MENTAL HEALTH

Former tennis professional details illness

2010-10-29T23:45:00Z 2010-10-31T19:38:16Z Former tennis professional details illnessCINDY UKEN Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 29, 2010 11:45 pm  • 

He was a man of two faces.

There was Cliff Richey, the No. 1-ranked professional tennis player in the United States in 1970 who won 45 tournament titles over a 26-year career. Then there was Cliff Richey who relied on valium to sleep, self-medicated with alcohol and placed black trash bags over the windows of his house so he could stay in bed all day and cry.

“I knew I’d feel good at 5 o’clock,” Richey said in an interview with The Billings Gazette. That was his witching hour, the time of day he found solace in a stiff drink. “I was out of sync with everything and everyone. Six or seven nights of the year I’d tie one on and not come out of the hotel.”

Richey, 63, is in Billings as a keynote speaker for the Montana State Conference on Mental Illness. He puts a face on the conference theme, “Recovery and Reform.” Richey, who said he is now in recovery, first went public with his clinical depression diagnosis in 1999 and has been a mental health advocate since.

Depression afflicts one in 20 Americans. He said he is “rabid” about advocacy and uses any “little platform” he can to advance the discussion about mental illness.

“I know two things,” Richey said. “I know tennis. I know depression.” As a tennis player, he was known as the original “Bad Boy” of tennis, before there was John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase. The temper tantrums and boorish behavior, he said, masked his internal struggle with a living nightmare: clinical depression.

As a mental health advocate, Richey, along with his daughter Hilaire Richey Kallendorf, has now written a book, “Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion’s Toughest Match.” Since its debut April 1, Richey has made 19 public appearances, including one in Washington, D.C. He uses the book, and his mental health advocacy talks, to help educate people about depression and provide them with hope of improving their lives. The book has also received acclaim and endorsements in the mental health community.

Jimmy Connors, the five-time U.S. Open champion and a friend of Richey’s, penned the foreword for the book.

“What made Cliff Richey what he was on the tennis court has certainly carried over into this book,” Connor writes. “His story has taken a subject, depression — which has affected him personally — and put it out there for everyone to see. Depression has been a subject that no one really talks about. Few people even admit to having such a condition. But Cliff is not afraid to be bold and reveal what he has gone through and what it takes to get a handle on this disease.”

A friend of Richey’s has called the book a “love letter” to Richey’s ex-wife. The couple was married for 41 years. Richey said his depression was likely an “overload” for her. “I was taken by surprise and I did not want the divorce,” he said. “It is almost an unknown chapter of my life.”

At his sickest, Richey said he tried to get his hands on everything he could read, but materials were scarce. “I just wanted to read something, anything just to hear someone say to hang in there. I thought if I could write a book that would give people hope...”

Looking back, Richey said he likely suffered from depression in his early 20s but chalked it up to anxiety, stresses of the game, lost matches and competition. Between the ages of 26 and 31, Richey said his anxiety flared into bona fide depression.

“I knew there was something really wrong,” Richey said. He knew his career was coming to an end, which might have been a trigger event. During his worst depression in the 1990s, Richey was emotionally paralyzed. He couldn’t drive or sleep.

Through 10 years of recovery, with the aid of antidepressant medication, Richey said he began to feel well for the first time in his life. The fight is not over, he said, but he encourages those suffering from depression to never give up. “People need to know there is hope in recovery. It’s hard work but it’s doable.”

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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