Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On the suicide of Robert Enke

Robert Enke worked very hard over his career for his spot on the national team, playing in Portugal, Spain, Turkey and finally in the Bundesliga, for Hannover 96. He won eight caps for Germany, and was in position to be the country's #1 keeper in the upcoming World Cup. Enke committed suicide on Tuesday, November 10th by throwing himself under a train.

Enke's death is a horrific reminder of the seriousness of depression, and the particular difficulty faced by athletes who suffer from it. Used to toughing out setbacks and injuries - taking the field with bone chips floating around your foot, fractures, sprains and worse - athletes struggling from depression may be reluctant to seek help, for all the ways depression doesn't register as "real enough," and for fear of seaming weak or losing their place on the team (see Dave Zirin's 2008 article about this). This was the case, his wife explained today (see Juergen Voges's AP news story): Enke feared that coming out about his depression would mean he would lose "his sport, his life."

Depression goes after the things that matter most to you, everything that brings you joy: it can take the sport that was once a source of pleasure and make it into a site of misery. I read once that depression separates people from who and what they love with "surgical precision." That strikes me as about right.

Enke's wife and doctor speak to his struggles at this press conference, available on the Guardian's website. There is no single event one can point to as depression's "cause." News stories point to the death of Enke's very young daughter, Lara, who died at two years old of a congenital heart problem in 2006. He apparently first sought treatment for anxiety and depression during his tenure at Barcelona in 2003. Given his dogged fight to break into the top flight, such counseling would be normal - just not perhaps for an athlete. Enke hovered for years in the #2 spot and worse for Europe's top clubs. If there was ever an effective external trigger for anxiety and depression, it's the precarious position of a keeper on the edge of playing for his country in the World Cup. News reports keep repeating how he seemed closer than he'd ever been to being at the top - as if this makes his depression more mysterious - but of course this would raise your anxiety, not lower it.

We can't say that any one of these things triggered his suicide. You can't "blame" conditions for a person's depression, and you can't blame the person either - they are already certainly in the vicious grip of a self-blame, which is part of the problem. The demon is the black sun of depression itself. Whether you are in its grip, or are close to someone who is, its nature is very hard to grasp - it infects the way you feel and think on the most elemental levels.

At my own worst moments (I struggled with panic disorder in my 20s), it was the non-judgmental, non-pathologizing understanding of a friend who intervened to help me seek treatment by recommending a wonderful therapist. My friend also suffered from panic attacks - it was a huge relief for me to hear someone talk about this very awful feeling from experience, because until that moment I thought I was not only crazy, but that there was nothing that could be done about it. I am not sure where I'd be today if it weren't for that conversation twenty years ago. My problems, however, were very small by comparison - anxiety is not identical to depression, though the two can go hand in hand. I was just twenty, and had almost no responsibilities to anyone but myself. And I've always been surrounded by art/intellectual/creative types - a queer sort of world where, at its best, we embrace each other's 'mental illnesses' with affection and humor.

Enke and his wife adopted a baby girl in the spring, and people seemed to think he was doing well. His wife said, however, he was afraid that public acknowledgment of the severity of depression might lead the state to take custody of their adopted daughter - he was terrified of this possibility. In his suicide note Enke apologized for misleading people around him into thinking he was ok - it was necessary for him to carry out his plan. The days before a suicide can be, in fact, a gruesomely "upbeat" period for the person planning to kill themselves - set on the plan, a person can even feel a sense of happiness, knowing that it will all be over. People around them relax (the easing up of their worry feels like a relief, because for the depressed person the concern expressed by those around them becomes itself a heavy burden, and source of guilt and shame). Sadly, we usually learn this only in the wake of a suicide, as we gather around and find ourselves saying the same thing to each other - "he seemed like he was doing better." It's baffling.

All we can know for certain is that Enke must have been in absolute agony to have ended his life like this.

In looking for stories about athletes who have been open about depression, I came across this July New York Times article about the brilliant basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw. After years of drifting in and out of the game, dogged by a depression which made the game joyless, she is back on the court playing for Atlanta. Stories like hers are important. In a 2007 Sports Illustrated profile, she explains that after the death of her grandmother
it was like I was in a box and had closed myself in. It was the one time I needed help and I wasn't letting anybody in.
I am not sure how people get out of this box without help from those around them. And I am not sure how we can tell when people in our lives are in these dark places - since all too often people in the grip of this sort of depression isolate themselves, so that people around them can't see what's going on. In the world of professional sports, there is already a structure in place to facilitate this boxing-in of oneself - you don't want to be a "problem," your very livelihood is in fact dependent on your ability to project an image of yourself as invulnerable. And the goalkeeper especially is the heart and soul of a team, the person who radiates confidence outwards and whose solidity grounds us. Like baseball's pitcher, this player carries a particular symbolic weight.

A death like Enke's leaves friends, teammates and family with a tremendous sense of failure. Enke's wife comments
We thought we could do everything and we could do it with love but you can't always do it.
My heart goes out to the people in his life - losing a person this way is absolutely devastating, for it seems to signal a profound failure in our ties to each other. A friend committed suicide in 1997, and those of us who were close to him are to this day marked by this sense of loss and failure.

There is no easy answer here, no smart sentence to write about this. I guess I would just say that if there was ever a moment to censor the ungenerous reflexes of sports culture - the macho , win-at-all-cost worldview, the intolerance for the possibility of failure, the disgust sports culture shows for vulnerability - and to cherish instead sport as a site of collective pleasure and interpersonal connection, this is it.


  1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful, moving article. You've really put into words a lot of what has been going through my mind since I heard about Enke's suicide. My thoughts are with his family, friends, teammates, and fans.

  2. Thoughtful piece again, Jennifer.

    Reading about Robert Enke - I couldn't help but think of Justin Fashanu.

    Of course, Justin played for three seasons for my beloved Torquay United. Justin had come out as gay in 1990 - and Torquay were one of the few English clubs to give him a break - he was ridiculed and pilloried by fellow professionals and 'fans' alike.

    Justin became The Gull's Assistant Manager in 1992 - and only missed out on becoming Manager in 1993 when Chair Mike Bateson appointed Neil Warnock.

    Justin tragically took his own life in May 1998 feeling that he'd already been presumed guilty for sexual assault on a 17 year old in Ellicott, Maryland in March of that year.

    In one of those horribly wicked twists, that while British Tabloid Press reported that he was about to be arrested for sexual assault - Police had already dropped the charges through lack of evidence - but had not told Justin.

    Torquay can hold it's head up in respects of course, The Gulls were one of the first teams to appoint a Black Manager in both Leroy Rosenior and Keith Curle and was the home of the debut of a woman assistant referee in the professional men's game when Wendy Toms debuted on August 20, 1994 and Torquay drew 1-1 with Carlisle.

  3. Jennifer...

    This death is strange in relation with a story of an indain footballer who commited suicide the same way two years before....was a star midfielder from indian team, Satyan....Depression was the case...but of a different kind.

  4. thanks everyone for the feedback on this very sad story, it was hard to write...I hadn't thought about Fashanu in relation to this, but of course that makes sense - and the story of Satyan is indeed sad....professional sports is by no means the dreamy scenario Adidas 'impossible is nothing' commercials would have us believe...

  5. A good supporting read for anyone interested in the topic:



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