By Monday night, Julie Yanchulis finally had enough. Enough stress from Caps hockey, followed by Wizards basketball, followed by Caps hockey, followed by Wizards basketball. Enough disappointment from teams that seem on the perpetual verge of a breakthrough, only to break down. Enough tension from one game after another decided in the final few seconds, an emotional obstacle course that sometimes seems like the opposite of fun. So after the Penguins forced that unfathomable overtime with a pair of late goals, the high school English teacher left two of her daughters in the living room, went upstairs, grabbed “A Tale of Two Cities,” and shut herself in the bathroom. “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” and all that. She didn’t come out until she heard happy screams downstairs.
“That’s how desperate it was: I was reading Charles Dickens in the bathroom,” Yanchulis said Wednesday morning. “For the first time in my life, 56 years old, I could not watch another minute.”
So what did her family do Tuesday night? Duh: They watched the Wizards lose in overtime to the Celtics, while flipping back and forth to the Nats game.
If this past week has felt particularly exhausting and exhilarating, abusive and absurd, there’s a rational explanation. We’re currently in the middle of a nine-day stretch in which either the Wizards or Capitals will play a postseason game every day. That has never before happened this late in the season, not in this town. It’s a foolish marathon none of us has ever attempted, and we’re running it without knowing whether finishers will receive laurel wreaths or whoopee cushions.
As I type this, we’re seven days into the stretch. Three of the games have gone to overtime. Some have been glorious — John Wall carrying his team to a series-clinching win in Atlanta — and some have been horrifying — the Caps getting routed at home while their star goalie sat on the bench. On Sunday, the Wizards took a 16-point lead and then lost. On Monday, the Caps gave up two goals in the final two minutes before winning in overtime. On Tuesday, the Wizards coughed up a six-point lead late in the fourth quarter and missed two potential game-winning shots. More overtime. We can sleep when we’re dead, which will be soon enough, at this rate.
That’s when I observed that this month would ruin all of us. Readers agreed.
There’s Marie Smith, a fan with a stomach condition who stayed up late to vent after one Caps loss to the Maple Leafs, threw up three times the next day, and finally left work early. Her doctor told her she needed to find a way to relax, and fast. She hasn’t watched a live game since.
There’s Ben Gerow, a 22-year-old who is eight days from graduating college, and currently searching for a job. “That stress is nothing compared to the stress of watching the Wizards and Capitals … every … single … night,” he wrote.
There’s Brandon Palmer, a junior at Wake Forest who studies for finals in the morning, listens to D.C. sports podcasts during days, and watches games at night. “It’s gotten to the point where when I’m studying, I’m stressed about the game that night, and when I’m watching the game I’m stressed about the studying I should be doing,” he wrote. “It’s a cycle of absolute insanity. … Sports are supposed to be fun; this is the exact opposite of fun.”
There’s Ismail Madni, a 35-year-old D.C. expat living in Raleigh, who has started thinking of his basement as a “man cave of torture.”
“The last two weeks (hell, the last 26 years) have been a mix of agony, torture, stress, disappointment and elation,” he wrote. “I have to watch games by myself, so I go into our basement, and for the next three hours, my wife only hears sounds of me dying or sounding like we won the $500 million Powerball.”
There’s Kevin C., who used to fly for the Navy (in non-combat situations), but thinks his nervous system was never as rattled as it was during the Caps’ Game 6 overtime win over Toronto. His fingers were tingling throughout overtime, and his heart rate was elevated, and after the game, he had to take a walk outside to settle himself down. In the cockpit, he wrote, there is at least an illusion of control.
“With the Caps, there is none of this,” he wrote. “The only thing you control with them is whether or not you keep coming back for more. Which I do. For some reason.”
Sure, I sought out the tired, the stressed, the terrified fans yearning to breathe. Maybe the majority of you are having an easier time with this. (Although I received multiple responses from people who’ve followed these games on Twitter or listened on the radio because they can’t bear to watch, plus one from a father of nearly 14 years who had never cursed in front of his children before this week.)
But the thing is, there is no other city engaged in this double-dip of drama at the moment. No city put teams into the NBA and NHL’s second round last year, either. Meantime — while the Caps and Wizards are offering dueling nightcaps of terror — the Nats lost their most valuable offseason acquisition to a season-ending injury and then set a franchise record for runs scored, which became tiny footnotes during the past week of local sports.
And when the games end, it’s nearly impossible to shut the adrenaline off and fall asleep. Ask Andrew Vanderhoeven. Like me, he has a six-month-old baby — his wife was in labor during the Nats playoff series against the Dodgers, “which should’ve been a tell tale sign that he and playoffs don’t mix,” Andrew observed. The lad’s first top teeth started arriving during the first round of the playoffs, so his best sleeping hours “fall between and 8 and midnight, ” Andrew wrote, “which falls during my worst hours where I stress over the Caps inability to hold a lead, the Wizards inability to hold a lead, and whether I made the right choice raising my son to have this same life.
“Typically,” Andrew wrote, “I’ll watch the game, lay in bed wondering what could’ve been, and by the time I’m falling asleep it’s time to get up and comfort my screaming teething child.”
Win or lose, it’s just draining. Like Andrew, I fall asleep thinking about the game that just ended, and wake up thinking either about the game that just ended or the one that’s about to begin (or whether any out-of-town writers have done anything outlandish). There’s been one day in the past week without a prime-time playoff game: After the Wizards matinee Sunday, I fell asleep on my couch around 7 and dragged myself to bed by 9.
“It’s been exhausting,” wrote Ivan Pastran of Silver Spring. “Work has, oddly enough, been a stress reliever, I guess because I’m occupied and don’t have much time to think about last night’s loss or win ’til I clock out. But as soon as I clock out, I’m in full playoff mode. The anxiety kicks in, like clockwork.”
There’s not another break until Friday, at which point we can catch our breath in time for more of the same. Because then comes Saturday (Caps, Game 5), and Sunday (Wizards, Game 4), and probably Monday (Caps, Game 6), and lord help us all, Wednesday the 10th, when the Caps could be hosting a Game 7, and the Wizards could be playing a Game 5, and oh yeah, the Nats will be hosting the Orioles.
The coping mechanisms I’ve seen tend toward the macabre, which shouldn’t be a surprise. One huge D.C. sports fan, Ben R., sent me the two things he’s relying upon to keep him sane:
1. The knowledge that some day in the distant or not-so-distant future, the last person who knows that I ever existed, much less how I felt during that existence, will perish, and with that person’s death the final traces of my being will forever be extinguished from the universe and it will not have mattered a lick that the Caps lost, or won, or whatever. And,
2. Rye whiskey.
So now back to Julie, the English teacher who locked herself in the bathroom Monday night. She was at the last major D.C. title, the 1992 Super Bowl in Minneapolis. She was at the worst playoff meltdown since then, the Nats’ Game 5 loss to the Cardinals in the 2012 NLDS. Her four daughters are all D.C. sports fanatics, and she says she wants a title for them more than for herself. For the past few weeks, they’ve planned meals around playoff games, planned work meetings around playoff games, and been watching playoff games non-stop.
“Every night of your week is kind of filled up,” she said.
And yet, she claims to still be enjoying herself — sort of, anyhow.
“It takes you away from reality,” she said. “Even though you wind up in the bathroom, it’s a whole lot of fun at the end of the day.”