Feherty: Courage and caring in the face of mental illness

FCBK 1By Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

Fifteen million Americans – a staggering number — approximately 7% of our population suffer from clinical depression.  One of them is David Feherty, a golf commentator and the host of “Feherty” on the Golf Channel. His interview with Bryant Gumbel on the June HBO Real Sports is a must see for anyone with who cares about mental illness – which, of course, should be everyone.

Feherty is a man of unique wit and brilliance who, as Gumbel says, has a “Fertile mind that never slows.”  But he is also bi-polar as well as clinically depressed, and without feh 5taking about a dozen anti-depressants, stimulants and mood stabilizers a day, Feherty would likely be dead by now.

He says he doesn’t live a day at a time – it’s more like 20 minutes at a time. As for his cocktail of medications, he says, “If you stop taking them, especially if you stop abruptly, it’s a very short journey to the edge of that abyss.”

Feherty was greatly relieved when he came to understand that his crushing moods weren’t his fault – that he was clinically ill. Until then, his only means of coping with his shame and crushingly low self-esteem was to drink two bottles of whiskey a day and take more and more pain killers.

“I was a spectacular drunk, I was good at it,” he told Gumbel. “It brought me out of my shell initially and then I developed an extraordinary tolerance. It was always to get to the place – and every alcoholic and addict will know what that means. For most of us, it’s close to oblivion.”

After twice becoming Ireland’s national golf champion, a member of the European Ryder Cup team and a ten-time winner in international tournaments, he was prescribed pain killers for elbow pain. Those and the booze soon ended his golf career and also kept him on his daily quest to become “comfortably numb,” a state he rarely reached.

I first ran into Feherty about 20 years ago when he entertained a roomful of men after a golf outing. I was blown away by his terrific, hilarious and rapid-fire story-telling ability. The audience was rolling in the aisles and it seemed inevitable that he’d eventually use his wacky, court jester type humor to become a media star, which he has in spectacular fashion with his award winning show and his charm and humor as a tournament commentator.

feh 3But even though the medication now keeps him relatively sane, it can’t completely squelch the inner demons and bouts of depression that fortunately pale in comparison to what he formerly experienced.

“You hear about someone’s child getting murdered.  I would vicariously take on that sadness that a parent must feel and unimaginable grief would seep into my life where I would dream about it – a cloak I couldn’t get off. It can go for weeks, months and it makes no sense to be stuck in a chair in tears. After all, my life is perfect.”

Ten years ago, with a wonderful new wife and a soaring career, he was with golfing great Tom Watson, himself a former alcoholic.

“I was interviewing Tom and all I could think about was the bottle and pills in my room. He put his hand over the lens and looked at me and said, “You’re not well are you?” And I said, ‘No I’m not. feh 9How do you know?’  And he said, “I can see it in your eyes.” And I said, ‘what can you see?’ He said, “My reflection.”

He hasn’t had a drink since.

Like most addicts, idle time is an enemy. He’s become obsessive about cycling and other hobbies to quiet and focus his mind.

Feherty’s willingness to talk openly about his mental illness and hopefully encourage and empower millions of others who understand his pain first hand, is an act of benevolence consistent with the self-effacing personality that is a critical element of the humor and charisma and that draws others close to him.

On the HBO segment, Rickey Fowler said, “Feherty is a special creature.” Fellow Northern Ireland native Rory McIlroy said that after he lost the 2011 Masters Feherty joined him and his friends at dinner. “He lifted the mood of everyone,” said McIlroy. “It takes a special and rare person to do that.”

In recent years, I’ve been able to spend time with Feherty when he’s visited mutual friends in the Detroit golf community. And now that I’m aligned with New Oakland and its outreach to thousands of Michiganders who struggle with many of the demons that haunt Feherty, I’m all the more proud to have made his acquaintance.

No one should suffer mental illness in silence or feel shame over the awful stigma that still plagues millions and forces them into the disease’s shadows. If David Feherty has the courage to reveal himself to the world and be thankful for the guidance and medication that’s kept him alive, shouldn’t everyone else?