On anxiety, social media, and sport as catharsis

Growing up, I was always an anxious child.

My mom loves to remind me that I was impossible to settle as a baby and young child, that I needed constant reassurance. As I got older, I worried about everything. I worried about tense relationships between my two older brothers and my parents. I worried about my parents’ relationship. I worried incessantly about getting to places on time. I obsessed needlessly over achieving good grades out of fear of creating trouble at home if I didn’t. I didn’t want to let anyone down.

It affected my sleep, how I ate when I was away from home at school, how I dealt with problems at school and at home, and my relationships with my family.

But I always found comfort in sport. Both of my older brothers grew up playing various sports — mostly hockey in the winter so that we could spend summers at the cottage water skiing — and my dad coached all three of us at various levels. When I wasn’t playing sports, my time was spent watching my brothers play hockey. It has always been one of our greatest common bonds. Even then though, sports were a source of anxiety in my life. I started playing hockey a year later than all of my friends and wouldn’t water ski (now one of my greatest passions in life) until long after both of my brothers had started. Instead, I was fanatical about amassing as much knowledge about sports as I possibly could.

And my parents supported my sports obsession and have never faltered in their encouragement of my goals. I have lived a very privileged life and grew up in an upper-middle class family in Aurora, 40 minutes from downtown Toronto, where my dad frequently took me to the Air Canada Centre or the Rogers Centre to watch Leafs, Raptors and Jays games.

Later in my childhood, as I approached my teens and the relationships that surrounded me began to stabilize, I grew extremely close with my brothers and my penchant to be anxious faded. But the disappearing anxiety was also helped by simultaneously investing myself more and more in sport. My first jobs included refereeing hockey, timekeeping hockey, working as a sales rep at the local Sport Mart and teaching hockey at clinics in nearby Stouffville and Markham.

In high school, I volunteered to help coach the varsity hockey team and began taking the passion I had from blogging about hockey online to as many outlets as I could, freelancing for local newspapers in Aurora and in Haliburton where my family has a cottage. I dedicated my life to that passion, and I am extremely lucky to be where I am today: one year away from graduating from Carleton University’s School of Journalism with a wealth of experience since that I hope has prepared me well for the path ahead.

But with the larger audience, and the platform, has come the return of my anxiety. Not in my work or my pursuit of my career goals. I love what I do. I love challenging myself. I love working with great people who make me a better writer and a better person. I am proud of how I have pursued my dream fearlessly and confidently and I hope that I have begun to break into a profession that is built by an older generation.

Instead, I am anxious about all those who don’t know me but fight against me – there are a growing number of people who exist in my online communities that are content to publicly push for my failure. Like I did as a child, I work tirelessly to make sure I don’t fail and let them win, or let others down. I obsess over completing my readings at Carleton, and keep myself so busy pursuing my career that I have at times neglected my partner — who has been my rock — of nearly four years. I have tried to ignore the online angst, and have frequently turned to my partner, my colleagues at PPP, and my family when the latest attack on my character by a stranger has bothered me into anxiety. They’ve encouraged me to ignore these people. Most of the time, I have. I know that anything worth doing and doing well is going to be met with criticism. I get that.

In the process, I have tried to stay true to myself. If there’s one thing my brothers and my parents have instilled in me, it’s to be unwavering in my beliefs and to take constructive criticism seriously. My oldest brother is the most morally resolute person I have ever met. He and others have encouraged me to use my platform to challenge people on issues that I feel passionately about and be introspective when I am challenged in return. So often, though, I am not challenged with nuanced arguments but instead with malice.

And this has brought back some of that childhood anxiety. I have been publicly shamed for decisions I have made to criticize the way journalists have covered Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane and his alleged sexual assaults. My criticism of a front-page Sports Illustrated story on Kane lost me the chance to be published, at a young age, with the sports world’s preeminent magazine. It too brought on another wave of hate-filled people quick to label me as a callous young journalist who ought to be more reserved if he wants to find success in the industry.

At PPP, I have tried to allow the much more qualified women on staff to cover the sensitive social issues because they have lived experiences and perspective on these issues that I can never have. We have tried to change the direction of a site with a documented history of antagonism and build a more welcoming community. But with our social coverage has come the strongest wave of aggressors, people so bent on dismissing you as an author and a person that they’ll say anything about you — going as far as to threaten the women on staff.

And while I had never let the anxiety overwhelm me, yesterday it did.

In the wake of yet another mass shooting — this time on police officers in Dallas – and after a nearly sleepless night, I found myself wanting to but unable to focus on the Milos Raonic Wimbledon semi against Roger Federer because it felt so insignificant. I eventually rose out of bed late in the morning and turned hopefully to sport to cope with the pit in my stomach. After briefly moving past the pain and heartache I feel for the continued tragedy in Dallas and across the United States, and tweeting about Wimbledon, I was met with accusations of being insincere by people I had never met or interacted with. Too quickly, it all came tumbling down and I was left quivering with anxiety, on the brink of tears, depressed, in need of getting off of social media, and angry at myself for being so upset about such petty, insignificant attacks.

People being malicious online isn’t new. And in the face of countless tragedies my complaining about the pain these people are causing me feels inconsequential. The problems in my life are pale. I do not face the threat of death at routine traffic stops because of the colour of my skin. I am not at risk of being murdered at a dance club because of my sexuality. I do not have to deal with constant death threats for writing on certain topics because of my gender. I knew this, but I couldn’t help but quiver anyways. Still, these are attacks on my sanity, my mental health, and my community.

What kept me going was all of the people who reached out with stories of their anxious struggles online and elsewhere. We try to disconnect the online world from our own, but it’s not always that simple; online communities are just like real-life communities.

This post is not an attempt to insert myself into and eclipse larger tragedies by virtue of my own pain and anxiety. This post is for people who struggle with anxiety and mental health issues. Just know that it’s OK to feel vulnerable, and that your mental health matters.

Contribute to your communities by being available to anyone who needs your support. Listen. Reflect. Be ready to change.

And yes, this post is also a little bit for me. It’s for me because it’s cathartic to write, just like it was cathartic to turn on a tennis match… even when neither really matter.

My DMs are always open on Twitter if you ever need someone to talk to. You can also email me at scott.wheeler@live.com.

Thanks for reading.

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2 comments

  1. Tim Wilcox · July 9, 2016

    As a person who has battled with depression most of his adult life, I completely understand your need to write this, Wheels. This is a brilliant and poignant read for me. I’ve let self-doubt and worse sabotage a lot of opportunities in my life. Only now, in my 40s, have I managed to come to terms with what I am, or am not, and take what is given me every day and run with it. Family, especially my children, and the support of my friends, are the fuel I need to keep going after it nowadays. It’s still tough, but now I can find the resolve needed to push through. From the sounds of things, your support system is weapons grade. I know we’re only linked through sports writing, but I’ve found myself following your stuff, and the growth I see in it. I consider you a friend because of this and think you are going to be a smashing success through your talent and drive. The lazy, negative voices will always be there, looking to get a hold, like barnacles on your hull. Give them no quarter. No one gets to 00:00 on the time clock in pristine condition. I’d wager it wouldn’t mean as much if we did.
    Stay strong, but stay true, my friend.

    • scottcwheeler · July 9, 2016

      Thanks for this comment, Timbo. You’re one of the good ones, keep fighting the good fight. Keep your head up. Always here for you, my friend.

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