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December 17, 2015
Until the moment he pulled the trigger, Zack Langston was trying to fix himself. He took medication. Quit medication. Switched jobs. Saw a therapist. Spent time in a hospital. Went out with friends and family. Kept to himself. He would sit with a cup of coffee and read for hours, books like Thinking Better and 21 Ways To Finding Peace and Happiness and the Bible. He had notebooks, too, where he would write down his life goals, in list after list, an ever-changing set of plans to make everything better:
Find a growable entrepreneurial job
1 Caffeinated drink a day
Stay spiritually strong
Zack was 26 years old, tall and handsome, built like a rubber superhero suit. At age 10, he prided himself on being the hardest hitter in his youth football league; at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas, his coaches rewarded his ferocious play with a pair of actual hammers. He went on to play outside linebacker at Pittsburg State University, where his friends and teammates called him Leonidas, after the Spartan warrior in the film 300. But Zack was laid-back and well-liked, slow to anger and quick to apologize. He was raised by two loving parents, Nicki and Marc, who cheered for him at every game. He had a baby sister, Emma, whom he adored; an older brother, Shaun; and a younger brother, Ben, who was his best friend—well, at least outside of their frantically competitive games of one-on-one basketball.
Zack Langston and his son, Drake. —Photo courtesy of Marc Langston
Now Zack had a two-year-old son, Drake, all chunky legs and a long torso, deep-voiced for a little boy the way his father once had been. Zack loved being a dad, changing diapers and making formula, taking Drake for rides on a shopping mall carousel. Sure, things had been rocky with Drake’s mother, Danae, Zack’s college sweetheart. The couple had been engaged, only to split up, unable to make things work. But Zack still loved her, and she loved him, and both wanted the best for their son. He was even dating again, a girl named Morgan, and they were good for each other, kindred spirits who liked goofy humor and golfing as an excuse to drink beer and ride around in electric carts. Things were looking up, and that’s exactly what Zack would tell himself: I have a great job, a great son, a great family, I go to church, I have a girlfriend devoted to me. I should be happy.
Only he wasn’t. Zack couldn’t find peace. Couldn’t keep his mind from racing, couldn’t stop the dark thoughts. He would miss appointments, lose his keys, become enraged, emotionally flog himself for being so careless. He would blow up at Ben, argue with Danae, toss and turn and sweat through the night. Zack was drinking a lot more, whiskey from the bottle, and exercising a lot less—this, from a health food nut who started every vacation by finding the nearest gym; who had spent five months training with the U.S. National bobsled developmental team; and who two years earlier had bounded into his family’s kitchen to announce, Mom, I don’t know why people use drugs when they can just work out.
Something was wrong with Zack. Something inside his head. No matter what he tried—the books, the notes, the Lexapro—nothing worked. He became paranoid, increasingly irrational, yet was often lucid enough to know it. Maybe that was the hardest part. No one knew what was the problem, but one way or another, Zack was determined to fix it—the same way he would run and lift weights so hard he would throw up, yet still beat his football teammates in sprints.
Eventually, Zack began Googling at what age do kids remember? And eventually, he bought a gun.
Eight months after her son took his own life, Nicki Langston’s phone rang. It was the fall of 2014, and her older sister, Debbie, was on the line. The self-described “PBS-watching nerd” in the family, Debbie had just seen the Frontline documentary League of Denial.
“Nicki,” she said, “you need to watch this interview with Dr. Ann McKee.”
A professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and the director of the Neuropathology Service for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers, McKee is a neuropathologist, which makes her something of a brain detective: essentially, she studies damage and disease by examining tissue samples under microscopes. McKee is also one of the world’s leading experts on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head.
Characterized by the buildup of harmful, neuron-killing tangles of a misfolding protein called tau in specific areas of the brain, CTE is associated with clinical symptoms including memory loss, confusion, explosive anger, impaired judgement, impulse control problems, anxiety and depression. Previously known as “punch drunk syndrome,” the disease had been recognized in boxers for decades. In 2002, however, a Pittsburgh-based neuropathologist named Bennet Omalu made a startling discovery: he found CTE in the brain of Mike Webster, a former National Football League star and Hall of Fame player who had descended into madness, living out of his truck and Tasering himself to fall asleep before dying of a heart attack at age 50.
In 2002, Bennet Omalu found CTE in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster—YouTube
Omalu subsequently diagnosed the disease in the brains of former NFL players Andre Waters, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk. Waters shot himself in the head; Long committed suicide by drinking antifreeze; and Strzelczyk died in a fiery car crash after leading police on a high speed highway chase and complaining of “evil” voices in his head. The NFL and affiliated scientists attempted to discredit and dismiss Omalu’s work—the notion that football could cause the same sort of brain damage as boxing despite participants wearing hard plastic helmets was a major threat to both the league’s bottom line and the sport’s overall popularity. Yet by 2009, there was enough evidence connecting football to long-term neurological harm that Congress held hearings on the issue. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell refused to acknowledge a link between the sport and brain damage, but former players kept losing their minds and killing themselves. Two high-profile retirees—Dave Duerson and the enormously popular Junior Seau—shot themselves in the chest specifically to preserve their brains for study.
In 2012, thousands of retirees filed a federal class action lawsuit against the NFL for concealing and lying about the dangers of concussions and brain trauma, an accusation at the heart of both League of Denial and the Hollywood drama Concussion. Meanwhile, a Boston-based brain bank established by Boston University and the Veterans Administration in partnership with the Concussion Legacy Foundation and headed by McKee had by September of 2015 examined the brains of 91 deceased NFL players—and found CTE in 87.
Nicki didn’t know anything about CTE. She was vaguely aware that football could cause brain damage—but only because Zack had told her that the sport might be the cause of his problems, and because she had seen a doctor hawk brain repair supplements on television. (Zack, she says, tried the pills. No effect). Anyway, Nicki believed the conventional wisdom: that this was a problem for the pros, for middle-aged and older men who had suffered lots and lots of head hits over very long football careers. Zack was young. He never played in the NFL. Heck, he chose Pittsburg State over bigger, more prestigious college football programs because he didn’t want to feel like a slab of disposable meat. Zack skipped class and hid when a recruiter from Kansas State University came to visit Blue Valley Northwest High. “That happened a number of times,” Ben says.
“We thought he would be safer at Pittsburg State,” Nicki says.
Still, football was football. Violent by design. At the end of a practice during Zack’s freshman year, Nicki recalls, his coaches called for a “Hamburger” drill. The players formed a circle. The coaches stood in the middle. They called out names, two at a time. Langston! “Zack and someone else just ran out and hit each other as hard they they could,” says Nicki, who along with Marc had been visiting Zack at Pittsburg State. “It was horrible. You could hear the crashing and thuds and the grunts. I realized they hit each other like this all time, and I just couldn’t hear it before because I was usually sitting in the bleachers. I had to walk away.”
Nicki watched League of Denial. Her heart pounded when she listened to McKee discuss CTE. She called Debbie back.
“Wow,” Nicki said. “He had all the symptoms.”
Zack was cremated in his favorite red football shorts. Pieces of his brain had been preserved at the Langstons’ request as a result of Zack sharing fuzzy suspicions with Nicki that something was wrong. An exam—that didn’t look for CTE—found nothing unusual.
Shortly after watching the PBS special, Nicki placed a call to McKee’s brain bank.
Everything was fine, until it wasn’t. In the summer of 2011, Zack graduated from Pittsburg State. To celebrate, he took a vacation with Ben and Nicki in Key West, Florida.
On the way to their hotel room, Zack suddenly snapped, throwing his suitcase against the walls of an all-glass elevator. Ben and Nicki were stunned: Zack hated conflict, always tried to smooth over family arguments. “In school, he was a bar bouncer for a short time,” says Shaun, Zack’s older brother. “He was terrible at it. Not the in-your-face personality they usually look for. Zack was pretty mellow.”
When they got to the room—a luxury suite overlooking the water, with a full kitchen and granite countertops—Zack began screaming at Ben, accusing his brother of mocking him. The brothers had a long history of affectionate teasing, but this was wasn’t playful. Zack picked up a metal barstool. “I’m not trying to fight you,” Ben said. “I’m on your side.” Zack tossed the barstool aside, stalked into a bedroom, and slammed the door. His strange behavior continued during the trip: at a marina, he randomly beat his fists against a guardrail, scaring other tourists.
“Looking back, that’s when I first noticed something was wrong,” Nicki says.
The human brain is a marvelous biological computer, a delicate, gelatinous mass of complex electrochemical circuitry that contains and controls our hopes and dreams, memories and quirks, everything that makes us who we are. CTE attacks the organ—and the self—by disrupting its regular signaling, killing neurons, and causing scarring; its telltale tau tangles show up in specific areas of the brain that regulate thought and emotion.
In a 2013 study of 36 adult males who had CTE—33 of them were symptomatic when they died; 29 of them were former football players—researchers were able to identify two distinct subgroups that were consistent with previous case studies of “punch-drunk” boxers. In the first group, the men tended to live longer, and suffered from cognitive impairment—memory loss, executive dysfunction—starting in their late 50s. The men in the second group generally died younger. Their symptoms appeared earlier, and were totally different: emotional explosiveness, impulsive behavior, violent outbursts, depression and hopelessness. Seau, for example, was functional when he committed suicide in 2012, at age 43. But something was very wrong. He was womanizing, drinking heavily, gambling too much, making impulsive financial decisions, and having trouble sleeping.
NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau took his own life in 2012. —Photo by EPA
Zack’s friends and family had no idea what misfolding tau could do to the brain. They just knew that Zack was changing. Struggling. Danae Young saw it early. She met Zack during college, and was his close friend for a year before the two started dating. Others knew Zack from football; Danae knew him as a gentle young man who adopted a rescued kitten and liked to stay up all night, just talking.
Following graduation, Zack moved back in with his parents. He seemed lost, directionless. When Danae got pregnant, though, Zack found a purpose. He landed a sales job, worked part-time at a church, was excited to become a father. The couple got engaged. Drake was born. Things were moving in the right direction.
Except: Danae saw Zack was taking Adderall, a prescription stimulant, in order to remember things. He would come home from his office and go straight upstairs to his room, not wanting to talk to anyone. He withdrew from social situations in which he normally thrived, and told his mother that he was suffering from severe anxiety. He bounced between jobs, fought with Danae, became uncharacteristically jealous. “He was paranoid on top of paranoid,” Danae says. “It could be the neighbor’s dad, and Zack would think he’s hitting on me. It was like, ‘where is your mind now?’ He would be sitting at the kitchen table and suddenly get mad at Ben—fuck off, Ben!—and go downstairs. Then you’d find him sitting down there with his arms up, confused.”
At Pittsburg State, Zack had suffered a junior year cervical neck injury that left him with transient numbness in his right arm, essentially ending his football career. He missed competing. Through an old high school football teammate, Zack had a chance in August 2012 to train with the national bobsled team. For the rest of the year, he largely lived on the road, practicing and competing in New York, Utah and Canada. The distance was hard on Danae—she needed help taking care of Drake—but Zack called her on Skype, and begged her to read the Bible to him. “It was like he was trying to have me help him find what he was searching for,” she says.
Zack Langston, Danae Young and their son Drake. —Photo courtesy of Danae Young
Zack missed the cut for the Sochi Olympics. The news crushed him. “They wanted him to come back and work at it,” Nicki says. “But he was so unreasonable. To be that upset over not being one of the top guys, when you just walked into this a couple of months ago?” One night in February 2013, Danae was working on Zack’s computer, studying for nursing school. Zack was lying in bed. He told her that he was taking antidepressants, and that he was having crazy thoughts. Suicidal ones. Zack would ask his mom, Was I a happy kid? I don’t remember. Maybe I was always unhappy.
No, Zack, you weren’t always unhappy.
Do you or Dad have problems with depression?
No, Zack, I don’t think it’s genetic and that you inherited it.
“I was walking on eggshells,” Danae says. “One minute, he was the Zack I knew. We were best friends. The next minute, he was unhappy about life, thought people were out to get him. It made me think I was crazy.” The couple tried counseling. Danae thought the sessions went well. Zack hardly seemed to remember them. In late May, they broke up. They held each other for two hours, crying. The strain was too great.
It felt, Danae says, like an outside force was pulling them apart.
In January of 2014, Zack bought his first gun at a pawn shop. Marc found out and returned it. He started tracking his son’s iPhone. Zack was dating again, and had found a supportive partner in Morgan Sleeper, a cancer nurse whom he met through mutual friends. The two had fallen in love—but otherwise, Zack was struggling. He was in therapy. Self-medicating with alcohol. A doctor prescribed him Lexapro, a drug used to treat anxiety and depression. Morgan says the drug made Zack “disconnected.” Marc says it made Zack more anxious and depressed.
Zack would bring Drake to his parents’ house, and instead of playing with his son like he usually did, he would go upstairs and sleep for hours. He was uncharacteristically resentful of Ben, who after college had moved to the Washington, DC, area, where he had a good job and a girlfriend who would later become his fiancé. One day, Zack even threw one of Drake’s plastic toy balls at his brother’s head, accusing Ben of trying to show him up as a father
It all was irrational, and sometimes, Zack knew it. He was still writing in his notebooks:
I am not what has happened to me. I am who I choose to become …
One night, Zack woke up at 3 AM, got out of bed, and paced around in circles. He told Morgan in a panic that I’m not thinking right. In the morning, he remembered nothing. Another night, he told Morgan that he had dialed a suicide hotline—that he felt like a burden to everyone, and that he was bad for his son. He withdrew from Ben and Emma, stopped answering texts and voice mails. After Zack bought a second gun in late January, Marc, Nicki and Morgan convinced him to check into an inpatient psychiatric facility, where he stayed five days. “They taught him strategies for when his mind was racing,” Morgan says, “steps 1-2-3-4 of what would make him better.” He still was trying to fix himself…
Three weeks before Zack Langston shot himself in the heart, he was released from the inpatient facility. Morgan picked him up. She asked him how he felt.
Better. But I still feel suicidal. I won’t do it. But I still feel like a burden to everybody.
“But he had a plan,” Morgan says, referring to the facility’s instructions for Zack, a list of life stressors and how to cope with them. “We were hopefully going to see it through.”