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Off the court, in the dark: Why Tony Dela Cruz is vocal about the depression that nearly ended his life

Tony Dela Cruz has become outspoken about mental health after struggling with crippling depression. Ernie Sarmiento/ESPN5

One, two, three. Tony. Energy! Energy!

Tony Dela Cruz checks his microphone before going on air as an analyst for PBA Rush. After a 17-year professional basketball career, Dela Cruz was told that for the viewers to be excited about the game, he'll need to deliver his lines with more energy.

Before every game, he reminds himself: Energy! Energy!

It's easy to see the disconnect. During his playing days, Dela Cruz always looked calm and collected. As he was never the most athletic player out there, "energy" was not a word that described his game. Even his favorite shot, the mid-range jumper, fit perfectly into his old-school character.

Dela Cruz was often quiet; soft-spoken when he did talk. He looked like he had everything under control. He was part of the 1999 rookie class but instead of going through the draft, he was a direct hire for the Shell franchise. Statistically, Dela Cruz had his top numbers with the Turbo Chargers but the best moments of his career came after he was traded to Alaska in 2005 as Shell exited the PBA. He won three titles and received the Sportsmanship Award in 2006 as one of the league's good guys.

On the surface, everything looked great. He was part of a contending team, had a good family, was making money, and often had brand new cars and gadgets. Underneath, it was a much different story. "There's a lot of expectation from you as an athlete because it's a high-pressure environment but when you work hard, you can get to this level where you're earning money and you become an All-Star, a max player, maybe even a champion," Dela Cruz said. "What happened to me was that I got to that level and I was like 'Why am I not happier?' I really thought I would be."

"I'd feel empty every day inside. ... I was supposed to be happy but I was not. I was empty and irritated and sometimes I even had thoughts about hurting myself." Tony Dela Cruz

It was at a PBA orientation in February when Dela Cruz talked openly about his long struggles with depression during his playing days. He was flanked by Chris Ross, who was the first PBA player to publicly speak about mental health after one of his postgame interviews. It was a big moment for the PBA -- recognizing that mental health is a problem and urging players to seek help when needed.

Dela Cruz was quick to join the conversation as he knows what it's like to deal with depression. He has been outspoken about his past experiences and has given talks to different groups -- invited by people who know what he went through.

"When I got to Alaska, we were winning, I was playing key minutes, I was team captain or co-captain. From the outside looking in, people would think I had the greatest life but I knew something was different, something was wrong," he said.

"I did not know how to verbalize it. I did not know how to seek help so I just buried it. The way I coped is I suppressed everything. I would just wear a smile on my face and work harder and, in the process, neglect people I love and it just got out of control."

Dela Cruz did not understand why he was so miserable. Every source of joy was quickly dampened by his own mind. Every source of sorrow or frustration, amplified.

"I'd feel empty every day inside. There was a lot of confusion in my life a few years into my PBA career," he said. "I was supposed to be happy but I was not. I was empty and irritated and sometimes I even had thoughts about hurting myself."

'I really wanted to die. I really wanted to end my life.'

In 2013, the Aces caught lightning in a bottle with the help of import Rob Dozier. Unknown to his teammates and coaches, Dela Cruz, the person and not the player, was free-falling.

"The lowest moment for me was spending three, four, five days in a row fall-over drunk in my condo by myself. Crying my eyes out. Every day I'd get up, drink water, go to practice, smile for everybody but deep down I was afraid to go home and be alone with my thoughts. I was also afraid of going out in public because I felt that no one understood me," he said.

All nights were the same for him. Alone on his balcony with a bottle of vodka in-hand.

Dimmed lights. Closed eyes. Dark thoughts.

"I really wanted to die. I really wanted to end my life," he admitted. "I would sit on my balcony drinking and hoping that I'd just fall. I'd sit on the edge and rock my chair and continue to drink. That was rock bottom for me." Sometimes he'd fall asleep on his chair. Sometimes he'd manage to crawl to his bed but the thoughts of hurting himself were never far away.

"I tried everything. I self-medicated with prescription drugs, with alcohol, with women and it didn't make me feel better. Nothing worked. I had a good time but five minutes after, I still felt empty." Tony Dela Cruz

One night after Barangay Ginebra played in the main event Dela Cruz decided to go to a nearby coffee shop instead of sitting in traffic.

"Back then I would sit in a coffee shop and stay on one of those corners," he pointed. "Because I didn't want to be alone and I didn't exactly want to be out with other people, I'd just be sitting there, drinking tea, fantasizing about death."

"You know when the security guard comes in to get the money from the coffee shop? I'd think all I have to do is get up and try to grab that money and they'd shoot me. Or when I was walking to practice from a coffee shop, I'd walk on the sidewalk and imagine jumping in front of a speeding car and it will be all over."

Inside the four lines of a basketball court was where Dela Cruz could find solace from his thoughts. In there, he'd get to empty his mind of everything. There's a play that needed to run. There's a role that needed to be filled. Dela Cruz was focused on a goal. He was focused on winning a championship and, at least for a time, it kept him centered. Maybe winning another PBA title would wash it all away.

When he was not engulfed by basketball, Dela Cruz did his best to cope.

"One of the things I did back then was to buy things I really did not need. I thought that if I just bought this TV or this gadget, I'd be happy. Well, the second I was buying it I was happy but the minute after I'd realize that I felt exactly the same as before," Dela Cruz said.

He'd often get enticed to upgrade to a new vehicle even if it meant he'd be losing money by selling his perfectly-functioning current one. When this didn't work, he looked toward other means.

"I tried everything," he said. "I self-medicated with prescription drugs, with alcohol, with women and it didn't make me feel better. Nothing worked. I had a good time but five minutes after, I still felt empty. I even became so narcissistic about working out. I measured what I ate. I may have looked like I had a good physique but I felt like crap still. I didn't know how to deal with all the insecurities I had so I made the wrong choices, the worst of which was cheating on my wife. When I did that, it did not make me any happier and it ruined my family."

Alaska swept Barangay Ginebra in the Commissioner's Cup Finals, 3-0, to win the 14th title for the storied franchise. Dela Cruz got the moment he wanted but not the catharsis he thought it would bring.

"We just won a championship so people knew my name and were asking for autographs and pictures and my Instagram was blowing up," Dela Cruz recalled. "Honestly, that championship was one of the best moments of my career but it also coincided with the worst stretch I had in my entire life."

The balloons were still falling inside the Smart-Araneta Coliseum in front of 23,436 fans when Dela Cruz's jubilation quickly turned into grief and worry.

"Five minutes into our celebration, all I can think of was that I didn't want to go home. I didn't want to be alone. I was scared to be alone. I wish that moment went on forever but I knew it was going to end and I was afraid of confronting what was next."

Pushed to the edge

A part of the spoils that Dela Cruz and the team got to enjoy was a trip to the United States. It was on what was supposed to be a joyous moment when Dela Cruz almost pushed himself over the edge.

Dela Cruz was enjoying dinner with his wife and the rest of his teammates when his means of escape in the Philippines slammed into his reality in the States.

It shook him so badly that he feigned a headache so he could step out. After opening the restaurant door, he ran. He did not have direction, both in that moment and in his life, so he just kept going.

Out of breath, he stopped and, past a small fence, saw what was below.

"I was going to jump. 'Sorry family. Sorry Alaska.' I was not going to leave a letter or an explanation. I just wanted everything to go away."

Dela Cruz says what stopped him was a text message from a friend, a person he had not heard from for a few weeks. The message reminded him that he mattered so he walked back to the restaurant to confront the life from which he had sought escape.

"At that point, I realized that if I truly loved my kids, I needed to seek help," he admitted and it took all the strength he had to open up to someone only to be ridiculed.

"I reached out to a couple of friends and I didn't like the initial backlash that I received because they just asked me to suck it up, toughen up. With that kind of mentality, it threw me off," he said but it did not stop him from trying again with other people.

"There was not enough education back then about mental health issues and I think it also comes with the culture of athletics. You always need to be tougher. You don't cry. You don't feel bad. It's always play through it. Play through the pain. You're not allowed to have emotions because you're a man so I felt ashamed.

"Then I found good support. I found empathy. Those were the people who helped connect me to professionals and that's when I started talking to people to explore my feelings. I've had conversations with people where I would cry and they did not think I was being weird. They encouraged me to open up more."

The conversations certainly helped Dela Cruz process his feelings, but a psychiatrist thought that the thoughts of hurting himself needed to be addressed with a different method.

"They put me on medication but it wasn't easy either. Some days I'd be lethargic so I'd be given a different pill. We'd try another one and I'd be super hyper. We finally found one that helped me get rid of the feeling that I needed to hurt myself but the side effect for me was that I could not feel anything anymore," he rued.

"At first it was great because I stopped crying but then I realized I was also not laughing. I had no emotions. I did not want to live the rest of my life like that. I was on medication for nine months but I had to stop because I didn't feel anything towards anyone. I stopped taking it and I was nervous at first but I found meditation and yoga. It helped me center myself."

Knowing that he needed help was the most important realization for Dela Cruz but he also needed to have the patience to accept that solutions differ from person to person. One thing that might have worked for someone else might not be a fit for him so it's a constant process of searching for answers.

'It does not mean you are weak'

Dela Cruz's message for those who might be feeling the same is that it's OK.

"As athletes, we're all hurting because of the pressure we face on a regular basis. We have to accept that it's OK for us to have emotions. As a man, we're only allowed two emotions that are accepted in society: anger and happiness. We're not allowed to feel sad because people see it as a weakness," he opined.

"If you sprained your ankle and you don't let it heal and you keep using it, something else is going to hurt. Maybe it's your calf or knee or hip or back. That's the same thing in your mind. The more you suppress trauma, the more it's going to come out in different ways. There's nothing wrong with getting help mentally. It does not mean you are weak. In my opinion, it actually means you are strong because you're strong enough to admit you need help."

Slowly, Dela Cruz started getting better. Although it was not easy as he went through an ugly divorce with his wife that also ended up straining his relationship with his kids. Through all that he came out the other side better.

And for him, "better" meant something as simple as being strong enough to be left alone with his thoughts. Dela Cruz got better for himself, and in the process, became someone who could support others.

The challenges in his mind did not stop after he started facing his struggles. Every time he'd take a step forward, life would knock him down as if to test if he was strong enough.

"When my girlfriend got cancer, she kept on asking 'why?'" he said. "For me, you'll never answer that question. You'll never figure it out. The question you should ask is 'how and what can we do to overcome this?'

"What I went through, maybe I needed to get through that to prepare me for this. In my darkest moments, I just knew I needed to keep going. With my girlfriend being sick, that's the lesson I bring to the table. I hate the idea of someone going through something so horrific but all human being will experience pain and suffering and loss. No one is immune to it so what defines you as a person is how you can overcome it."

The treatment for cancer is a grueling process. Radiation. Chemotherapy. Tests after tests.

The old Dela Cruz would have cracked or shut down. What life taught him was to keep going; that there's always a reason to keep moving forward. Even though life can be mean, even if the skies fall over, the joy of overcoming hardships is always worth the grind.

"Cancer causes you to live in fear and I don't want to live my life in fear," Dela Cruz said. "Let's live for today. Be present right now. Find joy in the little things. When tomorrow comes, it will come." The days of needing new gadgets or cars just to feel a little bit better are long gone for Dela Cruz. Instead, he now goes around on a motorcycle because it is cheaper and faster. When he got rid of all the stuff, he found what was truly important to him.

"I want to be a champion for people who are struggling, who'll tell them to pick themselves up and keep going. It's OK to feel bad but it's not OK to stay there," he said. "I felt like I lost my soul during that time and now I'm trying to regain it by doing what's right by me, what's right by others. Treat people with respect. Be kind. Invest in personal relationships. Make time for friends and family.

"What's going to define you is not how hard or how far you fall but how you pick yourself up after you've hit rock bottom."