn’t aware of an athlete who had spoken up about their experiences.
It’s tough to come to terms with this when you’re going through it, but it’s okay to not be okay. When deep down you know something is wrong, keeping it in can take you down the wrong path. Getting help is critical. With everything going on in the world right now with the coronavirus, I could imagine the tremendous stress people are dealing with, from being trapped in an apartment to worrying about scrambling for money. It’s tough to physically go to a doctor right now, but if something is off, don’t be afraid to talk to people about it.
Speaking about my problems made me feel better. I retained less and less anxiety when I would talk about it with friends or other people in my life. It’s also normal to see a professional. I don’t know where I’d be without having medicine to help start the healing process. It would have been really difficult to do on my own.
I ended up making enough progress to play four tournaments in 2015 so I could retire on my own terms. I worked all my life to be a professional tennis player, and if I was going to go out, I was going to be the one to make that decision, not my mental illness.
Before my final event, the US Open, I wrote an essay in The Players’ Tribune about what I’d gone through. Since I didn’t have someone to look to during my time of need, I wanted to be that person for others.
Not only did it make me feel better to tell my story, but if reading about my experiences could help even one person, then that was better than nothing. People from all walks of life have reached out to me, from people you’ve heard of to others you haven’t, from a friend on the pickup basketball court to Fortune 500 CEOs. I’ve had lots of candid conversations with people throughout them going through the process. Those made me feel great and believe it was a really good thing that I came out with my story.
I’ve had a really good run over the past few years being in a really good space mentally. I practise mental exercises quite a lot. I learn from every situation that happens, take it in, accept it, move on and avoid dwelling on it. I remember my successes, so when I get to tough moments, I’m able to use those memories to push through episodes. During this pandemic, I’ve done alright for the most part. But I’ve had more setbacks during this quarantine than I did in total since 2012.
However, I have those successful memories to lean on, and there are tools I use to get back on track. What I do a lot is change the channel on negative thoughts. If I’m not feeling well and am stressing about when we are going to get out of this, I know I need to get to a happy place mentally.
Photo Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images
I love golf, so I go to my favourite golf course. From when I was eight to 16, my family would go to Roaring Gap Country Club in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina every summer. My dad would teach tennis, and I’d play golf and tennis there. The pine trees are beautiful and the air is refreshing. That’s a place I could go and take my mind off things, where I know that I’m safe.
I’ll play that golf course in my head. I’ll tee the ball up, I’ll go through every single shot as if I’m playing a real round. Every shot is perfect, and I’ll birdie every hole. By the time I get to the middle of the fairway on the third hole, my negative thoughts are gone. I don’t know that this would help other people, but that’s how I deal with it. Go to a “happy place”, whether it’s on the beach or in the mountains. Put yourself physically or mentally wherever the least stressful situation you’ve ever been in in your life is.
I recently tweeted about struggling a bit with my anxiety disorder because I know that if I am going through it, lots of other people are, too. I’m extremely lucky in that I am financially secure and am at least able to step out of my house for fresh air if need be. I understand that is not the case for many who feel trapped, overwhelmed, stressed, or all of the above.
It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to show weakness. It’s okay to struggle. When you’re going through those dark times, it’s incredibly scary. You feel alone. But what’s important is to know that you’re not.
Check in on your friends, see how your loved ones are doing. You really never know how much of a difference you can make. During these trying times, we can’t be together, but we can be there for each other.
Together, we will get through this.
– As told to Andrew Eichenholz
If you are struggling with mental illness, please visit the World Health Organisation’s Mental Health Resources page.