Josh Lewin wants you know that he can be depressed and struggle with anxiety. He also wants you to know that many of the athletes he covers as the play-by-play man for the New York Mets, UCLA football and basketball teams and the San Diego Chargers (before they moved to L.A. last year) do, too. And so, he’s gathered all of their stories and experiences on a new website he launched last week called Okay Together. As he writes in the site’s About section, “I am collecting stories — hopefully ones that will inspire you in some small way — from people you may have heard of in the fields of athletics and entertainment. I’ve found that things are always easier once you’ve found your ‘wolf pack’ (to quote from a wonderfully stupid movie The Hangover). So welcome to this particular wolf pack. It’s awesome to have you here!”
A native of Rochester, New York, the 49-year-old Lewin was born and raised a Mets fan. And while UCLA was on the other side of the country, their mascot, the Bruin, rhymed with his last name, Lewin, and consequently made him a lifelong fan, too. In other words, he’s living, in my ways, his dream. But that’s also exactly why he’s so open about his mental health issues — i.e., nothing is as perfect as it looks on the outside and even perfection can’t always silence the voices in your head.
On Thursday, I spoke to Lewin about the Charger and Bruin suicides that inspired Okay Together, how he hopes to make talking about mental illness as normal as talking about diabetes and the routine that he keeps to stave off his own anxious thoughts.
What inspired you to create Okay Together?
I was knocked over by the number of athletes and celebrities who have succumbed to the helplessness of depression and anxiety. Those are absolutely helpless feelings if you think you’re in it alone. I know there’s comfort in company, and that’s the crux of the effort.
What I tell people, it’s weird for an analogy I guess, but I look at it like an old-fashioned game of Donkey Kong. Those barrels are coming at you really fast some days, and it helps to know how to dodge them. You know? The first step is coming to peace with the fact that you’re actually playing the game. You don’t choose the game, it chooses you. You’re in it even though you didn’t ask to be in it. If you’ve ever sat down, played a video game and realized that your console controller isn’t hooked up, that’s what depression and anxiety feel like to me. You know you’re hitting the right buttons, but your character isn’t moving. Your character’s frozen, and those barrels are coming at you. Needless to say, it’s a horrible feeling.
Okay Together isn’t about how to beat the game. I have no idea about that. That’s next level stuff. This project is about how to at least get your console working so you can begin the process of figuring out how to avoid those monsters. It’s also about realizing you’re part of a community that’s welcoming and nonjudgmental — and that there’s no shame in shaking hands with the issue. It’s way better to do that than to pretend nothing is going on. The website’s about first things first: Let’s remove the stigma from mental health issues.
Statistics show men not only going to the doctor less than women, but also that they’re less likely to be fully transparent about how they’re feeling. Do you think this makes that first step more important for them?
Yeah. It’s a huge first step. As men, we’re conditioned to that old-fashioned Steve McQueen brand of macho. We’re told that’s attractive to potential mates and potential employers. But mental health is serious stuff. In terms of where we’re at with acknowledging it within sports, the thing I liken it to — and I have no idea if I’m off base here — is diabetes.
There was a time when athletes wouldn’t admit they had diabetes. They’d be sneaking off to do their insulin shots. For example, Ron Santo was a Hall of Fame baseball player [with the Chicago Cubs] and never told anybody that he had diabetes because he thought that would make him look like lesser or something. And now, geez, there are players who play with the insulin packs on their belt. There’s commercials about what to do about your diabetes. I haven’t heard of anybody these days who says, “I’m afraid to tell somebody I’ve got diabetes.” It’s not a big deal. You’ll deal with it. Everybody understands that. I hope that’s where we’re able to push mental health.
We’ve lost a few Chargers to suicide — Junior Seau and Paul Oliver. Those really got my attention. That kind of woke up the idea to have a project like this. I just didn’t have it fully formed yet. But then there were back-to-back days this year when former UCLA basketball players took their own lives. That was the kick in the pants. It was like, “Let’s get this thing off the shelf, blow the dust off and do something with it.”
Were you concerned about the impact of your transparency on your own job?
I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety at a much lower grade than a lot of other people have. But even for me, it’s never been something I want at the top of my resume. Now, though, I appreciate not having to live with the fear of being “found out.” I’m not advocating that someday we’ll all be saying, “It’s cool to have this stuff.” It just would be really, really awesome if at least it wasn’t looked at as uncool.
There’s a lot of strength that comes with that, and the more the community is formed, the more there’s people talking about it amongst themselves who live with the issue. Again, I wonder with the recent rash of suicides… It’s obviously not just athletics either, with people like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. It’s been a rough summer.
What about high-profile athletes and celebrities talking about their mental-health issues do you think will encourage more young people to talk about how they feel earlier?
The Okay Together site has only been up for a few days, but people are saying that there’s comfort in being able to scroll through our library and check out who else is dealing with these issues. Lady Gaga may hit home for them or Chris Evans. People can look at him and say, “That guy’s an Avenger, and he’s dealing with this too.” The site has a compendium of a whole bunch of people who have admitted to mental health struggles.
On the athletic side of things, Steve Smith just did a great thing for NFL.com. I think it came out the same day Okay Together launched, or right around that time. I had to hurry up and add his story to our site. He did a thorough and courageous A to Z of what he’d been dealing with this whole time. That’s exactly what I’m going for, a space for athletes who realize: A) It’s not helping me to keeping this all bottled up; and B) sharing might help somebody else and get someone on board for talking about this. I thought the Steve Smith thing fulfilled that two-pronged approach perfectly.
What’s your schedule like right now as baseball season nears its end and football is about to start? Does having set routines help your anxiety?
I’m in New York now, and starting in a couple weeks, I’ll go back-and-forth between here and L.A. I just fly in for the games and fly right back out. So my Saturdays are spent in L.A. starting September 1, and when baseball season ends, October 1, I’ll be back in Solana Beach. Right now, there’s really no down time, but there’s a lot more downtime with football. There’s only one game a week, instead of seven for baseball, so that’s when I can read a novel and enjoy some vacation time.
Right now, Okay Together has cut into my Netflix time. This is my new hobby. But on a normal day, I get up around seven, get a workout in and then answer some emails. Maybe I’ll run and errand or two, but by 10 a.m., I’m starting to get ready for that night’s game. I’ll do about three hours of game prep from home and then head to the ballpark around 2:30 or 3 to continue my preparation there. If a game is from 7 to 10 or 10:30, if there’s no rain, then I’m usually home by 11 or 11:30. Then I start the cycle all over again the next day.
As someone who has anxiety, that kind of daily schedule — where it’s both full and consistent — is really helpful. I have a rhythm to everything: “Here’s when I sit down to put stuff in my scorebook; here’s when I go and talk to the manager…” Having that kind of a clock for six months a year makes it so that I’m busy enough not to have time to let my thoughts get in the way when they get too loud or too weird.
I’m so blessed. I mean, I grew up a Mets fan, and I’m doing the Mets. And I’ve had this weird affinity for UCLA because my last name rhymes with Bruin. I was always like, “Josh Lewin, voice of the Bruins.” And I have an amazing wife and two great kids. That’s why, again, having a great life can just be another weird component of depression and anxiety. People think if you’re that blessed, with a hot looking wife and two nice kids, what could you possibly be so worried about? How could you possibly be affected? But that’s such a misnomer.
I look at Junior Seau with the Chargers. There’s a guy, my God, he could have run for mayor of Oceanside, California, and won in a landslide. He’s a Football Hall of Famer. He had a wife who adores him and all these amazing kids. But the voices in his head just got too loud. If it can hit a guy like that, it can happen to anybody.