“Unprecedented” seems to be the go-to word for describing the current situation surrounding COVID-19 and its impact on every facet of daily life. For those working in sports, suspensions, cancellations, and layoffs have left us with a wide range of emotions including helplessness, grief, and anxiety.
For me personally, however, some of these feelings are all too familiar. As a person with both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder, anxiety is not just a feeling, but an all-encompassing space wherein I live my life. And while my clinical diagnosis has changed over the past 20 years, the necessity to cope will always remain a constant. GAD and SAD are just labels that someone else gave me to help me describe the area of the mental health spectrum where my most pressing challenges currently lie.
The symptoms of anxiety and their impact on my well-being are present and active regardless of the name they are given. For those of us that constantly play out “worst case scenarios” in our heads often seek control and information in the hopes of soothing our unfounded fears. But what do we do when there is no control to be had and all the information only makes things seem bleaker?
There’s something else all too familiar to me in all this: loss. In 2018, I lost my two of my favorite things of all time: my job as Service and Ticketing Manager of the Mississippi RiverKings and my dad.
My husband and I were on the last day of our vacation in Asheville, NC, in May of 2018. We were packing up our hotel room to go the airport when a co-worker texted me and asked if I had time to be on a conference call with our team president. I jokingly asked if we were folding. Turns out, that joke wasn’t too funny.
I was thankful my teammates couldn’t see me as the tears started streaming down my face. I joined the staff of the RiverKings knowing they were a team in trouble. But I was supposed to be part of the solution. I worked tirelessly over the previous two seasons to right the ship. Revenues were up. Attendance was up. Service was improving. But in the end, all these improvements made me feel like we had just been mopping the deck of the Titanic the whole time. Suspending operations was a process that had been put into motion many years before I even began working in sports.
I made the jump from restaurants to sports about 5 years ago. My decade in the restaurant industry equipped me with the service, leadership, and revenue-generating skills I rely on everyday as a sales leader. In retrospect, I can thank the restaurant industry for all things it gave me. While I was in it, however, I could only focus on the things I thought I was missing out on.
Like many other people who were labeled “gifted” or “talented” as a kid, I felt immense shame when I was “just a bartender” while my peers from my STEM magnet high school were graduating from medical school, becoming lawyers, and making news as Silicon Valley wunderkinds. I let anxiety and guilt completely take over my life until I wasn’t even a person that I recognized anymore. I self-medicated with alcohol and both binge eating and binge drinking, all under the banner of being the “Rockstar Bartender” and the restaurant lifestyle.
In my early 20’s, I spent about 18 months working with a counselor and a psychiatrist to find a medication that would work for me. My family medical history is a smorgasbord of Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, and addiction. However, there was still a lot of stigma in my family surrounding mental illness. Although, it seems like we all had it some form or another, we didn’t talk about it in healthy ways. And we certainly didn’t cope with it in healthy ways.
In my mid-20’s, something clicked for me that this was not the life I wanted to live forever. I start eating better, exercising, and trying to just take care of myself better. I made physical changes, but I also just started giving myself a break. I was SO HARD on myself for being overweight, for “failing” at school, and for being depressed. I knew it had to stop. I began to vigilantly police my thoughts and cast out negativity from own internal monologue. Despite the big upswing, I was passed over for a promotion at work. After a period of introspection, I realized that was the last straw for me. I went back to school and took the first step on my journey to working in sports. Some of you may be familiar with Jim Carey’s story about his father losing his “stable and secure” job: You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on something that you love. I began to live this mantra as I began to break out of my beautiful restaurant rut.
About two years later, I had spent a year as a 30-year-old intern, first in minor league hockey and then in MiLB. I then landed my first full-time job in professional sports at the RiverKings. Being the oldest person in the office every day allowed me to quickly establish myself as a leader and a culture creator. I thought I was in my first “real” job, but I quickly learned that my journey and maturity separated me from the rest of the “entry-level” pack. One of the biggest challenges in leadership for me was always knowing that staffers looked to me for guidance, even at times when I was not feeling, doing, or looking my best. Leadership comes from all levels of an organization, not just from the formal hierarchy. Recognizing that I was already a leader forced me to reflect on myself so that I could be of the highest service to those that I was leading. I know that I made a lot of mistakes, and I know that there are people that I let down. I didn’t know how to manage myself yet, and I defaulted back to letting anxiety and negative self-talk control me. The final RiverKings season pushed me to the absolute brink emotionally, and I’m a stronger person and a better leader for it.
All that anxiety came to a head in that hotel room in Asheville. What did we do next? How long was I going to get a paycheck? Had I lived in Mississippi long enough to get unemployment? Did I want to stay in hockey or go back to baseball? Where were we willing to move? Could my husband move his job or did he have to think about looking for a new one? Could he go back to working in concessions management if we needed him to? Should I stay in the graduate school program I had just started?
And then my anxiety-riddled brain produced the worst question of all: is this the end of my career in sports?
Dismantling a team is a strange dichotomy: you are literally tearing something down while simultaneously being focused on your next opportunity. Like many hockey teams, we had been renewing ticket packages for months already. Through the refund process, I felt like a mortician guiding our most loyal and bought-in of fans through mourning the loss of their team. I talked to people who had their first date with their future spouse at one of games. People who got engaged at one of our games. People who made lifelong friends by sitting next to each other all these years. The worst part for me during that time was thinking of the kids who wouldn’t grow up with the memories that I have and cherish so dearly. But I had to think of the kids at my next job. I had to think of the next family of fans that I could take care of.
I went on interviews, got a few offers, but just struggled to find an opportunity that I was truly excited about. A chef friend of mine then presented me with the opportunity to run a new restaurant concept he was launching. I took my first step down a path that could lead me away from sports.
My husband and I packed up and moved back home to North Alabama. I think we were only home for a few weeks when my dad texted us from the hospital that he had Stage IV Adenocarcinoma, or cancer of the stomach lining. He had been in the hospital for quite a while with what they initially thought was pancreatitis. He was very adamant about us not worrying or coming to the hospital too much. We came and visited and played board games, but I never had a conversation with any medical professional about how serious his condition was. Dad was not very forthcoming with details, and it wasn’t until he went into the hospital for the last time that I really understood how close he had been to death for months. Dad needed a lot of care, both in-home and at the cancer center. He couldn’t eat nor could he keep down liquids. We did a lot of nutrition through his chemo port at home. He went from a healthy 180lb man that rode a bicycle to work every day to a 130lb skeleton in less than 3 months. In December of 2018, I held my Grandma’s hand as her 53-year-old son passed away.
While Dad was sick, my anxiety was at a level I never want to get back to. For the first time, I began to have actual physical symptoms of anxiety including a pain in my chest that felt like a muscle spasm just underneath my skin. I had gastrointestinal issues. My blood pressure was stroke-level. When he died, I felt a sense of relief. As horrible as that might sound, I knew he was out of that horrible, cancer-riddled body and that it was all over. I no longer had to wonder when the call would come that it was time to say goodbye. We already did that part.
We got through the rest of December, including Dad’s birthday on New Year’s Eve. I waited tables for a few months, and I made my peace with the restaurant industry. Ultimately, going back felt like going back to an ex-boyfriend: there’s a reason that we broke-up, no matter how different things may seem now. I backed out of the restaurant GM gig and tried to make a plan.
By March, I felt like I was being slowly smothered. Everything in my hometown had memories of my dad attached to it, especially the abandoned baseball stadium I drove past every day. My favorite memories from my very tumultuous childhood were with my dad at minor league baseball games. When I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, I always belonged somewhere as long as I was a fan. There was always a community of people for me to be a part of where we all dressed alike and rooted for the same things. I could always turn to baseball and be immersed in a world where I felt like a part of something bigger than myself. Something that had meaning.
I knew I had to go back to sports. I knew I had to get back to helping other families make these memories. I had to atone for those kids I left in Mississippi without a hometown team.
I applied for a seasonal job that was basically a box office intern. March was perhaps the absolute worst time to be looking for a job in baseball, so I had no expectations. I just needed anything. I didn’t know that they ownership group of the AA team where I was applying had just taken over the management of an Appalachian League team and was trying to find an AGM. Not only was I going back to where I belonged, I was taking a step forward instead of a step back.
That summer in the Appy League was one of the hardest of my life. I had so many expectations about how getting back to work would help me move forward. And I just felt like I was on a rollercoaster. I never knew what my mental state would be when I woke up in the morning. Between being away from husband, 4-person tarp pulls (real talk), and living in a cheap motel, I again felt completely pushed to the breaking point.
My sister recommend that I start working with an online therapist. She was working with one, and the idea of being able to contact my therapist in the middle of anxiety episode instead of having to wait for a weekly appointment was extremely attractive to me. I also felt like we working more towards genuine improvement in my day-to-day life and less towards a diagnosis or medication.
Through working with my therapist, I realized that one of the worst things I did for my long-term mental health was try to spin the folding of the RiverKings into a positive because it gave me the chance to be there with my dad when he needed me the most. I thought I was “looking on the bright side,” when really I was depriving myself of the opportunity to grieve my lost job that I worked so hard for. I overhauled my whole life, both past and future, to get that job, and I deserved the opportunity to grieve it properly.
Then I looked back at other instances in my life where I deprived myself of the opportunity to grieve:
My first big brush wish anxiety was as a senior in high school when I was making my college decision. I went to a small boarding school that was a surrogate family from ages 15-18. For me, graduation was a loss. I thought it was stupid to grieve a normal life circumstance and ended up carrying an even worse level of anxiety to my first attempt at college.
When I was passed over for that restaurant promotion, I rationalized that it was good thing because it got me back in school. But, no . . . it just sucked. I worked really hard and lost the job to someone objectively a lot less qualified than I was. I had a right to feel slighted. I had a right to be mad. And I should have recognized the loss.
I used to my dad’s illness to bury the loss of my RiverKings. I then used my new job to avoid the grief of my dad dying. And by ignoring these two separate and concurrent grief processes, I was doing much more harm than good.
Grieve. Your. Loss.
It’s true that we as an industry, a nation, and as human beings are all going through this together even though our individual situations might be different. And some people definitely have it worse than others.
But I think it is important to remember: You do no harm to others by taking care of yourself.
Grieve your lost job. Your lost season. Grieve for the time you’ve lost with your friends, colleagues and fans. With the broad impact of COVID-19, it’s very obvious that you do not have to catch the illness or even know someone who has it for the virus to completely up-end your life. Whatever you are feeling, let yourself feel it. Embrace it, call it by its name, and work through it. There doesn’t have to be a reason. There doesn’t have to be a bright side.
When the world goes back to whatever normal is going to look like in the future, our fans will need us to be there. We have to do all we can to take care of ourselves and be the best versions of ourselves that we can be whenever our next Opening Day is. Think about how badly we needed that first Mets game after September 11th or that first Saints game in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Think about David Ortiz’s pep talk to the Red Sox faithful reclaiming their city after the Boston Marathon bombing, Think about the families that will finally relax or the friends that will reconnect at the events that we put on. For my ticket operations peers, think of that sweet song that will come from our printers as we issue the tickets that will help people heal.
But, right now, all that exists at some unknown point in the future. All you can do today is let yourself feel.