Wednesday, June 15, 2016

"Admitting It Hurts"

People rarely talk about this, so when they do talk about it it’s newsworthy.  (And, therefore, “blog-worthy.”)  Especially when the confession emanates from a member of a “macho” profession, like sports, although it applies just as accurately to participants in “non-macho” professions, such as comedy writing.  (The distinguishing difference?  No one has ever said, “That guy’s built like a comedy writer!” and has meant it as a compliment.  We need only be strong enough to press down the keys.) 

This situation relates not only to those on opposite ends of the spectrum but people all along the continuum.  Meaning, this commentary is for everyone.  Alert the masses.  They will not want to miss out.

In a recent L.A. Times feature article, now retired pitcher Dan Haren – a three-time All-Star who won over 150 games over a twelve-year Major League career – confessed to “performance anxiety”, an admission few pitchers – or athletes of any kind – have ever publicly acknowledged.

This revelation makes Haren a hero in my books, for his honesty.  Although he did wait until after he had retired to speak out, reminiscent of Mark Twain who believed you can safely exercise your constitutional right to free speech only after you are dead.  (“Retirement” in this case equaling “dead.”  And do not be so sure that it doesn’t.)

Quoting from the article:

“Dan Haren repeated a ritual after the miserable outings (on the mound)

“‘I quit.  {He texted his wife.}  I don’t want to do this anymore.  I’m sick of the stress.  I quit.  I quit.’”
You know what that reminded me of?  Me, curled up in the fetal position in a rented Manhattan apartment, on the phone to my wife in Los Angeles, struggling with the anxieties of the job – “I can’t do this!” – meaning, The Cosby Show, filmed in New York – and wanting desperately to come home.
(Elsewhere in the article, Haren enmphasized his lack on interest in pity or telling the “Dan Haren sob story”.  I reiterate that assertion.  The Cosby Show was a definitive turning point in my career, both creatively and financially, and I am grateful to have participated.  But there was also the “other stuff” as well.)

I used to feel like the only person who felt the pressure of writing for television was me.  (I am that special.)  And then I remembered…
– I had seen a writer preambling a rewrite session by cracking open a bottle of bourbon.

– I had seen my boss disappear into his office bathroom, emerging twenty minutes later with a renewed vigor I later learned had been cocaine induced.  (At the time I believed he had “stomach trouble” and a successful bowel movement had resuscitated his vitality.)
– One of the most renowned joke writers of our era was an inveterate marijuana smoker.
– A variety series emanating “Live from New York…”, I was told by one of its earliest participants, could not possibly have cranked out its mandatory massive amount of material without the assistance of pills allowing writers to stay up all night to finish the script.
It seemed like everybody felt the anxiety. 
But nobody was talking about it.
Well, I did.  A little.
I was consulting on a rewrite night once when my easily readable face betrayed – I don’t know, surprise? – when the show’s head writer broke out that bottle of “Jim Beam.”  The writer looked defensively at me and said,
“What do you do?”
Implying that everybody does something.
“I suffer,” I replied. 
Which is exactly what I did.
Haren attributed his performance anxiety – which he self-medicated, gulping Imodium and drinking red wine in darkened hotel rooms – to his fear of disappointing his teammates.  I can easily buy that.  But there is also, I would suggest, the guilt, owing to the disparity between your sub-par performance and the lavish amounts of money you are receiving to do better.
During one season, Dan Haren was paid ten million dollars.  In a typical year, where you threw two thousand pitches – that amount to five thousand dollars per pitch. 
If every pitch I made had to be worthy of being a “five thousand-dollar pitch”, I doubt if I would be successfully able to lift my arm.  (This template applies similarly to comedy writing.  Although I never came close to that salary, I continually evaluated my performance in the context of my contract.  The resultant anxiety I experienced about being “not worth the money” was considerably less than productive.)
Nobody talks about the stress.  They simply manage the symptoms and forge manfully – or womanfully – ahead.
And it’s not necessarily about money.  Or letting other people down.  Your job/career – and along with it your self-worth – are tied inexorably to your performance.  No matter what you do, from…
BUS DRIVER:  “I’m not allowed to hit anybody.  I knock down one pedestrian and I’m finished!”
PSYCHOLOGIST:  “I sure hope I’m helping this patient.  What if they leave this session and step right in front of a bus?”
(You see what I did there?)
The “Believe School” believes if you don’t acknowledge you’re stressed then you won’t be stressed even though you’re actually stressed.  I may have slightly misrepresented them about that.  And who knows?  Maybe acting confident and brave fools your brain into being confident and brave. 
BRAIN:  “They must be confident and brave.  Look how they’re acting.”
Or maybe their confident and brave demeanor fools other people, which can also be useful.
Or maybe there actually are confident and brave, people for whom anxiety is a natural by-product of the risk-taking situation.
There cannot be that many of them.  The drugs-and-alcohol business is skyrocketing., psychotherapists being not far behind.  
A better idea, it seems to me, is for us all to simply admit how we are actually feeling.
“This is your pilot speaking.  I have never been confident about my ability to land.”

Or maybe not.


JED said...

I worked on research ships for years but when I went through my first storm at sea, I was really scared. As scientists, we were only on the ship for a month or so at a time so I looked at the crew of the ship and they seemed calm. So, I figured it was OK and we were safe and I calmed down. But once a month, they had to run a safety drill and we had to find our life jackets and put them on and the crew had to lower the life boat so they could do it quickly when needed. Well, they couldn't get the boat to move until after about a half hour someone came along with a sledge hammer and got it going. I'm glad the drill happened after the storm or I'd have been petrified.

When I was a child, my mother would come into my room during a thunder storm speaking quietly with me to calm me down and getting me back to sleep. Years later I found out she was secretly afraid during those storms but she never let me know it.

Boyd said...

Zack Greinke overcame his anxiety and depression quite nicely. He walked out of the Royals training camp in 2006, later saying he didn't think he'd ever return. But KC worked with him, got him professional help and the results have been astounding.