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Basketball was our oasis. What do we do when it’s been ripped away?

On mental health, phobias and a lack of basketball during a pandemic.

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Editor’s Note/Trigger Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of mental health issues and suicidal ideation.

Basketball saved my life.

When I was hospitalized for severe eating and anxiety disorders along with OCD triggered by germaphobia following a suicide attempt in 2012, following the Dwight Howard trade saga was, on some of the tougher days, the only thing that kept me going. Each day, I’d push through with the hope of asking my favorite orderly (a fellow Lakers fan) for an update.

That might be the first and only time in Howard’s Lakers tenure when thinking about him created less anxiety for someone, but I digress. And if that sounds like an insignificant thing to keep living for, you’re not wrong, it’s just that your brain may not be quite wired the way mine is (and for your sake, I honestly hope it’s not). But any basketball obsessive can relate to, if not the exact context, at the least the sentiment of using the sport as an escape from something difficult going on in everyday life.

Basketball gave me a way out of that hard time. Within a year (and after a ton of therapy) I was able to turn my passion into the start of a career path. I started blogging about the Lakers, went to journalism school, and built something I’d be obsessing about anyway into a viable livelihood. While at the school I only went to out of a desire to learn to cover basketball, I met the love of my life and woman I plan to marry.

None of it would have happened if not for this game.

But whether it’s the actual way you feed your family, or just something you obsess over like it is your job, we’ve all used basketball to make the hard parts of life a little easier. Now, facing the looming threat of a global pandemic, that escape route has been ripped away. For me, it’s been just when I needed it most.

When I say I’m germaphobic, I don’t mean in the “I don’t like dirty things or messes so I kind of just say that” way. I mean in the clinically diagnosed way, and it’s taken years of going to therapy, self-discovery and a wonderful support system to get to the point where I’m no longer washing and sanitizing my hands until they turned light pink and puffy, cracked and bled.

It’s safe to say that the fear bred by COVID-19 has tested all that hard work. In the past, it’s been times like this when basketball has been my safe haven. When watching the game, everything else can melt away. If you’ve made it this far into pursuing a personal story about mental health on a niche Lakers blog, chances are you feel similarly about the soothing effects of the sound of a swish, and how the adrenaline forced into your bloodstream by a poster dunk is nearly as good as any pain reliever.

That oasis is now, like so many other places, under quarantine. The NBA is gone for at least the next 30 days, and so basketball isn’t there as a distraction anymore.

Covering the death of Kobe Bryant — a man I grew up idolizing and who I likely would not have found my passion for the game without — was indescribably difficult but also in a strange way therapeutic. The ability to use the written word to process my grief in real-time, to discuss it with this community, was actually helpful, rather than like salting a wound.

To spend time immersed in the coronavirus news cycle has been the opposite, like overusing hand sanitizer without basketball as the aloe mixed in, it burns the depths of my deepest fears and insecurities, turning every facial touch into a DEFCON 1 crisis, and leaving me at times crippled with fear by the idea of being near others, even those I love more than anything.

Panic attacks don’t come every day, but they’ve certainly made themselves at home, forcing the breath out of my chest when they do visit. Reading the news goes from comforting with the fact that I’m not in a risk group, to horrifying with the reality of the contagiousness of this disease, and the risk not treating it seriously poses to those in my life who are. The naturally obsessive brain that serves me so well as a basketball writer has been set loose to create a new playground of my greatest fears, all in the convenience of my own head. I fully acknowledge it’s not rational, but it just is what it is.

It’s not just those most at risk of dying in this pandemic that need everyone to be careful here. Those of us with mental health conditions are obviously a less immediate concern than saving lives, but all of us can be served hand-in-hand through social distancing and other recommended best practices for dealing with the coronavirus threat.

I don’t write all of this to ask for sympathy. I have my dream job, and Vox Media has offered me and all its employees the ability to take breaks for mental health as needed. I’m choosing to pass on accepting that offer for now, because this site is where I want to be. I want to be with all of you, in the comments, and on Twitter, because the more I thought about it, this community (and the connections I’ve created within it) is where I find solace now, even more so than the game that brought all of us here.

Most of all, I just want anyone reading this who’s struggling to know they’re not alone. I want to be honest about my mental health so that I can be held accountable for taking care of it. And it’s not just me. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives.”

How those affected deal with those issues will differ. For me, a support system and copious amounts of therapy have gotten me to a place where I can manage all this. No one should be ashamed to seek help for a mental health issue, in fact, doing so in the face of societal stigmas is one of the strongest things any of us can do. At the same time, we all, as a society need to work together to destigmatize these issues, and that starts with all of us being more forthcoming about the demons inside of our own heads. NBA players doing so is a great start, but the rest of us feeling more safe from professional and societal repercussions to share our feelings and fears openly is the next step.

The strength and support of nontraditional communities like the one on this very website can also be helpful for these issues. Before I wrote here, I read everything written just to help me escape while obsessing about my favorite sport in an informed and fun way. I found stability and refuge through this community. It may offer that to you, or it may be your school, or your church, or your local model train enthusiast club. I don’t know, and I definitely don’t have all the answers, but whatever works for you to help you forge meaningful and supportive connections is a great step.

All of this will be more difficult in a time of social distancing, but there are still ways to connect. We are not alone, no matter how much our brains tell us so sometimes.

Thankfully, this community has given me the platform and opportunity to do everything above and more. It’s just one more way the game has saved me. Hopefully, if you’re reading this, this place can help you a little bit too.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, you’re not alone. Confidential help is available for free from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which you can reach at 1-800-273-8255.

You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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