A Voice to Still All His Others
Friday, May 9, 2008
Herschel Walker would like to set things straight: Forget about Sybil. It's not about Eve and her three faces. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde analogy is a useful one, because there were times he certainly felt that way, divided and at war with himself. But even that's resorting to stereotypes. And if anything, Walker is out to dispel the myths about multiple personality disorder, or, as he prefers to call it, DID -- dissociative identity disorder.
It's taken him nearly 10 years to get to this point.
The very idea of a personality disorder evokes images of someone who's severely disturbed and unable to function in life. You don't associate such a shattering condition with a College Football Hall of Famer/great NFL running back/Heisman Trophy winner/Olympian bobsledder/successful businessman. Which is kind of the point, Walker says, and the reason he wrote a book about it, "Breaking Free: My Life With Dissociative Identity Disorder." He says he plans to use the proceeds to open a series of DID treatment centers around the country.
"These are the skeletons in my life," says the 46-year-old former pro athlete, who was in town yesterday to accept an award from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal public health agency. "I didn't have to bring this to the forefront. But if I didn't, I would be a liar.
"I'm doing this to help someone."
For years, Walker says, DID served as a coping mechanism. And for a long time, he says, he coped very well. It helped him, as a stuttering, overweight kid, to survive the playground bullies who beat him. It helped him conquer his crippling fear of the dark. It helped him, he says, to stifle the memories of the Ku Klux Klan staging mock lynchings in his home town of Wrightsville, Ga.
And it kept him playing football, from high school to the University of Georgia to the NCAA championships to a pro career with teams including the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings. Herschel the football player, Walker now says, was one of his many "alters" -- or alter egos. He figures that he had about 12 in all. Among them, he says, were "the Judge," "the Speaker," "the Consoler," "the Ballet Dancer." (Walker, in fact, studied ballet in college and performed for a week with the Fort Worth Ballet.)
"He adapted very well. Football helped him survive," said Walker's psychologist, Jerry Mungadze, who accompanied his patient yesterday. "When you took away the football, that undid him. It became very chaotic."
In an age of pro-baller and shot-caller excesses, Walker, widely regarded as one of the greatest college players, had a squeaky-clean reputation: married to Cindy, his college sweetheart; born-again Christian; teetotaler. He'd always been a laid-back guy, and suddenly, he says, he was consumed with rage. It was around 2001. He didn't recognize himself, he says, and did "terrible things," such as playing Russian roulette with a Smith & Wesson because his competitive "alter" really liked upping the ante, and the life/death dichotomy was the "ultimate game."
Then he started holding a gun to his wife's head, he says, threatening her life. "I never hit her. But the threats and putting the gun to her head? That's abuse. Total abuse." (The couple divorced in 2003, something he says still causes him misery. She has since remarried.)
He prayed, a lot, and he says that the prayers protected him from crossing the line into physical violence. In the office, he says, he could wheel and deal with his businesses and be perfectly fine. Once he got home, he was scared of what he would do. He turned to his minister, who offered to perform an exorcism, convinced that a demon was responsible for his troubles.
"I laughed at him, behind his back," Walker remembers. "I thought he was crazy."