The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.
As a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, Nate Burleson loved being in the spotlight. “In the football world, [receivers are] the divas,” the CBS Mornings co-host and The NFL Today analyst tells Yahoo Life. “We score touchdowns and do the dance and get people up on their feet. We're the ones that love all the eyes on us.” So when he tore his ACL and had to miss most of the 2008 season, his mental health began to flounder.
“I realized how quickly the game will move on, and it took me into the space of uncertainty,” he recalls. “And at that point, I never have dealt with anything like that. I was blessed enough to have a mom and dad that provided for us. I didn't really go through too many trials and errors. But in that moment, I felt so much solitude.”
Burleson credits his wife, Atoya, with being there for him. But there were still moments when he felt “so lost” in his mind. “The more you think about what could be at risk, the more you start to fall deeper and deeper into this pit,” he says, remembering that he found himself wondering if he’d be able to return to the game and play as well as he once had, if he would be as strong or as fast as he had been previously and whether he had made the right decisions concerning his NFL earnings. “Then, you start thinking about your identity,” says Burleson. “For so long, I’d been this athlete, and I wasn't ready to move on. I didn't have my plan B and C and D ready.”
To cope, the football pro began “drinking every single night," he says. “It started with a shot of vodka to a double shot to just telling the bartender to fill it all the way up,” he remembers. “And then at one point, I just gave him $100, and said, ‘Hey, could you just give me a bottle, and I'll just take it to my room?’ One night, I drank almost a quarter of the bottle, and I woke up on top of the sheets completely dressed. And when I looked down at myself, it was like I was laying in a casket.”
That was the moment Burleson realized he had to decide whether or not he was going to take his “bad habits” with him when he began rehab for his injury. “I walked over to the garbage, and I just put the bottle in there and I was like, ‘Alright, we're gonna leave that alone until we have enough strength, and you have your mind right,’” he says. “That was the moment where I realized how strong depression is and how easily it can grab you.”
Having meaningful conversations with loved ones was integral to getting through this particularly challenging time for Burleson. “The one thing I can appreciate about my family is they just don't tell you what you need to hear — they will ask you thought-provoking questions that will allow you to have these introspective moments,” he says. “I would get off the phone [after] my mom said, ‘Are you worried about playing again? Or do you love this game? If you can't play again, is that OK? Have you done well investing?’ And I realized a lot of my panic and anxiety and some of this depression was stemming from these questions I didn’t have answers to.”
Looking back, Burleson wishes he had talked to a therapist from the get-go. “If I'd give any advice to anybody dealing with any trauma, whether it's physical or mental, the moment something happens, speak to somebody,” he says. “We would hope a licensed therapist is available, but not everybody has access to one. But speak to somebody about what you're feeling. That is so key. And then, you feel like you're in the healing process.”
It wasn’t until his 30s that Burleson began therapy, which he now sees as a way to train the mind just like he trained physically as an athlete. “I think more people are starting to realize that — that it’s not just about [scratching] the surface and uncovering some small morsel of truth about yourself and saying, ‘OK, I am type A, and I like to put everything on a calendar. Thanks for the therapy session. Bye-bye!’ It's more like digging, literally excavating the soul. The more that you dig, the more you uncover.”
Upon transitioning from his NFL career out west to working in TV in New York City, Burleson lost all his facial hair, a symptom his dermatologist quickly attributed to chronic stress. That stress was exacerbated by the fact that he hadn’t ever been in the habit of having “consistent conversations about mental health” with friends and family.
“I realized that I was bottling up all of these things that I should allow people to see in me,” says Burleson. “And I was trying to be everything for everybody, but not paying attention to myself.”
Once he connected those dots, he was better able to manage his energy and stress and “be more open and honest" says the now-42-year-old former athlete. "If you don't speak on what you're going through, nobody will ever know,” he shares. “And then, you can't turn around and blame them for not being aware of what you're dealing with.”
Burleson also enjoys processing and sharing his emotions through writing — a practice he’s enjoyed since seventh grade. “I have a collection of about 40 poems,” notes the football commentator. Because he writes “therapeutically” and for himself, sharing his poems with others — as he did recently for Mental Health Awareness Month — is “a risk,” points out Burleson. “It's like opening up your diary to the world and hoping that they receive it.”
Ultimately, the former NFL pro is willing to take that risk, because it can lead to fostering connections with others. “I don't want to be looked at as an athlete,” says Burleson. “I don't want to be looked at as a media personality. I just want to be looked at as genuine, someone that goes through human things, just like everybody else.”