DISCLAIMER: Northpoint Recovery applauds Johnny Manziel as he focuses on his mental health and continued sobriety. His is a good example of how ANYONE can recover, with the right professional help and support.
Once upon a time, Johnny Manziel led what seemed to be a charmed life.
Growing up in a small town in Texas, he achieved “folk hero” status for his gridiron accomplishments in high school. He won the Mr. Texas Football award and was even honored as a prep-level All-American.
His athletic success followed him to college. After receiving scholarship offers from numerous top-tier programs, Manziel chose to attend Texas A&M University. In his first season for the Aggies, Manziel set several college football offensive records and regularly made the highlight reel on SportsCenter. For his performance, he became the first college freshmen ever to win the prestigious Heisman, Davey O’Brien, and Manning awards.
And he had the swagger to match—he became known as “Johnny Football” and he would flash a “Money Manziel” hand sign after big plays. In College Station, he was athletic royalty, and he was everywhere on the national talk-show circuit.
When he decided to skip his final two years of college and enter the NFL draft, Manziel was considered a “can’t-miss” prospect. He was selected in the first round by the Cleveland Browns.
And then… everything fell apart.
Let’s examine the meteoric rise, catastrophic fall, and hopeful revival of an immense talent that was almost lost to mental illness and substance abuse.
The Red Zone: Troubling Warning Signs of a Problem
“I was so blackout drunk, I don’t remember what happened. Neither of us do. I woke up in a cell. Johnny was on the ground, losing his shit, throwing up all over himself. That’s why he isn’t wearing a shirt in the mug shot.”
~ Steven Brant, Manziel’s close friend who was also arrested during the 2012 incident
Looking back, there were several public red flags that pointed to substance abuse issues, even before Manziel turned pro.
- (High School): Manziel was arrested at a Walmart when a security guard smelled alcohol and called police.
- June 2012: Before he ever played in a college game, Manziel and Brant—both underage at the time—were arrested for a drunken fight.
- January 2013: After defeating Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, an underage Manziel was spotted drinking in a Dallas nightclub.
- June 2013: Michelle Manziel, Johnny’s mother, finds drug paraphernalia in his off-campus home in College Station. Among the drugs in use in the house he shared with Brant were marijuana, Xanax, Ecstasy, cocaine, and of course, alcohol.
- July 2013: Manziel is sent home from the prestigious Manning Passing Academy, where he was supposed to serve as a counselor, because he missed practice sessions and assigned meetings. Although he alternately claimed illness, dehydration, and oversleeping due to a dead phone, it has been reported that Manziel was actually hung-over from partying to hard the night before.
- July 2013: An ESPN article says Paul Manziel, Johnny’s father, thinks Johnny drinks to deal with stress and anger.
Why These Early Warning Signs Are Relevant
“Most addicts need to struggle for a long time before they can accept they have a problem; people who love addicts are no different. It may seem obvious to an outsider, but the situation is different when it involves you and someone you love and trust.”
~ Heather O’Hara, So You’re in Love with an Addict
Addictive disorders are not typically defined by a single incident. Rather, they are usually evidenced by a pattern of dysfunctional behaviors, negative consequences, and most significantly, continued substance use. In fact, one of the criteria for a medical diagnosis of a Substance Use Disorder is persistent drinking or drugging even when it causes problems in other areas of life.
This appears to have been the case with Johnny Manziel. Comparing what has been reported about his behaviors to what we know about the disease of addiction, we can draw parallels between his struggles and those of other alcoholics and drug addicts everywhere.
Even at this early stage, Manziel exhibited several classic traits of a person with a developing SUD:
- Exhibiting behaviors that worry friends and family members
- Problematic drinking/drug use
- Multi-substance use
- Possession of drug paraphernalia
- Unhealthy personal relationships
- Heightened stress
- Unresolved anger
- Poor coping skills
- A sense of entitlement
- Abandonment of obligations
- Illegal activity
Let’s take a closer look at each of these issues before we move on to how his problems worsened and affected his professional career.
Antisocial Behavior and Addiction
Like most people who eventually develop a SUD, Johnny Manziel frequently exhibited signs of antisocial behavior:
- Disobeying laws and acceptable social behavior
- Aggressive, hostile, or violent behavior
- Using charm for personal gain
- A failure to learn from or change problematic behaviors
- Associating with others who abuse substances
According to the Graduate Journal of Counseling Psychology, up to 90% of people with a diagnosable Antisocial Personality Disorder struggle with a co-occurring SUD.
The Hazards of Underage Drinking
Alcohol is the most frequently used – and abused – intoxicant among US youth. Annually, non-of-age drinkers consume 11% of all the alcohol drank in America. Of special concern, youths 12-20 tend to engage in unsafe drinking behaviors more frequently than adults. Those dangerous behaviors directly contribute to the 4700+ yearly alcohol-involved deaths among American youth.
That is more than all other illegal drugs combined.
- 2010: Underage drinking cost US society $24 BILLION.
- The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 1 in 5 Americans between the ages of 12 and 20 drink regularly.
- The 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey delves deeper, revealing that 1 in 3 high school students have used alcohol at least once.
- 10% of 8th-grade students have used alcohol within the past 30 days.
- Among 12th-graders, the rate jumps to 35%.
One of the most dangerous underage alcohol behaviors is to engage in binge drinking– consuming several drinks in one sitting – defined as 5 for men and 4 for women.
Binge drinking is hazardous for multiple reasons:
- Drunk driving— 8% of teens self-report driving after drinking, and another 20% admit to accepting a ride from someone else who had been drinking.
- Unsafe sexual activity – sexually-transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancy, HIV/AID, etc.
- Sexual assault – 80% of sexual assaults involve the use of alcohol by the victim, the assailant, or both
- Accidents—falls, fires, drownings, etc.
- Alcohol poisoning
How big is the problem of underage binge drinking?
Binge drinking is not a part-time teenage drinking habit. On the contrary, it is almost the ONLY way teens drink–90% of the alcohol they consume is via binge drinking.
- Per the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 18% of high school students have engaged in binge drinking within the past 30 days.
- 5% of 8th-grade teens and 17% of 12th-graders admit to binge-drinking within the last two weeks.
One of the biggest potential consequences of underage drinking is a greatly heightened risk of alcohol dependence or addiction. Young people who start drinking before they turn 15 are SIX TIMES more likely to develop an Alcohol Use Disorder at some point in life as those who wait until age 21 or older.
The Link between Substance Abuse and Violence
There is an established connection between excessive drinking and violence. Alcohol is involved in:
- 86% of homicides
- 42% of violent crimes reported to police
- 37% of assaults
Why might this be the case?
Alcohol disrupts normal brain function, thereby encouraging aggression and violence. It does this in several ways:
- Impairing the processes that regulate impulsive behaviors.
- Slowing information processing.
- Causing a person to misread social cues.
- Triggering an overreaction to perceived insults or threats.
- Reducing the drinker’s ability to accurately way the consequences of acting on violent impulses.
Interestingly, there is research that suggests that people expect alcohol to make them more violent. This expectation plays a prominent role in the incidence of alcohol-fueled male aggressiveness. This is why many people who are about to commit some violent act will often drink, in order to obtain some “liquid courage”.
There is also a commonly-held belief that people under the influence of alcohol are somehow less accountable for their actions than sober people.
How Hanging Out with the Wrong People Can Promote Substance Abuse
“We weren’t doing anything any other college kid doesn’t do.”
~ Steven Brant
Peer pressure is a major contributing factor to underage drinking and other risky behaviors. That is especially true for college freshmen. Because they are transitioning from living at home with their parents, underclassmen quickly learn to rely on their peers for support and guidance.
And, because it is those same peers who introduce and encourage alcohol use, most college students become conditioned to view binge drinking – and even recreational drug use – as a positive and socially-acceptable behavior. In fact, many students adopt the mindset that the overconsumption of alcohol and experimentation with drugs is an integral part of the “college experience”.
This is evidenced by the fact that nationally, over 45% of college freshmen meet the criteria for “heavy” drinking.
But when peers are promoting the “positive” aspects of drinking, young people are more likely to ignore the negative consequences of excessive alcohol use.
- For youths between the ages of 17 and 20, alcohol-related car crashes are the leading cause of death.
- Every year, approximately 400,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 report having unsafe sex because of drinking.
- One-fourth of those admit to being too drunk to remember if the sex was consensual.
But peer pressure goes beyond merely trying to fit in with the crowd. In fact, close friends exert an even stronger influence. In Johnny Manziel’s case, one of his best friends was also his roommate and ever-present drinking/party buddy, Steven Brant.
In this sort of interpersonal dynamic, hard-partying friends will always try to one-up each other. Manziel and Brant had a substance-fueled relationship largely characterized by drinking and drugging. Family friend Harley Hooper had this to say about Brant:
“Paul and Michelle (Johnny’s parents) took him in, but they didn’t really know what all was going on, because had they known, they wouldn’t have let him get so close to the family—I think that’s pretty clear. There’s no question Johnny and Steven were not good for each other.”
The Connection between Stress and Addiction
“…it could come unraveled. And when it does, it’s gonna be bad. Real bad. It’s one night away from the phone ringing and he’s in jail. And you know what he’s gonna say? ‘It’s better than all the pressure I’ve been under. This is better than that.’”
~ Paul Manziel, discussing the stress Johnny constantly faced
In some ways, Johnny Manziel was a victim of his own success. He was so good so young that his accomplishments started to become expected, rather than appreciated. On the field and off, he had to live up to the public image of “Johnny Football”, and the weight of those expectations was crushing him.
By all accounts alcohol was Manziel’s primary drug of choice, and this is relevant because a 2016 study found that extreme stress triggers cellular changes within the brain, making the person more vulnerable to substance abuse, especially problematic drinking.
Researchers with the University of Pennsylvania discovered that the brain’s reward center contains specific neurons that are responsible for controlling how much alcohol a person consumes. After experiencing acute stress, however, these neurons are “flipped”. Consequently, rather than reducing alcohol consumption, the stressed brain is fooled into rewarding continued drinking.
The chief theory posits that these neurons can turn on and off due to an evolved biological trait that allows humans to overcome physical injury or trauma faster.
This study suggests a possible biological explanation for why some people try to deal with overwhelming stress by “self-medicating” with drugs or alcohol. Too often, however, that attempt morphs into substance abuse, worsens to dependence, and eventually, manifests as full-blown addiction.
How Unresolved Anger Feeds Substance Abuse
“I don’t think he knows. If it comes from his drinking, or if he’s mad at himself for not being a better person when he fails, when he fails God and his mom and me. If it makes him angry that he’s got demons in him.”
~ Paul Manziel
An ESPN interview with Manziel’s parents revealed a young man who, while extraordinarily gifted, also struggled with anger issues. This would continue to be a recurring problem in his life.
This is not altogether surprising, because many substance abusers also struggle with another co-occurring conditions –intermittent explosive disorder. This chronic condition is characterized by a pattern of impulsive angry, aggressive or even violent outbursts that are completely out of proportion to the situation.
Of special relevance, these outbursts are not premeditated, and they do not seem to be aimed at achieving a tangible goal or reaching a solution to the problem at hand. Even minor annoyances can blow up and quickly escalate to incidents of road rage, property destruction, and physical altercations.
IED affects up to 16 million Americans.
There are physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms of IED:
- Accelerated pulse
- Temporary hearing impairment
- Reddening of the skin
- Muscle tightness
- Increased energy
- Racing thoughts
- Disproportionate annoyance or rage
- A feeling of being out of control
- Extreme fatigue following outbursts.
Risk factors for IED include:
- Untreated mental illness – depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder
- Alcohol and drug use – While substance abuse does not directly cause IED to develop, intoxicants DO lower a person’s anger threshold, while at the same time impairing judgment and increasing impulsivity.
Also, people who are struggling with IED may self-medicate in an attempt to calm down or relax. This may partly explain why people with IED are three times more likely to have a co-occurring SUD.
- Age – Most people with IED are under the age of 40.
- Education – IED is more common in people with a high school education or less.
ALL of these risk factors were present during Manziel’s high school and college years.
Drinking and Drugging as Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
“People engage in bad habits for functional reasons, not because of weak character or ignorance.”
~ Dr. James S. Jackson, Director, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan
One of the personality traits most commonly-found among people with addictive disorders is their propensity to use alcohol and drugs to cope with the stresses and the pressures of everyday life. And in Johnny Manziel’s case, those stresses were anything but ordinary.
From an early age – perhaps before he was mature enough to handle it – Manziel lived his life in the fast lane and largely in the public eye. Every move he made was held up to scrutiny from people he’d never met. He couldn’t just make mistakes like every young person does without his every misstep being subjected to analysis and judgment.
In that light, it’s not surprising that he needed a way to deal with the pressure.
A coping mechanism is anything that helps someone deal with the situation or problem that is emotionally difficult. Unfortunately, addictive substances only provide temporary benefits that are ultimately outweighed by long-term negative consequences:
- Poorer physical health –The World Health Organization has identified over 200 injury and disease conditions associated with excessive drinking.
- Worsened mental health –Substance use can exacerbate co-occurring mental conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, or depression. Regular drinking or drug use can also lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction.
- Relationship issues – arguments, breakups, domestic violence, separation, divorce, etc.
- Legal entanglements – DUI charges, Public Intoxication, assaults, fines, attorney’s fees
- Problems at school or work – poor performance, disciplinary action, absenteeism, suspension/expulsion, termination
Johnny Manziel suffered each of these consequences.
Narcissism and Substance Abuse
“There’s plenty of research that shows that people who have, say, narcissistic personality disorder…that they are more likely to turn to substances. If you do not trust that you can depend on people for love, for caring, connection, you’re going to have to soothe yourself some other way. You can soothe yourself with narcissism, you can soothe yourself with a drug addiction.”
~ Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism
It’s no secret that someone struggling SUD is frequently self-absorbed. Addicts and alcoholics tend to care only about satisfying their own needs and cravings. However, when carried to the extreme, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a separate disorder in its own right.
Significantly, 2 out of every 3 patients with NPD also struggle with co-occurring addiction.
Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder include:
- Compulsive seeking of approval and admiration
- Lack of empathy
- Willingness to insult/exploit others
- Low self-esteem
How Any of This Apply to Johnny Manziel?
“I’m gonna tell you. I said Johnny Manziel is … I don’t like his antics. I think he’s an arrogant little prick. I’ve said that, and I’ll say it again. He’s a privileged kid, he’s embarrassed himself, he’s embarrassed his teammates, his program. He’s embarrassed his coach.”
~ Barry Switzer, former NCAA and NFL Head Coach
While no official diagnosis has ever been announced, Manziel’s public behaviors and well-known battles with substance abuse do resemble some of the classic symptoms of NPD:
- He was arrogant—Reveling his image as “Johnny Football”
- He could be grandiose—The “Money Manziel” hand sign
- He was disrespectful to rivals—Flipping the middle finger towards the Washington Redskins
- He acted entitled to special treatment—Sending out an angry Tweet after receiving a parking ticket
- He battled depression—Citing it as the reason for his NFL downfall
- He was impulsive—Missing important meetings due to partying
- He lacked empathy—A reputation of not caring what anyone else thought or felt
- He craved attention—Making dozens of media and talk show appearances
In retrospect, so many of Manziel’s antics were of the “Look at me!” variety that he ended up getting our attention for the wrong reasons.
How Narcissists Justify Their Addiction
“Narcissists maintain the grandiose view that they are in control of the addiction and can quit and they want to. They feel they are exempt from conventional laws regarding the use of illicit substances, as well as immune to the natural laws of damaging effects on the body.”
~ Barbara Leff and Cynthia Lechan Goodman, The Everything Guide to Narcissistic Personality Disorder
When confronted about their behaviors, addicts will often respond in ways that highlight their narcissism:
- “What about ME? I want… I need…” (Self-obsession)
- “I can to do whatever I want.” (Arrogance)
- “I’m too smart to get hooked.” (Grandiosity)
- “I can stop any time I want.” (Overconfidence)
- “Tell me you love me… Show me… Prove it…” (Need for approval)
- “I don’t care what you think…” (Lack of empathy)
- “I DESERVE to blow off steam.” (Entitlement)
- “Can you cover for me?” (Willingness to exploit)
- “I don’t know what came over me.” (Impulsivity)
- “I hate myself.” (Low self-esteem)
- “Why bother? No one can help me.” (Depression)
Concerned Loved Ones
“He’s a druggie. It’s not a secret that he’s a druggie. Hopefully, he doesn’t die before he comes to his senses. I mean, I hate to say it, but I hope he goes to jail. I mean, that would be the best place for him. I’m doing my job, and I’m going to move on. If I have to bury him, I’ll bury him.”
~ Paul Manziel
Addiction is a lonely, isolating disease that, even as it separates the substance abuser emotionally from their family, still manages to affect those closest to them. Family members and close friends often see the signs of a problem long before the addict or alcoholic does.
That is why one of the biggest red flags of out-of-control substance abuse is the concern of those closest to the problem.
In Johnny Manziel’s case, he had at least three people within his “inner circle” who expressed concerns:
- Nate Fitch, a close friend, said, “The path that he is on is not one that really gets better by itself.”
- After finding drug paraphernalia is her son’s college home, Michelle Manziel immediately had all of Johnny’s belongings moved out.
- Paul Manziel was quoted as being virtually ready to give up on his son, saying, “I had him in rehab and he escaped and doctors let him go and that is a whole other story… We’ve done everything that we can do. Life goes on. You can’t just chase someone that’s not willing to listen.”
- After one of Manziel’s numerous run-ins with the law, his attorney, Bob Hinton, accidentally tweeted, “Heaven help us if one of the (plea) conditions is to pee in a bottle.”
Denial Feeds the Disease
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me going out and having a nightlife and having a social life.”
~ Johnny Manziel, who had a reputation for missing team events
Denial is a major barrier that keeps addiction alive.
When someone with SUD is unable or unwilling to accept the reality of their illness, that denial can completely sabotage their chances for successful recovery.
Denial may manifest as:
Rationalization – The person makes up excuses to give themselves permission to drink or use.
Diversion, or “Blaming” —The person avoids accepting personal responsibility and tries to shift the focus onto another person.
Minimization – The person downplays the extent of their problem.
Hostility – The person uses anger to create distance between themselves and others who might try to intervene.
Self-Delusion – The person lies to THEMSELVES, so they can ignore the harm their actions have caused.
In their book, Recovery: A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics, Herbert Gravitz and Julie Bowden wrote, “Alcoholism is a devastating, potentially fatal disease. The primary symptom of having it is telling everyone – including yourself – that you are not an alcoholic.”
Denial is why the First Step of Recovery is so important—the person MUST admit they have a problem that is impacting their life before they can truly begin to move forward.
A Chaotic Pro Career
“I understand that will take time and will only happen through what I do and not what I say…anyone who has a friend or family-member that’s been through things like this knows it’s an ongoing process.”
~ Johnny Manziel, after leaving rehab
Prior to the NFL draft, some analysts called him a “rare competitor”, but others labeled him “undraftable”. Once touted as a Top 5 prospect, Manziel was passed over by 21 of the 32 NFL teams before the Browns took a gamble.
A timeline shows how tumultuous Manziel’s tenure with the Browns really was:
- May 8, 2014: Manziel is drafted 22nd.
- May 24-25: Photos of Manziel partying in Las Vegas surface.
- June 6: A photo of a drunken Manziel floating on an inflatable swan hit the Internet.
- June 27: Manziel infamously says, “I’m not going to change for anybody.”
- July 4: A picture circulates showing Manziel rolling up a $20 bill in a Las Vegas restroom.
- July 25: The Browns report they are “alarmed” by Manziel’s behavior.
- August 18: Manziel flips the bird to the Washington Redskins’ bench.
- November 22nd: Manziel is involved in a fight in downtown Cleveland. The Browns’ General Manager calls the incident “concerning”.
- December 23: While he’s sidelined with an injury, Manziel’s tweets reveal he knows he needs to change his ways.
- December 26: Manziel throws a party. The following day, he is fined by his team for being late for treatment on his injured hamstring.
- January 3-4: Manziel flips off hecklers at a Houston nightclub. The hecklers respond by throwing drinks at him.
- January 28: Manziel enters rehab for undisclosed reasons. His advisor said, “Johnny knows there are areas he needs to improve on to help him be a better family member, friend, and teammate, so he decided to take this step in his life during the offseason.”
- February 11: Jimmy Haslam, the Browns’ owner, says that he wasn’t aware of Manziel’s personal issues when the team drafted him.
- April 1: ESPN reports that the Browns are “90% done” with Manziel.
- April 11: Manziel completes rehab.
- May 30: Manziel throws a water bottle a fan following a verbal altercation.
- October 12: Manziel is pulled over after driving recklessly during a fight with his girlfriend. Both had been drinking.
- November 23: During his team’s bye week, a video of Manziel partying surfaces. Allegedly, he had asked a friend to lie about the video. Manziel, who had been named the starter just a week prior, is subsequently demoted to the third-string.
From “Can’t Miss” to Out of the NFL
“Johnny’s continual involvement in incidents that run counter to those expectations undermines the hard work of his teammates and the reputation of our organization… His status with our team will be addressed when permitted by league rules. We will have no further comment at this time.”
~ The Cleveland Browns
While Manziel’s on-the-field talent was never an issue, his lack of work ethic and multiple off-the-field incidents were. And the even bigger problem was that most of Manziel’s unacceptable behaviors seemed to be related to his hard-partying lifestyle.
His issues continued from the end of 2015 through 2016.
- December 30: Manziel shows up to practice “disheveled and inebriated”.
- January 2, 2016: Having sat out the week with “concussion-like” symptoms, Manziel is seen partying at a Las Vegas club the night before the Browns final game. The next day, he failed to report to the team medic as required.
- January 4: Sports Illustrated reports the Browns are “so done with Manziel”.
- January 6: Manziel is dropped by his marketing agency.
- January 30: Manziel allegedly assaults his then-girlfriend, Colleen Crowley, threatening to kill them both.
- February 5: A criminal investigation of domestic violence is opened.
- February 5: Manziel’s agent announces that he will no longer be representing him.
- March 11: The Browns release Manziel.
- April 19: Powerhouse agent Drew Rosenhaus fires Manziel as a client, the first time he has ever done so in his 27-year career.
- April 19: Nike terminates its endorsement deal with Manziel.
- June 4: After allegedly throwing drug-and-alcohol-fueled parties in his rental home, Manziel is sued for “extensive damage” to the property.
- June 24: Attorney Hinton reveals that he has a receipt showing that Manziel spent approximately $1000 in a drug paraphernalia store.
- June 30: For violating the league’s substance abuse policy, Manziel is suspended for the first four games of the upcoming 2016 season.
To date, Manziel has not played another down in the NFL.
Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence
“IPV is the leading cause of female homicides and injury-related deaths during pregnancy, and accounts for significant preventable injuries and ED visits by women.”
~ Intimate Partner Violence and Healthy People 2010 Fact Sheet
The domestic violence charge was the most serious allegation thus far in Manziel’s life. But he isn’t alone in his substance-fueled tendencies. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine:
- Up to 60% of Intimate Partner Violence incidents involve alcohol or drugs.
- On days of heavy substance use by batterers and/or victims, the risk of IPV is 11 times greater than when no substances were used.
- Most IPV occurs within two hours of substance use.
Hitting Rock Bottom
“I got so low to the point where I questioned what I was doing and if my life was probably really worth living to a point anymore and got really down and really had to sit and reflect and look on what I was doing every day.”
~ Johnny Manziel
Arrests… fines… scandal… violence… demotion… loss of endorsements… being kicked out of the NFL.
Despite everything that had happened to Manziel because of his behavior and substance abuse, what really convinced him to turn his life around hit a lot closer to home: his mother’s tearful words. Manziel recounts what got to him:
“My mom came to me one day and asked me — she didn’t really ask, she was just in tears — ‘What are you doing with your life? Why do I have to go around and get this secondhand of words and conversations of the negative things you’re doing around the world that’s coming back to me?’
And I saw how bad that it broke her heart, and it sucked. And it really hit home.”
Interventions by family members—whether formal or not—are an extremely effective way to convince someone to get help for addictive and mental health disorders. Up to 83% of interventions are successful at convincing someone to seek professional treatment.
New People = New Life
“You learn about how close you are with a lot of people around you. I learned how close I was to my family and with my friends, and who really were my friends and who was just hanging around because it was fun to hang around.”
~ Johnny Manziel
At the height of his popularity, Manziel was surrounded by his own posse—people who were just there for the party or to enable his dysfunctional behaviors. But after he was out of the league, he slowly started to work on his life.
In late 2016, Manziel started seeing actress Brie Tiesi, and things clicked. Three months later, they were engaged, and they married in March 2018. Tiesi was never overawed by Manziel’s fame, something that he wasn’t accustomed to. She became a no-nonsense stabilizing presence for in his life.
Tiesi says, “I’m one of those no-(expletive), straight-to-it people. He was not used to that. He has been put on this pedestal and certain people were scared to say things to him, whether they agreed or not. He is who he is, and nobody ever wanted to overstep their boundaries. I didn’t really care. I think that was why we connected.”
In this respect, Manziel’s sober journey follows that of so many others. Successful recovery requires extensive lifestyle changes. In fact, one of the first lessons learned in recovery is how to avoid the emotions, thoughts, places, things, and PEOPLE associated with past substance use.
In moving away from enabling sycophants to someone who is willing to tell him the truth even when it was uncomfortable, Manziel gave himself perhaps his best chance for successful and lasting recovery.
Bipolar Disorder: The Diagnosis That Made a Difference
“That’s the scary thing about my mental health: If I don’t continuously take care of it and make it the biggest priority in my life, I’m going to struggle. That’s hard to say. You’re making mental health a priority over your job? Well, there is no job without my mental health. There is no life and there is no family for me without my head.”
~ Johnny Manziel
For example, it was Tiesi who noticed that Manziel’s behavior might be caused by an underlying mental illness. She convinced him to get help, even going so far as to book appointments with psychiatrists. In early 2017, Manziel was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Suddenly, so much made sense.
The unbridled, non-stop energy. The impulsiveness. The need to need to be constantly “ON”. These are symptoms of the manic phase of BPD.
The irritability. The anger. The neglect of responsibilities and obligations. These are symptoms of the depressive phase of BPD.
And through it all, alcohol and drugs to ease the emotionally-painful symptoms.
In a February 2018 interview, Manziel explained, saying, “I was self-medicating with alcohol. That’s what I thought would make me happy and get out of that depression. When I would wake up the next day after a night like that, going on a trip like that, and you wake up the next day and that is all gone, that liquid courage, or that liquid … sense of euphoria that is over you, is all gone.
“You are left staring at the ceiling by yourself, and in that depression and back in that hole, that dark hole of sitting in a room by yourself, super depressed, thinking about all the mistakes you made in your life.”
Bipolar Disorder and Addiction
“The biggest problem alcohol use poses for people with bipolar is how it interacts with moods.”
~ Dr. Henry R. Kranzler, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Director of the Center for Studies of Addiction, University of Pennsylvania
In retrospect, this is extremely significant, because up to 60% of patients with bipolar disorder also abuse alcohol or drugs at some point.
The highs and lows that characterize BPD makes life hellish for sufferers. When UP, they are energetic and creative, but they also struggle with poor impulse control, sleep disturbances, and a propensity for risky behaviors. And when DOWN, they lose the ability to feel pleasure. They quickly lose motivation and interest in everything they formerly enjoyed—social interaction, hobbies, or priorities.
Many patients try to contain their BPD symptoms with drug and/or alcohol use:
- “Dial down” mania
- Reduce emotional pain
- Feel more “normal”
But substance abuse actually WORSENS the symptoms of BPD.
- Marijuana triggers manic episodes
- Stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine produce highs and crashes that resemble BPD.
- Depressants such as opioids, on the other hand, deepen depression.
In other words, anyone trying to self-medicate will only make their bipolar worse, just like Johnny Manziel.
4th Down and Life to Go: A Second Chance for Manziel?
“I started taking a look at my mental health a little bit and making it a priority in my life to where I’m taking medication for bipolar and I’m working to try and make sure that I don’t fall back into any type of depression because that leads me… I know how slippery of a slope that is.”
~ Johnny Manziel
Today, Manziel seems to be headed in the right direction. He’s saying and doing the right things and is even attempting to resurrect his professional football career. And even though he’s sitting on the bench in the Canadian Football League instead of starting for an NFL team, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
First and foremost, Manziel is aware—perhaps for the first time in his life—of his own mental health. He has stopped drinking, he takes his medication, and he even has his wife to keep him in check. Today, when he veers too far from center, she is there to give him a gentle nudge.
And even his ego is in check. While his stated goal is an eventual return to the NFL, he has earned high marks as a backup from June Jones, the head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Jones says, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised the last three weeks what a good teammate he is, how smart he is, how he sees the game. He should be playing in the National Football League, and I believe he will when he gets through with us.”
For his part, Manziel seems to have learned acceptance, saying, “At the end of the day, I can’t help that my wires are a little bit differently crossed than yours. I can’t help my mental makeup or the way that I was created.”
What Can We Learn from the Struggles of Johnny Manziel?
The biggest takeaway from the cautionary tale of Johnny Manziel is that ANYONE can struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues. Talent…wealth…fame…achievement…NONE of these matter to the disease of addiction.
Next, Manziel’s story shows how undiagnosed mental illness can sabotage a person’s life. Not only can it make everyday functioning difficult, it can also quickly wipe out what took years to build.
Finally, we learn that real recovery IS possible, with the right state of mind, professional help, approved medications, and personal support system. Now that he has all four, it’s a lot easier to believe that maybe this time, things really will be different.
Despite a lifetime’s worth of achievements and disappointments, Johnny Manziel is only 25 years old, so there is no reason to believe that he can’t succeed in turning his life around. And when that happens, we’ll all be waiting to cheer him on.
After all, who doesn’t want to root for a young man named, “Johnny Football”?