Rebounding from mental illness

Jared Casey was arguably the best high school basketball player ever to play in Maple Ridge. Almost seven feet tall. Athletic. Skilled...

Jared Casey was living his dream – a full-ride scholarship to play basketball in the NCAA

Jared Casey was arguably the best high school basketball player ever to play in Maple Ridge.

Almost seven feet tall. Athletic. Skilled. Dedicated. Casey had it all, and the U.S. college scouts would show up at the Maple Ridge secondary gymnasium just to watch him practice.

He’s the only boy from MRSS ever who had a full-ride NCAA scholarship, said long-time Ramblers coach Ken Dockendorf.

“He’s one of the best players who has ever played in Maple Ridge, and a nice kid.”

‘Doc’ remembers watching his former big man playing his first NCAA game with San Francisco on television against storied Ohio State.

“And he looked very good,” said Dockendorf. “He could have been a pretty successful Division 1 player. He was the full package.”

Casey was taking on the fiercest competition this side of the NBA and thriving, but nobody could see the battle that was raging inside him. He didn’t tell anybody about it, until the paralyzing fears driven by his obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) forced him to walk away from the game in the middle of his second season.

He wants to share his story, so that other people struggling with mental illness have an easier road.

•••••

“The expectations were high,” Casey remembers of high school.

In addition to the Ramblers, he joined a Next Level traveling team, based in Abbotsford, and went to U.S. tournaments. The whole point was to be seen by recruiters who could offer scholarships. He played in the All-Canadian Game. Coming out of high school, Casey had offers from 50 colleges, including the likes of Gonzaga. He was also a straight-A student, and had the opportunity to become a scholar-athlete for Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard.

“It was fun, it was exciting.”

Casey was not yet diagnosed with OCD, but understood something was up.

“I knew that I could very quickly turn a small thing into a fear, into something that I believed was almost inevitable.”

He might miss his first two shots in a game, and have the thoughts: ‘What if I don’t make a shot the entire game.’ That thought could become anxiety, and quickly snowball into a fear that seemed almost inevitable.

OCD brings completely irrational fears. Casey was at the gym some mornings at 6 a.m. He would put up hundreds of shots before school.

Sports was a tiny stage where these mental battles were fought the fiercest.

“In your head, sports gets blown up to be everything.”

A coach once told him not to accept that something was ever good enough – it could always be better.

It was a notion that would torment Casey in every phase of his life. He would even judge a simple conversation as having been a failure or a success.

“It’s a very tough way to live.”

He was able to cope with his OCD in high school, but generally had a hard time dealing with the uncertainties of life.

Most players red shirt – practise but don’t play – during their first season at the NCAA level. But San Francisco had players suspended over recruiting violations, and there was no time to ease Casey into his college career.

“Everyone wanted to see me play.”

If he had appeared to be a confident young man at the high school level, at least some people could see his fears at the next level. A coach called him out.

“He swore I wasn’t going to last two weeks,” remembers Casey. “He could see it in my eyes – I was scared … ”

But play he did. He went up against the Fresno State Bulldogs when NBA star Paul George was there. He took on an Ohio State Buckeyes team that featured Greg Oden and Mike Conley, who would both be drafted in the NBA’s first round.

He played in front of 10,000 people in San Francisco’s War Memorial Gymnasium.

“The largest stage I had played on was at the Agrodome, during the provincials,” he said.

But it was a good first year. He got the job done. Not awkward at 6’11”, he could fly down the court, and tried to model his game after Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki.

“I met expectations, at least,” he said.

Academically, he was a 4.0. He hit the books, and worked just as hard on the court.

“I really quickly made a name for myself, that I would outwork anyone on the team,” he said.

Fear of failure was the main motive, and he sees now that it was not a good motivator.

The team asked him to put on as much as 50 pounds. Still a growing boy, he hit the gym, ate like a fiend, and managed to put on 30 pounds during the off-season.

In his second year, he started for the first half. Home for Christmas, he learned on ESPN that his coach Jessie Evans had been fired for a league violation. Any new coach was a scary proposition.

“Having someone you know believes in you, and you’re part of his brand – that helped a lot.”

The replacement coach was Eddie Sutton – an old school coach with 36 years experience.

“I played for him for about a week or two,” he said.

“He was an angry guy.”

The firing made the realities of college basketball hit home.

“People’s jobs relied on us winning. It transitioned from being a hobby or an activity to being a job.”

His education relied on his performance. If he had practice at night, he would do nothing all day, worried about the need to practice well.

“I was so worried about what my coaches or teammates felt.”

Casey played his last NCAA game on New Year’s Eve 2007. His mind was in a dark place. He skipped a practice and checked himself into a hotel.

“I just wanted to hide.”

“I considered myself too mentally weak to handle a new coach.”

He called his parents, and told them he couldn’t continue.

He remembers just sitting in the room, too anxious to even focus on watching television. His father flew down that night.

For 10 days they just hung out together.

“I was so ashamed to talk to any of my teammates or coaches. I was so embarrassed.”

He got counselling, and was diagnosed with OCD. Knowing what he was up against helped him control the anxiety, but he didn’t tell anyone.

The team still wanted him back the next year, but he transferred to Seattle University – closer to home and a support system.

He was there two years, but never played.

He would obsess about minor mistakes, and during one terrible period his OCD got out of control.

“A small worry can turn into a fear, can turn into a fear that dominates your mind, and it make syou incapable of moving forward.”

“It was probably the worst week of my life. I lost 25 pounds in two weeks. I couldn’t eat. I was sick to my stomach.”

“I felt like everything was going to break.”

Again, his father came down and stayed with him. He had blood work done, and finally he got on medication. That, and therapy, have helped him cope.

He finished his business degree in 2010, and then attended UBC to get his masters. Both over 90 per cent.

Looking back, he knows he wasn’t the weakling he felt like. In many ways he has shown great mental strength. And he wants people with mental illness to not be ashamed.

“We shouldn’t have a different view of someone needing to see a psychologist than we do someone who needs to see a doctor.”

There is a proven cognitive therapy for him that could be more a cure than drugs, but it is not covered by medicare.

He sees his future linked to advocating for treatment for the mentally ill.

“It’s definitely the thing I’ve felt most passionate about in my life. Even more than basketball.”

 

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