This is a guest essay from “Sarah G.” We are keeping her identity, as well as the identity of the family involved confidential per her request. It’s a powerful, personal read, and we’re grateful for her allowing us to share it.
I first met Mark in 2016. The first thing I noticed about him was that he was strikingly tall, quiet, and gentlemanly. According to Mark, I was a little bit too extroverted for him but weirdly happy to discuss gap schemes in an air raid offense on date night, so he was in. Almost immediately, our relationship was sweet, easy, and natural. And soon, it was hard to hide that we fell in love quickly. Except for perhaps the number of dirty socks I’d find on the bathroom floor, I truly could not have been happier.
As I said, Mark was always a bit socially anxious, but I was the one who could small talk to a wall when we were out, so it worked fine. I naturally became his gatekeeper in a crowd of people. However, Mark did tell me that he had sometimes struggled with more generalized anxiety over the recent years but thought it was probably just his nature. He grew up in a fractured family and was the youngest kid who was shuffled around the most. So, it was probably him just not feeling comfortable around people he guessed.
Because it was undisputed that Mark felt most comfortable, not talking, but on a football field. He was the epitome of a gentle giant. He was 6-foot-5, over 260 pounds, and could block as well as anyone. He loved football. He played all his life. As a kid, whose home life was a tad chaotic, football was steady. And Mark immediately excelled at it. When I asked him why he loved the sport so much, I expected something about playing or the game. But no, for Mark, it was that he loved being a part of a team. He always just wanted to be apart of a team.
Playing on that team did have some costs, however, and Mark was no stranger to more than a few concussions in his day. (And that was only the ones he’d confess to or were documented) But par for the course, he reasoned, and a small price to pay for doing what he loved. And following this love got him his dream, eventually landing a starting offensive lineman spot at a respectable D1 program. After graduating, went into coaching for a bit. Once that had run its course, he drifted from football and got stuck in a cube job, but found his way to me.
For being the jock, Mark teased me as the nerd of the couple- joking I was too smart for him now, but I should’ve known him years ago because I would’ve been impressed with how smart he used to be. Although I never doubted his intelligence, according to Mark, he had since lost some sharpness — such as focus and memory recall- that he had in high school. But he thought that perhaps that was just biased hindsight with the new discoveries of concussion effects, and no one could say for sure.
What I could say for sure was there seemed to be some other things Mark seemed to be downplaying. First, it was more memory lapses, next came the inexplicable panic attacks, and signs of depression. Mark had always been a bit of a drinker, and he was a big guy, so his lapping me in drinks made sense right? Was I being paranoid? That seemed to be the party line on the matter. Looking back now, I see we were both ill-equipped to handle his illness. His family knew he thought his mental acuity had declined due to his history of concussions, but they never really understood what he was going through. He did not want anyone to know, they would overreact anyway, and we’d scare them for nothing, he reasoned to me. We do not know anything for sure Sarah, just because I played football and sometimes have a panic attack means nothing. You’re just looking for problems. No reason to get worked up.
That’s true I thought. Maybe it was just the news. Maybe I watched one too many 30 for 30s. Maybe I was trying too hard to be in that Will Smith movie. Plenty of people have panic attacks, or anxiety, or tremors, or depression, or insomnia or memory loss, or confusion … that doesn’t mean anything … right?
Over time though, it became more and more difficult to ignore. Something was wrong with Mark. I knew it. This wasn’t the man I fell in love with. There were too many ‘random’ symptoms. Too many ‘senior’ moments. And now the drinking was not to get drunk, he was drinking to function. To stay calm. But I could barely bring up any of my concerns without a fight. There was always a reason to dismiss a symptom. And if it wasn’t that I was controlling, it was because I was being paranoid, or a worrier. Once it was too much for even him to deny, the response became that if I loved him, I’d accept him. I’d be okay with his issues. I’d stop acting like he wasn’t ‘good enough.’ Stop trying to ‘change’ him.
If I loved him, I would stand by his side and let it go. And more than anything I wanted him to know I loved him, so I did.
I realize now, Mark was not being intentionally manipulative — he was scared. Understandably so. The anxiety, the depression, the panic attacks, the self-medicating with substances, the forgetfulness, the cognitive issues. It was all signs of the worst. And if it wasn’t enough for his brain to betray him, his body was also breaking down.
Mark’s back was that of a man twenty years older. He had lost an entire inch of height due to how much his spine had compressed from the weight he lifted in college. He was a tall, skinny bean pole when he was recruited. But then coaches asked to put on sixty pounds of muscle his freshman year. He wanted to play. It was worth it, right? But now he was twenty-nine years old and constantly in pain. I remember thinking it was both a blessing and a curse that he refused to take narcotics, because of how much pain he was in. He had seen other guys get pumped with them after their surgeries, and he saw where that road led. He was sure he would become addicted too.
I’d bug him to get other types of treatment though, to go see someone to help him. ‘I’m not getting a spinal fusion before I turn 30.’ Plus, he did not have health insurance at the time. How was he going to pay for it? That state-of-the-art medical treatment handled by the athletic department stopped the minute he graduated- none of the boosters were going to care about what he needed now. He was also rapidly losing weight. He would be starving, but once the food came, he could barely pick at it without feeling full. He was constantly sick. (We didn’t know at the time, but this was because his pancreas and his liver were shutting down as well). He was exhausted. Mark was 300 pounds of physically-fit muscle his senior year of college. And now a little more than five years later … he was thin, sick, tired, and weak.
Anyone would fear what was happening to them, but especially a guy like Mark. For better or worse, Mark was always known as a football player. It’s how he defined himself. He started playing tackle football at five years old and never stopped. Then starting in middle school into high school, he played in the trenches on both sides of the ball, rarely taking off a down. This intensity only grew when recruiting started. Here was a kid who grew up desperate to belong to a group. And these well-known programs wanted him. Look at your future kid! Look who YOU can become. For a kid who loved being on a team, it was all he needed to hear.
But no one had any illusions; sure Mark could absolutely be a starter for a D1 school, but Mark wasn’t ever going to be known. Mark wasn’t going to play for championships. Mark was never going to the NFL. That didn’t mean of course he wasn’t going to train like the guys who were. In some ways, even more. There was no step for him after college, he wasn’t saving his knee for Sundays. And more than anything, Mark wanted to play. He wanted to be on the team. And if he wasn’t going to lose his spot, he had to do everything they wanted and more to keep it. To belong.
So here was a man who was not only used to being the peak of physical performance — intimidating and invincible, but it was what he based his identity on. In Mark’s mind, he belonged as a football player. It was who he was. His physical presence alone was striking. It’s what you noticed about him. He didn’t have to introduce himself. You knew his whole story by looking at him. It defined him.
He was an athlete, and his body was his greatest asset. It was his identity. But now it was letting him down, and he was losing what he thought made him who he was. He was losing himself.
In fact, I was the only person in his life who never knew him in the context of football. To the rest of the world, however, Mark was Mark the Football Player. Everyone called him by some type of nickname he got playing football- even his family. But I never did, to me, I only knew him as Mark.
Part of me thought it was not my place to betray this vulnerability and fear. I had his trust. He knew I didn’t love him because of what he achieved. That I loved him for Mark. I didn’t need anything else. What if I ruined that trust? Plus, he wasn’t being violent, he wasn’t hallucinating, he wasn’t acting irrationally. He never once threatened me or himself. He was not suicidal. He wasn’t even angry. He wasn’t those players on the news, right? Maybe he was just less than he was before, maybe down, maybe not doing his best, but that’s not an emergency right?. And you know, really, it’s Mark’s story to tell anyway. People might not understand. What if they think he’s an alcoholic or crazy person? What if they misjudged his character, simply because I spilled the beans and wasn’t a good enough woman to love him through it? No, I was going to be a good partner and be supportive. Come through it as a couple.
At the core though, I think that I was just as scared too. What if this was what we were scared to say? What if he really was going to get worse? What if his brain really was broken? No one ever spoke about a cure. What if my life isn’t going to look like I thought? Could he hurt me? What if I lose him? It was too much to fear to wade into. When faced with fight or flight, Mark and I, both regrettably, chose flight.
So, I did not alert those around us to my rising concern. I did not seek out resources to get us help. I do not say lightly that this decision is the greatest regret of my life. And by the summer of 2018, my own mental health was beginning to deteriorate. I was trying and failing, to breathe for us both without ever putting on my mask first. I decided that I had to take some space from the relationship. I needed to take a break to figure out what to do. And maybe this would be a wake-up call for him, an ultimatum. We remained in daily contact as he did take steps to get some help. He went to the doctor. He told me he got on some medication. I saw a lot of improvements from my standpoint. He wanted to show me he could get better. Sure, I wasn’t as privy to his struggles as I had been before, but from his presentation to me, he seemed to really be turning a corner.
Then one evening in September, I had this nagging feeling that something was off. As I went through the mental list of the things I could be forgetting, I realized I had not heard from Mark. So, I just decided to check-in. A few unanswered texts and hours later, just a feeling turned to something more real. But I probably was overreacting, so I called Mark’s friend to see if Mark was there, but just too irritated watching the Giants’ performance to get back to me. “Hey, no sorry not here, which is kinda annoying we were supposed to meet up to watch this one but the kid never texted me back, do you-“. Before he could finish his sentence, I was already racing to my car.
By the time I got to his apartment complex, the blue lights lit up the parking lot. I didn’t know who called the police, or why they were there, but I knew they were there for him. He must have had been panicking, spiraling. Maybe he called them? Wouldn’t he have texted me first? Maybe he was disruptive? Maybe the neighbors were afraid? He is a big dude, after all. But surely not — this is Mark we are talking about, he would never threaten anyone, that is not who he was. But then again, none of this was who he was.
As I raced up the sidewalk to the complex, an officer stepped in to let me know I needed to use the other entrance, as this entrance was currently closed off to the public. I hurriedly explained why it was imperative I get up there. But the officer for some reason now seemed even more insistent: ‘Ma’am, I’m sorry but I cannot let you go up to that apartment.’ Pushing his hands off me with panic filling every cell in my body, I desperately explained to the officer that he didn’t understand, if Mark were in some kind of trouble, they would need me in there to help calm him down — that Mark needed me. ‘Ma’am. Again, I cannot let you in the apartment and …’ the officer hesitated, steading his grip on me and softening his voice ‘… and I promise, you don’t want to see that’
With that, I stopped fighting. Because at that moment, I knew Mark had stopped fighting too. Finally stopped fighting the illness he had courageously battled for so long. The last thing I remember, as the officer’s words became muffled in my ears and I felt my knees give way to the sidewalk, was realizing that my worst nightmare had come true, and Mark was really gone.
The days and weeks that followed are difficult to describe and many of the events that I and his family shared will remain private. They are very personal, jarring, and still tender. The conversations were those of shock, confusion, guilt, and blame, but mostly, just pain. Just crushing grief. There were discussions with the police. There was the cleaning and scrubbing of the apartment. There was piecing together events to understand. Investigations that may have found facts- but, ultimately, brought no one further closure. There were no silver linings. No lessons learned. Nothing gained. Just unimaginable, and inescapable loss.
For me, the process since Mark’s death was and has been one that I would not wish on anyone. I have some difficulty articulating it, but the daily dance with grief and guilt was devastating. Beyond the pain of losing someone so dear to your heart, someone you loved- it is your own pain mixed in with loss. Although I cannot begin to imagine what it would be to lose a child, I think I do somewhat understand the complicated place a part of that grief may reside. Of your grief inexorably tied to your guilt. You cannot escape the pain that you were their caretaker. They were in your care. You lost the man you loved on your watch. You left him. You were his person, the love of his life, and he was in pain, he needed you, and you let him down.
To lose someone this way is to deal with this feeling that not only is he gone — but you were the one who let him go.
It is complicated, hard, and overwhelmingly painful.
I have learned that in this journey, there is no solution to handle this. No 10-step program. No way to conquer or solve this type of grief. You simply survive it. You do not get over it. You adapt. You walk through it. Every day. You get up- two steps forward, one step back. You feel it all. You remember. You regret. You revisit. Again and again and again. At first, it’s almost too much- like drowning. If you’re not careful, it can drown you.
But if you just keep pushing, keep kicking, slowly, you start breathing again. You find your way back to a new normal. You notice a day when it’s not so overwhelming. Then maybe you notice that sometimes you can go days without feeling it. Maybe a week. It settles in. It’s not the life you had before, for better or worse, but it’s life nonetheless. You grow into a new version of yourself. You broker peace with the guilt as best you can. Moments hurt worse than others, but you start to get back to living again. I cannot pinpoint when it happened, but if you grieve this way, know that one day, somehow — it doesn’t control you as it did. It does get better eventually.
Along this process, which I am still going through, I have found that what is the core of grief’s venom then becomes the antidote — time.
And as I walked through this grief, everyone of course does the kind thing and reminds you that it’s not your fault. While I will never speak against this kindness shown to me — for me it was really not something someone else could make me believe. I had to walk through it and get to the other side myself. I couldn’t be rationalized into feeling better.
Knowing that people often ask me now how to help someone who is grieving with a traumatizing loss. And I say that if you are loving someone consumed with grief, do not feel hesitant about speaking up because you don’t know the right words to make it better. You don’t know them — because they do not exist. You cannot make it ‘better.’ You cannot erase what happened. What they have lost. You cannot take away the journey of what they are going to have to go through, but you can just faithfully walk it with them.
In fact, one of the most comforting moments a person gave me, was when my dad, with tears running down his face, told me ‘Sarah, this is so awful what has happened. Everything. This is so unfair. I am so angry this has happened to you.’ It was someone looking at me, and saying, yes — your grief is valid. We don’t have to make you feel better. We don’t have to pretend, today we are not talking about silver linings or lights at the end. We weep with you and for you — you can grieve here.
But mostly my advice to help anyone who is grieving is not to worry so much about how to care for someone grieving, and more ensure that you consistently do. Just be there for them. Keep showing up. Let them talk about what they need. Listen. Help them feel free to share memories. Good and bad. My friends who help let me know not only that they remember me, but that they remember Mark. That Mark meant something to them too. That for that minute, he’s not as far away as it feels. That they cannot know the pain I feel, but they remind me that they know it’s there.
Most importantly to those who struggle with mental illness, and to those who love them, I want to speak mostly to y’all. I have struggled with my own serious bouts of depression and every time I would read a story like this it — it was so discouraging. Like I was reading some script of the fate I had been cast. Who was to tell me it ‘gets better’ when clearly it doesn’t?
So I want to say, loudly, and clearly — this is not the case. I tell Mark and I’s story so you don’t have to walk this path. You can do what we did not do. You can get help. You can seek resources. You can get support. You can be honest with your doctors, with your friends.
There are many things people have said to comfort me over the years, but I am always quick to correct when they say there is nothing I could have done. That isn’t true. We could have done a lot more. I have made my peace with my choices, and with Mark’s. And I do not fault or blame either of us. We were doing the best we knew how with something very difficult. But at the end of the day, there were things we could have done to get help.
I say that not to be condemning of anyone who is struggling through this — but to be encouraging: this is not your fate. This is not your destiny. You are not on an irreversible course. You are not powerless. I promise you can get better. I learned from Mark, I got better. I found my life again. I got therapy. Medication. I found joy and hope I never felt possible. You can too. Please do.
I want to be clear that Mark never had a formal CTE diagnosis, before or after his death. It simply was his belief that he did have it and I believe that as well. But I am not writing today to discuss the issues surrounding that disease. Because ultimately, regardless of why or what was causing Mark’s mental illness — the battle Mark went through was the same as others. He was fighting his brain every day on what was true. And what was true was that there was still good out there. That it would get better. So please do not give up. Do better than what we did. We needed more help than we sought. We waited until it was too late. We let fear keep up us from facing what needed to be faced. If you need help, get it. It is so worth it. Please see the hotlines below as a starting spot to help you get the life you are so worth having.
If Mark was here with me, I know he’d agree. That this battle is hard, that you can be the toughest guy in the room, but if you let it- fear will keep you from the life you deserve. I miss him every day, but I know that he would want us to both do some good for those still fighting. To turn this story into a story of hope-not of loss. To Leave our Mark on those who hear our story — that life is worth it. That it does getter better.
It is my most sincere hope this loss brings new motivation for people seeking treatment. For pushing past fear. A reminder that there’s light in the dark. That even in death and against all odds, life somehow makes its way through. There is good. The reminder that we belong to one another. We must keep looking out. Keep checking in. Because no matter what it may feel like right now, you belong on our team. We need you to stay.
No matter who you are — you belong here.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800–273–8255 or Text TALK to 741741
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Hotline (Substance Abuse)