Tough Guy

Last Sunday night, NBC’s hit reality show “The Contender” aired the boxer Najai “Nitro” Turpin’s final fight. Turpin, a contestant on the show competing for the one million dollar prize, killed himself on February 14. Friends, family, and the producers of the show were shocked by Turpin’s suicide, unable to understand why he did it. The death of Turpin is a tragedy, but what is equally as sad is the reaction by some to Turpin’s passing.

I first heard of Turpin’s death late one February night on a conservative radio talk show. I’ll never forget what one of the commentators said. He kept repeating, “Aren’t boxers supposed to be tough?” Callers then chimed in, calling Turpin weak and unmanly. These people don’t know what tough is.

Turpin was a man of incredible inner strength. Despite facing the adversity of Philadelphia’s inner-city and, at the age of 18, assuming responsibility for his younger brother, sister, niece and nephew when his mother passed away, Turpin trained tirelessly as a boxer. Between his 10 to 12 hour workdays, Turpin managed to squeeze in training, achieving a record of 13-1-0. Clearly, Turpin was tough.

Of course, the radio show commentator and callers weren’t calling Turpin weak because of his background. They were calling him weak because he killed himself. To them, suicide was a sign of fragility. It is not, and I know because I have battled depression myself.

For people who have not dealt with depression, it can be very difficult to understand. Someone isn’t depressed if that person is feeling really down one day or even feeling blue for a week. The intense sadness is indescribable. I can tell you what it’s like to be sitting on your kitchen floor, curled up in the fetal position, crying as you stare at the cutting block and imagine taking one of the knives out and stabbing it into your chest. I can tell you what it’s like to be in the mental ward of a hospital, and after three days, feel so confined that your mind struggles to control your body, and you feel like you’re going to explode into violence, that you will run through the ward punching every glass window in sight. But in describing this to you, I cannot make you feel the emotions I felt. I can’t convey the pain, sadness, and anxiety.

Nor can I really describe to you how difficult it is to overcome these feelings. It is not just a matter of getting tougher. People with depression aren’t wusses or crybabies, as the people ripping Turpin would say. Mental health problems are unique in that there is a psychological and physical part to the illnesses. If there were not some underlying biological elements, then antidepressants and other medications would be useless. To the contrary, pharmaceuticals are often critical in stabilizing the mood of someone who suffers from depression so that that person can then begin therapy and work to eliminate the problems that plague him or her.

This is by no means a short term process. People on anti-depressants usually remain on the drugs for one year, after their mood has stabilized, and achieving this stability, is by no means easy. From my time in the hospital roughly eleven months ago until now, I have been on and off some five different medications, and the dosages for those have been tweaked from time to time as well.

I didn’t know Turpin personally, although I wish there was some way I could have. Turpin was described by friends as a strong man with a heart of gold, a man who came alive when he was with his two-year-old daughter. Nor can I claim to speak for Turpin, or any other person suffering from depression. But what I will say is that I, and many of the other people I’ve spoken with who deal with depression, do not want sympathy; we want understanding. When someone is depressed, he or she tends to withdraw, to become a loner. You can help people fight this by always being willing to listen. Often just a casual conversation can be enough.

For those who are suffering from depression or any other mental illness, I hope that if you haven’t already, that you will overcome any feelings of shame about your illness. Mental illness is a sickness just like any other, and there is nothing shameful about it.

Finally, for those that called in to that radio show, those of you who believe depression is a sign of weakness, I want you to think if you would ever call a cancer victim or someone suffering from AIDS weak. Cancer, AIDS, depression, and other mental illnesses are all sicknesses, and those who suffer from any of these ailments should not be belittled.

Andrew B. English ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is an economics concentrator in Cabot House.. A trust fund has been set up to give Turin’s daughter a better future, and those wishing to contribute should visit or http://www.nbc.com/nbc/The_Contender/ for more information.