For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Ben Wilinofsky. Some people know me by my online alias “NeverScaredB.” I have over $3 million in online tournament winnings and over $1.25 million in live tournament winnings. I have an EPT title, a WPT final table, a list of online titles too long to rattle off, and am regarded by many as one of the best in the world at what I do. At 24 years old, I have no boss to answer to but myself, enough money to be unconcerned with money, and I make money playing a game I would play for the fun of it. My life is the envy of my non-poker playing peers, and many of my poker playing ones, as well.
These things are all true of me, but they are not the truth about me.
They are not the truth about me in the same way that the truth about Wayne Gretzky is not that he coached the Phoenix Coyotes, or the truth about Hulk Hogan is not that he sold spaghetti. Those things are true details of people’s lives, but they don’t tell that person’s story. They tell the footnotes. They don’t define the lives of either in any meaningful way.
The truth about me is: I suffer from clinical depression and anxiety.
When I tell people I suffer from depression, I get responses that fall into one of two categories. “I have dealt with or have someone close that has dealt with something like that”, and “Why?” These responses are mutually exclusive. The people who give the first responses know the answer to the second.
The people who give the second response do so because my life looks enviable from the outside. They can’t reconcile the idea of someone with so many good things struggling with such terrible things. It doesn’t make sense.
Listen: I am about to tell you the best-kept secret in an age of historically unparalleled availability of information, the least-understood concept in an age of unparalleled open-mindedness. If you are in the group of people who responded with “Why?” I am about to unlock the terrifying and dirty secret of mental health.
It doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t have to.
The human brain is a complicated thing. It contains roughly 86 billion neurons. It requires a phenomenal amount of arrogance to think that, when something goes wrong, the how, the why, and, most importantly, what to do about it, will make sense to us. We are fumbling about with a piece of equipment far more complex than the most powerful supercomputer on earth, and we get no second chances if we make a mistake.
There are some things we know can cause depression. Trauma is one. An imbalance of chemicals in the brain is another.
We can’t count the things we don’t know of.
I have suffered from depression since I was 12 years old. Maybe it’s because I got hit in the head too many times playing sports. Maybe it’s I have an imbalance of chemicals in my brain. Maybe it’s because I was bullied.
I’ll never know for sure why. It would be nice if I could, but I can’t, so I should probably stop worrying about it.
Sometimes I can’t stop worrying about the things I can’t do anything about.
I took a big step this past January. I spoke to a doctor about my condition, that I suspected I had lived with for over a decade. This doctor was able to put me in touch with other doctors who had some anecdotal experience, and some scientific studies, dealing with depression. It’s not perfect, but as poker players, we traffic in making the best out of imperfect information. It was more than what I had had over the past decade.
The doctor I spoke with was my mother.
There is a scene in Cinderella Man where a depression era ex-boxer has his power shut off. His child is sick. He has no other alternative. He goes, hat in hand, to some big wigs from the boxing world to ask for help. It is his personal low point, the farthest his pride falls in the movie. He is humiliated. This is an honourable man who doesn’t want to take anything he didn’t earn.
What a crock.
He waited until his heat was shut off, in the middle of winter, with a sick child at home, to ask for help. He would rather endanger his son’s life than ask some people for a little bit of money.
There is a pervasive, pernicious idea that asking for help is the act of a weak man, that it is degrading and shows lack of fortitude. It’s in our popular culture, from movies, to books, to sports. We’ve exulted athletes who play through injuries for so long that the NHL had to make it’s concussion protocol mandatory to prevent players from playing through a potential brain injury. The protocol was only put into place after the untimely deaths of Bob Probert, Derek Boogard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien, men who held onto their place in the league because they were willing and able fighters.
The latter two suffered from depression.
They took their own lives.
Some of you reading this blog got here because you’re interested in learning what I know about playing cards. Some of you will consider taking your own life. The first group will have an easier time seeking help. I know. I’ve been a part of both.
If you find yourself in the second group, now or ever, listen: You are not responsible for that feeling. It is not your fault it exists, and it is not up to you to fix it by yourself. You can seek help. You should feel as much shame, and as weak, doing so as someone who has an arrhythmic heartbeat.
It can get better. I can’t promise that it will. These things are too complex for certainty. But do everything you can to help yourself heal. Your mind is too important to give yourself anything less than your best shot.
Don’t wait until the lights go out to ask.
This year, as in past years, people all over Canada will be growing a Movember moustache to raise money for prostate cancer research. Unlike in past years, they will also be raising money for men’s mental health. So I will be looking ridiculous this November. If people ask me why I’m doing it, I will tell them: I suffer from a mental illness, and I’m doing everything in my power to get better.
It’s something I can say proudly.
I am getting better, in large part thanks to my network of excellent medical professionals and better friends. Drs. E.H., G.B. and H.S., and dear friends N.L., C.S., V.O., and E.B. You guys know who you are.
If you think you might be struggling with mental health disorders, please check out the fantastic www.mindcheck.ca and do a self evaluation. It doesn’t take much time. If you need someone to talk to, send me a private message. I will reply to every message I get as soon as I can.
Please contribute to my Movember page here. For my largest benefactor, I will do one hand history review of your choosing. One of yours, one of mine, one of someone else’s, it doesn’t matter. I will go over it with a fine tooth comb with you for as many hours as it takes to finish it.