A few months back, I came across a video interview with former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf. For those who don’t follow sports, Ryan Leaf never lived up to his pre-draft hype and was out of the league in a few years; however, failing in the NFL was the least of his problems.
It wasn’t long before Ryan was battling a serious drug addiction. He ended up in prison twice and at one point tried to take his own life. It was a terrifying fall from grace for the player who was drafted No. 2 in 1998, after future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
In the past year or so, Ryan has done a number of interviews with former ESPN and NFL Network personality Rich Eisen. In one of these segments, he talks about his final years in the NFL and his inability to cope with the demands of being an NFL quarterback. At one of his lowest points, Ryan says that he really wanted to tell his coach that needed some time for himself.
In the interview, he recalls a conversation that he wishes he could have had with this then-head coach. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I can’t get out of bed. I feel sad all (of) the time. I feel lazy. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”
In the early 2000s, that option wasn’t available to him. His decline on and off the field continued, and he did what most men do: he dealt with his mental-health struggles by himself. That’s a lonely path that usually leads to self-destructive behavior.
The NFL is very much like the construction industry in that men don’t feel free to talk about their mental health. They push down those feelings, often with tragic results.
In the years since, Ryan has open about his past. He speaks freely about his mistakes and has become an inspiration to those who struggle with sobriety as well as mental health issues. He acknowledges his failure in the NFL, calling his podcast, “Bust.”
Ryan says that his addiction will never be cured — because there is no such thing. He takes life one day at a time and doesn’t take sobriety for granted. He also is a steadfast advocate for mental health therapy for men.
As has often been said, life isn’t just about how you fall down; it’s about how you get up. It’s also about what you can do for others who are lost on the same road that you had once traveled. Kudos, Ryan Leaf.
Many of us have a personal connection to suicide. It’s an act that has long-lasting effects for everyone connected to that single incident. And as we know it, suicide is far too prevalent among men in the construction industry.
We men don’t talk about our feelings. It’s easier to hide behind a smile while saying, “I’m doing okay” — even when we aren’t. The thought of talking to a therapist is foreign to us.
I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve been laid off twice in my life, and it’s not something that I care to repeat.
The first time came via a phone call half a world away while I was hosting Thanksgiving dinner for my colleagues in Hong Kong. “We’re closing your office, and we aren’t offering anyone a position elsewhere in the company,” said the voice on the phone. The part about “no job for anyone” seared itself into my brain.
We had been having a great time that evening, so I didn’t mention it after I hung up the phone. When we returned to work on Monday, I convened our small group and gave them the news. It was my responsibility to shut down the operation in an orderly manner, so life went on for three more months, as my co-workers went their separate ways one by one.
By the time that I returned to the U.S., I wasn’t sure what I was feeling, but it felt off. I had done the right thing in life. I had served my country. I had then gone to college and worked relentlessly over the next 18 years to move ahead in my career. I believed in my industry and the work that we were doing. Did I feel betrayed by the company that I had served faithfully for nearly eight years? You bet I did!
Now here I was – 43 years old, and for the first time in my life, I was out of work. It was also during the depths of a recession.
I was the head of my household and the sole provider, and I definitely felt pressure to get back to work, even if that pressure wasn’t real. I grew up in a household with Depression-era parents who had known real suffering. Being laid off seemed trivial to what they had endured. Suck it up, I kept telling myself; you don’t have time for feelings.
Eventually, I did find a job, but not with CFMA. That came after the second layoff. Bouncing back from both layoffs wasn’t easy, and both took a toll financially and personally. You lose your sense of worth.
In the years since, I’ve come to call it the “Five Stages of Job Loss” — identical to the “Five Stages of Grief.”
- Denial — How can they fire me after all I’ve done for them?!
- Anger — This is self-explanatory. If men have one emotion that we can express, it’s anger. We’re more than happy to unleash that anger at any time of our choosing and can stay in this stage for far too long.
- Bargaining — Maybe if I take a pay cut, they’ll keep me on. No, they won’t; you’re done. Leave now and don’t upset your former colleagues on your way out the side door.
- Depression — If you think that you’ve hit rock bottom, then wait until you watch your savings dwindle while all of your job applications seemingly go unnoticed and the monthly bills are piling up on the table.
- Acceptance — Even after you reach this stage, your life and stability feels like a delicate thread that stretches behind and in front of you for a mile.
Several weeks after you lose your job, no one cares. Your friends and former colleagues have stopped calling to see if you’ve found work. They have their own lives and their own problems, and your jobless status is no longer their concern. It’s nothing personal; it’s simply a reality. This further isolates you, which can deepen your self-doubt and depression.
In truth, you will work again. It will take time, and you might have to pivot your life and career. The light at the end of the jobless tunnel exists. This brings me to my final point — a thought that occurred to me as I wrote this.
Maybe those of us in the working world don’t have to make it so difficult for our colleagues who lose their jobs. Why can’t we provide help for laid-off employees? What if companies required and paid for mental health counseling for workers they terminate — either for cause or economics — and not just send them out there to be alone with their thoughts?
Most men will not willingly go to therapy, and I count myself among them. We suffer in silence because that’s the manly thing to do.
I believe that if I had been forced to talk with someone, I would have been able to sort through many of my emotions and let go of that anger that sat for years in the dark recesses, waiting to emerge and lash out over something insignificant. I know that some companies will balk at the cost, but it’s a small price to pay.
After all, we could be talking about someone’s life.A few months back, I came across a video interview with former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf. For those who don’t follow sports, Ryan Leaf never lived up to his pre-draft hype and was out of the league in a few years; however, failing in the NFL was the least of his problems.