How I Use The Joy of Soccer To Fight Depression
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I’ve lived most of my life battling depression. It’s difficult to explain to someone how it feels—I’m still navigating it and every day I try to understand my thoughts and feelings a bit more. I fight it every day and I know I’ll defeat it.
My depression journey began when I was a child. I remember having an experience with depression when I was about six years old, around 1982, and not knowing what it was at the time. I was too young to understand it. Back then, I used to play soccer with my friends in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. One day, I went out to play with my friends. When I got to where we usually played soccer, they were already playing the game. As I’d been playing with them all the time, I assumed I was welcome to join and walked onto the field. They told me they would not allow me to play, and they didn’t need me there.
As I stood there watching these guys—guys I thought were my friends—reject me, I began to shake. I felt as though a light had been switched off in my spirit and darkness had taken over. I felt so ashamed. To mask the humiliation, I told them that I hadn’t come to play soccer but I had just said that to test them. I walked away feeling sad and lonely. I didn’t tell anyone about this incident. In the days that followed, I lost interest in playing soccer. When I saw the guys playing, I’d walk away and lock myself in my room.
I lost my appetite. I could go for many hours without eating and I would not even feel hungry. Whenever it was time for me to study, I struggled to concentrate on my books. I would ruminate and wonder why my friends had shunned me.
I kept my feelings to myself. I smiled at those guys when I met them. But inside, I was angry and hurt. I walked about sluggishly, leaving my family to wonder what was wrong with me. But I refused to share my emotions and kept them to myself. When they asked me why I was acting that way, I’d tell them to leave me alone because I didn’t want to be bothered. I felt as though there were dark clouds in my mind and soul.
Some months later, while in the house, some of my friends came over and said they were going to play soccer. I was feeling lonely and asked if I could join them. They said yes. When they agreed, I felt as though I’d scored a goal even before stepping onto the field. I reconciled with my friends and started playing with them again. But one day, while we were playing soccer, a friend tackled me from behind as he tried to win the ball from me. I fell, my left arm got dislocated at my elbow, and I couldn’t play anymore.
For months I plodded around, shoulders hunched, and thought my life had come to an end.
The years that followed were full of ups and downs. My father died and we experienced hardship and poverty. That worsened my depression.
I found it hard to keep up with work and family responsibilities. I’d feel tired most of the time, slept a lot, and felt aimless for many hours every day.
In 1993, I was admitted to a boys-only secondary school. Some of the guys teased me that I walked and acted like a woman. I felt sad and lonely. I found it hard to focus in class, and struggled to read my notes at night. I began to feel I was not smart enough and that affected my grades.
My depression got even worse when we moved from Accra, a big city, to live in my mother’s home village. Living in a village without electricity, running water, tarred roads, etc, gave me a culture shock. I struggled to adjust. I felt the darkness spread further over my soul.
Sometimes, while the other family members sat in the yard in the evening and chatted, I’d stay in my room alone. I suppressed my emotions and found my escape in being angry. I sometimes planned how I’d take my revenge on my mother for moving us to the village. On many days, I’d get angry with her when she asked me to do a household chore as a way to counteract feelings of sadness which somehow seemed harder to stomach. On other days, I hated everybody around me. Everyone got on my nerves. I avoided family and social gatherings and kept to myself in my bedroom. I remember my grandmother complaining many times that I didn’t like people.
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In 2003, I was admitted to university and moved out of the village. When I came back from university in 2007, and between 2007 and 2009, I suffered a number of diseases that made me feel miserable. I didn’t want to continue living. I wished I’d die in my sleep every time I went to bed. Whenever I woke up each morning, I’d struggle just to brush my teeth, bathe, or even eat. I didn’t see why I had to continue living and perpetuate my suffering. I just felt like giving up. I became confused. I existed from morning until night, just watching the seconds tick away. I had no motivation to go on living.
I began to consider dying by suicide. I began to think of what method I’d use to do it. But I didn’t really want to die. It’s a taboo to kill oneself in our culture and I knew I’d bring disgrace onto my family, and cause pain to my mother, if I did it.
So I began to find a reason to live.
I wanted to find something to cheer me up and give me a reason to look forward to the next day. That was around the time the 2010 Soccer World Cup was about to start in South Africa. I decided to watch some of the games just to make the seconds (each of which seemed to me to last for a thousand years) tick away.
On the day Ghana played her first game against Serbia, I sat in front of the TV, but my mind wandered while the game played on. I managed to pay attention when the spectators would scream at exciting moments of the game.
Ghana won the game and, to my surprise, I was excited, a feeling I’d not had in a long while. I thought about the game in the subsequent days and looked forward to Ghana’s next game against Australia.
As the competition continued and the Black Stars progressed, I realized watching the games helped me to get out of my head. It helped distract me from all my sad thoughts. Whenever Ghana won and the players jubilated, and the fans poured out onto the streets to celebrate, I’d feel happy too. I didn’t go out to celebrate with them because I was sick then, but I cheered and screamed in the house. When I slept at night and negative thoughts came into my mind, and I began to feel miserable and tense, I’d recall some of the exciting moments of the games I’d watched. I’d ruminate upon those moments and that would make me feel relaxed, happy, and positive. I’d continue until I fell asleep.
I began to look forward to the games when I woke up every day. And I’d mindfully try to follow most minutes of the games. For the ninety minutes that the games lasted, I’d be transported into a fantastical world where it seemed all my worries and fears vanished. My happiness reached a peak on the day Ghana beat the USA 2-1 to qualify for the quarter-finals of that tournament. They were the third African team to do so.
When the world cup ended, I was sad that the competition had come to an end. I knew I’d miss the excitement the games had brought into my life. I knew I’d miss watching fans cheering and laughing.
To try and relive those experiences, to drive sadness out of my heart, I continued devoting some of my time to soccer daily. Even when our television broke, I followed the game on the radio a few times. I realized that while listening to commentary, I’d imagine the events on the field. That helped to engage my mind and helped me to ruminate less upon negative thoughts. So I continued listening to radio commentary and the positive change continued. I’d feel happy for long hours every day. The confusion in my mind also cleared away.
I began to feel more energized and positive as I continued the habit. I strode around with my head lifted high and my back straight. And I stopped oversleeping.
Now, I’m able to work for hours without feeling tired. I’ve been able to publish a number of essays and blog posts online. And I’m now a contributing author on one website.
I still have struggles, but I’ve not given up. I continue to enjoy soccer and to fill my mind with exciting moments from the games I listen to. It gives me the space to continue living and enjoying life, and that helps me to cope.
When I was a child I played soccer as a form of entertainment just to make me feel happy. Now, as an adult, I watch soccer as a form of therapy to help me cope with depression.
Battling depression can sometimes feel like playing a soccer game, going down 0-3, and feeling you might as well quit because it’s over. But it’s happened plenty of times—teams have come back from behind to win games. I remember one game Liverpool FC played: they were down 0-3 to Barcelona. But Liverpool found a strategy, stuck to it, and it helped them come back to win 4-0.
So don’t give up. Keep fighting. There are many strategies that can help one fight depression. Keep searching for a strategy. And when you find something that works, stick with it and win the game.
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Evan Bowen-Gaddy | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman