An Interview with Mike DeArmond
“…I started feeling as if I wasn’t good enough at the things I did, and that I was at fault for nearly everything. My Aunt Helen’s suicide. My father’s expectations. Dan Devine leaving Missouri and handing over Tiger football to Al Onofrio, who could beat Notre Dame but could not beat Kansas. I’d like to say I’m kidding, but at some level, my taking blame for stupid things like that was very real.”
“In 1991, my dad died – his last heart attack. My mother found him on the floor of the garage in Joplin. I broke down on the telephone, though I soldiered on…And that was the edge over which I tumbled, although it was not until years later, in the summer of 2006, that I had a nervous breakdown. By the way, that’s the dumbest description of losing your self-control ever invented.”
“I told Barb I could not go back to work. I put my head on her shoulder. She gathered me in her arms. I cried for 16 straight hours. And then, the day after we got home to Kansas City, I went to a psychiatric hospital so broken in emotional pieces that they took away my belt and shoelaces and put me under observation for 24 hours.”
Mike DeArmond: Interviewed on March 25, 2010
Position: Sportswriter, Kansas City Star
Born: 1950, Butler, Mo.
Education: University of Missouri – Columbia, BJ ’72
Career: Kansas City Star, 1971 “through today – last I checked”
Personal: “Married to the wonderful and funny and smart and patient Barbara Withers DeArmond, son Gabriel, daughter Cortney”
Favorite restaurant (home): Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue, Kansas City, Missouri. “And if absolutely anybody says that isn’t the best barbecue in the history of the world, then they haven’t eaten there or they are a Kansas Jayhawk fan.”
Favorite restaurant (away): Pode Nostrum (Means Under the Bridge) in Prague. “Literally, it is under the Charles Bridge, is lighted by 150 or so candles, overlooks a slew in the river where the residents threw their handguns rather than give them to the Soviets back in the day. Cook their meat by charcoal grill in front of you and have a plum liquor that will knock you on your rear, which they served to us in a purple fabric-lined wooden box when the waitress found out it was Barb’s birthday.”
Favorite hotel: Club Intrawest, Zihuatanejo, Mexcio.
Mike DeArmond, posted on kansascity.com, August 24, 2009:
I come not to criticize or praise Michael Beasley, but to empathize with him.
Yahoo Sports is reporting the former Kansas State basketball star, now a member of the NBA Miami Heat, is being treated for depression-related issues at a Houston rehabilitation facility. The Associated Press is reporting the same contention.
When I read those accounts today, I wanted to throw up.
Because I’ve been there. Three years ago, I spent a night in a psychiatric care facility under observation for depression.
It may have been the worst night of my life. They took my shoestrings, my belt. Informed doctors and nurses take depression seriously. I felt exactly how Beasley apparently felt when he left a cry for help on an Internet account:
“Feelin like it’s not worth livin!!!!!!! I’m done” and “I feel like the whole world is against me. I can’t win for losin’.”
It doesn’t matter why you feel that low. It matters only that you do. And trust me, you do.
I spent only the one night under lock and key, of my own volition. I spent several weeks in day-long group therapy sessions and it is those sessions that I honestly will tell you saved my life.
My last day of group therapy, I told my fellow sufferers that I would carry a part of each of them around with me for the rest of my life. The part that helped me gain perspective again.
It is why I’m sharing my experience. I was helped off a ledge by others sharing their experiences with me.
I don’t begin to know a thing about what demons are chasing Michael Beasley, if indeed there are any.
Depression’s causes and symptoms are as varied as the different people you’ll meet walking down the street.
Some depressives are alcoholics or drug addicts. Many, like me, are not.
For me, depression was – and on some days still can be – measured by the certainty that beneath my feet, just under the ground upon which I stand, lurks a deep, dark lake knowing no horizon.
Its surface is not ruffled by waves, or even a ripple. But to descend into the dark’s caress is to give up all hope. Loss of hope, I contend, beggars the loss of life.
If Michael Beasley is teetering over that abyss, then I pray he receives the help I received. I pray we let him seek that with the understanding I was granted by people at The Kansas City Star, by family, by friends.
It is the least we all could do.
Q. Your column was candid and courageous. What is the relevant history that preceded it – take us to the beginning and wind it forward.
A. When I was 12 years old and pitching Little League baseball in the birthplace of Harry S Truman (Lamar, Mo.) each night before every game I would crawl under the stands and lie face-down to the ground with hands supporting a stomach that felt as if it was going to burst. I was later told this was probably the beginning of an ulcer, which eventually did go away of its own accord and the understanding that no one but me gave a damn about Little League baseball.
That was the first time I remember wanting to do something and not wanting to do that something at the same time. But that soon was the case with competitive swimming as well. But at least in swimming, I had the good sense – and the rudeness I’m sure my swim coach thought – to say I would swim the free style and the backstroke and any relay involving either of those strokes, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to swim the breaststroke, at which I moved up and down the pool with the approximate speed of a corpse.
We moved from Lamar, upon my graduation from the sixth grade and right before my sister’s senior year in high school, to Joplin, Mo., and my parents were concerned how my sister would adjust. They should have worried more about how a small town boy would adjust to what seemed at the time to be a major city (population 40,000), in an era where pegged jeans were all the rage in Joplin and had yet to be heard of in Lamar.
The mortification of going to school with jeans that I rolled the bottoms up into cuffs lasted approximately two days. A girl I didn’t know kindly told me everyone would think I was a dork – which, of course, I was – if I didn’t get the bottom of my jeans sewn into a seam and if I didn’t get the legs tightened so much that I needed to bring a seam ripper and a needle and thread to gym class so that I could get out of the damned things and then tighten up the bottom of the Levi’s sufficiently to retain my air of cool. That is, more or less, how I managed to get through three years of what Joplin called Junior High School. Along with playing eighth and ninth-grade basketball, thanks not to any level of talent at the game but rather because I developed a defensive bravado that passed for supreme self confidence that so angered opposing players that they would make stupid mistakes trying to show me up.
There really was nothing remarkable about the three years at South Junior High, except for becoming modestly acceptable to some nice looking girls, and developing friends from two other junior highs through a church youth group we all attended for the social life rather than for any religious lessons.
It was here, in fact, that I had the audacity to inform the assistant minister that I thought organized religion was pretty much full of it and that half of the congregation of that particular church was probably as latently hypocritical as I was.
The first year at Joplin High School marked three big events. One, it became obvious I wasn’t a varsity athlete. Two, if I wasn’t going to play sports I could at least write about them. And three, I met Mary Wieman, the best teacher I ever had.
She happened to be the newspaper sponsor and my creative writing teacher. And was the first adult besides my parents and my Aunt Helen who actually said, “I love you.”
It was in the middle of the American Folk Music revival and I taught myself to play the guitar, began writing some of my own songs, and spending a lot of time on my own penning free verse that was somewhat influenced by equal parts Poe, the English murder mystery writer Edgar Wallace (who was also a sports writer) and by teen angst real and imagined.
Are you bored yet? I could go on for pages. But I won’t.
I thought I fell in love for the first time my senior year, with a girl from another town I had met at a summer journalism conference at Missouri the summer after my junior year in high school. And that generally meant I was either going over to Kansas to drink 3/2 beer with the guys or driving to another town to have a date or just an hour or two to talk about issues of the heart as if I understood any of them.
And then it was time to go to COLLEGE. Not Missouri Southern College in Joplin, which I informed my dear mother would be like high school all over again, but Mizzou. Where I pledged a fraternity, co-wrote its winning home-coming skit (the co-writer getting major credit because he could put a microphone into his mouth and actually sound like a Tiger), then along with some 30 other members of a 36-boy pledge class quit the fraternity. The exact moment of exit came within the first hour of Hell Week, when an active spit on a tile flood and handed me a toothbrush and told be to clean the grout. At which point I told him to shove the toothbrush up his tight ass, picked up my guitar and my other stuff and walked across the street and moved into an apartment the University didn’t know about.
At this point -and finally we’ve reached the point of your question – I started feeling as if I wasn’t good enough at the things I did, and that I was at fault for nearly everything. My Aunt Helen’s suicide. My father’s expectations.
Dan Devine leaving Missouri and handing over Tiger football to Al Onofrio, who could beat Notre Dame but could not beat Kansas. I’d like to say I’m kidding, but at some level, my taking blame for stupid things like that was very real.
I met Barb, my wife, the second semester of my freshman year and we dated throughout college – with a minor spell when I thought it was a good idea to date around but then found there was absolutely no one but Barb who could put up with me – all the way up to our marriage the December following our May graduation in 1972.
By this point my poetry and free verse definitely had a lot of Poe and a lot of dark shadings. I could, and sometimes did, cry for the silliest of things. Simply wondering if my parents were proud of me would do it.
But after a sports stringing job with The Kansas City Star my senior year turned into a full-time job, I charged headlong into marriage, sports writing and the inability to handle criticism at all.
I was offered the No. 1 beat position on Kansas City’s new NHL franchised and turned it down for the No. 3 position on a two-paper system covering Royals baseball. That first year, I literally considered driving my car into a tree on several occasions. For two reasons.
One, pro athletes generally treat rookie writers – and at 23 I was a complete rookie – as poorly as they do rookie ballplayers. Amos Otis threatened to hit me with a baseball bat. I started to walk away and heard the wolves gathering with
every step of retreat, so turned around and told AO to swing away. We developed a good relationship quickly thereafter. God Bless John Mayberry and Hal McRae.
And two, I really could not stand to have my copy changed. Took it as a personal affront. Once drove back from the Lake of the Ozarks on a Sunday morning after arriving on Saturday so that I could personally confront an editor who had changed ONE word in my lead.
In 1991, my dad died – his last heart attack. My mother found him on the floor of the garage in Joplin. I broke down on the telephone, though I soldiered on. I remember Mrs. Wieman came by and we sat in her car and smoked cigarettes and I told her stuff I couldn’t tell my mother. How I wasn’t ready to be a man (at age 41). How unfair this all was.
And that was the edge over which I tumbled, although it was not until years later, in the summer of 2006, that I had a nervous breakdown. By the way, that’s the dumbest description of losing your self-control ever invented.
Q. In a reply to a commenter, you mentioned a nervous breakdown on a transatlantic flight – what was that like and how did you respond?
A. I survived the hell of covering the Ricky Clemons Affair and the 45 Days of Quin Snyder’s Implosion, but suddenly, on an airplane back from Switzerland, I saw a guy in the aisle next to me working on a computer exactly like my work computer.
I told Barb I could not go back to work. I put my head on her shoulder. She gathered me in her arms. I cried for 16 straight hours. And then, the day after we got home to Kansas City, I went to a psychiatric hospital so broken in emotional pieces that they took away my belt and shoelaces and put me under observation for 24 hours.
Fortunately, my shrink took me out of forced confinement, and put me in daily group therapy sessions for a month. I took another extra month off work. Until – through talking out my life and finding a proper, if minimal, medication dosage – I felt I was ready to go back to work. And knew I was when I told a co-worker in all seriousness that I was crazy. And he smiled and said: “Mike, we always knew that.”
Q. What role did your family, colleagues and bosses play in your treatment and recovery?
A. I told our sports editor at the time that my collapse was not his fault. And it wasn’t. I had an emotional fault in my foundation the size of the crack in the House of Usher. But I will say this. Were all my bosses as understanding as Derek Sampson – then the college editor at The Star – I might not have broken down completely. Too many bosses in journalism treat reporters and assistant editors and copy editors like donkeys. When you have a donkey like me who already thinks he isn’t good enough and that everything that goes wrong is his fault, well, people can break.
Q. How do you assess your condition at present?
A. I’m much more forgiving of myself and others. I’m calmer, and that is in part because of meds. I don’t have to scream and throw a fit to tell people I need a break. And the people who work with me seem to appreciate that. On the first day after I poured out my insecurities to a shrink, he asked me: “What took you so long to come here?” I might not have broken down if I had gone earlier. I wish I had. But perhaps I needed to hit an emotional bottom. I still refer to bad days as being able “to see that dark lake that is flowing right under my feet.” But I’m sound enough to have been able to help some other people who have had the same problems as I. I’m in a good place right now.
Q. Why did you decide to write about your depression in a public forum?
A. I wanted to help other people. And it helped me at the same time. Depression deepens the more ashamed you are of being depressed, the more you try to hide it. I wanted to tell other people “You’re not alone.”
Q. What was it like writing that column – how did you find the words?
A. I don’t think about writing. I don’t craft things. They just pour out. I’d be a better writer if I was able to write and re-write and re-write. I do re-write. But I hate it. It, to me, injects artifice into what pours out of my gut and my heart.
Q. Reaction to the column?
A. Generally good. A lot of people told me it took a lot of courage. I kept telling them it didn’t. It wasn’t courageous. I simply told a story like I’d told thousands of stories I’ve run across in covering the Royals from 1973 through 1980, from covering eight Olympic Games, from covering more than 20 years of sports of all kinds at the University of Missouri, and six or seven in the ’70s when K-State was good at basketball and sucked at football. From covering the Golden Gloves with some guy named Steve Marantz, and from going inside the collapsed Hyatt Regency lobby to help report and write the story of the Hyatt Skywalk Tragedy.
Q. What impact did your job, and career, have on your condition?
A. It both increased the pressure to break and served as a safety valve. I may have reduced stress by working at another sort of job. But I might have exploded out of frustration. I picked the right profession. Sometimes I just didn’t do it very well.
Q. Aside from the long hours and travel, how might a job in sports media put stress on health and happiness?
A. Journalism – all sorts, I’d bet – isn’t what it was when I graduated from Mizzou. The profession contends fairness and accuracy remain basic tenets. I don’t believe that is the case beyond the pride of the individual. Get it first. Whatever IT is. Too many people don’t really care. It is all about Internet clicks, and getting somebody to leave comments at the bottom of your stories. Journalism no longer takes the time to explain. We no longer try to change the world for the better. We’re just trying to get along, to survive. And I hate that.
Q. In the past year, other sports columnists have written about personal battles with alcoholism and sex addiction. Why are writers now more apt to reveal personal matters when in the past it was off limits?
A. I don’t know that is true. Maybe it is. Blame it on Watergate. And part of that is a good thing. I think we’re being more honest, by choice or not doesn’t really matter. Each person, at heart, is what we call an “Olympic story.” Full of humanity, pathos, pride, disappointment. Journalists are fully developed characters, not entities existing in a single dimension. I like the way Cheryl Wheeler – a singer-songwriter who wrote the song “Aces” said it in another song: “Life is short, but the days and nights are long.”
Q. Mizzou alums are afraid to ask, but will: Is depression an occupational hazard of covering Mizzou sports?
A. No. It would depress me more if I had to daily try to report on the quasi-religious experience of Kansas basketball, Nebraska football or St. Louis Cardinals baseball. Mizzou sports and I have something in common. We’re sometimes quite good, often-times flawed. Sometimes we are just downright pathetic. But at the end of the day, I’d like to believe we’re both without too much artifice. At the end of it all, we’re not that hard to understand.
(SMG thanks Mike DeArmond for his cooperation)