A Downward Spiral Leads to Uplift

A Downward Spiral Leads to Uplift

Posted: June 11, 2015

Dreams and reality were always at odds for Keith O’Neil. With a former NFL player for a father and an early love for the game, he longed to play professional football, even as a child. “I always had a dream about playing in the league,” he says.

But severe anxiety clouded that childhood vision. “I couldn’t sleep at night,” he recalls. “My mind would just keep going.” Around age 12, he began having suicidal thoughts—not crafting plans, but staring at the bottles in his parents’ medicine cabinet. “I’d want to die,” he says. “I’d want everything just to end.”

His parents knew he was moody, but because he would snap out of it, they never suspected an underlying illness. The symptoms receded during high school, and his love for football—the competition, camaraderie, and physicality—flourished.

Keith attended Northern Arizona University on an athletic scholarship, playing football for all four years. But the symptoms resumed, and he turned to alcohol. “I needed a release from the stress I put on myself,” he says. “I think drinking was a coping mechanism.”

Just as his NFL dream came true—he joined the Dallas Cowboys after college—an old reality returned. Constantly anxious, he didn’t sleep for five nights straight during rookie training. “I was a mess,” he recalls. Gradually, he learned to manage his symptoms by preparing himself for sleep and sticking to a routine. He played with the Cowboys for two years.

When the Indianapolis Colts picked him up in 2005, Keith realized another dream: playing under revered coach Tony Dungy. But the anxiety worsened. He couldn’t stop thinking about the playbook, yet kept forgetting plays. He worried about days ahead and days past. He knew he had to make a decision: “I was going to quit the NFL or I was going to get help,” he says.

Keith confessed to Dungy not only about his present state but also his lifelong anxiety. Dungy rallied his staff to help. Keith began taking anti-anxiety medication and continued to play. In his fourth year with the team, the Colts won the Super Bowl.

His new reality soon came crashing down. He and his wife, Jill, who he’d met in college, returned to his hometown of Buffalo, New York. Keith got a job in medical device sales, and Jill became pregnant. But her miscarriage in December 2010 triggered a severe manic episode. After a few days of euphoria—he spent money, he felt great—Keith became paranoid and delusional. He thought a “higher being” was tapping his computer, phone, and even his thoughts. He hallucinated.

Lucid enough to know something was wrong, he researched his symptoms online and diagnosed himself with cyclothymia––a mood disorder in which emotions swing between mild depression and hypomania, or elevated mood. His friend’s mother, a psychologist, urged him to seek psychiatric help. The symptoms worsening, Jill had to make the appointment. “Without the support of my wife and family I don’t know what would have happened to me,” Keith says. Within a week, he had a clinical diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder––severe mood swings from mania to depression––and began medication.

There was still an uphill battle to climb. Coping with the reality of his illness and medication side effects, Keith sank into an 18-month-long depression that persisted even after the birth of his son, Conor, in April 2012.

That summer, Keith met Steven L. Dubovsky M.D., a psychiatrist at the University of Buffalo. Dr. Dubovsky prescribed lithium, oxcarbepazine (Trileptal) and aripiprazole (Abilify), which “really made all the difference in the world,” says Keith. “I still deal with my moods but I’m as healthy as I can get.”

As he regained his life, Keith learned how many other people suffer from mental illness, often in silence. In October 2013, he founded 4th And Forever, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness, providing education, and funding research. Today, Keith travels the country speaking with communities and high school students. He has served as the keynote speaker at two Foundation Discovery to Recovery: A Path to Health Minds conferences; in September, 2014 in Washington DC and in February, 2015 in Los Angeles where he spoke about his experience and living a productive life.

Although Keith sometimes has normal performance anxiety before big talks, “the reaction I get from the crowd is well worth it,” he says.

Through 4th And Forever, Keith is realizing a new dream, easing the way for others and reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness. “I want to do something to help, to say ‘I went through this and it’s okay to talk about it.’”