September/October edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. It contains graphic content intended for a mature audience. 
 

"> Lacrosse Saved My Life: A Story of Friendship and Survival | USA Lacrosse Magazine

PHOTO BY BRIAN SCHNEIDER

Lacrosse Saved My Life: A Story of Friendship and Survival


This article appears in the September/October edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. It contains graphic content intended for a mature audience. 
 
The story relates to the subject of mental illness and one lacrosse official’s specific experiences with attempted suicide — as well as the roles the sport and various people within it have played in his recovery. It’s a story of friendship and survival, one we hope will help remove the stigma attached to mental illness and provide hope to those among our membership and readership who have experienced similar suffering and despair.

Some elements have been edited or removed for the purposes of publishing it online.

Need help? Call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat to speak with a counselor.

Foreword

The disease first spoke to him in whispers.

“Why bother?”

“You’re worthless.”

“Nobody cares about you.”

Soon they grew louder and more sinister, despite the fact that outwardly, Gordon Corsetti looked and acted like a normal, healthy middle-class American teenager. He came from a loving family, played lacrosse and performed martial arts. But the real “Gordo” was a loner, like Squall, the mercenary character he adopted in the role-playing game, “Final Fantasy 8.” He’d play it for hours after school as an escape from the thoughts that became more insidious inside his head.

“I wonder what being dead feels like.”

“How badly would cutting my wrists hurt?”

“You should kill yourself.”

Sports were his refuge. But it was something that happened on the lacrosse field during his senior year at Pace Academy in Atlanta that pushed Corsetti to the brink for the first time: He got beat. Dusted on a dodge by his best friend, Ben Ewing. How could he go on living if he could not even succeed in this one place where he found sanctuary? His depressed thoughts latched onto this one, otherwise benign defeat as proof that he had no use in this life and that this life had no use for him.

For three months leading up to that April 2008 afternoon, Corsetti plotted his death. He found a spot 10 minutes from school where the road curved near a sharp descent and the guardrail did not cover the entire turn. It had to be an 80-yard drop. He’d make it look like an accident — the unfortunate fate of a new driver losing control, not wearing his seatbelt as his vehicle nosedived off the precipice.

The time had come, Corsetti was convinced. And so he lingered after practice in the school parking lot, sitting on the hatch of his 1998 chili pepper red Jeep Cherokee, glowering with a thousand-yard stare.

“Hey, you OK?”

The friendly voice disrupted Corsetti from his trance. It was Ewing. Corsetti did not answer at first. Ewing persisted.

“How can I help?”

Four words. Four simple words that meant everything to Corsetti in that moment. He broke down and confessed to his friend how he had planned to end his life that night. Just saying it aloud for someone to hear offered relief, the invisible weight lifted just the tiniest bit from Corsetti’s slumping shoulders.

The two friends left the school together. They met one of Ewing’s friends who was moving houses, hauled some boxes, broke a sweat and parted ways. Corsetti promised Ewing that he would make it home safely and that together they would visit the school counselor in the morning.

Corsetti had survived his first suicidal episode.

Twelve years later — a tumultuous period that has included three serious attempts on his life and several hospitalizations — he wants to share his story with the lacrosse community. 

Why now? He’s OK with it, thanks in part to a comprehensive treatment plan that includes medication, counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy and healthy coping mechanisms he has learned over the years. 

“I’m at peace with the part of me that hates myself,” he says. “I have more agency over it than I ever did. It just took a hell of a lot of ups and downs to get to that point.”

As a respected high school and college referee and the manager of men’s officials development at US Lacrosse, Corsetti continues to find in this sport an outlet — a place to “unplug my brain” and become “the calm center of the storm.” It’s his meditation. 

More than 825,000 people play lacrosse in the U.S., according to participation data compiled by US Lacrosse. Nearly 20 percent of Americans, undiscerning of age or gender, live with mental health conditions, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

For every Gordon among you, there’s a potential Ben.

How can you help?

— Matt DaSilva, Editor in Chief


“How can I help?” Four words. Four simple words that meant everything to Corsetti in that moment. He broke down and confessed to his friend how he had planned to end his life that night.


 

 

The following words come from Gordon Corsetti’s personal memoirs and a three-hour interview conducted at US Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, Md.

We’re Making it Work

I was born in 1988 in New Jersey, and raised in Georgia with my younger sister, Caitlin, by my parents Lou and Mary Jo, both from Long Island — a fun mix of northern and southern sensibilities.

My mother is a skilled carpenter, which she learned from my granddad. My dad managed a securities exchange trading floor, but his heart was in coaching and his soul was in cooking. It was not uncommon to come home to see my mom in the garage, circular saw in hand, and enter the kitchen to the smell of a delicious meal my dad prepared. My sister was, and still is, the social butterfly.

Mom remodeled our house. Dad improved on The Food Network. Cait cheered and edited her class yearbook. I rounded things out as the quiet kid more interested in books than conversation.

We are still a bunch of oddballs, and we still follow the unofficial family motto of, “We’re making it work.”

When my dad and his college buddies moved to Atlanta, they started a club team, and they all had sons. Not long after that, Atlanta Youth Lacrosse was established. I played on this absolute dirt patch of a field. It took seven of us 8-year-olds to pick up one cast-iron goal. We prayed we didn’t have to put it in the far crease. Every great memory I could think of happened on that field.

My other athletic pursuit was martial arts, originally taekwondo, then kickboxing and jiu-jitsu. I didn’t fit in well at school. I couldn’t engage with any of my peers. My mom would say, “You listen to the beat of a different drum.” 

It was two hours of kickboxing and three hours of jiu-jitsu every single day after school. I’d come home at 11:30, maybe do some homework, sleep, and repeat. The exercise from lacrosse and martial arts was my first antidepressant. Still today, doing something physical is the best way to improve my mood.

A True Teammate

At around age 15, I started getting these whispers — odd thoughts that floated by the edges of my mind. I’d wake up and think, “Why bother?” 

Month after month, the whispers grew louder and more forceful. A weight accumulated on my shoulders. I found it difficult to speak and limited myself to the shortest possible responses to get through the day.

By my senior year of high school, I had endured enough constant pain to seriously consider killing myself. I had the spot picked out on the road home, a tight curve with a long fall. I wouldn’t wear my seatbelt. My fatal accident would be, just that, an accident — something I thought my family could live with more easily than a son who committed suicide.

One day at practice, I got beat on a dodge, smoked by my buddy, Ben. For a perfectionist with distorted thinking, the seemingly minor incident provided all the proof I needed to put my plan into action. I sat on the back of my hatch expressionless, feeling invisible as the last few after-school groups left for the night. 

“Hey, you OK?” Ben asked.

He sensed something was wrong.

“How can I help?” 

Those four words saved my life that night. I confessed my plan and told him about the thoughts that plagued my mind. I didn’t think that was something I deserved — to have someone sit with me, not even to say anything except, “Dude, I’m here.” We talked for about an hour before leaving to help a friend move.

Still my closest friend today, Ben gave me space to hurt in safety and distracted me so the next day didn’t seem so bad. Later that night, he made me promise that I’d see the school counselor the next day.

I was fortunate to have a friend who reached out and got me help.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CORSETTI FAMILY

Corsetti (16) played in the Atlanta youth lacrosse league started by his father, Lou, who was also his first coach. Both are full-time employees of US Lacrosse today.

A Moment of Clarity

I went to Presbyterian College in South Carolina — a self-professed lone wolf, an introvert who now had a roommate. I went pre-med, even though I hated chemistry. I had 6 a.m. lifts and lacrosse practice every day. I couldn’t say no, the “make it work” mantra disguising cracks that began to develop in my psyche.

One of my teammates, Andy Halperin, asked how I was and I jokingly replied, “I’m thinking about slitting my wrists.”

Concerned, he told our coach, Jason Childs, who pulled me aside later that day.

“I’m going to call your parents about this,” he said.

“That’s not what you’re going to do,” I spat back.

“Let me rephrase that,” he persisted. “I am calling your parents.”

I wanted to punch his face.

My mom, who deals with the same mental illness I do, drove hours in the dark to take me to the local ER the next morning. I met the doctor who told me I probably had depression and prescribed me a low dose of the antidepressant Paxil.

I responded well to that medication and one day, a few weeks later, I stopped thinking. I didn’t have a bad thought in my head. I didn’t think, “I’m worthless… I want to kill myself… People don’t like you.” Nothing. No pain. All of a sudden, I had clarity of thought. That blew my mind, because the last time I could clearly remember life without that pain, I was 10.

Eventually I maxed out at 50 milligrams daily. Then I decided I was doing so well that I didn’t need medication anymore. The whispers returned. Skydiving became my vice. I got certified, purchased my own parachute and jumped 40-odd times. Sometimes, in the door or under the canopy, I would think, “I could wriggle out of this thing.”

Broke and unmotivated in my studies, I dropped out of college in March 2008 and enlisted in the Marine Corps. I passed the physical exams and lied about my mental health and medication history. If I could just get in, I thought, I could grit it out.

Three months later, I was on Parris Island carrying an M16, surrounded by 99 other recruits and everyone was yelling all the time. Boot camp is an effective system designed to break civilians down and build them into Marines. Unfortunately, I never made it to the building up part.

The next morning I told my senior drill instructor I was having panic attacks and couldn’t breathe. He sent me to medical, where the discharge process began.

Thirty-three days later, I was on a charter bus to Atlanta — physically destroyed, mentally drained and emotionally scarred.








A Niche in Stripes

Thank God for lacrosse.

I’ve read, studied and listened to many experts in the fields of depression and suicide. Why hasn’t this been selected out of the population yet? What evolutionary benefit is there to stay inside and think all the time?

It turns out, that’s the advantage: We’re the thinkers.

I examine everything. I can go down all these weird rabbit holes in my head, good and bad. With depression, I practice thinking deeply about horrific ideas, but I can leverage that deep thought to greatly improve myself as an official.

After Parris Island, I returned to Atlanta to help my parents run a youth lacrosse league for the local YMCA. That led me to the Georgia Lacrosse Officials Association. Early that spring, I worked my first scrimmage. Everything was so fast! I had no idea what was going on, but I got hooked. What a relief it was simply to focus on a game. I found my niche. That was it. My dad’s a coach; I’m the ref.

Unexpectedly, I also found camaraderie. I could go out and eat with my partners. I made new friends and felt respected by my peers. If I were to redo the title to this article, I’d put it in the present and say lacrosse saves my life. Every day. It’s my outlet. 

How can I make the game better today? For the last 10 years, in all my ups and downs, that’s been my constant. It’s my meditation. It’s my way to unplug my brain from everything.

I’m not chasing perfection on the field. I’ve learned the folly of that. But I can aspire to perfection. It’s a subtle difference. It allows me to put effort into different avenues of myself — staying in good shape, keeping my rules knowledge sharp, learning how to deal with people and resolving conflicts.

I can make this game for these kids on this day a good experience. That lets me put my head on my pillow at night whether I’m having a good or bad day.

And for two years, that carried me out of the depths. I was happy.




PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER


My First Last Day

I went off the Paxil and soon succumbed to another depression. It’s a common pitfall, like people who don’t take antibiotics for the duration of the prescription. I felt weak and ashamed.

I saw the pull-up bar in my room attached to beams in the ceiling and decided to hang myself from it.

That night I wore my best suit, and at precisely 12 a.m. on July 1, 2011, I stepped back onto that stool with a leather belt around my neck and my hands fastened. For 30 minutes, I rocked forward and back.

I could not do it. I freed my wrists, undid the belt from around my neck and collapsed on the floor. I curled into a ball and cried until I ran out of tears. 

My family and I had an emergency session with my therapist, Tracy, and she referred me to the Ridgeview Institute, an inpatient treatment facility in Atlanta. I got back on my medication and had my first introduction to cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is the most empirically sound and peer-reviewed method of dealing with distorted thinking — you break down thoughts, categorize them and then attack with logic. It’s very empowering.

A few weeks after my release, however I made the ill-timed decision to go back to school, enrolling at Kennesaw State University and signing up for a full load of classes in the fall. I had a horrific panic attack in the library and again I arrived at suicide.

I popped an entire bottle of extra-strength Tylenol pills, drank six beers and raided the medicine cabinet — including the rest of the Paxil. It should have been enough to kill me. It wasn’t.

But I did get another ticket to Ridgeview.

Survival Instinct

For the next 16 months, I had things under control. I was back on medication and took on a much more manageable course load. I even had some direction, deciding to major in psychology. 

But five years ago, I went off my medications without supervision. A new psychiatrist prescribed a cocktail of different drugs with unpleasant side effects, so I went cold turkey and spiraled into the deepest depression I had ever known.

You know how people say, “All my life led me to this moment?” Perhaps it’s before a performance or the birth of a child. In my distorted mind, shooting myself in the head was my moment.

I bought a gun, checked into a hotel room, blockaded the bathroom door with furniture and put post-it notes everywhere. “Don’t come in,” I wrote. “Call the police.”

I wrote letters to my loved ones and crawled into the tub with a single bullet and my 9-millimeter Glock. I stayed frozen for an hour. I could not get past my own survival instinct.

A few days later, I drove to my parents’ house. My family was gone for the weekend, and I had stashed the gun in the basement. For liquid courage, I bought a handle of Jack Daniels and a liter of Coke. I didn’t even bother using a cup, just took a swig from each bottle until I couldn’t see straight. Then I retrieved the gun, loaded it and put the barrel in my mouth.

Despite my pain, I still could not pull the trigger. Infuriated, I unloaded the gun and rushed to the bathroom to unload the whiskey.

The next morning, I practiced. I put the unloaded gun against my head and pulled the trigger over and over — as if I could speed past my inhibition. Then I quickly loaded the gun, pressed the barrel against my head and squeezed the trigger.

And still, I could not pull the last half-inch.

As I put the gun down and ejected the bullet, I had another odd moment of clarity: Maybe I can’t do this. The logical part of my brain won. I suck at suicide. It was no longer an option. I sold the gun and resolved to never tell a soul what happened.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CORSETTI FAMILY

Corsetti joined the family business and helped operate Atlanta Youth Lacrosse, eventually becoming an official.

My Saving Grace

Why am I telling you today?

I’m all right with it. I’m not ashamed anymore. I’ve made peace with the part of me that hates myself, and I have more agency over it than I ever did.

That was the last serious attempt on my life. That rationale — suicide is not an option — sustained me for nearly three years. It still sustains me in some ways. Now that I have better medication and a personal treatment program, I can more easily shrug off the whispers.

Today, I manage my symptoms with a psychiatrist. I navigate the ups and downs of my life with a therapist. I take medications that lessen the frequency of suicidal thoughts and intensity of depressive episodes. I meditate and exercise to calm my mind. I am honest with my family and friends when I spiral into dangerous thoughts.

These are treatments, however. They are not reasons for living. One of my reasons is lacrosse.The people I’ve met through the sport have been the ones who have supported me at my worst. Teammates like Ben and Andy, coaches like Coach Childs, officiating partners like Greg Hite and Kevin Forrester, my US Lacrosse colleagues like Kevin Greene and Shannon Minter — they provide safe harbor when I’m caught in a storm.

I write this to debunk the notion that no one cares, that no one understands — so that someone in a dark place can find hope in my words, and so I can finally be free of my silence.

For those of you suffering alone, I do not know your pain. I know only the extent to which I have experienced mine. I felt alone. I felt as if I wasn’t worth the companionship of others. If I found help from those around me, that means you can too. Give voice to your pain.

I still have days where I can’t get out of bed, anxious moments where I can’t form a coherent thought and awful ideas that intrude into my mind.

I also have days where I’m bursting with energy, fun moments I cherish with family and friends and quiet times where I am happy just to breathe.

On bad days, good days and every day in between, I still turn to lacrosse.

The Creator’s Game. My saving grace.

PHOTO BY BRIAN SCHNEIDER

A tattoo on Corsetti’s wrist signifies his connection to Project Semicolon. Visit projectsemicolon.com.

Rules of the Game

It took me 15 years to learn the rules about depression. This is what I found. 

  • It is very powerful in the morning.

  • Bad nutrition gives it fuel.

  • Its greatest weakness is activity.

  • Roll with the bad days when they happen.

  • I am not my illness.

My Toolbag

Daily

  • Blue light exposure

  • Exercise (30-60 min)

  • Meditation (10-20 min)

  • Medication regimen

  • Vitamin D supplements

  • Write down gratitudes

  • No alcohol

  • Track my mood (iMoodJournal app)

  • Neurostim (Fisher Wallace Stimulator)

  • Sleep (7-8 hours)

Weekly

  • Call family and friends

  • 3 yoga sessions

  • Write about anything!

  • Breathing exercises

  • Motivational talks

  • Watch something funny

Monthly

  • Meet therapist

  • Support group

  • Read about psychology

As needed

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (Pocket CBT app)

  • Headstands

  • Cognitive recovery (nap)

  • Listen to binaural beats

  • Floating

  • Cold therapy

  • Massage

  • Hot epsom salt bath

PHOTO BY BRIAN SCHNEIDER

Afterword

I am a depressive. I suffered for years until I learned how to attack my depressed thoughts and gain mastery over them.

I live with depressed thoughts, but I do not act on my thoughts. I remain alive despite my brain’s best attempts to kill me. I use the intruding and malevolent thoughts to fuel my permanent recovery.

It took me a long time to realize that I don’t suck at suicide.

I succeed in living.

— Gordon Corsetti