how are football and manic depression related? – reflections on the end of the season

So, a little later than usual, on what used to be called Whitsunday holiday weekend, the 2014/15 football season ended. Except that it hasn’t quite ended because the FA cup final is still to come, next weekend. What is this crazy relationship with football all about? I have been reflecting on this in general, but far more specifically on a personal level, and have realised that football mirrors and reflects my manic depressive being far more comprehensively than I had previously understood.

Premier league football is an enormous capitalist project. Billions of pounds exchange hands for television rights, millions are paid to transfer players from one club to another. The players and managers are paid telephone  number salaries; 19y olds drive Ferraris, own mansions, and drink expensive champagne like water. Summarised like this it represents nearly everything that I  don’t believe in – capitalism and massive inequality.

Seen in another way football offers a number of rags-to-riches stories; stories of youngsters in deprived areas of the world whose raw talent is recognised and developed, and even in the UK football remains one of the few arenas in which a wealthy background and public school and Oxbridge education does not buy privilege. Perhaps boxing is the only other sport for which this is true.

For the fan the price of a season ticket offers membership of a  big family. Despite the escalating costs of such tickets in recent years I am always amazed by the sacrifices that fans make in order to buy them, with whole families coming to matches week by week. I imagine that for some of them their season tickets replace summer holidays and evenings out during the year, yet I have never heard a single comment about how much a player is being paid, only about how well (or otherwise) he is playing.

The feeling of being part of a whole that is much bigger than oneself is always enjoyable, and sometimes therapeutic. Walking from the station to the stadium and joining a stream of red and white scarved and shirted fans offers security and groundedness, a feeling of belonging that can hold together a fragmented self at times of mood instability. Entering the stadium I mix with people of every age, from every walk of life, small children and people on mobility scooters, people in wheelchairs, smokers,  drinkers, fat and thin – this is a microcosm of the real world all brought together by football. I know the names of the couple who sit next to me and we chat at each match; I do not know the names of the four guys who sit to my right and the two couples who sit behind me, but we all acknowledge one another and we notice when someone is missing. Like the players we have rituals, I wear the same red earrings and red necklace, my next seat neighbour always buys a lottery ticket from the same place when she enters the ground, the couple behind me always buy a programme, and so on. Of course I know that my red earrings can have no possible influence on the outcome of the game, but it still seems important to wear them.

When the game begins so does my analogy with manic depression. During the course of ninety minutes I can experience every emotion from unbelievable elation to the depths of depression. The anxiety engendered by added time (for stoppages) at the end of the game – sometimes as much as 7 minutes – can be extreme. In the course of an hour and a half the cycle of emotions can mirror my own mood cycle over perhaps five years. The course of the season itself also reflects changes in mood, much more for some clubs than others. One might assume that this season’s easy title winners Chelsea have been hypomanic for most of the season, whereas QPR who finished bottom and struggled in the bottom five all season were depressed all season. As  Saints fan (Southampton) I have found that the club’s fortunes have been not dissimilar to my own. An uncertain start to the season quickly picked up and the autumn was buoyant, followed by a pre-Christmas dip, a recovery, a consistently good spell, another dip and a steady finish. Our final position of 7th in the table exceeded pre-season expectation, and we may yet play in Europe next season depending on the outcome of the FA cup final.

Whilst my own mood swings have not exactly paralleled Saints in real time, the pattern of ups and downs has been similar, with neither the club nor I experiencing serious depressions. Although the overall feel to the year has been positive for both of us, and there have been some brief ultra-highs (for the club beating Sunderland 8-0 and beating Aston Villa 6-1 were definite highs, and for myself there have been a few days of hypomania) there has been no prolonged high. My analogy may fall down a bit here, as Chelsea have rarely been beaten all season  and have been consistently good for several seasons. However they have failed to reach the last stages of both the European championship and the FA cup. Over a longer cycle teams that have enjoyed supremacy do fall off the top, and over even longer cycles teams such as Leeds United that once regularly enjoyed high status become adrift in the football league wilderness. Similarly I know from bitter experience that unfettered hypomania can lead to ‘falling off the top’ as an exciting high shatters into a very unpleasant state. Maybe I could loosely relate this to failing to gain control of the game even during extra time, and having to enter the lottery of a penalty shootout! The losers of a shootout are certainly cast into abject despair, but the winners proceed to greater highs. This lottery can happen in manic depression but in the end you can never win.

So my feelings at the end of the season are largely of gratitude to football, and to the Saints. Win or lose, each game of the season has produced a real rollercoaster of emotion, because I am really involved with the game and feel myself part of the extended family of the club. The grounding that that connectedness brings has been important to me in good times and in bad. Bring on next season!


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