Deisler, Football and Depression


I’d like to thank Rob Marrs for putting me onto this particular story. I don’t follow European football particularly well, and the Deisler situation had completely passed me by. I doubt very much I can do more with it than rehearse the usual things, but here’s what I make of it nonetheless.

Depression is “my” problem, in that in the company of (my off-the-cuff estimate) one in three of the kind of people who’ll find themselves reading this, I’ve put up with periodic bouts of dysthymic disorder every so often since my late teens. It’s a common mistake for people in my position – those who’ve experienced the problem AND practiced psychotherapy – to consider ourselves as having an unusual insight on it or some similar reflection. For what it’s worth, I’ve read the same autobiographical accounts, textbooks and analyses of the experiences of the famous depressed as you have. And all I can say having done so is that, in terms of communicating the experience of depression to those who haven’t had the pleasure, it isn’t so much that we can’t provide the right sort of metaphor, but that we lack the kind of syntax for the job.

People talk about “pain” in depression for instance (usually after telling you that it’s different from sadness on page 1.01) but then admit that they don’t mean it: the pain in question lacks the narrative, temporal quality of pain from injury or grief. And the desires for self-harm and suicide can come at the same time but drive in quite different directions: the self-harm can feel a bit like, but altogether unlike, a signal to the outside world that one has cottoned on to one’s dragging uselessness. Suicide can be a bit like, but not like – I really apologise for this – not “ending it all”, but “ending specifically this” , this nameless, faceless ongoing way of living.

Reading this account of Deisler’s experiences doesn’t provide me with anything original to say about him either, but for what it’s worth, here is what I think there is to say.

Firstly, we’re talking about Germany, not England: the attitudes towards mental illness here do not necessarily copy across to Europe. Of course, 100 years ago, they had both Kraepelin and Freud, the men who began the essential psychiatry vs psychotherapy argument that rages on in e.g. Richard Bentall‘s books. Football in Germany isn’t exactly set up for what happened to Deisler, but they are much less likely to borrow the metaphor of possession and witchcraft that we saw with Tackling My Demons. (Although Deisler has called his book Back To Life…) home was not a place I could withdraw to for getting support as my parents had other problems to deal with.

That’s Deisler, and I can imagine a host of depression sufferers inside and outside sport nodding in recognition at that. In my own former practice, a majority of depressives had had the kind of experience that Alice Miller (a German-speaking Swiss)  describes in The Drama of Being A Child:

It is one of the turning points in therapy when the patient comes to the emotional insight that all the love she has captured with so much effort and self-denial was not meant for her as she really was, that the admiration for her beauty and achievements was aimed at this beauty and these achievements and not at the child herself. In therapy, the small and lonely child that is hidden behind her achievements wakes up and asks: ‘What would have happened if I had appeared before you sad, needy, angry, furious? Where would your love have been then? And I was all those things as well. Does this mean that it was not really me you loved, but only what I pretended to be? The well-behaved, reliable, empathic, understanding, and convenient child, who in fact was never a child at all?

Back of the net, there, in my opinion. And I’m also saying that there are elements in Deisler’s experience that are only circumstantially related to football. If the genetic potential is there, if the peer influence is right (and Deisler says “When I was young playing football in the streets, the other kids would mock me for being small”) then the stage is set for the situation at home to wrap things up long before the final whistle.

Are there “pressures” in the game, however, that make it a situation unto itself when it comes to depression and other mood disorders?

The article talks about “a dream of becoming professional footballers with the guarantee of fame, a full bank account and an Aston Martin in the driveway” and comments that “it does not always lead to a happy life”. Does it ever? At any rate, if you have grown up badly mirrored in the Alice Miller sense, or otherwise feeling low in the universal pecking order, invisibly flawed, then money, fame, success and “new friends” – surely this doesn’t need saying – are, far from covering over the wounds, only likely to exacerbate them.

There are balanced people in this crazy game, and consistently they are the ones who reject the Aston Martin side of things: Shearer found himself a retreat in Northumberland and a city that would regard him with affection and respect his privacy. Matt Le Tissier did the same on the south coast. Nicky Barmby went home to Hull, and is still there, loving it.

Deisler talks about fainting girls and men admiring his money and pulling power. For someone with any depressive (and while we’re here, isn’t “depression” quite the wrong word for something that internally violent?) tendencies at all, this is the nightmare. When you need to hide, where do you hide? When you need trusted people to bore silly with your talk, which of your absurd hangers-on can you trust not to run to the papers? And look, there’s Deisler: in the papers…

The top of football is not the place to be depressed. And there’s another angle: therapists can be a predatory bunch when it comes to fame. I didn’t find many familiar faces coming into my consulting room, but there were some, and believe me, you feel the tug of money and attention playing on the lapels of your jacket. The sensation is very real, and some give in to it: think how many therapists you’ve heard of simply through their famous, publicized, clients.

If you are the famous client, you can find therapists who will e.g. not ask for a public testimonial, or gush about you to their friends at conference, but you will have to tread carefully at a time when treading carefully is the hardest thing.

And it might not help you anyway. Paul Gascoigne’s two autobiographies made me feel wretched and ashamed of psychotherapy. Firstly, there was the hideous misdiagnosis of what at a distance looked (primarily) very much like a severe anxiety disorder that he was self-medicating with alcohol. Secondly, there was the treatment, well-meaning and all, but leaving one with the picture of poor Paul padding around expensive Colorado retreats looking after everyone else except himself. That warm, caring, generous man being propelled unwitting through all that 12-step stuff which his background gave him so little traction with (is there anything more essentially middle class than therapy, really?)..

If you are prone to difficulties, then football isn’t the best place to be, and fame can make finding worthwhile help all the harder and riskier (if it’s to be found at all: can I put my hand up and say that although I criticize Paul Gascoigne’s treatment, my distant/unreliable diagnosis isn’t exactly awash with optimism about what could be done for him?) .

But is there something special about sportsmen, about footballers, that sets them up for mood disorders? Or about the environment itself?

Real sporting talent is harder to miss than it used to be. In the 1940s and 1950s, improved nutrition and working conditions meant that Middlesbrough, a place with famously little to do if you were a boy who didn’t like football, was awash with playing talent. Brian Clough could remember many a man better than either himself or Len Shackleton who simply preferred factory life to being treated like a chattel by Ayresome Park. That’s all changed now: coaches can no longer rely upon chance discoveries in non-league football of the Ian Wright variety. If you are good enough to be good at sport, it’s more likely that you’ll end up like Phil Neville, with more than one sport knocking at your door when you’re still at a young age.

And if you are that good, the pressure to take the chance given you is immense. Sometimes, it will be welcome: sporting biography is full of men and women who had been able to do nothing right until they e.g. picked up a javelin… and, finding something they could do, they hung on to it as hard as they could.

But football draws into it men and women – more and more of the latter as the game grows – who are extremely gifted at it, and able to work hard enough to develop that talent, but who aren’t actually interested in it and don’t enjoy it. Fans can miss this, because we all wanted it so badly ourselves as kids (and do you find, as you get past 30, that your fantasies contemplate retirement, your fantasies hang up their boots, your fantasies start taking coaching badges?). But it’s perfectly possible to be international standard at football and not care about the game at all.

You can live the dream and find it’s your nightmare job; and then you find that no one wants to listen or sympathise. Footballers can’t complain about anything – all that money! what more could they want? except the things that we all really want and need: an honest day’s work, and then the sleep of the just. But how many footballers fetch up with the sleep of kings?

And yes, football is ultimately a male competitive environment, and no, you can’t display weakness. One of the most revealing conversations I had in this respect was with a young coach at a Premiership club. He’d been struggling, and, whilst struggling, had overheard his “colleagues” discussing with relish how they were going to take advantage of his difficulties, pile pressure on his head and steal his opportunities. One hears similar tales from business, but business people bullshit on the grand scale, and I wonder.

Thus the environment, and I know I’ve added nothing new there. As for the footballers themselves – and the sporting mentality in general – there is something that I’ve seen, that I don’t altogether understand, that might contribute. I can only describe it as a kind of teak-hardness.

I’ve come across this mostly in golfers. By teak-hardness, I mean that from my perspective, the men (all men up until now) that I’ve seen in this appear to have trouble feeling any real emotion at all. They persist in a steady, solemn, serious, strongly judgemental frame, giving little away, not laughing except at another’s humiliation or misfortune, admitting to no grief or upset of their own, and looking ahead only to opportunities to distinguish themselves from the contemptible mass of mankind. Writing it down in one go makes it sound a lot nastier than it actually looks: there’s little unpoliteness – indeed, they will tend towards old-fashioned courtesy and a surface-level protectiveness towards women and the defenceless. They aren’t rude, but neither, you realise after a while, are they paying any particular attention to anyone else, and they have, ultimately, little interest in, and no knowledge of, the feelings of others.

Sitting with people like this – they’ll usually have come complaining of some mysterious, essentially physical complaint that they suspect and fear of being psychsomatic (ever met anyone with glove anaesthesia? rare but fascinating..) – you have the sense of being in front of a thick sea wall, with powerful currents and a world of natural chaos hemmed in behind it. If that wall goes, everything goes – identity, personality, sense of place in the world, sense of being worthy of humankind – total collapse. Worse than depression, or an anxiety disorder: total, enduring, nervous breakdown.

It’s not something I fully understand, and I suspect I’ve described it badly, but it’s a type I’ve only met in full in sportsmen. I’m reminded of that wierd BBC belief that sporting success should inspire the young. Given how many top sportspeople are solipsistic egotists who enjoy putting one over on other people, I do wonder what they are trying to encourage.

7 Replies to “Deisler, Football and Depression”

  1. Don’t usually comment, more of a lurker, but I thought this an excellent post – as much because it’s not afraid to be unsure, or rather, to worry less about perfect expression and instead try to get some of the – what, ‘flavour’?, ‘feeling’? – of what you’re wanting to say. Rather like this comment is doing, very badly 😉

  2. This is a great post. Reactions:

    1) Is the 1 in 3 a judgement on the kind of people who read this kind of post, read your blog or the general population? (Since I’m one of the 1 in 3, I’m curious…)

    2) “nameless, faceless ongoing way of living” – well put and implies another reason why footballers don’t get sympathy, ones like Basti at least appear to be more in the position to achieve something that isn’t just “nameless and faceless” than the rest of us.

    3) The insight into Gascoigne is fascinating too, on top of all the problems you mention, someone with his caring disposition naturally will end up taking care of “hangers on” who don’t repay the favour…

    4) On displaying weakness – I think it depends on the business, I know a number of people who worked in the corporate HQ of a large high street bank. That’s definitely an environment as viciously competitive as any football club, but many businesses are not like that.

    5) The deepest statement in the whole piece to me was “except the things that we all really want and need: an honest day’s work, and then the sleep of the just. But how many footballers fetch up with the sleep of kings?”

    We’re still a long way as a society from understanding that that is what we really need. One might argue that the species is invested in making sure we never really understand it – we don’t necessarily need Basti to play football even though he hates it, but we do want talented physicists to “discover nuclear fusion” even if they hate it…

  3. One more thing – the “teak hardness” – it fits a stereotype of male life in certain milieus. I came across it in certain coal miners. The majority had elements of it, but it was leavened by their community life. For some however, they didn’t fit – and so like the golfers you describe they never grew? lost? a sense of the feelings of others – their overwhelming focus became to “distinguish themselves from the contemptible mass.”

    Now I come to think, it’s not just the “feelings” but also a larger blindness to the “motivations” of others, to the notion that there could be other paths towards fulfilment than their own. (Although of course, stereotypically, like the Tiger Woods/Roger Federer mutual appreciation, there was sometimes a “kinship of the obsessed” – respect for other teak like figures…)

  4. James, having the hardest time getting ahold of you! I don’t get this twitter site and am not sure if this message is going to you. I’m concerned with all this talk about brain tumors…is this you or a friend?

  5. “they have, ultimately, little interest in, and no knowledge of, the feelings of other”: I knew a bloke like that. I then discovered that he was giving marriage guidance counselling. So perhaps I’d misread him, at least in part.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Not to be melodramatic about it, but I left myself feeling a tad burned-out writing this one, and I’m going to come back on Saturday when I’m (touch wood, Friday night in the Edinburgh Festival and all) feeling a bit fresher.

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