When Cricket Started to Hurt: My Battles with Depression and Addiction
Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and now Ben Stokes...I couldn't think of a better time to tell my story
18th May 2017: My entire family was seated on the L-shaped sofa in the living room of our family home. I stood facing them. At the time, I felt like they were ganging up on me.
My armpits, my forehead, my entire t-shirt were all soaked in sweat. My vocal cords were on the verge of snapping. I’d been shouting and occasionally crying for hours on end. I was angry, I was hurting, I was confused, and then my cousin stopped beating around the bush.
“Jayesh…bro, you need to go to rehab.”
I furrowed my brows and scoffed at the most accurate piece of advice I’ve ever received. “What the fuck are you saying? Fuck this and fuck EVERY SINGLE one of you,” I screamed as I turned my back on everyone and headed towards my room to get high...again. Just like I had 5000 times in the previous five years.
And then, for the first time in my life, I heard my uncle curse.
“You fucking pussy!”
Fumes started to escape my ears as I turned around, ready to give it back to him.
But uncle wasn’t talking to me. He was pointing at my father, who was staring straight ahead, his eyes soaked in fear, his heart curled up in the foetal position. Dad knew that if they couldn’t convince me to go to rehab, very soon I’d either end up dead or in prison.
“Throw him out of the house,” suggested uncle. “You’re letting him do all this shit. You’re blind? You’re fucking blind or what? You’re killing your own son!”
I stood there in disbelief as my eyes started to well up.
Dad didn’t deserve to be blamed for my mistakes. I wanted my tears to hurry up and stream down my face so the people I loved most could see how sorry I was, and see that, somehow, in that instant, I realized that I’d hit rock bottom and that I needed help.
I walked towards someone. I don’t know who because I wasn’t looking for a face, and I didn’t have the gall to make eye contact with anyone. I just needed a shoulder to bury my head into. I found a shoulder. I found an iron-grip hug.
“Okay…Okay. I’ll go.”
I’m Jay and I write about cricket. Soon after I tell anyone that, I’m often asked: “So do you play as well?”
No, I’m too busy writing about cricket to ever have time to play it. And no, the irony is not lost on me.
But I used to play, and play a lot. All the time in fact.
Ever since a family friend bought me my first tape-ball cricket bat — a Reebok Blaze — the sport took over my life. I’d play all day, every day, and everywhere.
In the lift lobby outside my apartment. In my living room. In my bedroom with a hairbrush instead of a bat, so I had room for an extravagant bat swing that wouldn’t smash my TV or my desk lamp in the process. I’d play in the park. I’d play at lunchtime in school. I’d randomly begin shadow batting at family gatherings. I’d mimic the actions of my favourite bowlers while waiting in line at the grocery store. I love this sport, but as a child, I was absolutely obsessed!
I wanted to be an international cricketer, whether it was for India or for Hong Kong, where I was born and raised and where I currently reside. I was very close to making it into the Hong Kong Under-13 team and have played with or against many current Hong Kong internationals. I was pretty good.
Cricket, in every sense of the word, was my escape. However, this escapism wasn’t poetic or inspirational. It was dangerous and sowed the seeds for the years I lost due to substance abuse.
I was born at a time when my family was struck by bereavement, grief, illness, and conflict. Not to mention a uniquely South Asian brand of denial. Unlike today, home in those days was an angry place to be.
I struggled for many years in school due in no small part to having ADHD, which I only got diagnosed with earlier this year. I’d often forget things or lose things, I struggled with time management, reading speed, reading comprehension and I took longer than the average student to finish homework and exam papers. ADHD was also a big reason why I took a long time to learn how to socialize with my peers. As a result, I often felt like an outsider; a sentiment exacerbated by the confusion surrounding my cultural identity. This in turn made it even harder for me to make friends.
It’s fair to say that I had very low self-esteem growing up and that I struggled to find the emotional safety and comfort that every child deserves. For a long time, I held my family and sometimes myself responsible for this. One of my concerns before penning this piece was that my family would see this as a scathing indictment of their character.
Let me be clear: my family is imperfect, yet amazing. We’re close. In fact, we’ve never been closer, we’ve never been wiser, and we’re all better human beings now than we’ve ever been. But, yes, it’s been a journey and a half to get here.
Now, let’s get back to the story and how cricket fits into it.
I must have been eleven years old at the time. Former Hong Kong fast bowler Afzaal Haider was my coach. And boy was he was brilliant? He made me believe that I was a gun player. Every bit of technical advice he gave me just made sense, which is incredible as I’ve historically been really bad at following instructions.
After a few weeks of training with Afzaal, I became the vice-captain of the Hong Kong Cricket Academy Under 11 team. That season I was the designated finisher both with the ball and the bat. We were chasing 160 odd in 20 overs. But we kept losing wickets and I kept being pushed down the order. I finally walked in at 8, and within a matter of minutes, we needed around 100 off the last six overs. I threw my hands at a ball outside off to get my first four.
And then I went crazy.
We had to contend with an unusually long leg-side boundary designed to encourage us to develop our offside game. But I didn’t care. I hit five leg-side sixes off the last five balls of an over.
The equation soon became 20 off 2 overs. We would have won had I not been batting with Hong Kong’s answer to Inzamam-ul-Haq. I swung hard at one, missed, was called through for a run by Inzi, who thought it would be a good idea to send back the guy batting on 70-odd. I didn’t make my ground, the loss hurt, but people would talk about that innings for months even years to come. And for a moment, my troubles at school and my troubles at home seemed light-years away.
Soon after that innings, I was fast-tracked into hard-ball selection trials for the Hong Kong Under-13s, leapfrogging a lot of really good players in the process. On the surface, life was good.
But then came the turning point.
I broke my arm when I tripped playing football, missing an entire season as a result. When I returned for the next season, it seemed like a gazillion players had streamed into the system, and I had this impression that I’d been forgotten.
I had a couple of bad games. And then it started to happen.
I’d freeze at the crease. I wouldn’t watch the ball. I couldn’t. I started misfielding, dropping catches, and for some reason, I abandoned my more than decent medium-pace bowling for flat, non-turning off-spinners. Looking back, I realize that I bowled one bad over of seam this one time, and started believing that I was “shit.”
Cricket had given me my identity. It was my way of compensating for my struggle to make friends and my way of escaping familial conflict. The stakes were simply too high: If I failed, I couldn’t get a sense of satisfaction from school and I didn’t have the social or problem-solving skills to navigate life at home. I felt as if I had to put in big performances or I’d have nowhere to go and I’d be worth nothing. Cricket was too important, and that was a problem.
This internalized pressure only made things worse. I dreaded every game. I’d barely sleep a wink the night before matches. In the years prior to filling this void with drugs, I sought refuge in junk food, which unsurprisingly affected me on the field.
I was bullied for my weight in school. And sometimes I was bullied on the field, including by my own teammates. I became quiet and wanted to be invisible. For a long time, I didn’t have any friends. I began to spend my weekends locked in my room with the lights off, lying in bed and crying into a pillow.
One day, in the 12th grade, I forgot to show up for the first practice session of the school cricket season. As I sat at home that evening, I felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’d spent the summer getting back into shape at the gym, was lucky enough to make some new friends and, for the first time in my life, I was beginning to attract attention from the opposite sex. So I walked away from cricket.
But the story doesn’t end there.
To the outsider, I looked like every other college student. I’d go to parties, I’d drink, laugh, I took classes that inspired me, and I secured a work placement abroad. In spite of all of this, there was always this heavy, lingering shame of “failing” on the cricket field. I had a persistent belief that I wasn’t good enough…at anything or for anyone.
That’s not to say that I blame cricket for this and that cricket is evil. Far from it. Like I said, I love this sport. That’s part of the reason why it took me more than a decade to understand how my life as a cricketer tied into my mental illness and addiction.
The wisdom to understand and accept my past, and the wisdom to forgive myself for the same, is not something I achieved on my own. Nor is it something that my family alone could have helped me to realize. It’s only been possible because of professional help.
I’ve seen two counsellors and five clinical psychologists in the last 8 years. Most of them have helped me in some way. The first three didn’t make much of an impact, but that came down to the fact that I was high for at least half of those sessions.
Even after three months of daily group therapy and individual therapy twice or thrice a week in a residential rehab facility, there were numerous layered issues for me to work through. The first year out of rehab was insanely difficult.
Yet, every few months, things would get easier. I’d find solutions to problems or I’d learn to accept the things I could not change. I became wiser, I became more resilient, I learned to recognize the emotions I would feel in different situations and how my interpretations of adverse events were informed by cognitive biases and unhealthy, innacurate core beliefs.
Sorry. I just threw a whole bunch of jargon at you. Bear with me. I’m still somewhat new at this whole “opening up” thing.
But I’m glad that I am opening up. Mental illness is a taboo subject in South Asian culture, whether that’s in the sub-continent or amongst the desi diaspora. Furthermore, conversations around mental health in sport have only just begun.
You could be a world-beater like Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Marcus Trescothick or Ben Stokes. You could be an amateur busting your butt to go pro. You could be a teenage athlete putting an unfair amount of pressure on yourself.
It doesn’t matter.
The pressure to perform at the elite and age-group levels in any sport can take a heavy even traumatic toll on your well-being and your ability to enjoy playing sport.
I’ve heard the suggestion that sport is not important. I agree and disagree.
Instead, I’d like to suggest that sport, for many of us, is by far the most important unimportant thing in the world. It can have a big impact on an athlete’s mental well-being. Likewise, an athlete’s mental well-being can have a big impact on their sporting performance.
So call out people who question Simone Biles’ patriotism. Understand that it’s okay for English players to skip the Men’s Ashes if their families can’t come with them. And, for god’s sake, ignore Piers Morgan.
If you’re reading this and you’re suffering from mental illness, you need to know that there is a way out. It will certainly be a long road.
Like really bloody long and difficult.
It’s taken me ages to get to where I am today. Like bloody ages.
But you need to ask for help both from your support system and professionals.
Sometimes, the fact that I’m alive seems like a miracle. But it’s not. It’s a result of many decisions grounded in compassion even if some of those decisions were made for me.
Many of you reading this are in a very dark place and maybe you can’t seem to find even the smallest sliver of hope. Yet, if you feel like there is no way out of your troubles, if you feel like you’ll always be swimming against an impossible tide, if you’ve ever thought about taking your own life in the belief that it’s the only escape, I’m here to tell you that I used to believe all of those things.
But none of it’s true. There’s hope out there. There’s help out there.
DISCLAIMER: This article is not designed to be a replacement for medical advice and should not be construed as such
If you or someone you know has a mental illness, there are ways to get help.
For people in the US, the website of the National Institute of Mental Health has a guide listing numbers you can call to get immediate help in a crisis as well as a brief outline of treatment options.
For readers in Hong Kong, you can find a similar resource compiled by Mind HK, a not-for-profit organization.
Here’s a helpline directory if you’re based in India
If you’re based in the UK, The Mental Health Foundation’s website contains information on how you can help someone who is having a mental health problem and a list of useful organizations and resources.