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The Wrong Diagnosis? John Daly is exhibiting classic symptoms, but not those of an alcoholic

Sept. 07, 1998
Sept. 07, 1998

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Sept. 7, 1998

The Wrong Diagnosis? John Daly is exhibiting classic symptoms, but not those of an alcoholic

His hands were trembling. He looked distraught. He was dressed for
the Iditarod, although the temperature was in the mid-80s. And he
was crying.

This is an article from the Sept. 7, 1998 issue Original Layout

Everybody who saw John Daly break down last Thursday in the first
round of the Greater Vancouver Open agrees on those points. One
minute Daly was O.K. The next minute he was not. He was able to
finish, but not before scaring his playing partners, David Frost
and Corey Pavin.

So what was it? Daly, the next day, dismissed the episode as a
typical setback in the life of a recovering alcoholic. "The
shakes are going to come and go," Daly said. "It's part of the
program."

Is it? Doctors who treat alcoholism say that delirium tremens--the
seizure symptoms that accompany withdrawal--ordinarily disappear
within a month of quitting booze. (Daly says he has not had a
drink since March 1997, when he checked into the Betty Ford
Clinic in Rancho Mirage, Calif.) What if Daly's disability is not
alcoholism, but something deeper?

I raise the question because Daly's documented excesses, as
bizarre as they seem, are familiar to me. I have a sister who
suffers from a psychiatric ailment called major depressive
disorder. In fact, we wrote a book about it (Story of "J",
William Morrow & Co.). Until she was diagnosed and treated about
20 years ago, Terry pinballed between normal function and
suicidal depression. For no discernible reason she plunged into
deep funks. She ate and spent money compulsively, suffered from
panic attacks and wallowed in self-reproach. John Daly's
symptoms. That's why for years Terry and I have suspected that
Daly suffers from a related condition called bipolar disorder, or
manic-depressive illness. That would explain much about his
behavior.

According to Dr. Fred Goodwin, former director of the National
Institute of Mental Health, "Alcoholism is usually a fairly
chronic condition, whereas manic-depressive illness has clear
opposite extremes, and cycles from one extreme to another,
sometimes with long normal periods in between." In his euphoric,
manic phases, Daly wins tournaments, spends money recklessly,
overeats, gambles, gets into fights and trashes hotel rooms. In
his depressive moods he loses energy, sleeps fitfully, cries with
remorse and thinks about driving his car off a cliff. Daly's
history of substance abuse also fits Goodwin's profile. "Sixty
percent of patients with manic-depressive illness will at some
point meet the criteria for substance abuse," Goodwin says.
"Alcohol can certainly obscure the diagnosis."

If Daly has been told he's manic-depressive, he hasn't
acknowledged the diagnosis publicly, or perhaps he refuses to
accept it. He could be resisting the label of mentally ill. Call
him anything--drunk, deadbeat, junkie, dodo--but don't call him
crazy.

"I can imagine exactly what he's going through," my sister told
me by telephone last Saturday, having just watched televised
highlights of Daly's panic attack. "You feel stigmatized by the
diagnosis." She offered two other explanations for the
possibility that Daly might have refused to accept bipolar
disorder as the source of his torment: 1) "He assumes that the
manic state is normal, when actually it's an unnatural and
self-destructive high. It's only when he's depressed and in
unbelievable pain that he's open to treatment." 2) "The usual
treatment is lithium, and a common side effect of lithium is hand
tremors. As an athlete Daly may fear the treatment more than the
illness." The PGA Tour's Bert Yancey, who died in 1994, agonized
because the lithium he took as a manic-depressive caused his
hands to tremble. Goodwin, who treated Yancey late in his career,
says the trembling is "one of the more treatable side effects [of
lithium]."

A source close to Daly says that the golfer has been taking
antidepression medicine since he left Betty Ford. His alcoholism
could be more a symptom than the cause of his anguish. If he
never takes another drink, he could still run the risk of death
by sugar, slot machine or suicide.

That could explain why he was trembling and crying in Vancouver.
He's 10 over par at the turn, and he may not have played the
hardest holes.

Golf Plus will next appear in the Sept. 21 issue of Sports
Illustrated.

COLOR PHOTO: EVAN SEAL/THE LEADER Buddy system Frost tried to comfort Daly. [David Frost walking with arm around John Daly]
For years I have suspected that Daly suffers from bipolar
disorder.