It’s 1 a.m. and I wake up to a tap tap tap on my car window. I’m groggy. Disoriented. My mouth is sticky with stale malt liquor. It tastes like metal. There’s a flashlight beaming in through my window, and through the tint, it looks like the sun probably does when you’re underwater — like I imagine it would look if I was drowning.
I don’t even remember falling asleep. I just remember pulling the car to the side of the dead-end service road and leaning the seat back, thinking I couldn’t spend another night sleeping in my office. I had stopped at Kroger to pick up an eight-pack of orange Gatorade and a four-pack of Steel Reserve. My plan was to drink the beer, hydrate, then sleep in the car and get to the facility in the morning after the other coaches had arrived so they wouldn’t suspect anything.
Now, I hear tapping.
I get my bearings, pull my seat upright and roll down the window. A police officer shines his flashlight in my face.
“Where you been tonight?”
“Where you going?”
“Nowhere … I ain’t goin’ nowhere, sir.”
“Step out of the car, please.”
I get out, still half asleep. The officer tells me to walk a straight line, gives me a breathalyzer — the whole nine.
Then he tells me to put my hands behind my back. He snaps handcuffs onto my wrists, walks me to the back of his cruiser, puts his hand on the top of my head and ducks me into the backseat.
He starts driving, and I’m thinking that my life is over. I’m going to jail, and by the time I get out, everything I’ve been hiding — and everything I’ve been hiding from — will be revealed.
My secrets will be out.
For almost three years, I held myself hostage.
It started in 2012, in what was supposed to be a career-defining year for me. The Titans had drafted me in the fourth round back in 2009, and I had two solid seasons before sliding down the depth chart in 2011. I hardly even played that year. So I worked as hard as humanly possible to prepare myself for 2012, because I knew what was at stake.
I went into training camp in the best shape of my life, ready to show the Titans — and any other team who was paying attention — that I belonged in the league. That I could play.
Then, during camp, I suffered a partially torn patellar tendon in my left leg, and that was it.
My season was over before it had even started.
Ask anybody who played with me and they’ll tell you that I made it to the NFL on confidence, work ethic and positivity. Yeah, I had some physical gifts. But I prided myself on working hard, and I was always happy-go-lucky. I loved football so much that as long as I was playing, there was no such thing as a bad day.
I think that’s why during the 2012 season, when I was sidelined with the knee injury, something inside me started to change.
Without football, I was lost. I didn’t know who I was. I had no sense of self.
I rehabbed and worked my tail off to come back in 2013. A few teams brought me in to work out, but nothing materialized. And every time I got sent back home — every time a team basically told me that I wasn’t good enough to play for them — it really hurt. I took it personally, too. I started second-guessing myself. Questioning everything. I asked myself, Who are you, really, Gerald?
And the only answer I could come up with was … I was a failure.
Without football, I had lost all direction. All confidence.
That’s when the isolation started. I assumed that everybody looked at me like those teams I worked out for had — like they all thought I wasn’t good enough. That in their eyes, I was every bit of the failure I felt I was, and more. And rather than subject myself to other people’s judgements, I just avoided them. I avoided everybody.
I declined friends’ wedding invitations. I skipped my 10-year high-school reunion. I even shut my family out. I stopped visiting my mom. My wife, Genee, and my daughter, Cade, would want to go to the movies or the mall or something, and I’d tell them to go alone while I stayed home by myself.
My appetite all but disappeared. There were periods where I lost 20 pounds in a couple of weeks because I wasn’t eating at all. I normally weigh about 230 pounds, and I would slim down to like 210. People would see me and say something like, “Hey, have you lost weight? You look good!”
If only they knew the reason….
I started having mood swings, too. I’d go on a yelling spree over nothing. Genee would tell me that I left the windows down in the car or something, and I’d take it as a criticism and start screaming at her.
Then, when I’d finally calm down, I would get mad at myself for losing my temper. I’d get down on myself, and I’d feel like a failure all over again.
My self-loathing was constant, and it was exhausting — like, emotionally exhausting. I just couldn’t get out of my own head. I was trapped. It got to the point where I couldn’t even sleep at night because I couldn’t turn my brain off.
Next thing you know, it’s a Tuesday night and I’m drinking two 24-ounce tallboys at home, by myself.
That’s when the drinking picked up.
I had never really been much of a drinker. I didn’t start drinking until I was 21, and even then, it was only occasionally, like at social gatherings. I had never been a sit-at-home type of drinker. But one night when I was up late and my thoughts were racing and I couldn’t leave myself alone and the only thing I wanted in the world was some peace … I remembered how I would feel after a couple of beers. How it relaxed me. How my mind would just slow down.
Next thing you know, it’s a Tuesday night and I’m drinking two 24-ounce tallboys at home, by myself, just so I could take the edge off and pass out.
This was in 2013.
I thought I was drinking to help myself sleep.
It would be another two years before I would understand what I was really doing.
I spent most of 2013 waiting by the phone, but no teams were calling. By 2014, I was still training and holding onto whatever hope I may have had at that point to revive my NFL career, which was basically none.
Around the same time, I started working with an organization called The Trust, which is a program within the NFLPA that helps players transition out of the game and into the next chapter of their lives. And through its scholarship program, The Trust presented me with an opportunity to pursue a masters degree in sports management at Southern Miss, my alma mater, while working with the football team as a volunteer quality control coach.
So I had a choice: I could continue training — and hope and pray and wait for the phone to ring — or I could call it a career and go back to school.
I decided it was time to move on.
Genee and I didn’t want to pull Cade out of school, so they stayed in Nashville and I got an apartment in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, ready to start school and the next chapter of my life.
But I brought my depression, anxiety and drinking habits with me.
I was still knocking back two 24-ounce cans of beer a night to help me sleep. One night, I was sitting at my desk, breaking down film, and out of nowhere, I just started to cry. I felt my pulse racing, like I had been sprinting — like somebody had been chasing me. I could feel my heart pounding underneath my shirt. It felt like it was going to beat right out of my chest.
Eventually, it subsided. But attacks like that started happening more frequently.
The worst was probably the night I stayed late at the office watching film, and I decided to stop at Checkers and pick up some food on my way home. As I pulled into the parking lot, I had that feeling again — heart pounding, pulse racing. But this time, it felt … different. Stronger. It didn’t feel like a panic attack. It felt like a full-blown heart attack. I couldn’t feel my face. My hands were numb. I couldn’t move my legs, so I couldn’t reach for the gas pedal or the brake.
I was afraid that if I told somebody what was happening to me, they would confirm my biggest fear. That I was crazy.
I was frozen, idling through the Checkers parking lot, thinking, This is it. I’m having a heart attack. I’m going to die.
I somehow got my bearings and found the consciousness to pull out of the parking lot. I never even made it to the drive-thru. I pulled onto a side road, threw the car into park before my mind and body could betray me again, and I broke down. I sat there for 30 minutes, sobbing and scared out of my mind.
Then I called Genee.
She urged me to go to the emergency room, but I didn’t want to.
Back before I left for Hattiesburg, Genee and I were in the car one day, and she mentioned something about how much I had been drinking. It wasn’t confrontational or anything like that, she was just casually making an observation.
Then she said, “You know, I’ve been reading up on some things, and from some of the symptoms that I see, I think you might be dealing with depression.”
I don’t know why, but to that point, whenever I thought about mental illness, I thought about the Joker from the Batman movies. I mean, he was insane, right? He was crazy. I don’t want to put too many labels on him because I understand now how dangerous stereotypes can be, but that’s the impression I got, and it stayed with me.
So when I heard Genee say “depression,” which I associated with mental illness, the only thing I could think about was the Joker. So I said to her, “I’m not crazy.”
And I think that’s why I didn’t want to go to the hospital that night. I think that’s why I had been so afraid for so long, and why so many people who are battling depression, or anxiety, or any other kind of mental illness don’t seek the help they need.
It wasn’t the help that scared me.
I was afraid that if I told somebody what was happening to me, they would confirm my biggest fear.
That I was crazy.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I listened to my wife and I drove to the emergency room. But by that time, the attack — or whatever it was — had passed, and the doctors couldn’t find any evidence of anything wrong with me. They said I was fine.
But I know my body.
And I knew that no matter what any doctor said, I was definitely not O.K.
Not long after that panic attack — easily my worst to date — I withdrew from classes at Southern Miss. I stayed on with the coaching staff for the rest of the 2014 season, then I went home to Nashville to be with my wife and daughter and figure out what I was going to do next.
It was January 2015, and I was 20 pounds lighter than normal. I didn’t even recognize myself in the mirror. I was still drinking every night — self-medicating. The panic attacks came and went. I was living in darkness. That’s the only way I can describe it. Pure darkness. Like nothing good could possibly happen in my life.
Then, I finally caught a break.
I was at a conference in Louisville and I ran into one of my old college coaches, Larry Fedora. He had coached me at Southern Miss and had since moved on to become the head coach at North Carolina. He had a position open for a graduate assistant, and he offered it to me. I accepted.
The night before I was supposed to leave for Chapel Hill, I had a panic attack. It wasn’t quite as bad as the one I had in the Checkers parking lot, but it was bad enough that Genee had to take me to the emergency room.
And once again, the doctors said I was fine.
I went home and drove to North Carolina the following morning.
When you’re living in darkness and there’s no promise for light, you feel like you have nothing to live for.
I didn’t know anything about Chapel Hill or the neighborhoods near campus, so I had no idea where I should get an apartment. One of my old teammates from college was also on Coach Fedora’s staff, and he offered me a place to stay. But I didn’t want him to see how much I was drinking, so I declined. Instead, I decided to sleep in my office at the football facility until I had some time to scout some apartments and find a place.
The job kept me busy seven days a week for the first couple of months, so I didn’t even have a chance to get out and find an apartment. I was basically living out of my car and my office. Then, towards the end of March, we finally got a weekend off. I spent all day that Sunday apartment hunting.
And after seeing so many nice apartments, the last thing I wanted to do was go back and sleep in my office again.
That’s when I made my trip to Kroger. I drove around the streets of Durham with one beer in my hand and the others on the passenger seat until all four were gone. Then I stopped, threw the cans away and parked my car on a dead-end service road. It was like 40° out, so I left the car running to stay warm as I leaned my seat back.
Then came the tap tap tap on my window.
The police cruiser.
The jail cell.
And the overwhelming feeling that my life was over.
I think that whenever somebody contemplates suicide, it’s because they have no hope. When you’re living in darkness and there’s no promise for light — when you feel like nothing good can happen in your life — you feel like you have nothing to live for.
That’s how I felt sitting in that jail cell.
Then, I felt a change.
For almost three years, I held myself hostage. I put on the mask. I hid my struggles from the world and from those closest to me. Why? Because as an athlete, that’s how I had been trained. I had been taught to persevere. To never show weakness. To be proud.
I thought my pride was what was keeping me going. But in reality, it was holding me back. I was never going to seek the help that I needed. I think God knew that. And sitting in that jail cell, it dawned on me that maybe getting arrested was God’s way of setting me free. He was shining a light into my darkness. Because by the time I got released the next day, my name would be in headlines on the Internet. My secrets would be out. I wasn’t going to be able to hide anymore.
So I had a choice: I could end my life, or I could face my demons. I could give up, or I could fight.
I thought about Genee.
I thought about Cade.
And I chose to fight.
The next morning, after I was released, I immediately resigned from my position on the UNC coaching staff and took full responsibility for my actions. I went back to Nashville and called The Trust, which had been guiding my transition to life after football. I told them about the panic attacks. The drinking. I told them everything.
They set me up at a rehabilitation program at the Eisenhower Clinic in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I left that day.
I spent 30 days at Eisenhower, and the most important thing that happened there was that I was able to talk to somebody about what I had been struggling with. And instead of judging me or telling me I was crazy — which is what I feared the most — they told me that everything I was feeling was normal.
That’s when everything turned for me.
Don’t wait for a wake-up call. Talk to somebody. It’s not as scary as you think.
I learned that I wasn’t just drinking to fall asleep, I was self-medicating. Putting a band-aid on the bigger issues I was facing. I got to talk to other players who were struggling with their transition out of the game. I learned mindfulness. Meditation. How to not be judgemental of my own thoughts. How to relax.
I learned how to be myself again.
That was three years ago. And I’ll be honest, I still struggle today. It’s a roller coaster. I can go a month or two where I feel great. Then, out of nowhere, I’ll have a week where it just kind of hits me, and I’m not myself again.
But I think the biggest difference now is that I’m aware. If I’m having a bad day or I’m feeling down, I don’t have to hide it. I can tell Genee, “Hey, I’m not feeling too good today.” I can say that, and it’s O.K. We have the knowledge now to identify how I’m feeling and deal with it the right way. I can talk to my friends about what I’m going through, and they’ve all been so understanding and so supportive.
That’s what I’ve learned: You have to have support. Mental illness isn’t something you can overcome by yourself. And if you try to, you’ll just dig yourself into a deeper hole.
I spent three years doing that — digging myself deeper into my depression. I was asleep at the wheel, and it took getting arrested for me to wake up. I could have killed myself that night, drinking and driving. Or worse, I could have killed somebody else.
If you’re struggling, don’t wait for something bad to happen. Don’t wait for a wake-up call. Talk to somebody. It’s not as scary as you think. There is hope. There is light. Just talk to somebody. Because fighting alone is the worst way to fight.