Michael Landsberg on fighting the war against stigma
Published Wednesday, February 8, 2012 11:27PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:23AM EDT
I just checked the TV listings. As I do quite often. There is no eTalk scheduled on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on CTV. Instead, as part of the Bell Let's Talk campaign there's a documentary called "Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me." I should watch.
I love docs, especially documentaries about war. This sounds perfect. It says in the guide: "Sports heroes share their stories of battles with depression and explain their journey through recovery." I know something about it so I can add this: It's about individual stories, whose collective impression is designed to help change the way people across the country see depression.
Make no mistake. We are fighting a war -- for the minds of the people. This revolution can't be stopped. We are destined to win and have the world see depression as an illness - not a weakness. Vive la revolution.
"Darkness and Hope: Depression, Sports and Me." Oh yeah. I should mention - I am the "Me."
People have said and will continue to say, "Good for you for speaking out about your depression." I will continue to say that doing what I am doing is what should be expected of me. This isn't humility - this is just applying a logical morality that we all should live our lives by.
Imagine if you had the power to change lives just by talking. Imagine if you knew you could save lives by simply telling people your story.
Should people commend you when you do it? Or should they criticize you if you don't?
Don't bother trying to argue with me when I apply it to me.
I have spoken about my mental illness for the past three years. I've been mentally ill for 15. I'm sorry about my 12 years of silence.
If you know me, you're thinking - silent? Landsberg? No way. If you don't know me, let me try and objectively tell you who I am. I host a talk show on TSN called Off The Record. The show has been on for 15 years, which may lead you to think "Wow that guy must be loved." Wrong. I'm that polarizing guy who you can love, love to hate or just hate. Those appear to be the only three choices on the ballot viewers have for me. If they were offered a fourth -- I think this would be the winner. "He's too cocky, he acts like he knows everything, and yes that can be entertaining - I just wish he'd lay off the plastic surgery."
I'm perceived by many viewers as being arrogant. In TV, perception is reality so I can't tell people they are wrong - there is no such thing as a wrong opinion. Silent? Me? I always have an answer, always have a quip, always have something to say. It suits me well on TV but at times I even annoy myself.
Now you're up to speed.
For the first 12 years of my battle with depression, I remained silent because I didn't think my speaking about it publicly would make a single bit of difference. Contrary to reports from numerous media outlets, I actually have an overwhelming sense of being just another guy. Damn - I just bragged about being humble - does that prove me wrong?
But everything changed for me on October 15, 2009. I was researching a guest for OTR. Nothing out of the ordinary - I do that everyday. Stéphane Richer was scheduled to be a guest. I read that Richer - a two-time 50 goal scorer and two-time Stanley Cup champion had suffered from depression. The info was general - there were only few details. I thought it might be interesting for me to ask him about it on the show.
You might wonder how I could plan to meet a total stranger and in ten minutes ask him to share his most personal detail on national TV. Fortunately, I didn't wonder about that, and went for it. I believe the key is to give before you receive.
When he showed up I knew there was a good chance he would open up. We immediately bonded. We bonded on a far deeper level than sporty chat. I immediately saw in his eyes a precious cocktail of qualities: I saw intelligence combined with playfulness combined with vulnerability. He had a look that said something so human and so profound, "I'm trying to be happy."
So I took him aside. I didn't know at the time that his answer would change my life and the lives of others. Right now I could give you a dozen names of people who are alive today because of that conversation.
So I asked if he would allow me to go a thousand times deeper. He paused and said… sure. Fifteen minutes later I asked him about his depression on the air. We spoke for perhaps one minute about it. The best and most important sixty seconds of TV in my life.
We had taped the show a few hours before it was broadcast. Minutes after our brief chat was broadcast a few dozen people emailed the show. Their letters shocked me. People had instantly felt less lonely and men in particular who had never told a soul about their depression felt empowered to do so.
I realized on that day that I had the power within me to touch lives, possibly change lives, and maybe even save lives.
I corresponded personally with each person who had written. How could I not? A person writes "I have never told a soul about this…" and what am I supposed to do. Ignore it? Send a form response "Keep watching OTR"? Maybe an autographed picture? I don't think so.
Do you want to know the power of this? I can't tell you, but I can show you. Brace yourself because it may change you the way it changed me. And it may change what you expect of guys like me. Grab the other end and let's raise that bar.
I can almost guarantee you what's most memorable about this is the realization that people like me have enormous power to do good given to us as part of our jobs.
My life will never be the same. I will never be the same.
I received this email in September after I had written an article about my friend Wade Belak's suicide. Here it is. Word for word.
Hey Mike, don't expect you to remember me, my name is Tyson Williams, 36, from North Battleford, Sask.
A couple of years ago, me and you spent most of one day exchanging emails. I had seen an interview you had done with Stéphane Richer, on his depression and yours.
I watched in tears because I related to both of you. That point in my life was what I call my lowest point. I had never tried emailing or writing to a public figure before, and not sure why I did that day. Waking up that morning, I knew I had to end the pain, the sadness. My thoughts about friends and family were, "they'll be sad for awhile, but they'll also be less burdened and know it's better that I go".
I have a now eight-year-old daughter, Kiera, anyone who knows me, even a little, knows how much I love that girl. Thinking of her, of leaving my girl, kept me going till 3 p.m. when OTR airs here, then I saw the interview, then I emailed you.
We emailed for I think about two hours that afternoon, twice during that conversation I got up after sending you a message to do what I planned to do that morning, a belt hanging from the clothes rod in my closet.
Both times I got up and started the walk to my room, the little bong on my computer signifying I had a new email, rang loud and clear. I can remember thinking, "Shit, even in email, this guy just won't shut up". I would come back, reply, then get up again, and then you replied again.
Then I chose to live, to reach out, to get help. I'm here today because I chose to fight, I chose to live, and I thank you, for not "shutting up" that day.
I have dozens, maybe hundreds that are equally touching and shocking by their impact. So now let's go back to what I wrote earlier.
Imagine if you had the power to change lives just by talking. Imagine if you knew you could save lives by simply telling your story.
Should people commend you when you do it? Or should they criticize you if you didn't?
Don't bother trying to argue with me - just apply it to me.
Do you know in my whole career I have never told anyone they "had to watch" something I've done. And the reason why is simple - I've never done anything important enough that I felt it became "must see." I've done at least eight thousand shows so that's quite an admission. It's kind of depressing. Kidding.
That changes right now. You have to watch CTV Wednesday, February 8 at 7 p.m. ET. And more than that, you need to spread the word to as many people as you can. And do it with "you need to watch" importance. I know the impact it can have.
In this film you will hear from Stéphane again. Yes, I asked him to reprise his role as the star who lived the Canadian dream but didn't enjoy the dream. Along with Stéphane will be Clara Hughes and Darryl Strawberry. Between them they have six world championships and six Olympic medals. Between them they have three cases of severe, debilitating depression. You will see three stories of incredibly strong people who were brought to their knees by an illness that no one has ever seen. Not until people accept it just as they accept gravity will we be able to move forward. We've never seen gravity just the impact it has. I went with that analogy and not the boogie man in my parents basement - never seen, but always there - because let's face it, only I knew he existed. Still does.
I challenge you to watch. Especially if you still think that depression is a weakness. I want you to watch the documentary with an open mind, listen closely to the stories, and hopefully come away with a new understanding of depression. Together we can change the stigma that surrounds this disease, and often prevents people from getting the help they need.
We still live in a world that sees mental illness somehow as self inflicted. I am doing only what I should be doing as a decent person. Are you?
Please watch. If you're in the darkness maybe you'll feel some hope. If you've never felt the darkness maybe you'll understand it better.
Michael Landsberg can be reached at: DarknessandHope@bellmedia.ca or @heylandsberg. During the broadcast premiere of "Darkness and Hope" and afterwards (7 – 8:30 p.m.ET), Landsberg will keep the conversation going with a live, 90-minute online discussion at CTV.ca.