"He failed to turn in homework assignments and his classroom performance dropped, putting him short of the 2.0 GPA required to play NCAA sports. This was the first indication to the SDSU football staff that something was wrong."
SSRI Stories Note: The Physicians Desk Reference states that antidepressants can cause a craving for alcohol and can cause alcohol abuse. Also, the liver cannot metabolize the antidepressant and the alcohol simultaneously, thus leading to higher levels of both alcohol and the antidepressant in the human body.
Depression and the promising athlete
Weiss' battle with mental issues led to poor grades, law troubles at South Dakota State, but he's hoping for a fresh start at Augie
Terry Vandrovec • email@example.com • May 9, 2010
Jake Weiss wants to believe that he's better.
There's desire in his voice, sincerity in his hazel eyes.
There's also something about the way he fiddles with the silver cross that hangs around his thick neck.
He's not sure.
Weiss has thought the depression and the anxiety disorder were under control.
If it were a matter of will, the Roosevelt High School graduate wouldn't have gotten arrested, let his grades plummet or overdosed on prescription pills.
The former star quarterback wouldn't have walked away from a full football scholarship at South Dakota State University.
Jake Weiss – athlete, good student, model citizen – was supposed to be able to handle anything and everything.
He believed that.
So did his family and friends. But biology caught up to him during his first year at SDSU, knocking the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder to the floor of his dorm room.
"I'm 19 years old and I'm a middle linebacker of a Division I school and I'm sitting in my room crying," Weiss says. "I remember thinking, 'It's not supposed to be this way.'"
Coming home and coming clean, he's decided, is the only way he can get back on his feet.
Weiss is set to transfer to Augustana, a step down in terms of national football status, but the team is full of familiar faces and family is right around the corner.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates more than 20 million
American adults – almost 10 percent of the population – suffer from some sort of mood disorder at any given time. What's more, roughly 40 million American adults have an anxiety disorder.
Weiss said that he has been diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder. What that means, according to NIMH researcher Dr. David Sommers, is that he's biologically vulnerable, less capable of handling the kind of stresses that are inevitable in life and especially frequent during the first year of college.
Weiss first exhibited symptoms during his junior year of high school. He'd been a hothead since he was a little boy, deeply affected by wins and losses, his dad, Ron, said. But this was different, more intense, and it was brought on by the pursuit of perfection rather than by obvious failure – there wasn't much of that in his time at Roosevelt.
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"I loved high school," Weiss said. "Still wish I could be in high school."
Things didn't get out of control until college, when he was 55 miles away from his support system.
Weiss was uneasy even before he reported to SDSU fall camp in August, burdened by the perceived expectations of being a prized recruit in a rising program – even though he was scheduled to redshirt as a freshman. He'd always been acutely aware of and affected by pressure. One of his lasting memories of growing up near Parkston was losing the family farm because of bankruptcy, a detail that wouldn't matter to every elementary-school boy.
In college, he started drinking, something he said he rarely did in high school and shouldn't have done in conjunction with his anti-depressants.
That led to his first legal issue, a citation for underage consumption. He also racked up hundreds of dollars in parking tickets – emblematic of an uncharacteristic level of irresponsibility – and burned through his scholarship money, needing to take out student loans to get by.
He failed to turn in homework assignments and his classroom performance dropped, putting him short of the 2.0 GPA required to play NCAA sports. This was the first indication to the SDSU football staff that something was wrong.
The Jackrabbits coaches didn't learn about the depression until after the recruiting process had ended, and Weiss did his best to hide his subsequent struggles.
At the low point, Weiss got into an argument with another student and stormed off, returning to his dorm room in a rage.
"I remember telling myself, 'I don't want to be here anymore, I don't want to be in this place,'" he said. "'I don't want to be in the world anymore.'"
The means to escape: Several painkillers and half a bottle of his anti-depressants.
Teammate and roommate Alex Parker returned from studying to find Weiss at first out of it – quiet if responsive – and then sobbing. Parker had seen him cry before, but not like this. He called for help.
Ron Weiss rushed to Brookings.
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"That was one of the worst nights of my life," he said.
There was more to come, although Weiss did use the scare – he didn't require any medical attention to recover from the overdose – as an impetus to seek help.
He checked himself into the behavioral ward of a Sioux Falls hospital for a weekend. The doctors adjusted and increased his medications. They also encouraged him to explore his issues. His sister, Madisyn, a fifth-grader, was allowed to visit. To that point, she had been in the dark about the spiraling situation, and the truth brought her to tears.
Weiss also met other patients, including a woman he knew.
She was fighting the same battle, silently and internally. They shared their stories. They hugged.
"I realized that nothing was that bad – regardless of what your head is telling you," Weiss said.
The message was received, but it didn't stick.
One Saturday night last month, after being given leeway by SDSU coaches to occasionally miss spring workouts to tend to his personal issues, Weiss went to a party in Sioux Falls and got arrested for another alcohol-related offense.
He called his dad to bail him out of jail. That night, Weiss decided he was going to leave SDSU and get closer to home. He didn't want to. Coach John Stiegelmeier had made a lot of time for one-on-one conversations. But he needed to.
"That night he was really pouring his heart out and how he felt like he was a failur
e and he didn't know how to correct it," Ron Weiss said. "He hated being this way – just some things that were tearing my heart out as a dad. It just crushes you."
Jake Weiss had grown fond of Stiegelmeier during their personal meetings, and he said breaking the news to his coach was one of the most difficult things he's ever had to do.
"This is all about him," Stiegelmeier said. "So many times that team and that loyalty skews what a person needs to do to take care of himself and what they need to do to take care of their family. Hopefully by treating him well, there will be that connection forever."
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Weiss saw the devastation in his dad, his confidant and best friend. With nowhere else to go, he turned to God. He believes faith has helped, given comfort in a way that counseling sometimes hadn't. The cross around his neck is a gift from his girlfriend, a constant physical reminder of a greater power.
"I'm still young," he said. "I have a lot to go through. I haven't experienced life's worst yet. It's important to get this figured out at a young age."
Clinging to sport
Weiss wants to figure it out, but he also doesn't want to give up on football.
You could argue that the sport – time consuming, exhausting and maybe macho to a fault – has complicated things for Weiss and become a burden. But he doesn't see it that way. It was the only thing he had going for him during a tumultuous time at SDSU.
Even though his weight fluctuated up to 10 pounds per week because of a loss of appetite related to depression, he was named defensive player of the year on the scout team, an award handed out by the players. Not bad considering he'd never played linebacker before. Two of the Jackrabbits coaches told Weiss' dad that he had the makings of a team captain.
"I get stuff built up and can go out and practice and run into people," Weiss explained. "What better stress reliever can there be?"
On the flip side, where's the line between competitive and counterproductive?
During one sub-par practice in high school, Weiss – a two-year starter at quarterback – yanked off his helmet and smashed it to the ground in a single, violent motion. Rough Riders coach Brent DeBoer – in the dark about Weiss' condition until recently – chalked it up to his desire to succeed.
"That was Jake," he said. "As a coach you hope all your kids are like that."
Except that the anger and frustration wasn't confined to the field. Weiss brought it home and was, at times, downright hard to live with, according to his dad.
On the advice of his parents, he went to see a school counselor. That led to an appointment with the family doctor and a prescription for an anti-depressant – the same mild form taken by his dad. Until then, Weiss was unaware that his family had a history of depression.
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The medicine helped, temporarily. On a lark, Weiss went to senior prom with close friend and Roosevelt teammate Riley Lynch. The two wore frilly blue and orange tuxedos ala the movie, "Dumb and Dumber." Weiss felt normal again, felt like himself. However, the overarching mood in his life shifted from comedy to drama over the next two months.
"I could tell as we were getting ready for football that he wasn't acting the same," Lynch said of last summer. "He was a lot quieter, and he wasn't opening up like he used to."
Weiss is excited about Augustana, about getting to play football again after a redshirt season at SDSU.
He's happy to reunite with roughly half a dozen former high school teammates. He's drinking 1,000-calorie shakes to put on weight – he'd like to get to 240 pounds – and is about to start a summer job.
The school year has ended at SDSU, meaning that Weiss is back in Sioux Falls full time. The prospect of being no more than 15 minutes from his family allows him to breathe easier.
"Right now, I'm still going through challenges," Weiss said. "I still have my moments, I still have my down times when there's nobody around. And I hope I'm not the only one that's like that."