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Lionel Aldridge, star player for the Green Bay Packers, battled his way through paranoid schizophrenia with the help of a little faith.
One of the most frightening signs that there was something seriously wrong with me were the voices I began hearing in 1974.
At first they were just stray, nagging worries that dogged me through the day, self-doubts that we all have from time to time. They seemed to rise up out of nowhere—vague thoughts with an accusing edge: You really don't work very hard, do you? Or I'd be alone in my car and it was as if I overheard someone whisper, Everyone knows Lionel Aldridge doesn't care about his job.
The fact was I worked hard and cared very much about my job. I was something of a fixture on the Milwaukee scene. After an all-pro career as a defensive end with coach Vince Lombardi's two-time Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers football team, I'd moved easily into the role of NFL commentator and local TV sports anchor. I had a successful, high-profile life.
That was before the voices.
The voices were very scary and confusing. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want anyone to find out the terrible things happening inside my head. As an athlete I'd been trained to be tough; it was not my nature to seek help. I wanted to be strong.
At first I tried to ignore them. I was just going through a bad period, I thought. But the voices grew more belittling and threatening, more real. I'd be standing in front of the mirror shaving when I'd hear from the next room, You don't take very good care of your family. "That's bull!" I'd shout. I'd search the house for my tormentor. "How'd he get in here?" I'd mutter, as my wife, Viki, shook her head in dismay. There never was any intruder.
If a co-worker at the station didn't smile at me in the morning, a voice would hiss, See? He doesn't think much of you either. He knows you don't deserve your job. I became hard to get along with. I started talking back to the voices, bickering and pleading and cursing. I am a large and imposing man; it must have scared folks half out of their wits to see me shouting at people who weren't there.
Rumors flew around town that I was on drugs. That was completely false, but I was in no shape to prove otherwise. I was getting worse. People wanted to help but they didn't know how. "He's under a lot of pressure," I heard them say.
One night, attending a Bucks basketball game with a friend, I froze with terror as we moved in front of the crowd toward our courtside VIP seats.
"What's wrong?" my friend asked.
"These people," I stammered, "they...they know everything I'm thinking. They're all watching me."
I was dizzy with panic. I wanted to run.
"Take it easy," my puzzled friend whispered, looking at me as if he suspected I was playing a gag on him. Then he saw the perspiration drenching my shirt collar. "Maybe you're working too hard," he muttered, putting an arm on my shoulder and easing me into my seat.
Soon that feeling of being watched wouldn't let up, even on the air. Looking into the camera, I could barely hold my composure as I reported the nightly sports scores. The wide camera lens zooming in on me was a glistening, all-seeing eye that could plumb the farthest, most hidden reaches of my soul. Everyone who was watching on their TV sets, I was convinced, could see right inside my brain, where laid bare for all to look on in disgust were the grimmest secrets of my life.
I was sure there was a far-flung conspiracy to destroy me. I fought with total strangers on the street. I separated from Viki and our two daughters, and eventually divorced. I lost my job and my friends. There was nothing left but the voices shouting in my head, as real to me as an opposing 260-pound pulling guard on a goal line stand back in my playing days. My life spun out of control.
One night the voices commanded me to start driving. I didn't want to leave Milwaukee. It had been my home for so many good years, and a part of me still understood that I needed a home now more than ever. But my state of extreme delusion robbed me of choice.