Herschel Walker Interview

Herschel Walker Raytheon

If you asked 100 American football fans to name the most impressive ever to play the game, most would put Herschel Walker on the short list. A humble young man from Wrightsville, GA, he exploded onto the scene in 1980, leading the University of Georgia to the national championship and setting a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) freshman record for rushing. The recipient of All-American honors during each of his college years, he set 41 school records, 16 Southeastern Conference records and 11 NCAA records. In his junior year, 1982, he won the prestigious Heisman Trophy.

During his professional career, Walker emerged as a dominant talent, earning Most Valuable Player honors while setting the single-season pro football rushing record (2,411 yards) with the New Jersey Generals of the short-lived United States Football League. As a member of the Dallas Cowboys in 1987, he led the NFL in all purpose yards (rushing and receiving), earning All-Pro Honors. He went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles and again for the Cowboys before retiring in 1997. In 1999, he was inducted into the Collegiate Football Hall of Fame, where he was singled out as the second greatest player, after Red Grange, in college football history.

Despite decades of adulation, this consummate athlete has found it difficult to savor his success. In his new book Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, Walker recently revealed that he has the mental condition also known as multiple personality disorder. Recently, he spoke about his challenges with Gillian Friedman, MD, a psychiatrist and one of ABILITY Magazine’s health editors.

Friedman: As a public person, it takes a certain bravery to tell such a personal story. What feedback have you received so far?

Walker: The majority of it has been positive. The point of the book was to help people realize that whether you have DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) or any other type of problem, it’s okay to go out and get help. That’s the first thing in recovery, to admit you have a problem and seek help. I’m a Christian. I love my Lord Jesus, but at the same time, I don’t think God really cares about my football exploits. What I do think He cares about is what I can do for someone else. By getting help and showing others that it’s okay to take care of myself, I’m helping others.

Friedman: Was there a turning point for you where you felt strongly: I’ve got to share my story?

Walker: Do you remember that horrible incident on the news, where some girls filmed themselves fighting another girl, and people just stood around watching? When I saw that, I thought: If I’ve got a way to help someone and I don’t do it, I’m as guilty as those people standing around watching. It’s funny, this book was originally just writing that I did as therapy for myself. I’d written hundreds of pages as a part of my recovery process. A friend happened to read some of them and said, “Wow, why don’t you make this into a book?” I didn’t hesitate because I thought Maybe I can reach someone. I know that a lot of players’ wives struggle to figure out what’s going on with their husbands, and I thought maybe this could also help them encourage their husbands to seek therapy—not necessarily for DID, but for whatever is going on with them. There are a lot of people struggling with all sorts of problems—depression, abuse, drugs and alcohol—and they don’t know where to turn. My feeling is, Let’s not hide, people. Let’s come out and get help.

Friedman: One of the things you say frequently in the book is that you have DID, but DID doesn’t define you. It’s only a part of who you are. So frequently in our culture, when we talk about people with mental conditions, we talk about them as if they are their condition. We’ll say, “He’s a schizophrenic,” but we don’t say of somebody who has high blood pressure, “He’s a hypertensive.” We don’t turn it into a label.

Walker: I believe the human mind is so powerful that if you tell a kid that he’s bad all the time, he becomes bad. If somebody says, “You’re DID, you’re DID, you’re DID,” I become that and I think there’s no way out, no possibility of getting better.
I now feel that I’ve been blessed with DID, because I can see the advantages it’s given me at certain points in my life. At this point, I’ve got an opportunity to do something good with it by sharing my story with others. Everyone who thinks DID is bad thinks it because that’s all they see—on television, in movies. They haven’t had the chance to see the positive aspects of it.

Friedman: Let’s define dissociation and the specific type of dissociation called DID. I think your book gives some of the best layman’s descriptions of these phenomena that I’ve seen. So if you were to explain it to someone, what would you say?

Walker: I would say that we wear different hats in different situations. You have a white hat for your home life. You have a red hat for work. You have a blue hat for hanging out with your friends. As an athlete, you’ve got a green hat for competition. But with DID, your hats get all mixed up, meaning that your hat for competition has now become your home hat, your home hat has become your work hat, your work hat has become some other hat and so on. So now you’re in trouble, because your family can’t relate to your competition hat, for example. Plus, you’re feeling out of control and have no idea what’s going on.

What you have to do is get someone to help you to get those hats straightened out again. DID is a coping mechanism to help you overcome something. But you don’t want it to take over your life. Meaning if you’ve been abused, you don’t want to become the abuser now; you want to use your strength for good.

Friedman: It sounds as if you’re saying that there are defenses that you developed unconsciously to help you get through certain situations, like your game hat: This is how I deal with what’s going on with me on the playing field or This is how I deal with what’s going on with me at school. And you didn’t even realize this was going on …

Walker: Right.

Friedman: Yes, and because it’s unconscious, you’re not aware of what triggers that mode.

Walker: That’s true.

Friedman: So sometimes you’re triggered at an inappropriate place. You’re no longer on the football field, you’re at home with your family, and that warrior side of your personality takes over, which is not what your family needs right then.

Walker: Right. On the other hand, you may be at home with your child, feeling loving, giving him a kiss, maybe a little emotional... But you don’t want to be soft out there on the football field. People would think you’d totally lost your mind!

Friedman: I can imagine. So with dissociation, you’re cut off in some ways from what’s happening in the here and now. Parts of your mind remain cut off from other parts.

Walker: Yes.

Friedman: It’s a more extreme version of compartmentalization, which people do all the time. For example, if I have a really bad day where I fight with the husband, the kids act up and I get a flat tire, I can’t take that negativity in with me when I see patients. So I have to tuck those feelings away somewhere. In dissociation, one may not just set the emotion aside, he or she may set the whole experience aside, and the conscious, thinking memory may not always have access to the details of what happened.

Walker: You remove yourself totally from it.

Friedman: I’ve noticed that people tend to start dissociating when they’re very young, and they do it because there’s something going on that is so difficult that they need something protective to allow them to go about the business of growing and developing and working on themselves, even while this horrible thing is going on.

Walker: Right.

Friedman: In your book, you mention that for some people the trauma occurs in the home at the hands of the very family that’s supposed to be looking out for the child. Fortunately, you had a loving, supportive family, but you had a lot of things going on outside that were unusually difficult.

Walker: Yes. I was extremely overweight as a kid, and I had a very bad stuttering problem. I really had no friends, and I got beaten up a lot.

Friedman: It really struck me when you wrote about being so lonely for connection with other kids, that you would approach them on the playground and give them the few coins you’d been able to scrape up, just to talk to you for a few minutes.
A lot of people underestimate the seriousness and long-standing effects of bullying at school. They think kids are just being kids. But there are studies that show bullying can be as traumatic as any other form of abuse. And anyone who goes through abuse on a chronic basis needs some method of coping. Adults can get up and move somewhere else or switch jobs. But kids can’t do that. They have to keep going back into the same situation again and again, no matter how bad it is. For you, dissociation allowed you to continue to achieve without being so weighed down by all those traumatic experiences, which might have held you back if you’d had to endure their full impact.

Walker: That’s the reason I tell people that sometimes God’s guardian angel is taking care of you, because otherwise you would go crazy or do something horrible to yourself.

Friedman: So when it develops, dissociation is a good thing that allows children to cope. But as the saying goes, once you’ve got a hammer, everything’s a nail. It’s such an effective coping mechanism that over time you tend to apply it even though you don’t know you’re doing it. When you become an adult, it’s usually no longer the most effective coping skill for the particular situation you’re in.

Walker: That’s true.

Friedman: You write about the fact that dissociative identity disorder is a special type of dissociation, when certain sides of your personality step in consistently when you’re under stress to handle things for you. All of us have different sides to us—a meek side, an angry side, a peacemaking side, a vengeful side. For people with DID, when the core personality gets in trouble, these other sides step in to protect the person.

Walker: Right, your substitute comes in and takes over when you can’t handle the situation.

Friedman: You described one incident that was particularly disturbing to you, where you couldn’t understand what you were doing. You became so angry at someone whom you felt was messing with you during a business deal, that you were on your way to do physical harm to this person. You wrote that there were two voices arguing inside your head—one saying to kill the guy, the other trying to talk you out of it. When you finally stopped yourself, you realized: OK, there’s something going on here that I don’t understand. This is too extreme a reaction. As is the case with most people, it took something severe to finally propel you towards therapy.
For someone who has always characterized himself as a very self-reliant person, what was it like to seek professional help?

Walker: When I first went, it was very difficult. I didn’t really believe in dissociation. I thought everybody did the things that I did. Yet I had to admit to myself that the situation that you referred to was so trivial compared to the anger that I experienced. I had to come to the realization that there was this thing, and that it was affecting me. That was key.

Friedman: How far were you into your treatment before the idea of dissociation came up?

Walker: A couple of months. My therapist mentioned it, but didn’t say much more about it. I laughed. But one thing struck me as unusual: The therapist asked me to look at some of my writing from the year before, compare it to my writing from a couple of years earlier, and then compare that to my most recent writing. Now I love to write, and I write a great deal. So examining my writing, I could plainly see that in many places the content and style was totally different.

Friedman: Some people discover that when they dissociate they begin to notice other things, like they’ve purchased things that they don’t remember buying. Or other people will describe to them things they’ve done that they don’t remember. They become aware that there are periods of time that are missing for them.

Walker: I had a lot of experiences where I didn’t remember going certain places. If it weren’t for my ex-wife telling me about a number of things that I wasn’t aware of, I probably would have never gotten help. From my perspective, everything that went wrong was someone else’s fault. If someone was mad at me, or I was mad at him, it was his issue. But I trusted and loved my ex, and she helped me see that I needed help.

Friedman: You wouldn’t remember parts of an evening, for instance, and then in looking back, you’d draw a different conclusion about what happened?

Walker: Yeah. When there were blank areas, I just thought: I can’t remember that because I’ve got a terrible memory.

Friedman: When you talk about your therapy with Dr. Mungadze, you talk about some underlying rules for DID therapy. One of the first is that you are responsible for everything that you do at all times, whether you are aware of it or not. I think this gets at one of the biggest misunderstandings the public has about DID. Some people think, This is just an excuse for getting away with things. But you make it clear that therapy for DID indicates exactly the opposite.

Walker: Right. That’s what I call integration. I’m the captain of the ship. So all the responsibility, all my men—whatever hat they happen to wear at any given time—I’m responsible for their behavior. I appreciate all of them; they’ve done a lot for me. I feel like dissociation helped me be a good football player, helped me go to the limit. If I welcomed that, then I have to welcome the bad as well. That’s the reason I say I’m responsible for it all.

Friedman: That makes sense, given that all the sides of you share the same person, share the same body, what affects one affects all. But how do you deal with the responsibility of knowing that you’re accountable for what you do, even when you lose time?

Walker: By knowing that I’m human and not a god. I make mistakes, and I can ask for forgiveness. The good thing is that once you integrate, the loss of time is not as great, and sooner or later you stop losing time.

Friedman: Tell me about the integration process.

Walker: It’s about bringing the different personalities together. Before integration, you have fragments of your personality that are loose and disconnected. So now you take those fragments and put them together and you become whole and stronger. Instead of being the $6 million dollar man, you become the $60 million dollar man.

Friedman: It would seem that integration gives you more flexibility, too. Dissociation can be an important coping mechanism early on, but as an adult, DID limits your flexibility. It can be like handling things on autopilot rather than having a range of choices in how you respond to a situation.

Walker: That’s right.

Friedman: You’ve done individual therapy for a long time with Dr. Mungadze, and you’ve also gone through intensive treatment in such well-respected programs as the one at Del Amo Hospital in Torrance, CA. What are some of the most helpful things you’ve learned in therapy that allow you to work with your DID?

Walker: Group therapy was the most helpful. Seeing that I share the same experiences with other people helps me feel that I’m not alone, and that this condition is for real. It’s something that many of us are dealing with.

Friedman: Interesting that you point to that sense of shared experience because one of the themes of your book is that you’ve consistently felt like an outsider.

Walker: Most people would say that I’m a loner; I do a lot of things by myself.

Friedman: Before you started therapy, did you have a sense of how frequently you would switch from one part of your personality to another? Did it happen several times a day?

Walker: Back then, I probably did it a lot.

Friedman: Do you think it’s lessened?

Walker: Quite a bit. For example, I used to be afraid to speak in front of a group of people. Though I did it, I was detached; whereas now, that speaker is part of me. I enjoy where I’m at now. Recently someone asked me if I was worried how the football world would view me now that everyone knows “big, strong Herschel Walker” has DID. I said, “It doesn’t matter, because in many ways I’m better and stronger today than I was back then.”

Friedman: Let me switch gears and ask about “big, strong Herschel Walker” the football player. In the book, you give a detailed history of your football career, and what you were thinking as you went along. You talk about how you got into athletics as a kid, your victory season at the Sugar Bowl, your trade from Dallas to Minnesota and your frustration that you did not quite get to do what you wanted once you were there. I’m going to start with the big one—the move from Dallas to Minnesota. If someone in Minnesota says “the trade,” everyone immediately knows that refers to the Vikings’ decision to exchange five players and six draft picks to get you. But then, once you got there, it seemed you weren’t going to be allowed to make good on the deal: You just didn’t get the time on the field that you needed. That must have been an extremely frustrating situation for you.

Walker: I could have gone against “the trade,” but I knew Jerry Jones, the owner of the Cowboys, was a very good businessperson. I think I was thrown into a situation where I never could have known the outcome. But the people of Minnesota loved me no matter what. They accepted me. When I was leaving the game, I made a statement that I would go back and play in Minnesota if only to give the people an opportunity to see what I could really do, because I think they deserved that. The people make NFL football. So I felt I owed them something. It had nothing to do with the team itself, because the team got what they wanted from me. Whatever the coaches asked me to do, I did. But the fans in Minnesota deserved more.

Friedman: You write about not ever really being able to understand why, after they traded so much for you, they didn’t use you more.

Walker: Before I even got there, management and the coaches were at war. So now management makes another huge, huge trade that the coaches are not aware of, and I got caught in the middle. The coaches didn’t like it, so they weren’t gonna let me play.
.... continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Herschel Walker issue include Green Pages—An Old Fashion Clothesline; Faucet Aerators;Pate—Winter Sports Clinic Highlights; Humor Therapy; Man’s New Best Friend; Headlines—Splel Chceker, Drum Therapy, HBO Film and more; George Covington—Nobody Walks In Texas; Ouch!—Relief for Fibromyalgia; Best Practices—Sprint Has Your Number; A Place Called Home—Disability Legal Rights Center; UCP—A Ride to Raise Funds and Awareness; Ability on Assignment—Qatar, Shafallah Forum; Essay—Spread Respect; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

More excerpts from the Herschel Walker issue:

Herschel Walker — Interview

Documentary — Including Samuel

Step of Mind — Using Chaos For Good in the Middle East

Inclusion — Making Strides at the Boys & Girls Club

Ouch!—Relief for Fibromyalgia

Sport Clinic Volunteers

Humor — Man's New Best Friend

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