In ESPN The Magazine’s latest issue, “One Day, One Game” on newsstands Friday, columnist Chris Jones tells the story of a young tennis pro stepping away from the sport she loves due to an ongoing bout with depression.
Jones, who writes the back page Magazine column, The Fix, knows just how she feels. He shares some background on the column with Front Row.
Why did you choose this piece to discuss your personal battle with depression?
There is very little I have in common, at least on the surface, with a talented 22-year-old tennis pro named Rebecca Marino. But when she spoke about her struggles with depression, and about her difficulties with social media, I felt as though I could almost finish her sentences for her. I think our readers should be able to expect honesty from us — that we write what we truly believe. Well, I believe strongly that mental illness is something we should talk about, and it would have been dishonest for me to write about it without admitting that I’ve been there.
Take us through the process of writing this column.
I pitched this, and my editor, the excellent Ed McGregor [an ESPN The Magazine Deputy Editor], told me to give it a shot. I write columns all the time that don’t make it into The Magazine — there’s this graveyard of swings and misses clogging up my computer — and here I thought, I’m just going to write this as honestly as I can, and if Ed or [Mag Editor-In-Chief] Chad Millman doesn’t like it, then I’ll just write something else.
That freed me. I just poured it out. I sent it in and the guys were really busy, as usual, and it took them a bit to get back to me. Those waiting hours are stressful for a writer anyway, but here I was like, “Ruh-roh.” Then an email landed from Chad [reading]: “Wow, that was something,” and I took that as a good sign.
What was the initial reaction to your first-person feature for Esquire?
I wrote at length about my depression in the November 2011 Esquire, and I was nervous about it, because I hadn’t even talked to people very close to me about it. My parents didn’t know, for instance. I don’t feel ashamed about it — that would be like being ashamed of my hair color or the shape of my feet — but I was worried about hurting their feelings or having people who love me worry about me or treat me differently. But the reaction was really positive. I got some emails from people, including strangers, that meant a lot to me. I can think of one in particular that still means the world to me. And happily, I’ve been in a much better spot since, I think in part because I wrote that piece and got some things off my chest.
You mention in your column that you’ve had to grow a thicker skin, especially in the age of social media. How did you do that?
Well, for me, “social media” has sometimes felt like an oxymoron. My only real outlet is Twitter (@MySecondEmpire), which I enjoy, because I like interacting with readers, young writers especially. I’ve also spent way too much time fighting on the Internet, arguing with jerks, but a few things have happened lately that helped me realize that happy and healthy people just don’t do that — and I’m talking partly about myself here.
The truth is, I was letting strangers have too much control over how I felt about myself, both in terms of validation and criticism. If people say good or bad things about this column, for instance, it doesn’t change the words on the page, or me, or my life circumstances. So why should I care? At the same time, I hope this column inspires a discussion about the relative merits of a “thicker skin.”
I’m not sure writers should have thick skins. I write my best when I connect with people, when I feel what they’re feeling — like in this column, I hope. That’s the real trick here: finding that balance between caring enough about the world around you to feel it, but not caring so much that it swallows you whole.