For Trenni Kusnierek, it’s a must to keep mental health dialogue open
There’s a lot to Trenni Kusnierek you don’t see on television. An on-air fixture at Comcast Sportsnet New England, the ever-cheerful reporter/anchor has climbed Mount Rainier, raced in marathons, and last year joined a Southie boxing club. She also likes to cross-train, begins each day with meditation, and has designs on spending her 40th birthday next April on an African safari, or maybe exploring the Middle East.
“I am drawn to Eastern religions and cultures,’’ she said during a recent break at CSNNE’s Burlington studios, excited over the prospect of a trip to Jordan to learn firsthand about the lives of Muslim women. “Now, my sister says, ‘Why do you always want to go to places where they bomb people?!’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I like to be where the most interesting people are.’ ’’
As for the woman you do see on television, there is little change off camera. Kusnierek, who grew up in suburban Milwaukee and graduated from Marquette, is bright, engaging, brimming with opinions. She is intellectually curious and delightfully wired. Her persona is exactly the same on both sides of the lens, rare in a medium so often as deceptive as it is seductive.
Yet there is also something different and all too common about Kusnierek. For the past 15 years, she has dealt with sometimes debilitating mental health issues in the form of chronic depression and anxiety. May is Mental Health Month in America, where some 15 million people are estimated to suffer from depression. Worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, that number is around 350 million.
So Kusnierek is hardly alone in her struggle, a fact often difficult for everyone, be they healthy or otherwise, to understand. This is the 77th year of Mental Health Month in America, and mental illness remains an awkward, frequently inhibiting discussion.
What separates Kusnierek is her willingness to talk about it, openly and intelligently and optimistically. She’ll tell you something’s not right in her head.
“My anxiety never goes away,’’ she said. “I also have depressive episodes sometimes, particularly in the winter. As I’ve gotten older, my anxiety’s actually gotten worse.’’
She says that with a smile. Not that she finds any of it comical or encouraging. Most of all, she said, it is exhausting. But she has come to accept that anxiety is simply her state of things, her existence. In a business so fixated on appearance and image, especially so for a woman, she decided four years ago she wouldn’t live a life reaching for a makeup kit to powder over her psychological challenges. The suicide of former NFL great Junior Seau proved her call to action.
“I’d only met Junior once or twice, and only in those brief stick-a-mic-into-the-interview setting,’’ she recalled. “But for whatever reason, I think maybe because he was a player I’d watched growing up . . . I’d seen him play, and he was a relative age to me. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this person felt so terrible and he was so in the depth of his disease that he died from it.’ And we don’t talk about it.’’
About the same time, just weeks before she arrived at Comcast in September 2012, a lengthy profile on Kusnierek was about to run in her hometown “Milwaukee Magazine.” The story’s deadline approaching, she dialed the author in hopes to add something.
“Do you mind if we talk about my depression?’’ she asked. “I think people should know that they are not alone.’’
She has kept up the conversation, sometimes with a price, always with questions in the back of her head. She can’t help but wonder if being so open one day might impede her career path. Will it influence peers, viewers, work relationships? In the ever-expanding world of social media and instant connectedness, it also attracts its trolls.
“People are mean online,” she noted. “For a long time, no one used it against me. But I’d say in the last year or two, mostly on Twitter, or people in comments sections, oh, I’ve read, ‘She didn’t take her antidepressant today.’ Or, ‘Why don’t you take your crazy pills. Be careful, she’s nuts. She’s actually crazy.’
“And you think, ‘Really . . . now this? . . . this is something they are going to use against me?’ ’’
Sports journalism is not an easy business, not when it’s done fairly, accurately, professionally. It is particularly difficult for women, whose arrival in press boxes and sidelines didn’t occur until the 1970s. Those who stay on the job must have talent, passion, courage, exactly the same attributes as men, albeit in an industry where the men, including the consumers, mince them apart for the color of their hair, their body shape, their wrinkles, the date on their birth certificate, their sex.
Kusnierek began her broadcast career almost immediately out of college in 1999. For the last four years, she has succeeded in one of the nation’s most competitive markets, and done it with the courage to talk about mental illness.
At her worst, she recalled, she holed up weeping in a friend’s closet, friends ultimately coaxing her back to a party. Living alone during a two-year stint as a major league baseball reporter (2008-10), she couldn’t summon the strength to leave her Manhattan apartment one weekend, opting to binge watch “Glee,’’ curtains drawn, unable to stop crying.
Such episodes, she said, have grown fewer. She hasn’t required antidepressants for a couple of years, and she sometimes uses medication to quell anxiety. Exercise is key. Talk therapy, once or twice a month, also is vital.
“It’s hard to articulate what it’s like in the deepest depths,’’ she said, happy that such episodes aren’t frequent. “But the best way I can explain it is you almost feel like you are separate from yourself. You don’t feel like you are physically inhabiting that space in the moment. That’s an awful feeling. No matter what anyone says to you in that moment, how much they love you, how great you are, that you have a great life . . . none of it, your brain cannot process it or register it.’’
Like anyone with such a struggle, Kusnierek wishes she could turn it all off, stop her racing brain, roll down the window on her drive home after work and have her anxiety waft into the night air.
“I’d do anything to be a super-chill hippie,” she said. “That would be my ideal life.’’
It is Mental Health Month in America, where Kusnierek reminds us all that some of our most vital conversations can be painful to start. There is no single face of mental illness. In America, there are millions of those faces, not many with her courage and conviction to add a voice.