Lessons from a Dying Man

Achievement and Depression: Where’s The Love in My Success?

Charmed, Tormented Life

Jerry West is arguably one of the best professional basketball players to have played the game.  His graceful movement is legendary and his likeness became the logo for the National Basketball Association (NBA).  He was a childhood hero of mine.  My friends and I spent countless hours playing basketball in the driveway trying to emulate Jerry’s moves.  Alas, none of us had the physical gifts of West but enjoyed playing the game nonetheless.

After West’s playing days were over, he became a successful general manager and helped develop the Los Angeles Lakers into a dynasty.  In the fall of 2011 West’s autobiography, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, was released.  In his book, West gives a poignant account of his lifelong depression.  He writes, It’s something that’s been a problem in my life and still will be until the day I die. Most people will look at that and wonder how someone like that can be depressed.”  He discloses about his struggles with self esteem, “… self-esteem is very difficult for me”, and love, “I’m not comfortable with the word ‘love’ because I never saw it as a kid.”  He describes the severe physical abuse he endured at the hand of his father.  Childhood abuse undermines a person’s ability to form loving relationships and is a cancer to one’s self esteem.  In West’s touching interview with Bryant Gumbel on HBO Real Sports, West’s wife talks about how difficult it has been for her husband to show and accept love in the marriage and in their family of five boys.  West goes on in the interview to reveal he has been taking antidepressant medication and tried psychotherapy but did not find the therapy helpful, “It just wasn’t for me.”  Given the nature of the abuse he endured it is not surprising to hear that therapy was difficult because therapy is all about developing a relationship.

Success and Compensation

West also disclosed how he coped with his lifelong psychological problems.  He threw himself totally into his work as a basketball player and general manager.  It is very common that very successful people can be driven to succeed by compensating for psychological trauma in their early life.  They throw themselves into their work. This coping is often rewarded with success, money, status, and sometimes fame.  Yet, too frequently, something is missing, the richness of loving relationships.  This can be a costly price of success if left unresolved.

Psychotherapy and Love

Psychotherapy does help.  There is over 50 years of research showing that psychotherapy is a robust and the most effective treatment for mental health problems; much more effective than medication without the often troubling side effects of psychopharmacology.  I am saddened that such an accomplished man as West has never been able to fully experience the love and connection that makes life so worth living.  I can’t help but think the ability to accept love would cure him from his lifelong affliction of depression.  And that is precisely what psychotherapy can do for you, help you accept the love others give and increase your capacity to love others as well.  If you have been hurt early in your life, the therapy takes time and a lot of work.  The reward, however, is timeless.  Thank you, Jerry West, for telling your story.  You are still my hero.

To a Good Life,

Mark Hansen, PhD
Licensed Psychologist

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