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When athletes misbehave, don't judge too quickly

While acknowledging and apologizing in advance for the less than perfect timing of the following illustrative reference — Claire Danes should win Best Actress every year for as long as "Homeland" is on TV.

Yes, Sunday night was the Oscars and not the Emmys. But, Danes' portrayal of Agent Carrie Mathison, particularly Mathison's facial tics, pains, strains, and her darting eyes, along with her mannerisms and body's machinations, and speech patterns are so spot on that those of us with a certain level of familiarity with what Bipolar Disorder and related mental illnesses look like and present themselves as would swear, not knowing any better, that Danes herself may battle the disease in real life.

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We've all been witness to some version of mental illness. Many of us may have battled with some version of it ourselves at one time or another in our lives.

I've battled with an episode or two of depression in the past, maybe with a borderline unhealthy attachment or two too. But, I've also had a front-row seat for what Bipolar Disorder looks like in real life — every rapid-cycling, mood as a moving target, conspiracy-driven and/or fear-filled thought, days of despair, hospitalization, and the feelings of absolute helplessness to help the person suffering through such cycling and pain that come with the disorder-as-a-disease.

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Depression is easy to see. It's easy to understand why it's so unhealthy. But, imagine feeling better, more euphoric, and more alive than you've ever felt, and being told that that feeling is actually unhealthy. That wouldn't quite make sense, would it? It doesn't quite make sense, does it? That's the trickiest part about Bipolar Disorder, particularly treating it.

People start to feel that high and they think they're better. Unfortunately, with Bipolar, there's rarely a permanent version of such "better" that doesn't involve medication – and, oh, the medications.

What's worse than (just) having Bipolar or another related mental illness? Living a world-is-your-oyster sort of lifestyle that comes with the sort of sway where nobody will tell you no. Ever. Living life on a stage of some sort. Engaging in a profession that demands rare excellence and extreme, almost unhealthy in themselves levels of practice, dedication, competitiveness, and passion; skill sets honed to be the top 1 percent, where wins in whatever form or profession they may be borne from bring with them tremendous highs, including the reality and opportunity for literal bacchanalian lifestyles,the kind of made-for-TV, orgy-filled and drug-fueled lifestyles that most of us will never know.

Oh, to be a professional athlete (artist, and/or entertainer).

I've got a pretty straight moral compass (which is probably an understatement), and, as it relates to this column, and all things considered, I'm relatively well-adjusted with what I'd like to think is pretty typical, healthy, not-to-be-found in the DSM 5 psychological make up and overall mental healthiness.

Again, my day job dictates that I can't name names or point to particular examples, specifically when pointing out issues relative to professional sports and the athletes that play them. And, unfortunately, and despite the sadness of the realities of mental health-related issues, there is still a stigma associated with people doing something positive and admitting to and seeking out help for their mental illnesses.

So, the best I can do is to urge you to do your own Google search. But, when you do so, I urge you to look beyond the headlines. And, I implore you to read with a certain heightened sense of empathy. Mental illness is real, and mental illness that manifests itself and materializes as a criminal or quasi-criminal, headline-making act is so, so sad.

I'm well aware that, particularly when they display what simply seems like a certain degree of boneheaded-ness, professional athletes (artists, entertainers, and celebrities) can be less than sympathetic characters. They've been given the proverbial golden ticket, after all, most say.

But, you've never been in their shoes.

I've referenced what were the "thought(s) of the day" from our old basketball practice plans before. One such Thought for the Day was, "don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." Google it if you don't get it.

My otherwise typically true-north-pointing moral compass notwithstanding, I will be the first to admit that I'm pretty sure if, in another life, I were blessed with the sort of athleticism that had me living the life of a 22-year-old multi-millionaire ball player, one that had never known "no" from anyone — parents, teachers, coaches, women — that I'd probably make at least one mistake of the sort that displays poor, if not deplorable moral judgment.

Though, I'm confident it would only happen once. I'd learn from it. It wouldn't become a pattern of behavior as it does for some.

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But, for those athletes (and celebrities) for whom such apparent errors in judgment become the norm, a repeated pattern of bad behavior, I'd posit, in more than a few instances, that an undiagnosed mental illness or psychological disorder may be the underlying culprit.

Add an undiagnosed mental illness to the larger-than-life, never-heard-no lifestyle of an athlete (or entertainer), and you've got a recipe for real disaster, not just for the athlete, but his/her family, friends, teammates, organization, etc. — not to mention the countless kids that look up to that athlete (entertainer and/or celebrity).

This is not me making excuses, especially where hubris and/or a false sense of entitlement that comes from never being told no, and from being put on a perma-pedestal are to blame. But, the real (and the sad) reality is that more than a small percentage of such situations are likely tied to, if not the direct results of, some sort of underlying and undiagnosed mental illness.

Saving hubris for a separate column, as it is not of the sort of mental illness found in or diagnosed by the DSM 5 — it is, however, perhaps, and nonetheless, the most potentially fatal, and ironically fallible out-of-control-ego-as-a-mental-illness mental disorder afflicting most athletes — and probably the one that causes the most errors in judgment.

But, Bipolar Disorder and its psychological disorder progeny and manic-depressive brethren should be welcomed out of the realm of the taboo and from the not-to-be-talked-about, especially with up-and-coming athletes (and with people who may suffer from them in general). Such diseases and disorders can be hard enough to fight on an every day scale with and/or by every day people living every day lives. But, like most things, that fight becomes personified when it plays itself out in the headlines with a well-known athlete as the tortured character.

I have little-to-no sympathy if hubris is the culprit causing an athlete's pattern of poorly moored moral behavior.

But, I have a high degree of empathy if Bipolar or another form of underlying, undiagnosed mental illness is to blame for that same athlete's transgressions.

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