When Anxiety Attacks

Three weeks ago, Mardy Fish wrote an amazing article on The Players’ Tribute site titled The Weight. I stopped halfway through the article and took a deep breath.

“This is a story about how a mental health problem took my job away from me. And about how, three years later, I am doing that job again — and doing it well. I am playing in the U.S. Open again.

This is a story about how, with the right education, and conversation, and treatment, and mindset, the things that mental illness takes away from us — we can take them back.

Tens of millions of Americans every year deal with issues related to mental health. And the journey of dealing with them, and learning to live with them, is a long one. It can be a forever one. Or, worse, it can be a life-threatening one.

And I want to help with it.”

If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, had an anxiety attack, or know someone close who has struggled with anxiety, go read The WeightI wait (see what I did there …)

If you aren’t a tennis fan, Mardy Fish is one of the great contemporary American tennis players. He fought his way into the top 10 during the epic era of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray. A massive anxiety attack in the 2012 US Open against Gilles Simon shattered him. He beat Simon, but then couldn’t go on the court two days later against Roger Federer and withdrew from the tournament. The article and quotes are interesting – they say nothing about anxiety and are vague about the issues, referring back to a previous heart-related issue that had been discussed.

“We are not 100 percent sure what the issue is and if it is related to his previous issues,” Fish’s agent, John Tobias, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Mardy is fine and will return home to L.A. tomorrow. This was strictly precautionary and I anticipate that Mardy will play in Asia this fall.”

Three years later Marty Fish has done an incredibly brave thing. He owned his anxiety, rather than let it own him.

“And just like that, it hit me — I remember it so vividly, and so powerfully. Oh god, I thought. I’m … not going to do it. I’m not going to go out there, anxious, in front of 22,000 people. I’m not going to play Roger. I’m not going to play. I didn’t play. First, I didn’t play Roger. And then, I didn’t play at all.”

He turned a weakness into a strength.

“But I am here to show weakness. And I am not ashamed.

In fact I’m writing this, in a lot of ways, for the express purpose of showing weakness. I’m writing this to tell people that weakness is okay. I’m here to tell people that it’s normal.

And that strength, ultimately, comes in all sorts of forms.

Addressing your mental health is strength. Talking about your mental health is strength. Seeking information, and help, and treatment, is strength.

And before the biggest match of your career, prioritizing your mental health enough to say, You don’t have to play. You don’t have to play. Don’t play …

That, too, is strength.”

His fearlessness about being open about his struggle is so powerful. We are all humans. We are all big bags of chemicals. The chemicals mix in lots of different ways.

“I still deal with my anxiety on a daily basis. I still take medication daily. It’s still in my mind daily. There are days that go by where I’ll think to myself, at night, when I’m going to bed: Hey, I didn’t think about it once today. And that means I had a really good day.”

How we deal with the mixture is what ultimately matters. I loved watching Mardy Fish play tennis. It was fun to root for him. It was pretty awesome to see him drop 30 pounds and totally transform his game. And now it’s even more awesome to know that he’s playing the game of life every day, doing his best, and helping the rest of us understand that having and dealing with mental health issues isn’t a weakness, but instead it’s just part of life.

  • i know that battle just a different playing field

  • jamesoliverjr

    Man, I love how much you talk about anxiety and other mental health issues, Brad.

    As an entrepreneur who ran out of cash, raised more cash, hasn’t yet gotten to product market fit, and has two year old twins, anxiety is a regular occurrence for me.

    I wrote about what I do to manage anxiety and fear. I hope this helps some of your readers.

    http://treplifedad.com/grinding/3-tips-for-entrepreneurs-to-manage-fear-and-anxiety/

  • Wow. Did not know that about him. Pretty amazing that he “came out” given the kind of hyper competitive hyper macho arena he is playing in.

  • thorsky

    Thanks for pointing me to this article, Brad. I’m always surprised and deeply affected by people with the strength of character it takes to forego our natural instinct to project strength when we’re hurting. It’s uncommon and beautiful.

    I remember being on a business trip in the mid-90s to Denver, getting dressed in my hotel room with the local morning news on TV. The previous night, someone had leapt out of the bushes, stabbed two priests to death as they were returning to their church after an evening stroll, and run away.

    A reporter was asking a third priest if he had “anything to say to the person who had done this”. He looked momentarily confused, then said, “Yes, I’d just like to tell him that I’m very worried about him, and I’d like him to turn himself in so that I can help him.”

    I just sat down on the edge of the bed and bawled my eyes out.

    • So powerful how one (the priest) can use a positive frame of reference in the face of a tragedy like this.

  • Frank Wood

    As I enter the 2nd week of a training for UpTech, an accelerator located in Northern Kentucky, I am increasingly impressed with the capacity that most bring to the whole start up “thing.”

    That said, my work is to teach people not so much about stress but what I call the “Stress Response Life Cycle” … this is the duration of how long we spend (sometimes way way way too long) with the luggage we call demand, pressure, worry, fear … or stress.

    As a clinical psychologist, I saw this dynamic
    – before the episode (like experiencing symptoms of anxiety)
    – during the episode (which made the whole issue more complex – my friend Ted calls these secondary losses)
    – after the episode (which plays a role in subsequent episodes – ugh!)

    You can exchange anxiety for depression And depression for a manic episode And a manic episode for quitting and returning to a life in a “more stable” environment. On I could go.

    It’s really, in my mind about the 64th problem … the 63 other problems come and go – a bill, a deadline, a former partner, the runway of cash … these will find another to replace them … it is the 64th that is the real issue … and that is the reality that none of us wants to have any problems at all.

    Sorry for those who want the 64th problem to go away .. it doesn’t.

  • Ben

    Brad, this is important to share, thank you for doing so. Tennis is such a tough sport mentally; thousands of people, silent, surrounding you, with so much on the line every match.

    I remember Sam Altman wrote a post about founder depression that was widely supported; do you know if that spurred the creation of a founder support group for those suffering from these issues?

    • I don’t know if there are founder support groups specifically for this, but there are many people talking about it beyond me now. Jerry Colonna and his team at Reboot.io (http://www.reboot.io) does an excellent job around it.

  • tim logie

    thanks so much for bringing this to my attention, I have ordered the book already. So many people suffer from anxiety, so many people fail to reach their potential, it is sad. Whether it be from tennis to writing exams to socializing, anxiety affects too many in our society, bringing the problem to the forefront and letting everyone know they are not alone, is awesome. Mardy is courageous, I can’t wait to read it!

  • Topics like these are why Brad’s blog is great. It’s human and honest. My personal experience on this began in my former line of work, Firefighter for 3 years, then joining the world of business. Imagine defeating death for a living, fearless of death. That was 13 years ago. It wasn’t until this year, launching my 1st startup, the the suicide subject even occurred to come to mind. Not the literal consideration of it, but I noticed how anyone could easily get lost in day to day stress & pressures, mix in anxiety and/or any mental health issue, became apparent how easy life perspective can get lost. Anxiety combined w/fear of being thought of in a failure context (among friends/family mostly unaware the difficulties of ideas to reality) can grow to surpass life itself. Psychologically, it’s equivelant to rejected by your pack. Usually means certain death in that context…It wasn’t until 1 month in, this revelation struck me. I was always fearless. Bugged me most meetings were run in context of life/death depended on right color of brochure. I had a perspective of many life/death decision making moments. I was confused when I was close to mentally breaking, due to overall magnitude of critical decisions at my feet. It caused paralysis, then occurred to me it was a fear of failure. When unaware you’d lost perspective of life in the minute to minute daily grind, fear of failure overtakes fear of dying. It was a powerful moment personally and I changed course quickly. I learned at that point how to prioritize critical decisions in the same way I’d done in emergency response. The triage methodology.

    • Great post Paymon. Try not to be to scared by fear of failure, per @jerrycolonna:disqus’s post, I think to fail is human and also natural part of the process for many start-ups/founders. Embrace the risk of failure and what you can learn from it. I hope the triage strategy also works for purposes of keeping things in perspective, and ensuring you stay in the game to fight another day (whether in your current start-up, or a future venture). I’m also guessing the start-up community can certainly benefit from your perspective as a firefighter.

  • Ali

    Thank you for sharing this, Brad. It’s time for the stigma around mental health to go away. People who struggle with anxiety and depression are only further harmed by feeling like they need to hide their struggles from those they interact with on a day-to-day basis. In the entrepreneurial community I think it’s especially important for us to overcome archaic social norms about emotion in the work place – entrepreneurship is too stressful of an endeavor for us to hide from these issues!

    • I completely agree. And I’ll keep writing about it as it’s a deep and continuous issue in my life.

  • Redwoods

    I’m a fan and long time reader. I admire your honesty about struggles with depression a lot. The physical context on the screen is interesting today. On my laptop screen immediatley above the comments is the Previous Post section, with the title “Who Just Raised A $225 Million Financing…”
    For me this is a pointer to one of our big struggles. In the age of instant and huge information transfer, big headlines like this have a much higher signal to noise ratio – and like the Sirens, they lure us into a world where it becomes increasingly easy to feel anxious and like ‘I’m just not cutting it.’ I don’t think your $225 M post is wrongly titled. Its just part of today’s anxiety-inducing context.

    • Yup – good call on the intellectual dissonance that gets generated by headlines. Just scan my twitter feed and you really see the insanity of it.

    • “Not broken, just human” is a mantra many more of us should carry around with us.

  • jerrycolonna

    Beautifully done, my friend. Anxiety, fear, depression, as well as joy, happiness, and beauty are all part of the human experience. Not everyone and not all the time but each of us, in some way, feels some of this. Doing so doesn’t mean we’re broken–just human.

  • Sam

    “You don’t have to play. Just… don’t play.” Mardy is lucky to have such an awesome wife – at that moment in particular. I have had some dark times in my own career, and support is everything.

    • Yes – she sounds incredible.

  • I have followed Mardy Fish for ages. This is his greatest accomplishment!

  • Anxiety have a lot to do with our birth elements. Mardy Fish is one extreme case, rarely you see a chart where 3 out of 5 elements are entirely missing.

    http://www.turtleluck.com/life-analysis/?c=3c9002259fe4f240075fe985a08b0426b0a98bf4

    These people can be extremely talented, but completely out of balance, Mardy Fish was definitely one of them. An extremely strong Yin Metal followed by strong Water element, which in his case represents creativity, the key attribute for tennis player. Charts like this are extremely sensitive to outside influence, very hard to find peace, but it is possible, with massive effort, to learn how to control these ups and downs.

  • Thanks for continuing to talk publicly about emotions like depression and anxiety that I believe so many of us have been conditioned to ignore, repress or numb ourselves to, especially as entrepreneurs. I’d feel very grateful to see a post from you on fear, as I believe that’s another powerful emotion that falls in this same group.

    I’ve been feeling fortunate to have come across Pema Chodron’s writing on fear and uncertainty. Her teachings about embracing and experiencing the transformative power of fear have been and continue to be important guides along my entrepreneurial journey through a particularly groundless, yet hopeful, previous 12 months.

    While I’ve written about fear and the entrepreneur on my blog, my reach isn’t nearly the same as yours and would love to see you open the discussion on it, as you have with depression and anxiety among the entrepreneurial/startup community.

  • As always Brad, I appreciate you weighing in on Mental Health topics! I hope all is well. – K

  • bradbernthal

    Important post. I missed Mardy’s article during the Open. Glad you pointed it out. Two thoughts:

    (1) Competitive tennis, with its mix of mental and physical stresses, surfaces personal issues faster than anything else that I do. My tennis self is my canary in the coal mine: a leading indicator of mental well being (or lack thereof). Tennis itself also sometimes endogenous to one’s state too, which complicates things. (Mardy’s reflections on the dual sword of Top 10 ranking fits this.) But I find that I cannot hide on court. It is truth serum.

    (2) Different dimension of mental health … I was moved by the recent NYTimes report on the Marine veterans suffering severe trauma post Afghanistan, including a rash of suicides. This article gave me new empathy for issues generated by a mind rewired by seeing things one cannot forget: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/us/marine-battalion-veterans-scarred-by-suicides-turn-to-one-another-for-help.html?_r=0

    Brad

  • Thanks so much for this Brad!