May is mental health awareness month, and former Boston Celtics guard Keyon Dooling has spent the past few days addressing some very difficult topics from his past in order to spread a very important message: "If you are hurting, get some help."

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

2012: Initial Details Surface

After the 2012 season, Dooling suddenly decided to end his basketball career shortly after signing a new $1.4 million contract with Boston. He was part of the Celtics team that pushed LeBron James and the Miami Heat to a 7 game series in the Eastern Conference Finals. Yet at age 32, he was prompted to walk away from the sport of basketball.

The general public didn't really know why until November of 2012, when some preliminary details surfaced: Dooling had been a victim of childhood sexual assault, and was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Celtics Nation was extremely supportive when the news broke, yet the full, no-holds-barred story of what exactly Keyon experienced had yet to be shared.

 May 2018: Player's Tribune Article and ESPN Interview

On May 1, 2018, Keyon wrote a tell-all piece for the Player's Tribune entitled "Running from a Ghost" -- a must read for anyone who has struggled with mental illness or sexual abuse themselves, or who knows someone who has. 

Two days later, Dooling appeared on ESPN, mostly to recap his Player's Tribune piece, but additional details were also shared. 

Dooling had written the Player's Tribune article two years ago, but was't ready to share it with the world just yet. The timing wasn't right. But in the past few months, Kevin Love has opened up about suffering from panic attacks, and DeMar DeRozen has publicly discussed his bouts of depression. These NBA stars were finally confronting the illusion that professional athletes are superhuman, and instilling new concepts in those who were ready to listen: it's okay for anyone, regardless of their status, to struggle. And it's important to speak up about it and get help.

There was finally a public forum that was ready to hear what Dooling had to say, and it was time to share the details -- down to each and every horrible thought and experience.

Facing PTSD

At the age of 7, Dooling and his friend were forced to perform sexual acts on a 14 year old friend of Keyon's brother, changing his life forever:

I locked away all my feelings deep down inside. I told myself, at seven years old: You have to be tough. You have to be so tough that nobody can ever hurt you.

After that day, I had a huge chip on my shoulder, and huge secret in my heart. My childhood was effectively over.

He vividly describes the original experience in the Player's Tribune article, and how he bottled his emotions up for 25 years. An encounter with a drunk man in a restaurant restroom in September 2012 triggered his memories, his emotions, and his rage, sending Dooling into a dark place:

All these images started flooding my mind, and I couldn’t tune them out. I had this horrible, crushing anxiety wash over me.

I called my mom. I called my wife. We prayed together over the phone. But the feeling wouldn’t go away. Even when I got back home to Boston, I was a complete mess. I became paranoid. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. It felt like there was some kind of danger right around the corner, and it was making me sick.

With the unwavering support of Ainge, Rivers, Rondo, and Bradley, Dooling admits himself to a mental institution: "It saved my life."

The Boston Celtics organization played a very important role in terms of supporting Keyon and assisting him in taking the first steps to get the help he needed.

In the midst of his darkest hours, Keyon went to Danny Ainge's office to break the news that he was retiring from basketball. When Ainge saw how much Dooling was struggling, he called in teammates Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, as well as head coach Doc Rivers:

My two-year-old son K.J. was with me. I took him along, because he loved coming to the gym with me. I remember holding him in my arms and telling Danny that I was done. I was telling Danny a whole lot of other things, too. Really paranoid, off-the-wall things. I was ranting about God and about the darkness all around us.  
Eventually, Danny made a phone call. A couple minutes later, two of my best friends on the team appeared in the doorway.  It was Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley. They were super calm, and they did their best to get to me relax.  
Everyone probably thought that I had lost my mind. Everyone except for Avery, Rajon, Danny, Doc and my wife, Natosha. Sometimes a look says everything, you know what I mean? Sometimes a look means more than words.  Avery, Rajon, Danny, Doc, my wife … they all gave me the same look. In their eyes, I didn’t see judgement or fear. I only saw kindness and confusion. They just wanted to help me, because they knew that something terrible must have happened to the man they knew.

Dooling didn't even tell his Celtics family what had happened to trigger his current state, yet they were there for him unconditionally, and in Keyon's own words, their support saved his life:

I still hadn’t told a soul what had triggered everything. Some part of me was still too worried about what people would think of me. I guess I was afraid that they would perceive me as weak, or damaged, or somehow at fault for what had happened to me in that apartment when I was seven years old.

But the Celtics never stopped being loyal to me. They were unbelievable. They kept things quiet and let me get some help on my own terms. And honestly, getting help saved my life.  
I will never forget that feeling of support. It saved my life. They kept saying, “It’s gonna be O.K. Let’s just get you some help.”  
A few days later, I checked myself into a mental institution in Boston. I was put in a little room on the bottom floor — the area where they kept the most severe cases. Outside the door, I could hear all these people screaming and crying. I could feel the weight of suffering all around me. It was like a horror movie.

Dooling only stayed on the bottom floor of the mental ward a few hours -- after feeling caged and breaking down, he felt that he was at a point that he was no longer a danger to himself, and he was ready to move up a few floors to a room with windows and natural light.

He eventually sought help from Dr. Timothy Benson of Harvard Medical School, a specialist in PTSD:

Dr. Benson changed my life. That’s where the healing truly began for me, because he explained to me that there was a name for the feeling that I was dealing with. I was actually experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from my childhood.

Spreading Dooling's Message

Keyon Dooling is currently working as an inspirational speaker and life coach. It's important to him to share his story with as many as possible, since many who have had similar experiences don't feel comfortable speaking up and getting help:

I am not a unique case. But unfortunately, mental health and sexual abuse are still taboo subjects in my world. Not just in the NBA, but in the African American community as a whole.

If you grew up in this community, you already know the words used whenever the topic is brought up …  “Head doctor.”  “Shrink.”  “I ain’t crazy!”  “I ain’t soft!” 

Even those who have have already sought help and are on the path to recovery can always use the encouragement of knowing they are not alone.

On a personal level, my mother has been dealing with PTSD since 1992, when she began remembering incidents of sexual abuse from her childhood. She has had a good amount of help and support (both at the personal and professional levels), but still struggles with self-destructive feelings on a regular basis stemming from the PTSD.

Unbeknownst to me, she was having a particularly rough day when I forwarded her Dooling's Player's Tribune piece. She replied that it helped her immensely to know that someone else had nearly identical thoughts and emotional reactions to their trauma, and it allowed her to forgive herself for the self-destructive thoughts that were plaguing her at that particular moment.

If you have made it this far in reading this piece, please share Keyon Dooling's story with anyone and everyone you know. The wider we can spread his message, the better chance of reaching someone in need.

If you are hurting, get some help.

I’ll say it again.  If you are hurting, get some help.

You can call out to God. But your second call should be the doctor.  

DH 5/04/2018 10:22:00 AM Edit
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