I needed to leave Buffalo.
I needed to do it for the sake of my own health. I needed to get away from a toxic work environment and an equally toxic literal environment, where the sky is gray more often than it’s blue. I needed – truly NEEDED – to address my mental illness directly and stop hoping it would somehow magically resolve itself. I needed to leave before I got too comfortable being miserable. I needed to take a real, honest shot at happiness.
That was 13 years ago, and although I haven’t found happiness yet I don’t regret for a moment leaving Buffalo. It may be that I’m just not wired to experience joy in any more than quick, fleeting bursts, though I very much hope that’s not true. And that’s the thing of it – I have hope. My mind, even in its fundamental darkness, can allow for the possibility that maybe someday I’ll find something resembling light.
That was never going to happen in Buffalo; I was just too sad and scared for any other emotions to break in. That’s not to say I loathed every minute: I had some great moments during my time covering the Sabres for The Buffalo News, moments I still dust off and enjoy now and then. But they were only moments, small punctures in the black tarp that enveloped me during that time. They were wonderful peeks at a blue sky but they didn’t let in nearly enough sunlight to allow me to thrive.
From the time I arrived at The Buffalo News, I could tell I wasn’t entirely welcome. One of the more senior writers I worked closely with took an immediate dislike to me and wasn’t shy about telling me so. While most of my colleagues treated me very well –
Actually, let’s put a full stop there. Most of my Buffalo News colleagues treated me very well. You know, like people generally treat their colleagues. I want to make it clear that those who were unkind or unsupportive were very much in the minority.
Still, what they lacked in numbers they made up for in thinly-veiled hostility. I have no doubt that my gender played a part in that – there were women in The Buffalo News sports department, but at the time it was still very much an old boys’ club, and proud of it. When a mandate came down from the big bosses to run more girls’ and women’s sports stories on the front page of the section, one man on the desk crowed about how he subverted the rule by running a huge photo of Anna Kournikova. Another time, a feature about a particular female coach ran under a punny headline that hinted at sexual orientation despite that playing no role in the article.
On this, my first (and only) pro sports beat, I was made aware more than once that I was not the gender some people thought I should be if I were to fill that role. This message came through much louder inside the newsroom than it did inside the locker room, although I know the attitude was present there as well. I honestly believe that my boss’s sexism was a prime reason why I was pushed out of my job: I had been hired to be the Sabres beat writer, but I’d only been at the paper a few months – during which time I was supposed to ‘learn the ropes’ alongside a man who told me almost immediately that he disliked me – before a “co-” was attached to my title. I found myself writing mostly sidebars while the primary game stories went to another male coworker – one who was actively, if slyly, trying to push me off the beat and claim it for himself (an effort that ultimately proved successful). I’m not saying I was the world’s best NHL reporter from Day One, but I was hired as a newcomer under the pretense that I would be the Sabres beat writer and that turned out to be untrue.
I’m sad and a little ashamed to say that I wasn’t equipped to handle this. If you take nothing else away from this post, please know this: I DID NOT FAIL AS A BEAT WRITER BECAUSE OF MY GENDER. Many women have faced this same kind of adversity – including, no doubt, my female colleagues in Buffalo at the time – and have risen above it to prove that women are every bit as capable as men of covering pro sports with smarts, toughness and finesse.
I failed as a beat writer because my personality and my mental illness combined to render me unable to thrive in that environment. Let me repeat: My personality was a big part of this. Mental illness, unto itself, is not a deal-breaker when it comes to handling difficult situations or performing well in high-stress jobs. I tend toward stubbornness and fear of appearing even the slightest bit unprepared or unknowledgeable and those character flaws often led me to feign bravado rather than ask for information or advice. Maybe I would have overcome that reflex had I been among more nurturing people, or maybe not. That question could really haunt me if I let it, so I try not to think about it too much.
The bottom line is that I never felt at all comfortable in Buffalo, a condition that aggravated my anxiety disorder horribly. Months went by and I became increasingly non-functional outside of work. I put on a mask of confidence when I was at the rink or in the newsroom and as soon as I got home I crashed hard. My anxiety level was so high as to devour all my energy, rendering me unable to do laundry, go grocery shopping, sometimes even get out of bed. The constant, low-level panic was as discouraging as it was draining, so at those times when my energy bottomed out too much even to sustain my anxiety I inevitably fell into depression. Every bit of strength I had went into showering, dressing, getting myself to work and surviving my deadlines. I adore hockey and loved being around the game, but I hated everything else about my life. I was 28 years old, I had what I’d always thought would be my dream job… and I never wanted to get out of bed.
One day in 2002 I had exactly that thought and that’s what finally spurred me to leave. I told my parents that I wanted to take a real shot at getting healthy: I wanted to enter inpatient treatment. In the 10 years since I was first (slightly mis-)diagnosed with a major depressive disorder at 18, my parents had utterly, if sadly, made their peace with the fact that their daughter suffered from a serious mood disorder. My mom researched mental health facilities, my dad drove from New Jersey to Buffalo to help me move and in late March of 2002 my mother flew with me to Kansas so I could check into the Menninger Clinic. I was terrified of taking that step, but I was much more terrified of not taking it. The only thing I felt completely sure of was that – despite a very supportive managing editor who assured me my job would still be there when I checked out – my time in Buffalo was over.
That was 13 years ago and I would love to say that today I’m a happy, healthy woman with a fulfilling job and a family of my own, but I’m not. I still struggle with anxiety and depression. I am underemployed and single and childless, with no particular reason to believe any of those conditions are likely to change. But I don’t dread every day anymore. I might even dread fewer days than I don’t dread. Strange as it sounds, that means my time at Menninger, along with my therapy and medication, improved my quality of life. I’m not thriving but I’m doing more than just surviving. Right now, for me, that counts as success.