Traumatic events trigger bipolar disorder. For Keith, it was when his wife suffered a miscarriage three years ago. The former Northern Arizona star shifted into a severe manic state, becoming, “very goal oriented and driven.”
“At that time of your life you should be down,” O’Neil explained. “You should be grieving the loss of a child. But, and then, I slowly went into a severe manic episode where I had terrible anxiety.”
Psychosis followed the mania. Reality began to stretch away from Keith like a floaty in a swimming pool. After going to the doctor, it was here that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder one. The diagnosis didn’t even phase Keith at all: that is how much of a delusional state the ex-linebacker was in.
“I just wanted to get through that day,” O’Neil said. “For me, honestly, I was scared to death, you know, of everything that was going on. You don’t have control of everything.”
Keith didn’t have violent thoughts, just pervasive anxious thoughts.
The doctor’s prescriptions, among which included the drug Geodon, “worked wonders” for Keith, curing the mania and decreasing the mania. These were reliefs though, not longterm solutions to the problem.
Two years into his diagnosis, Keith wasn’t doing well. Keith and his wife had seen more psychiatrists than Carter had pills, and he still wasn’t making the breakthrough progress needed. Worried about what to do with their ailing son, the O’Neils sought spiritual help. Their family priest in Buffalo gave them practical help in the reference of Dr. Steven Dubovsky, an expert in treating bipolar disorder pharmaceutically and who chairs the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Buffalo’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“He took a look at everything that I was on and made some great recommendations for us,” O’Neil said.
Dr. Dubovsky indicated Keith was on the wrong medications and also too many medications. He simplified things for Keith.
“He really helped me on the right path of medications that made a huge difference in my life.”
It took three to four months for Keith to make the transition from his original, though flawed, medications to his new medication regiment provided by Dr. Dubovsky. After two years from his initial diagnosis, Keith was finally on the right drugs to deal with bipolar disorder and lead a normal life.
Today, Keith claims he hasn’t watched five entire games since his 2008 retirement. If anything, he’ll pull for the Dallas Cowboys to succeed since he still has teammates from his 2003 rookie class still on the team in quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten.
“It’s been a part of my life forever. And now that it’s over, I’m moving on to the next chapter.”
Part of that next chapter has been getting involved with the International Bipolar Foundation as an ambassador in educating people and tackling the stigma the way he would an oncoming runningback. For these efforts, he came to the attention of Coach Chrissy Carew, founder of the Insightful Player initiative, which was, “founded on a fundamental and abiding belief that professional athletes, such as NFL players, stand atop a unique platform from which to inspire today’s youth to greatness – through their own powerful example.” Former Insightful Players include the New England Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, and Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.
Keith was very honored to win an award that Roger Staubach has won: “It’s quite an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as Roger Staubach. It’s very humbling.”
He also thanks Chrissy Carew, daughter of high school football legend Walter Carew, Sr., for giving current and former players a stump like this on which players can speak out on issues like mental health awareness.
More of Keith’s deep story is sure to come out, as Tony Dungy reached out to Keith earlier this year to help his former player write his memoirs. In the meantime, Keith will continue to provide hope, encouragement, and support for people suffering from ill mental health.
Keith looks to his Christian faith as the foundation for his living with bipolar disorder. He advises people to do similarly, and to also cast out any fear of asking for help. It is only through help and allowing family and friends to help that a bipolar disorder survivor can thrive.
The linebacker no longer lives with anxiety. He simply lives.