‘Like the clubs I love, I had been riding waves of my own’: a story about baseball, Australian Rules Football and being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, by Kylie Maslen
In a slow, cold, grey winter I found solace in baseball. I was housesitting for various friends while they were off in the warmer climates I longed for. To save money on rent I fed their cats, watered their plants, walked their dogs. Wrapped in blankets as the winter sun hit their unfamiliar couches, or tucked up surrounded by the textures of unfamiliar beds, my laptop sat propped open next to me.
I’d only watched a dozen or so games of baseball before 2017. I played softball as a kid and loved it, but I never had time to watch another sport over the southern hemisphere winter. Far too engrossed in Australian Rules Football to learn a game played in the North American summer, the baseball season came at a bad time. I grew up with Aussie Rules, the game that is derivative of so many other sports (rugby, Gaelic football, but most formatively Indigenous Australia’s Marngrook) but it is also a sport unlike any other. It’s fast, it’s aerial, and it’s combative. The pace and the power had captivated every sports-watching hour every winter of my life. That was, until a major depressive episode hit.
I didn’t have a baseball team, I just kind of kept watching until I did. At first I enjoyed the freedom of not having an emotional stake in the game, but the Houston Astros were difficult not to love. They were a young, energetic team who were gaining the attention of the league. But that hadn’t always been the case. In 2012 the Astros hit what looked to be rock bottom. In 2014 their home town had given up on them so badly that literally no one watched them play against the Los Angeles Angels. Sports fans know that rebuilding can take time. Time to build new game styles, set plays, to get matches into the rookies. But that, sadly, can drag on for years and years. This was the case for the Astros. There were little rays of light like new players showing promise, but many were lured to more successful clubs just as the rebuild was coming together. So then it starts again.
My football team, on the other hand, – the Richmond Tigers – had been the joke of the competition pretty much my entire life. Their last premiership was in 1980, two years before I was born. Since then they had been managed terribly, both on and off field. In 1990 they were so broke the players were rattling tins on the streets of Richmond to raise money. One of the oldest clubs in Australian Rules Football, they very nearly folded. From their working-class inner-city base they somehow held on. In 1995 they made the finals and things looked like they were turning around. They didn’t make the finals again until 2001. But they were my team and there was never any thought of an alternative.
Like the clubs I love, I had been riding waves of my own.
Highs that I attributed to adrenaline from working in a high-stress job, euphoria from drinking and dancing, energy from natural competitiveness and an ever-growing list of ideas. There had been some lows – family issues, relationship dramas, medical problems – but surely everyone has them to some extent. This low was new though. This was really low. This was a low I wasn’t sure I would get out of.
What I know now is that I have Bipolar Disorder 2. It has taken a while to come to terms with the diagnosis. I’m still coming to terms with it really. For the rest of my life I will be monitoring the peaks and troughs, managing medications and triggers and knowing when to ask for help.
In one of our original appointments to determine the diagnosis, my psychiatrist asked me about my hobbies. I said ‘I really love watching sports’. ‘That’s great!’ she exclaimed. ‘Watching sport is great.’ At the time I laughed almost dismissively. I wanted to tell her about all the pain watching sport has caused me. What I see now is that she was right, of course. In 2017 I needed reasons to stay alive. My family and friends wrapped their arms around me but they couldn’t always be there, and they couldn’t always understand what was going on in my head. I was often too scared to tell them.
But I had the gentle pace of baseball, the at-bat tactics to focus my mind, the promise that summer would soon turn from north to south and things would be brighter.
When Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in August 2017, leaving the Astros stranded for two weeks without a home base, they kept going. When they got back, they donated time and money towards the rebuild. Two months later they won their first ever World Series title. The New York Times wrote, ‘Every city wants a World Series victory. Houston, post-Harvey, needed one.’
Richmond won the premiership in September 2017: after a lifetime of waiting, the dream came true. When there were only minutes until the final siren would sound on grand final day, I cried. On my knees, head in my hands, heaving with tears. They had done it, and I was alive to see it.
Sports fans like myself love narratives. We love heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, but most of all we love belonging. The histories that clubs and franchises carry define not only who they are but who their fans are too. It becomes part of an interwoven tribalism.
I’m new to the Astros and I’m new to my bipolar diagnosis, yet somehow they are tied together.
What is ingrained in me is my football club and the knowledge that even the darkest of fights will be rewarded one day.
The Houston Astros’ motto for the 2017 season was ‘Earn It’. During the World Series it became ‘Earn History’, and when they won it became ‘History Earned’. It tells me to enjoy the success, enjoy everything you’ve fought to stay alive to see. It’s too early to know how Richmond will do this finals series but they’ve made it and so, once again, have I. I’m really going to enjoy this one.
Kylie Maslen is a writer from Adelaide, South Australia. Her writing is focused on sense of place and feminism, covering topics including cultural criticism, women’s health, and her love of Australian Rules football.
She is the recipient of the 2018 New Critics Award by Kill Your Darlings, and is their regular literary critic. Her essay ‘I’m trying to tell you I’m not okay’ was longlisted for the 2018 The Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction. Her criticism, commentary and essays have been published in Meanjin, Crikey, frankie magazine, Fest Mag, Metro Magazine, Junkee, The Wheeler Centre, fine print, and more.