Sports and Mental Illness: How Bipolar Disorder Can Affect Athletic Performance

Tim McGheeCorrespondent IIIDecember 28, 2010

In the past, many of my rounds of golf concluded with a broken club.
In the past, many of my rounds of golf concluded with a broken club.

Bipolar disorder is a physical disease of the brain affecting the thoughts, feelings, perception, and behavior of the afflicted.

The name "bipolar" stems from the nature of the illness.  The moods of a person suffering from bipolar disorder typically range from euphoria to despondence, at times random, or at times triggered by an action or event.

This oscillation between extreme mood states, commonly called “mood swings,” is indeed abnormal and can be dangerous to the life of a person with bipolar disorder.

Bipolars are, at the least, annoying to those close to the them.  The mood swings influence the person’s inability to live in the real world and make wise real world decisions.

I am among the 2.6 percent of the adult population in the United States diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

God help those who are bipolar but haven't been diagnosed.


June, July, and August are always scorchers in the coalfields of West Virginia.  The mountains hold the heat and humidity at night, releasing them mid-morning like a laundry dryer vent. 

By afternoon, the pavement, the trees, and the grass are begging for cool water, but nothing cool is expected until the early weeks of autumn.  

The brutal heat of August 1973 was no different than it had been for my other high school football pre-season drills. During past drills I allowed the broiling sun to get to me.  Consequently, I rode the pine. 

This time I knew what I had to do.  No complaints.  No excuses.  Get tough.  Face the heat and flip it off.


I anticipated correctly that during August drills the man on my head would be The Gladiator.  He was our best linebacker, 6'1", 200lbs, a young man built and cut to fight to the death in ancient Rome. 

The Gladiator earned the moniker "our most dangerous player." That's what the coaches said.  The assessment was difficult to argue with.  He was ultra-tough, possessing a great deal of physical courage and a nose for the football.

What The Gladiator didn't know was that he had spent his entire summer vacation locked in the laser focus sharply emitting from what I called "my crazed teenage brain." 

Actually, it was more complicated than that.  The mania I didn't know existed in my mind would drive me to go after The Gladiator like a chain saw.


What is bipolar disorder, you may ask.  Well, from one lay person to others, I offer a pretty good explanation in the following paragraphs:  

The human brain consists of neurons, or groups of charged brain cells, that process information through electrical and chemical signaling.  Neurons control the operation of the brain, telling the mind and the body what to do. 

Neurons are connected by synapses, which are essentially the "wires" through which the neurons "fire" their messages to other neurons, allowing the neurons to communicate.

The synapses of a person suffering bipolar disorder are chemically different than those of a person who is not bipolar.  This abnormal, or imbalanced, chemistry causes that brain's neurons to "misfire," adversely affecting the transmission of the messages.

Interestingly, due to the chemically abnormal synapses and their effects on neuron messages, the root cause of bipolar disorder as a mental illness is a physical disease of the brain.

As of this writing, bipolar disorder cannot be cured.  The illness, however, can be treated and treated successfully in many cases.

People with bipolar disorder probably acquired the disease genetically.  Two thirds of those with bipolar disorder have at least one close relative afflicted with the illness.

Here's what I ask: If you do anything with my anecdotal knowledge about bipolar disorder, I urge you to please consider the physical nature of the disease and take it seriously. 

Please understand this: Bipolar disorder is not a character flaw, is not Satan in my soul, and is not punishment from God for my sinful life.

Trust me.  I've heard them all.  A lot of it is wrong.


Many people with bipolar disorder do not run for exercise, but I’ve discovered more than a few runners are bipolar.

In late winter 1979, Morgantown, West Virginia, hit a stretch of cold, rainy weather for which you had to question being out-of-doors.  The blustery days made the most important activity, like crossing the border to Pennsylvania for a couple of kegs of Genesee, extremely difficult.

I had been running for exercise through most of college, primarily to fight weight gain.  It worked.  Three to four miles a day, even and especially through that cold stretch, helped keep off the serious pounds.  I just blamed the rest on beer.

Author Jim Fixx's 1977 book, The Complete Book of Running, was still jumping off the shelves.  Being a sprinter in high school, I had never explored distance running beyond the three to four miles.  My interest was growing.  My fiancee deemed this to be healthy and bought a copy of Fixx for me.

Fixx's descriptions of running were vivid and inspirational.  The book was indeed difficult to put down. 

Most interesting to me was his discussion of racing, particularly the 10 kilometer race.  The distance captivated me and my competitive nature.  That's 6.2 miles, I thought, a couple of miles more than the three to four per day I put in.  Not impossible.  It's doable.

I made it a goal to try the race by the fourth of July.  To this end, I drove in my automobile around Morgantown to measure a six mile loop from my house and back.

On what could possibly have been the ugliest day of that winter season, I decided to take on this new challenge. I dressed for cold weather running, laced up my blue Etonics Street Fighters, and hoofed it.

The first three miles into the loop a tailwind helped me conquer a couple of butt-buster hills.  

The tailwind disappeared.  I was on my own, my tightening gut told me. 

At the four mile mark, my theretofore self-imposed limit, I was spent, drained, with tears in my eyes, wanting to stop, wanting to puke. 

The walk home would be long and slow, I thought, with a headwind freezing my eyebrows and mouth.  But, walk I must, because I couldn't run another hundred meters and was too crazy-looking to hitchhike.

If it hit me, I didn't feel it.  In fact, I didn't feel anything except an exhilarating rush of cold air over my face and ears.  Somewhere in that hundred meters my strides became long.  I was chewing up and spitting out rain-soaked asphalt.  My breathing was strong and deep, cracking air, sucking every oxygen molecule from that air in my lungs. 

And, the mood that was crashing as I crested the hills?  Well, I didn't know, and it had never happened to me, but I felt an overwhelming sense of elation  I could do anything.   I mean, anything!

I had heard about it, but didn’t know what it was until it happened to me on that windy day.

I had achieved the "runner's high."

I wanted it again.


Bipolar disorder is the well-accepted medical name for what used to be called "manic-depression." 

I think the phrase "bipolar disorder" is a euphemism.  People in the 21st century are probably more comfortable with the more genteel "bipolar" phrasing. 

I prefer to call it what it is. 

Dude, I'm manic-depressive.

Around 40 years ago, the late genius rocker guitarist Jimi Hendrix told us "manic-depression is a frustrating mess."

He was right.


It was the first day of pads during the preseason drills for my senior season.  In the previous two years of high school football I had done nothing to gain respect from my teammates.  I essentially served as a skinny blocking dummy and linebacker fodder.

This final season was going to be different. 

I had gained 15 pounds of muscle and lost a couple of ticks for more speed in the off-season, employing steak, eggs, sprints, and weightlifting. The speed was as important as the strength, since Newtonian physics told me that momentum is a function of mass and velocity.  The punitive hits I desired would require my best from both.

No sane college coach would recruit an interior lineman who measured 5'10" and 175lbs with a 4.7 forty. Therefore, I had 10 games of mayhem remaining, determined to earn forever among my teammates the designation of "hitter."

To do this, I worked out assiduously that summer.  As the steak and eggs helped build meat, I quietly whipped myself into a private frenzy, focused and funneled into the gut of the young Gladiator. 

The Gladiator had been singled out by the coach.  For that he would pay.

Pay he did.


In September 1986, I had completed my third year as a stockbroker for a southeast regional investment firm.  Paydays were great days.  I was pulling down earnings that, compared to the real world, exceeded the real world.

However, management considered my commission production to be only average.  The resident manager was maliciously turning down the screws daily to get my numbers up.  I wasn't reacting well to the pressure.  My spirit was broken.  

One early evening that month, for no reason, it all just got to me.  I snapped. I stormed out of our upscale condo, screaming, leaving my very pregnant wife and our two-year-old daughter there without a clue to where I was going.  I didn't know either.

Driving as fast as my thoughts were racing, the situation was dire.  I was desperate, couldn't do anything right, trying to think of a place to go…to go check out for good.

Amazingly, after all my illness has dragged me through, I still believe there is a God.  I also believe God is a woman, similar to a Catholic grandmother, benevolent yet stern.  Good thing for Her.  It was God Who figuratively slapped my face, forcing me to get a grip and turn things over to Her. 

With God in control, I pulled into the parking lot of emergency medicine at our local mega-hospital and checked in.

After listening to what I now consider the rambling, pathetic story of my failings, the ER physician gave me the contact information for a local psychiatrist.  He even set up an appointment for my initial assessment.

It didn't take too much of my “I’m a loser” diatribe for the psychiatrist to make his diagnosis: manic-depression.  He prescribed lithium carbonate, ordered me to come back the following week, and sent me on my way.

Thus, my quest for normalcy of the mental and emotional states began. 

Twenty-four years later, the quest continues.


I punished The Gladiator all day with the force and tenacity of a Pamplona bull. 

The Gladiator thought he would own me.  He didn't see it coming.  No one saw it coming.

With my facemask in his sternum, I pushed him around.  He chased misdirection plays as I set myself up to blindside him with my headgear to his chin. I even toyed with him, faking a missed block, encouraging him to pursue the option quarterback as I hooked around and met him with a pancake.

I didn't know then it was about mania, but now I know it was all mania.  It was my mania, driving my manic mind, doing just as my manic mind had imagined it.


A perfect 10.

A risky perfect 10.


Bipolar disorder is an equal opportunity disease.  Affliction is independent of race, ethnic groups, and social class.

Bipolar disorder is the sixth leading cause of disability in the world.  Worse, the World Health Organization estimates that by 2030 the depression part of manic-depression will be the world’s number one cause of disability.

If we make it that far…

Bipolar disorder has a tragically astounding 20 percent mortality rate, meaning one in five bipolars end it with suicide.

Suicide is a frightening and a wrenching heartbreaker, with many victims left behind.  I’ve thought about suicide, as have many bipolars.  20 years ago I got too close, but I’m still here.  Sadly, last March my beloved friend and brother-in-law lost the battle.

I spoke with him by telephone the night before he took his life.  I’ve revisited what I remember of that conversation many times.  He didn’t leave a clue.

It's important to consider what his Lutheran minister said in the eulogy.  He spoke in no uncertain terms:  It wasn't God, or the prince of darkness, or even my brother-in-law himself. 

The illness killed him. 


One six mile run and, like a wealthy college boy leaning over the mirror to toot his second line of cocaine, I was hooked.  I ran the loop daily, knowing the endorphins, my recreational drug of choice, would kick in after four miles and capture my brain.

Looking back on college with decades of experience, I spent way too much time on the depressive side of manic-depression.  Studying was difficult. Crucial projects were delayed until the last minute.  I had to pull all nighters because I cut one-third of my classes.

Every day, I was precariously close to quitting everything.  Running was the only thing that could pull me out from auguring in.  I was at the point in my addiction where I didn’t even have to wait for my “runner’s high.”  A placebo relief came in the first hundred yards.  It was as if I knew the drug was just down the street.

As my mind was felled by its daily collapse, I stopped in the middle of anything and ran the loop.  Everything—classes, personal relationships, jobs—were sacrificed for my kick.  That made engineering, arguably the most difficult undergraduate course of study, even more difficult.  I was an addicted fanatic.  I had to have that run.

Running had gone way beyond physical fitness, relaxation, and weight control.

I ran to live.


I was age 30 when diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.  That's just about right.  The median age of the onset of the mental illness among the population is around 25 years.

That may be the median age, but I know the disease controlled me long before.

During that magic autumn of legal assault, I didn't care what happened around me.  Even though my father the railroader was laid off with no other source of money, I just didn't care.  There were but a few football games remaining in my life.  If it happened before the first weekend of November, it simply didn't matter.


My game days went something like this:

Composed through the week, on Friday in school, and on Friday night in the field house where I dressed and got taped, I prepared for the game by not thinking about the game.

My teammates were climbing the walls of the field house to get on the gridiron.  I sat with them in tranquility, waiting to run through that big hoop the cheerleaders hold. 

The head coach delivered his pregame talk, or rant, depending on the volume and cadence of his voice.  That did nothing for me.  Even though I had a great deal of respect for the man, I never heard a word he said in the pregame.  I had peacefully placed my head in my headgear and blocked out the world.

I was the definition of irony as I ran through the hoop and onto the field.  I didn’t yell.  I face didn't turn crimson and I didn’t shoot the bird at the other team.  I didn't get within inches of my teammates' faces and beat the hell out of them.  I wasn’t fired up, but I wasn’t nervous.  I was simply in the solace of my headgear looking at the madness through my face mask, awaiting the initial collision.

Playing offense and defense and all aspects of special teams, my calm-before-the-storm approach worked—for the team and for me.

Our first play was a kick off or kickoff return.  When the foot hit the ball, I quickly sought out the quarry for the crashing of our bodies. 

My favorites were big guys not looking.  Those pops, those cavitations of my helmet to the pads, were all I needed to, as Kevin Costner's Billy Chapel said in the film For Love of the Game, "lock in the mechanism."


I look back on those 10 magnificent Friday nights.  I was certainly manic, and used my mania in my own special way.

I didn't know my mania existed.  My teammates had no way of knowing.  They did know I was a decent high school football player, even though I was not the rah-rah, gung-ho type.  They accepted, or chose to ignore, my brand of whatever it was without being able to put a name on it.  In search of an explanation, one teammate compared my weird ways to those of an assassin.

Eerie, yet flattering.

I got my hits in, enough to satisfy the coaches.  My real value, however, was my ability to sniff out the opponent's plays.

Manic-depressives are unique in that we always need to be ultra-aware of our surroundings, knowing who is whom and what is out there.  This was especially true for me as a 17-year-old.  It was as if I was trying to hide something, whatever that something was.  I therefore had to know where and when I fit in so no one could discover the secret.

With that awareness, I had the ability to spot tendencies. 

A running back's averted eyes are a dead giveaway of his direction.  A guard's white knuckles on his stance hand meant he was firing out straight ahead.  If he was pulling, that hand lightly touched the turf.  Tackles lean left or right, receivers look like they're taking a play off, and even a quarterback can't hide the direction he's taking his team.

Every old high school player who was a good player knows all that.

I took it a few steps further.

I could get a whiff of the mood of the entire opposing team, sensing "studitis" or fear, and react accordingly.  The studs over pursued, overshot, and overplayed.  Conversely, the fearful suffered “paralysis of analysis,” not willing or able to just “play ball.”

Tackles came rather easily on the fearful.  The studs were more difficult to bring down.  Since I had a good idea where they were going, I could at least contain the studs or break up stud plays.  That set up my teammates, such as my new friend The Gladiator, to get the tackle.


I didn't rack up numbers, but my coach saw value in my contributions.  Consequently, he led the other coaches in awarding me a spot on the All-County team.

There were only five mid-major schools in the county, so I didn't make the 11:00 news.  I felt honored, though, having in a matter of months gone from a bony kid who didn't like to hit to a hitter.


The mood swings I experienced at the end of my football career were totally unanticipated...and alarming.  Apparently, my corpus, my body and brain, was expecting the collision-induced mania.  When the corpus didn't get it, it folded.  

It didn’t take long.  The first Friday evening after my final game, I crashed and crashed hard.

That's a Friday night of no hits, no blindsides, no kicking game pancakes, and one massive feeling of complete emptiness.

Spending most of the remainder of the autumn in the isolation of my room, I couldn't stop the tears. 

In spite of this depressive state I was able to suck it up and go to school.  Even there, my collapse was my secret.  High school students are essentially narcissistic, so no one even noticed I was falling apart.  That suited me. I absolutely did not want anyone to know how miserable I was.  My classmates could not understand.  Hell, I couldn't understand.

Late fall in the coalfields is dreadful.  The skeletal trees and ominous dark grey skies set the sour disposition of the day.  And, my manic-depression had flipped.  That was trouble indeed.  The depression was as abusively strong as the Friday night mania.


In 1989, despite a three-year diligent, professional, caring campaign by my psychiatrist, I was never more confused by how my bipolar disorder and I fit in American culture. 

The fault did not lie with him.   He told me what to do, what medicine to take, and how to conduct myself.  I didn't exactly follow the plan. 

So, the more I discovered about my responsibilities, the harder I ran.

Putting in an hour each day, I pushed my weekly mileage up to the 55 to 60 mile level.  The mega-mileage was great for my cardiovascular health and for weight control.  Other ailments?  Not so much.

In spite of its stress-relieving benefits, running an hour a day can be psychologically damaging for the bipolar.

I ran seven miles during my lunch hour.  The hour was actually stretched out to two hours counting getting there, running, and getting back.  During this time, I talked to no one, running to and from places where no one I knew would see me, crossing the finish line, showering, and returning to work, disappearing without a trace, craving the isolation.

The isolation.  Therein lies the problem.  Bipolars risk getting into big trouble when they're alone.


I haven’t pancaked anyone in 37 years.  Social mores frown on 54 year old men playing an 18 year old's game. 

The last time I ran a mile was Labor Day weekend 1995 when I strung together 15 of them.  Running was circumventing my worldly responsibilities, so like an addict trying to quickly re-enter society, I hung up the Nikes cold turkey.

Despite no hits and no runs, I'm doing okay.

The science of psychiatric pharmaceuticals has improved dramatically in the past 15 years.  My psychiatrist has worked up for me a cocktail of mood levelers to treat my manic-depression as well as a daily dose of Ritalin to knock out an attention deficit disorder we recently discovered.

As it has often been said, better living through chemistry.

It wasn’t easy getting to the 2010 holiday season.  In 20 years, I’ve had and lost a dozen jobs, had months of unemployment, got a first offense DUI, and basically drove my family and friends batty.

Now, most of the time I’ve never felt better. Most of the time I’ve never been better.  This article was originally written in late December 2010.  It's now mid-September 2011, and I've hit a depression hole that probably began a month ago.  This latest bout reminds me of all the past downswings I have endured by how my work and my writing have been adversely affected. 

However, the team is on it.  My doctor is juggling my medicine and my wife is most encouraging, observing me, advising me, cheering me on, and most importantly, keeping me from taking myself too seriously. 

I don't know when I will crawl out of it, but crawl out of it I will.  I've learned as a man who suffers bipolar disorder that there will be good days and there will be bad days.  I have to prosper when it's good and keep the damage to a bare minimum when things aren't so hot. 

Overall, when I net out, I'm doing rather well.  My athletics is limited to walking at a four mile an hour pace for three miles to a sound track from an iPod touch. That makes me feel good.  It's difficult to be down when Mick Jagger is wailing "Honky Tonk Woman." The career's going well.  I’m contributing to the economy and, most importantly, holding up my end of the deal with my wife and daughters.  They’ve been taking care of me.  Now I can take care of them.

Through it all, I owe my doctor my life.  He’s an artistic genius with medication.  He knows what to do.  And, if he doesn’t know what to do, he’ll figure it out pronto.

Finally, I have to give myself credit.  Many times I could have given up, cashed out.  Something just kept me going when it was bad.  My family, my friends, and God helped me take care of my problems when I got in deep with depression.  But it goes beyond that. 

There is a part of me that is extremely inquisitive.  I’m at the poker table.  I’m not a good gambler, though, because I always pay to see the next card.  I want to see what’s up. 

As well, my life is a walk down a city street.  I take those extra steps to look around the corner.  I want to see what’s there.  Maybe it’s the same old stuff.  Perhaps it’s something to avoid.  But, what if it’s an answer to a burning question?  An opportunity, an opportunity I would have missed had I ended the walk.

See you on the stroll.

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