I am Royce White.
I am not 6’ 8. I can barely grow a beard, much less one of the epic varieties that White often sports. I’ve never been named “Mr. Basketball” in Minnesota, or anywhere else for that matter. In fact, my basketball career ended before I finished high school.
I’m also not a former top-five NCAA basketball player, nor was I the 16th overall selection of the 2012 NBA Draft. Royce White plays basketball better than most people on the planet. I’ve merely worked typical 9-to-5 office jobs, worked in publicity, and I’m a journalist with credits for ESPN, Wired, Esquire, Details, and many other outlets.
So it’s clear that I’m not, in fact, Royce White. Physically and financially, White and I are worlds apart. Despite these differences, however, in the one way that might matter the most, I am Royce White.
I've been dealing, mostly in secret, with a mixture of generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder for nearly 10 years now (and probably even longer than that). My family knows. A few of my closest friends know, and (generally out of necessity) some former co-workers and employers know. I haven't, however, been completely honest with most of the people that know me — the online community, the same community that, because of my anxiety, has become an integral part of my daily socialization.
Royce White’s battle with his employer, the Houston Rockets, over what accommodations they will make and what provisions they will allow him to have in order to feel “safe” at work while also dealing with his anxiety disorder, has made me painfully aware that I’ve been hiding. It’s time for me to step out from behind the anonymity of the Internet to give my thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends, the kind people who read my articles in various publications, and those that consider themselves my friends a chance to understand who I really am — a guy not all that different from Royce White. We’re both trying to navigate the professional working world while also dealing with serious anxiety disorders.
I am not just Royce White. Royce White is also Scott Neumyer. And he’s also anyone else with the same problem.
You never forget your first.
The first time I can remember consciously having a full blown panic attack — the kind of panic attack that isn’t just a fleeting few moments of anxiety, but one that turned my body into a viscous fluid, barely able to stand and form coherent sentences — I was in the upper deck of Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field waiting to see Bruce Springsteen. Moments later I was sitting in a bathroom stall at one of the country’s newest sports stadiums with my head between my knees, sweating from every pore of my body.
Everybody has anxiety. It’s one of nature’s greatest tricks. It keeps us alive, alert, and ready to brace for impact in the case of dangerous situations. It’s one of the most important things your body can do and it’s helped humans survive for many years.
This was not that.
This was what happens when your mind and your body start going haywire, firing synapses, blasting adrenaline through your veins, and causing your fight-or-flight response to start binging out of control even when you’re in no immediate danger. That is what happens during a panic attack.
How you react to that first instance of panic determines just how deeply you’re about to slide into a panic and anxiety disorder. Once you decide to internalize that attack — once you ingrain that harried moment of maximum anxiety into your brain — you become sensitized. Personally, it makes me feel like my head is in a guillotine and, at every moment of every day, the man in the black hood might cut the rope.
I worry that something is going to happen and that something is probably going to kill me. I worry about being unable to stop that nameless something from happening. I worry about every single thing I do and every single move I make, wondering if the slightest change, feeling, emotion, or mistake could make that terrible, nameless, faceless something happen.
I worry about worrying.
And then it just starts going around and around in a circle. A (seemingly) never-ending fucking circle that goes round and round and round and round and round and round and round.
An old adage often attributed to Albert Einstein states, “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This is what it feels like to have panic and anxiety disorder. Only you’re never really expecting different results. Instead, you’re always expecting the same result: worry. At times, you literally feel like you’re going insane. It could be generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, or some other specific form of anxiety in the spectrum, but the feeling is the same. It feels like a lonely, hopeless, worry-filled hell.
Now you know what I worry about, and what Royce White worries about.
White doesn’t like to pin his initial introduction to anxiety and panic attacks to one specific moment, but much has been made about his experience one day as a 10 year old. After running wind sprints during basketball practice, his best friend collapsed right in front of Royce. Watching his good buddy on the court, drooling uncontrollably, and then riding alongside him in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, where he would be saved from a heart condition, certainly had an impact on White, but he’s not ready to say that’s the moment when his anxiety began.
Looking back now, I can point to dozens of moments throughout my childhood that, if they happened now, I’d instantly call them panic attacks: the time in second grade when I broke down crying, during class, because 8 x 10 and 40 x 2 couldn’t both possibly equal 80; the way I refused to sit on a certain side of the car in the backseat because it “just wasn’t right”; and the time at baseball camp eight hours away from home at Virginia Wesleyan College when I spent an entire night vomiting into an industrial-sized garbage can that my roommate dragged in for me before he left the room to sleep on the couch in the lounge. At the time, I blamed it on the chicken fried steak I’d eaten for dinner (a food that I, to this day, still can’t even look at on a menu without getting a little nauseous). Looking back, it was most certainly anxiety.
White can relate.
“I would start to feel sick to my stomach when I was a kid,” he said, reminiscing about his childhood experience with, what he now knows was actually, anxiety. “I would be so scared of actually throwing up that I would end up making myself throw up.”
What makes anxiety disorders so difficult to pinpoint and so misunderstood is that anxiety is an incredibly unique emotion. No two people with an anxiety disorder are alike — there is no obvious wound or manifestation. Each victim experiences different symptoms, handles the situation differently, and internalizes the attack differently after it has passed.
“Mental health is the most individualistic health condition on the planet,” White said. “It's cognitive. There is no other health condition as dynamic because the brain is so unique to each person.”
“At one point,” White continued, “my anxiety had a lot to do with my own health and I was worried -from the event that I saw as a teenager at practice - that maybe I had a heart condition nobody knew about or my lungs were faulty. Or maybe I had some other type of illness that nobody would know about. You always hear about somebody finding out about their sickness once it's already too late.”
Prior to having an anxiety disorder myself, I watched someone very close to me suffer through several years of panic attacks (before they pursued medication, professional help, and came out being able to manage their anxieties successfully), so I knew what anxiety looked like — or thought I did. What I didn’t know at the time, however, was that their anxiety would differ so greatly from what I would come to experience.
The Bruce Springsteen concert was supposed to be my reward for a job well done, a thoughtful thank you gift from a colleague and something that I’d undoubtedly remember forever. I do. I remember it as one of the most difficult nights of my life.
In 2003, I was 23 years old studying for my teaching certification and working as a substitute in the schools I attended as a kid.
I’d left a job in pharmaceuticals that paid well because I couldn’t pretend to be interested in chemicals and numbers and Excel spreadsheets any longer. I wanted to be surrounded by books and students writing and other teachers and learning and all the romantic clichés imaginable.
I spent my days wandering the halls, being the “cool sub” (mostly because I was young and let the kids get away with harmless things that most of the older substitutes wouldn’t tolerate) while also serving as assistant coach for the high school baseball team, the same team I had played on only a few years before.
After a successful season full of sunflower seed spitting, the head coach handed me a ticket to join him and his best friend at brand-new Lincoln Financial Field for a summer night with The Boss. He wasn’t just a fan of Bruce Springsteen. He was a Bruce fanatic, hard-core, and had seen The Boss live more times than I had years on the earth.
I’d grown up rushing down suburban New Jersey roads in my dad’s brown pickup listening to eight-tracks of classic rock, but it had been a long time since I really listened intently to any Springsteen. I could sing along to “Born to Run” and a few lines of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” but that was it. There was no way I could possibly hold court with Coach, so perhaps my nerves were already on high alert before we’d headed down the Garden State Parkway en route to Philly in my friend's SUV. My goal was to try to have fun, but also make sure I didn’t ruin his night.
We arrived a few hours early, set up a couple of battered lawn chairs in the parking lot behind his SUV, popped a few beers, and listened closely to hear the faint sounds of the E-Street Band doing their sound check. So far, so good.
After downing the beers, I needed to pee. I held it in for a while then let the guys know and headed off on a slow jog toward the stadium. I ran perhaps a half-mile before finding the back of a line to the Porta Johns that was way longer than it should have been.
I waited 15 more long, increasingly painful and uncomfortable minutes before I was finally able to relieve myself. On the way back I met up with Coach and his buddy making their way toward the stadium.
Our seats were right along the edge of the upper deck. Perfect view. Great sound. And Bruce was just about ready to come out.
Yet as I sat down in my seat next to Coach, something didn’t feel right. It’s hard to describe the initial feeling, but now that I’ve experienced similar feelings so many times I can take a pretty good stab at it: I felt my hands slowly getting clammy. I felt disoriented and my vision began to blur. Flop sweat started to form at the top of my brow, and my stomach was turning. It wasn’t yet rolling so hard that I felt like I was going to vomit, but it was uncomfortable like the onset of motion sickness you might get trying to read while driving in the backseat of a car. I just wasn’t right.
“I’m going to hit the bathroom,” I told Coach before popping out of my seat and looking back toward the stairs. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Coach looked at me and, seeing the beads of sweat now dripping down my forehead and into my eyes, sensed something was wrong.
“You OK?” he asked me. “You need anything?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m OK. Just not feeling the best at the moment. I think I just have to go to the bathroom.”
Maybe Coach thought I just couldn’t handle a couple beers and needed to hit the bathroom for a little drunken puke. Maybe he thought I was scared of heights. Or maybe he didn’t really care because his hero was about to take the stage. I can tell you with near certainty, however, that he didn’t know that I was having a panic attack. At that very moment, I didn’t even know.
I found the bathroom, claimed an open stall, sat down, and ripped off a few sheets of toilet paper to wipe away the sweat that was dripping down my face. I thought I’d use the restroom, feel better, and be dancing and singing in my seat in no time.
Still not feeling very well, I soon headed back out. I didn’t want to be gone for too long. I didn’t want Coach to worry.
As soon as I reached my seat, my head started to spin. I felt dizzy and started to lose a grip on my surroundings. I knew where I was, but I was beginning to feel that insular singularity that often comes with panic attacks. I was having trouble focusing on anything outside of myself.
“Scott,” I heard Coach say over the early guitar chords coming from the stage. “You sure you’re OK? You don’t look so hot. Too many beers?”
Of course that’s what he thought. He just assumed I was a lightweight. That was fine. It didn’t matter to me, as long as I didn’t screw up his night.
“Not really,” I told him, getting up from my seat again. “I’m going to hit the bathroom again. I’m not sure what’s going on.”
I rushed back to the bathroom, found the same stall available, swung open the door, slammed it shut and locked it. I sat down on the toilet — pants still on — and pulled out my candy bar-shaped orange Nokia phone.
“Hey,” my girlfriend (now my wife) said when she answered my call. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the concert?”
“I am,” I told her. “I’m in the bathroom. I’ve been in here a couple times now. I’ve spent more time in here than out at my seat.”
“Why?” she asked, not yet sounding that concerned or worried.
“Denise,” I said as quietly as I could while still loud enough for her to hear me, “I think I’m having a panic attack.”
Royce White is certainly not the first athlete to suffer from panic attacks or generalized anxiety disorder. Former broadcaster and Pro Football Hall of Fame coach John Madden very famously, hated to fly so much that he ended up riding around the country in his Madden cruiser, an RV that cost more than many single-family homes. The difference with White is that he’s the first athlete to demand certain accommodations as a player in the NBA.
The Rockets are reticent about providing such a provision. Not only would it create an additional expense to pay for an independent doctor, it also leaves the daily status of one of their players in the hands of someone not in their employ. White has no issue with the team doctor — the same doctor who can clear Jeremy Lin to play if he has a bad ankle or declare James Harden unfit to play due to a broken leg — determining his physical condition. White, however, wants an independent and impartial doctor to determine his mental condition, whether or not he is able to play, practice, or fly. And never before in the history of the NBA (and possibly all of organized professional sports) has such a protocol been put in place. To no surprise, Houston has balked at the idea.
The 2012-13 NBA season began without White suiting up in a Rockets jersey. He had yet to play a second before they suspended him on Jan. 6, 2013 for "refusing to provide services." Twenty days later, White and the Rockets mutually agreed to put their differences aside for the time being while White reported to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (of the NBA Development League) on Feb. 11.
White debuted for the Vipers on Feb. 12 against the Maine Red Claws. He played 18 minutes and grabbed eight boards, scored seven points, and had four assists. Still, the issues were far from resolved.
“It's not resolved and that's the truth,” White said to me afterwards. “I'm a straight shooter and I'm sure there will be more stories in the future, but it's not resolved. What we did is that we signed an agreement that said we were going to scratch all the fines and everything that was going on. We were going to start over fresh. I took less money, obviously, because the season had gone on a little bit. I took, I think, $500,000 or $600,000 less than my regular contract, for this season. We said we're going to reset and, on paper, acknowledge that I have an anxiety disorder and we're going to acknowledge that anxiety disorder is a disability and needs to be reasonably accommodated.”
But what about White’s sticking point, that oh-so-important “mental health protocol” and the independent doctor?
“As far as the protocol that I kept preaching about, it was to my understanding - and this is part of the reason I came down to join the Vipers - that if I came down and showed that I wanted to play — because there was skepticism about whether or not I even wanted to play anymore — they would start to work on the protocol that we discussed. It hasn't happened yet, but I'm very hopeful that it will. The Rockets and the NBA know that I'm very firm and I'm not going to forget about it.”
And White has not forgotten. On March 21, he announced via Twitter that he would no longer play for the Vipers. He missed three road games but then returned for their final six regular-season (home) games.
On April 5, White played 34 minutes for the Vipers against the Austin Toros and showed flashes of just why the Rockets gambled on him with the 16th pick in the 2012 draft. White’s line? 28 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, and 1 block.
A performance like that is the very reason that White’s situation is so divisive. He clearly has the talent and ability to play at the highest level, but his steadfast refusal to play under conditions that he feels are “unsafe” is making life hell for everyone — White, the Rockets, and the fans.
Provided that White sticks to his plan of not playing during the Vipers’ playoff schedule, he will have played a total of 16 games in the 2012-13 season averaging just over 25 minutes per game, 11.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists.
“The NBA drew the short straw,” he said, “because they're not just going to be able to give me a Xanax and say, 'Here, go get on a plane,' because I'm not taking no damn Xanax because I know it's addictive. That's something that I shouldn't have to do in order to play basketball.”
So far, however, it seems the Houston Rockets believe otherwise.
While I successfully made it through the entire Bruce Springsteen concert, and actually ended up enjoying it quite a bit, that August night in 2003 is the last live concert I’ve seen and the last time that I’ve been in a large sports stadium. It was also the beginning of the end of my teaching career.
When school started again in September, I had no plans of quitting. My panic attack at the Springsteen concert over the summer was a terrible night for me, but I hadn’t yet internalized it to the point of becoming afraid of every waking moment. I moved on and for the first month of the school year I continued to substitute teach.
Sometimes anxiety begins over the most miniscule things. For me, it was the day when I was substituting for the high school’s gym teacher and the gym was too full to use for my class. I had to take my students to the school’s library, tiny and already packed with students.
That slight change set me off completely. Halfway through class, as I sat at a table while the kids enjoyed a free period, I began sweating. Nearly every single symptom that I experienced in the upper deck of Lincoln Financial Field began to course through my body as 30 students in my charge romped around the library.
I vividly remember sitting there while one of my students started talking to me. I usually enjoyed hearing about their lives outside of school, the crazy thing that happened over the weekend or who was hooking up with who. It was one of the perks of being the young substitute; I felt like they actually enjoyed my company. This day, however, I couldn’t focus on a word he was saying. My eyes felt like they were bulging out of my head and my mouth was so dry you’d think I’d just eaten a boxful of chalk. I was out of my mind with anxiety.
When the bell mercifully rang, I ran out of the library, down the hallway to the main office, told the secretary that I was sick, headed home, and dove under the covers on my bed for hours.
I never worked another minute as a teacher, substitute or otherwise. If we’re keeping score, I did end up passing my teaching certification test. I’d already signed up and paid to take the test, so I thought I might as well take it anyway. I ran into an old high school classmate at the testing center, had a panic attack two minutes before the test began, aced it anyway, and went home knowing I’d never teach.
“This is not only a really fascinating topic,” sports psychology expert and coach Bill Cole tells me, “but I think potentially groundbreaking. I think it could turn sports on its head.”
Cole, a former tennis professional and Division I tennis coach has worked with athletes for years. He’s had golfers with the yips, gymnasts experiencing “blocking,” and players from every sport dealing with choking. He has heard and seen nearly everything possible in the sports psychology world. Yet even he thinks Royce White’s situation is uncharted territory.
“Normally, institutional sport is one of the last bastions of really institutionalized abuse, in a lot of ways,” Cole said. “Maybe discriminating against people with mental difficulties is one of those arenas. So maybe White is doing everybody a really big favor by putting the spotlight on it and, at the minimum, making people think about it.”
That’s precisely what White thinks.
“This is actually going to be a great thing for the league,” White said, “and a great thing for me and my career. There's going to be a lot of stories coming out of this where people go, 'Ah, if they had that protocol when this person was in the league, maybe they wouldn't have had issues or dropped out.' I'm not just talking about a phobia of flying. I'm talking about alcoholism, drug abuse, sex addiction, and many other things.”
From what White tells me, he has plenty of athletes in all sports in his corner.
“So many athletes have contacted me and told me to keep doing what I'm doing,” he said, “athletes of old and athletes that are still playing today. They told me how they ended up dealing with [their anxieties] by drinking or some other way. I had athletes that told me, 'I was scared of flying too, but I ended up taking Ambien, and then I had to check myself into rehab because I couldn't get the sleep without the Ambien.' When you talk about taking 98 Ambien a year, that's not safe. We know that now. And things like Xanax. That's not safe. The NBA actually banned benzodiazepines because it's so addictive.”
Benzodiazepines, like Xanax, are psychoactive drugs widely prescribed to treat a variety of metal and physical health issues, from insomnia to anxiety. They can also be addictive as hell and cause a host of health issues themselves. Even SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), drugs like Paxil, Zoloft, and Lexapro, that work in a less dramatic way to, in layman’s terms, rebalance a chemical imbalance in the body and help with managing anxiety and depression, can have annoying, strange, and sometimes severe side effects. The decision to take any of these drugs is not like taking a cortisone shot to fix a sore knee.
Trust me, I’ve tried many of these drugs before finding one that works best for me on a daily basis (Zoloft). Paxil did nothing for me. Lexapro showed no positive results when I tried it. Even the generic form of Zoloft (Sertraline) was akin to taking nothing at all. The worst, however, was a period of several weeks when I took Cymbalta.
After giving the medication a few weeks to work its way into my system (an unavoidable evil of all SSRIs), Cymbalta made me dizzy and gave me vision problems. My doctor started to wean me off the drug little by little (another unavoidable evil of taking SSRIs — you can’t just stop). The next week and a half I lay on the couch alternately shivering and sweating. At times, I had brief hallucinations and felt like bugs were literally crawling under my skin. Despite never having used an illegal drug stronger than marijuana in my entire life, I felt like what I imagined a “dope sick” junkie feels like during withdrawal.
What most people that call for White to stop “whining” and play, or hang it up and get a real job, don’t realize is that mental illness is just that — an illness.
“It took me a long time to understand that this was mental illness,” Team Canada Inline Hockey goalie Kendra Fisher tells me during a phone interview. “This wasn't just something that was in my head. It wasn't something I chose from day to day. It was an illness and I was sick. I had to learn how to recover and get to a state of recovery that allows me to cope and live my life accordingly.”
As a young ice hockey goalie on her way up, Fisher was poised to join Team Canada until anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and agoraphobia got in the way. During tryouts, Fisher started to experience panic attacks and severe anxiety.
“I was ending up in the emergency room every day,” she said, “not knowing what was wrong.”
Fisher got to camp and ended up on a red-eye flight back home shortly thereafter.
“Unfortunately, before I left,” Fisher told me, “when I had gone to the coach and tried to explain what was going on and what was wrong, the question I was posed with was, 'Is it going to help you any if you know you've made the team? Is it going to help you if you know that we want you to come play for Team Canada?' That certainly made it a memorable moment, but unfortunately not for one I'd like to remember.”
The difference, however, between Fisher and White is that Fisher suffered in silence for years, never letting her teams know the severity of what she was feeling.
“I certainly wasn't at the top of my game for a while,” she said. “It was scary. It was petrifying to be on the ice some nights. Goaltending is a lonely position and when you're struggling with being alone and you're spending all but three or four minutes active, on the ice, by yourself in that net trying to talk yourself out of panic attack after panic attack. It wasn't something I allowed people to know I was going through, which made it more of a struggle.”
Fisher is now an advocate for mental health awareness and speaks regularly about her experience and struggles with anxiety and depression. She, like White, wants people to know, “It can be absolutely devastating, but it can also be coped with, and it can be something that you live with successfully.”
It took me nearly six months to crawl out of my anxiety-ridden bed and get a new job after I left teaching, six months of medication and exposure and cognitive behavior therapy and extremely supportive loved ones. But when I did get back into the workforce, I found myself, like White, struggling with how to navigate the professional world while also dealing with an anxiety disorder.
I’ve had two different day jobs in the past nine years. The first was an office job. All I had to do was put in my hours behind a desk, and clock out at night before heading home. Yet even that filled me with anxiety.
Every single time I saw my boss near lunchtime, I quivered in fear that he would ask me to hop in his expensive car and join him for a quick business lunch. It wasn’t the fear of actually going to lunch that I was afraid of, because I knew I would never go. It was the fear of having to tell the man who signs my paychecks, “No.”
After a year of dodging him, I finally scheduled a sit-down in his office and spilled my guts, telling him my anxiety disorder made me terrified to go to lunch with him. I told him that it wasn’t personal and that I’d be happy to have lunch right there in the cafeteria, or his office, if he liked, but dining out wasn’t ever going to happen.
To my surprise, he took it extremely well. He was understanding, kind, and supportive. That alone made me feel almost comfortable enough to go to lunch with him. Almost.
After leaving that job, I took another more suited to my condition. I started working from home for a company on the other side of the country — simultaneously the best and worst possible situation for me. Although it allowed me to focus on work rather than my anxiety, it also sheltered me from interacting with the world.
I lasted almost a year before I ran out of excuses as to why I couldn’t just hop on a plane to join them for meetings and parties and client introductions. Then I had the very same sit-down with my new bosses as I had with my previous one. Only, this time, it was on Skype.
Fortunately, my bosses were equally as amenable to my mental health situation. While they would love it if I could fly across the country in what I view as an enormous metal death-machine, they understood and were willing to work around it. I’ve been there ever since.
The first thing I thought when I read about Royce White was how I felt so much empathy for him. I knew exactly what it was like to have to deal with your job while also dealing with an immense amount of soul-crushing anxiety. I knew what White was going through. My first reaction was to defend him every time some sportswriter or fan told him to “just suck it up.”
I wanted to call him up and tell him to keep doing what he’s doing and to speak out because it can only make things better.
Now, after speaking with White, I realize that I didn’t need to tell him anything. He already knew, possibly better than I did.
But where do Royce White, the Houston Rockets, the NBA, and even people like me go from here?
“I think we're getting there,” White said. “The number one thing that was needed was recognition. The next biggest step is genuine action or genuine care. The next step is about how much is the NBA going to buy in? How much are the Rockets going to buy in?”
That’s the question we can ask of any employer, friend, family member, or fan. How much are they willing to sit down, educate themselves, and begin to understand that this illness (which you can’t see as you can see a broken leg or a twisted ankle) is something very, very real?
In the end, maybe that doesn’t matter to Royce White.
“I'm waiting to see what my next move is going to be,” he said, “because mental health will be a priority wherever I am.”
Or maybe, just maybe, for Royce White, me, and everyone else suffering from anxiety, it’s the only thing that matters. ★