May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s time to talk. Thirty-five percent of men are being treated for mental illness, but that number may be low because too many men don’t seek help. This is exactly why we’re spotlighting men who are getting guys to open up about mental health in provocative, engaging, and sometimes hilarious ways. Next up: Jeff Watters is head strength and conditioning coach at Kronk Gym in Detroit and owner of Watters Performance where he coaches fighters and endurance athletes. Here, Watters history with undiagnosed bipolar and a pill addiction, which led to a new form of training. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bipolar, for me, isn’t about being depressed. I get hypo-manic and I look for control. Pain pills provided that control. I found most people liked me better if I’d taken some Vicodin. But over the years, pills also triggered my bipolar, especially if I’d taken more than what I’d normally been taking.
This all started after a botched knee surgery (and a resulting second surgery) when I was 27 back in 1998. For a few years, my addiction to pain pills co-existed with ecstasy. But then the ecstasy stopped and pain pills never left the picture.
A low point—but not my breaking point—was when I was 37. It was 2010, and it was the Super Bowl, but I don’t have a clear picture of the game because I was sitting in jail.
The night before, I’d been out to break things off with a girl that I’d been seeing. Meanwhile my second wife, eight-months pregnant, was home watching our son. When I came home, I slept on the floor in my crying son’s room to soothe him.
The next morning, I heard my wife crying and instantly knew why. She saw a text message that the girl had sent saying she understood why I broke things off. Our fight became physical, my wife wound up getting hurt, and I was taken into police custody.
Up until then, I’d asked my therapist on more than once occasion about the possibility of a personality disorder. Over the eight years that I saw him, he knew about all the girls, the partying, and even about a number of close head injuries I’d had. He didn’t think I met the criteria. After I pushed it more, saying I was sure there was something else, he sent me to a specialist. That’s when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and prescribed medication. Yet, even still, I continued to take pain pills.
Finally, in 2016, when I was 44, I had a moment of clarity. I was with my two sons on Lake Michigan. I was watching my boys draw in the surf with long sticks when suddenly I remembered every other time I’d been there. Something I can’t explain came over me. If there’s a higher power, I feel like it spoke to me in that moment.
I told both of my boys to come to me. Through tears, I held them both and told them to always remember this very moment. Then I went to my truck, got my pills out, and while the kids were distracted, dumped the pills into the lake. I should have been terrified of detoxing and going through withdrawals, but I got lucky. Withdrawals never came, for whatever reason.
One of the problems with therapy was that it was too easy to lie. If I’d decided to go buy a handful of pills to take for a week and my therapist asked the next week if I’d had any pills, I could just say no. So I knew coming home from that trip the the lake that I needed to figure out some changes that I would make specifically for me. Things that nobody could prescribe but myself.
I own Watters Performance, where I’m a strength and conditioning coach, and I do the same work at the world-famous Kronk Gym in Detroit. The change came in how I placed value on this part of my life. With my bipolar, I needed to be on a schedule, and I needed to have an end result in mind. It used to be that I’d take on a 10-week training camp to help prepare for a fight. I started to train just to train. The end result isn’t my focus anymore.
I decided to offer that process to other athletes I knew who were struggling. I’d talk to other guys, and offer help when I heard something similar to how I’d felt. It started as talking things out, but it evolved into game plans. Instead of having an event planned at the end of 10 weeks, like a race or a fight, we’d plan to have gone 10 weeks of journaling every day. My only goal was to get them comfortable talking about it and not feeling judged or dismissed, like I felt.
My best success story is that I was mentoring a young fighter, and he mentioned that his older brother, who was my age, had stopped boxing because of concussion issues, and was later diagnosed with bipolar. I started to spend some time talking with the brother about his struggles, like self-medicating.
Over time, he stopped self-medicating, started getting therapy for bipolar, and returned to boxing as a coach. He and I were in the corner for his son’s first professional fight as his coaches.
Through him I met others that were in groups he’d go to and that’s where I began speaking. I’ve been asked to speak to addicts and young athletes about the risks of pain killer addiction. I’ve talked to bipolar groups and groups on post-concussion syndrome.
All I can offer is my own experience, humility, vulnerability and hope that my failures, successes, and steps along the road can help someone that’s not yet found comfort or hope someplace else—and hopefully persuade them to allow that same vulnerability into their life.
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