Tony Reali, the host of ESPN’s Around the Horn, always wanted to be a dad: “I wanted a whole team of kids. I’ve said this to everyone with ears.” So when he experienced what he called an attack of postpartum anxiety one Sunday afternoon in September 2015 when he was home alone with his one-year-old daughter, Francesca—heart palpitations and invasive thoughts— he was scared, and immediately tried to understand what was going on.
Reali says he barely slept that night, reached a hotline for help the next morning, and “white knuckled it” through the taping of Around the Horn that afternoon. He spent the following days talking to professionals about what he was going through, and then recently, he decided to talk about it publicly in the hopes of easing the stigma around postpartum anxiety and depression.
I spoke with Tony earlier this week. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.
Deadspin: So this is something you talked about on Kate Fagan’s podcast last week, and you also tweeted about it.
Tony Reali: Yeah, I felt comfortable doing that on Twitter. I haven’t really gone into a political place—while I still have strong beliefs there and it’s affected my life, my wife travels internationally for work, she was born in another country in North Africa, we could’ve been fearful of the Muslim ban, her family is Muslim and things like that. I did a long Twitter thread on my engagement story, you can really tell a story in a funny way, end your chapters in the way you want in 140 characters. I did it with Ash Wednesday recently, which was important for me, I’ve done that the last couple years. And I wrote an op-ed out of that, which came from someone at the Washington Post seeing my Twitter thread. So, I don’t know if that topic is any more difficult than this topic, but I understand people don’t want to have this conversation, they don’t want to even hear the words, which is a tough thing to consider when you have gone through it or you know other people who are going through it. I’ve come to a place where I’m pretty sure talking about it is the best way to diffuse it and the best way to have other people recognize what it is.
DS: With postpartum depression and anxiety, I think people may not even know it can apply to men because it’s more commonly associated with a biological phenomenon in mothers?
TR: There’s such a stigma attached to anxiety disorders—generalized or specialized—that manifests itself in new parents and people don’t even know it applies to men. For me, there’s no shame here, it was stunned disbelief. I’ve wanted to be a dad since I was five years old. Everyone who knows me, before they know anything about me, knows this. [Around the Horn producers] Aaron [Solomon], Josh [Bard], people who watch the show, people I just know from my daughter’s school at this point, I mean they’ll see me at the bottom of a pile of 18 kids at a party, and the adults are all over there and I’m on the floor playing with the kids. Being a dad is everything I’ve wanted in life. I wanted to be a sportscaster since I was five but before that I wanted to be a dad. So the fact that I was blissfully, mind-numbingly happy when we got pregnant, which took work—I mean, let’s talk about everything, we went through years of trying to years of IVF to having a natural baby. Which is a miracle.
For some people it happens and for some people it doesn’t. To not have control over something in your life—and this is two instances of that—I lost control in a mental space for a short period of time, for some people it’s much longer so I was fortunate for that, but we wanted have a baby and we couldn’t, and then we did, and then she was 47 hours of labor, two weeks late, so I was going through life with my hands up in the sky, like, “how great is this.” It was bliss, but it was mind-numbing. And my recognition later was that you don’t want to be blissfully mind numbed to anything. None of that can possibly can be all good.
DS: What was the day like when you had the postpartum attack and when did you realize it was something more than anxiety?
TR: I took the baby to the park—my wife had traveled for work internationally multiple times and there were zero issues, inviting kids over, sending parents home, five kids in the house, running around, making music, teaching them how to play instruments—and then there was one day where it all went crazy for me. I was reading a book the night before I went to bed, it was made into a movie with James Franco and Jonah Hill. It was about a guy who did some terrible things to his family. [Ed note: True Story, about a man who murders his wife and children.] And then later in the day, something I read on Twitter, you know there’s no buffer, your feed is your feed and I follow news of the day, and there was a headline that wasn’t great. And all of the sudden, it was the most frightening thoughts you can have. They’re called invasive thoughts. I started having heart palpitations that went on—I only had one moment where I felt like I had a panic attack and that went on for 10 or 15 minutes—this was going on for an hour, two hours, three hours.
It was Sunday afternoon, I was just tying to get the baby down to bed, and trying to figure out what it was because I didn’t have a break. And I didn’t sleep that whole Sunday night, I was pulling my hair out, I was on the internet. I was searching postpartum at that point because I was somehow aware that it could affect men. I was on the site and I was checking off a couple boxes, not all the boxes. I probably got to bed at 6 a.m., woke up with Francesca at 7. Grandma was going to help me out that morning so I was able to pass her off at 8 a.m. and I’m on the phone calling the hotline the second I pass her off. The hotline was busy. So, the TV host in me wants to make a joke about it, that’s my personality, but yeah, they put me on hold and called me back two hours later. I think I made it through the show by the skin of my teeth that Monday.
DS: Do you remember how that show went?
TR: I don’t remember the show, but I specifically remember what happened right after it. I called Aaron from the street and I was just in tears. And I remember Aaron, who knows me well, he was really good and aware of what it was without me going into a complete explanation. He said, “You were born for this, you were made to be a dad,” something like that. But I don’t remember the show and I think if you took video of the commercial breaks it would be, for someone who knows me, “Wow, what is that?”, you would definitely know something is wrong. Afterwards, I was on the streets of New York, beautiful Tribeca cobblestone street, on my butt with tears streaming down my cheeks. So that was the Monday, on Tuesday I talked to my wife, but she couldn’t get out for a few more days, but I talked with so many people in the next 48 hours, professionals, and was able to recognize what happened.
DS: What was a conclusion you reached?
Francesca had just turned one. That’s not too anomalous. She’s just started walking and climbing and jumping and danger is around every corner and moms and dads can process that any number of ways, sometimes like an ‘80s sitcom character loading a fanny pack with 32 different band-aids, sometimes by being taken over by scary, invasive thoughts. Those thoughts aren’t you, those thoughts are parts of life compounded and funkified by stresses and realities—not to mention Uncle Cro-Magnon and multiple millennia of animalistic need to protect. Recognition that those thoughts were scary was the first step for me to call the hotline, and they’re the first step in recognizing they weren’t reality and aren’t me.
I should say this. One of my fears was crossing the street with the baby. We live in Lower Manhattan. And then I got a call at 3 p.m. on the set of Around the Horn in March 2016, and—this is surreal to say and I have to emphasize everything is OK, thank God—Grandma and the baby were crossing the street and the stroller was backed into by a car. Stroller got turned over, baby was fine, grandma broke her ankle in two places. It was a hit and run. I walked the street the next day, found a building with cameras facing out, the security guard was a fan of the show let me take peek at the video, I came back with the detective from the 1st precinct, caught that car on vid and boom! It was like Castle except if instead of writing mysteries Castle muted sports writers. I say this to acknowledge there are rational fears and there are irrational fears and you have to ask and answer yourself honestly to know the difference.
DS: So where are you with this now? Are you still talking to someone?
TR: I’ve been talking to somebody weekly. For me, it’s a chance to not let anything sit unexplored for too long, to ask and answer. And not will myself into aiming for the greatest day ever, everyday. Do other people do that? I don’t know. But I was putting pressure on myself to not allow anything be less than great. The “how can I feel bad?” or “how can I complain?” or “others are worse off!” threat we can hold over our head is weighty and insidious, the guilt of it all. I think giving voice to it allows me to process it and not be guillotined by it. My realization that “best day ever” wasn’t necessary took work.
Now I aim for “real.” I was trying so hard to be the best dad, to be someone on TV and put out the best show everyday, trying to be a positive person, make natural moments, because that’s what I go for, but somewhere along the way I conflated natural with positive, natural with energy. I didn’t take a vacation in seven years. And no doubt I was applying the same energy to being a Dad. And that is me! But I wasn’t leaving room for anything else, and something grew in my gut. And it can metastasize into things that are just weird and out of character. So with me, here’s how I’m going to get to you, Reali, what do you care about most in the world? Your daughter, of course. This is true for both mothers and fathers, but maternally, there’s a hormonal component that’s as strong or stronger.
The feedback from this—and I wanted feedback, not about me, but about the issue—I got more feedback from a “he looks like” joke my friend Dan Le Batard made about, than about this.
DS: Yeah, that was funny. I think it’s just easier for people to engage with fun or light-hearted topics than ones that might make them uncomfortable.
TR: That’s absolutely true and I want that to be true, but there needs to be space for both, is what I’m trying to say. And I think it’s especially tough for men to talk about these things. Everyone has to process feelings, but I know in my experience living as a man, I think it’s very difficult for men to process feelings in and around the moment they are having them.
When I was going through it I remember thinking that life gives you the test long before it gives you the lesson. That’s not me, that’s Vin Scully. He was the commencement speaker at my graduation from Fordham. How great is that? Does anybody remember their commencement speaker? And I had a guy doing my dream job! He said that, and it made sense then and it make sense for me now. You’re never going to know how to do everything a parent is supposed to do. You can’t control everything, so it’s not abnormal to feel overmatched at times. You can’t be too hard on yourself over that. “Life gives you the test long before it gives you the lesson, and Puig strikes out and we’ll be back with the top of the fifth.”