Lee Davy sits down with the three-time World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet winner, Dutch Boyd, to talk about his past struggles with bipolar disorder.
Before I came to Vegas I didn’t know Dutch Boyd. He was just another poker character and if you were to ask me to describe him I would have said that he was a mental bandana-wearing pirate.
Mental bandana wearing pirate.
Where did I get that?
Like everybody else in the world I thin slice by consuming the thoughts, views and opinions of everyone else and then make an assumption. It’s one of the most damaging things about our society, but equally an important part of how we function in society.
But now I do feel like I know him.
So what’s changed?
I read his book Poker Tilt.
A piece of literature that is the blood, guts, entrails, cells and heart of Dutch Boyd.
I no longer think he is a bandana-wearing pirate.
He’s an ambitious risk-taker, who fell in love with poker, made some wrong choices, fucked up a few times, won three World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets, and now takes each day as it comes.
But is he mental?
“I don’t know. I haven’t had an issue with bipolar for six-years now. I haven’t been on any sort of medication. As soon as I stopped doing drugs and cut out that unhealthy part of my life, the bipolar just seemed to disappear. Sometimes I am frightened it will come back and sometimes I think it’s creeping up on me.
“A lot of people may be listening to this thinking Dutch is doing fine without his medication so I will stop and I wouldn’t recommend that. I would say that if you are bipolar and you are doing drugs to self medicate then it’s not a good idea. There was definitely a strong link for me, personally, between my battles with mental illness and drugs. If you remove the drugs do I still have it? Probably. I feel it coming on every now and then and know if I don’t get some sleep, remove myself from stimulation or if I let myself stay up for another 24 hours—I am going to end up in another mental hospital.”
Reading the book it seemed to me that the bipolar episodes were all related to stress.
“I think that’s about right. I have done a fair amount of research into bipolar and a lot of times it is caused by a big stressful incident that happened in your life and then it just kind of recurs. For most people who suffer from it, and are not on medication, it will keep on recurring and this is what happened for me.
“I was in and out of mental hospitals for seven years. I would be in and out at least once a year, usually twice. It was a cycle where I would take these drugs and the doctors would tell me that if I didn’t take them, I would end up right back in there. The mood stabilizers, the anti-psychotics, they all have side effects themselves. They dumb you down, blimp you out and you don’t think like yourself because you are not. It’s because you are changing your brain chemistry. It’s the same if you get drunk, snort a line of cocaine or smoke some weed, you are changing your brain’s chemistry and it’s kind of the same.”
I guess people reach out to the experts because they are scared. Then they take whatever medication they are prescribed, and in your case, you just needed to stop taking on the street drugs.
“It was a huge thing. There were other stresses in my life that I was able to control. A lot of it had to do with Michelle too. She keeps on top of me and makes sure I sleep and keep on top of stressful situations.
“People want to have a cure for things, but there is a conflict in the medical profession. It doesn’t pay to cure a mental illness it pays to treat the mental illness. I think you really see that in mental disorders more than physical disorders. At least with physical disorders you can pin down what the problem is but with mental disorders it’s more difficult to define. Every few years they come up with a new edition of the DSM. I think we are on DSM five now, they completely change what a disorder is. Bipolar used to be called manic depression and before that I think it was called lunacy?
“They are trying to come up with a science to it, but it’s very much an art right now. The human brain is such a mystery. We don’t know why we do the things we do, or if we even control what we do? For me, suffering from it, I don’t know if it was just the drugs…I don’t think it was, but I don’t think they helped. As you get older you stabilize and get settled and you recognize those things that trigger manic episodes and you stay away from them. It’s like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where you see the exit ramp coming and you just get in the other lane.”
People take drugs to either party or because they are trying to escape from some sort of stress. What were the biggest stresses for you during your bipolar episodes?
“When I look back and think about it, the biggest stress that triggered my bipolar was the public failure of PokerSpot and the public backlash that came from that. That was incredibly stressful. When I talk about recognizing stress levels, and keeping away from what creates stress, part of that is not paying attention to what’s out there in forums and blogs, and trying to focus on what I can control, and not so much what public perception is, or what their reactions are to what I am doing.”
But we all care what people think about us right?
“It’s very much ingrained in us. Shame is part of what we have evolved into. It’s useful but not necessarily healthy.”
Did the pressure come because you felt you had let a lot of people down, or just let yourself down?
“It was such a public failure. We had such high hopes that it was going to be a huge success. Online gambling made several billionaires and we were in that same era. We didn’t hide ourselves. We put our names out there and interacted with the customers as we were. Perhaps looking back that was perhaps a bad idea. Most of these sites, that have come and gone, weren’t as public as we were. Look at Full Tilt. They are a prime example of being up front about who they were, and look what happened to them. Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer don’t even play poker anymore because they are scared of turning up.
“The biggest stress was reading this…almost…hatred. It went well beyond dislike…it was like string him up! It’s easy if you are in an anonymous situation to say vicious things because you don’t have to take accountability for it. In 12-years of poker I have never had anybody come up to me and say even some of the tamer things I have seen written about me on forums.”
When I was a kid it was a terrible thing to be called mental. How did it affect you growing up?
“I don’t know…I really don’t know. I am sure it did affect me but I am not sure about all the negative ramifications that stigma has probably caused? I am sure if you look at opportunities missed, relationships missed…when you Google someone’s name and it comes up that they are mental, I am not sure how it affects them, but I’m sure it does.
“We are kind of in a spot where everything is so tattooed on you now. Everything you do is written in stone. It used to be the case where you could mess up and ruin your reputation in one spot, start over and no one would be any the wiser. It’s not like that anymore.
“I tried to let people know what it’s like to go through manic episodes, and I hope I did a good job. Another problem with the illness is when you are going through it it’s pretty awesome. For everyone around you it’s horrible and a pain in the arse. But when you are going through it you are on top of the world. There is this incredible buzz when you think you are connected with everything and everything is going to work out.
“You get pretty crazy, but you are having a really good time doing it. Mania is a happy high feeling and it does get darkly psychotic, but even then it’s like a crazy powerful, almost drug like experience. One of the problems with the illness is people miss that, and I am kind of in that spot. You almost miss that mania. You think everything is connected and everything is going the right way. You end up doing some pretty crazy and embarrassing things, and when you come down and see the wreckage then it becomes embarrassing. But you miss it. You miss the high.”
Does it make you feel boring now that you don’t have those manic episodes?
“It takes while to get used to who you are, and to realize that you are not more interesting when you are drunk – you just think you are. Things are not more interesting when you are stoned out of your mind – you are just messing with brain chemistry. There is an objective reality; a truth, and you get drunk, stoned or let yourself go off the deep end into mental illness you miss it. I am not saying you can see this when you are sober, or sane, but you are closer to it…I think.”
Was it challenging for you to go through these episodes of your life when writing the book?
“At the time you are going through the episodes it’s great. But when you are confined to four point restraints in a mental hospital, or in a concrete cell in the middle of Antigua, those are the down points. That’s the come down. The worst. When you are sitting there, getting messages from the universe through the radio, that’s pretty fun. Going back and going through it was hard; because of the stigma of mental illness I did think I was exposing myself. I didn’t want people to say they didn’t want anything to do with me because I was crazy. That’s the stigma. There was also the embarrassment, but it was also therapeutic.”
The manic episodes, as dark as they were, had me in fits of belly laughter the likes of which I have not had in a long time.
“When I hear it I think it’s funny too. It’s been 10 years and they say tragedy plus time equals comedy. Writing this book, there was lot of tragedy and lot of dark points but when you are writing afterwards and remembering it’s definitely something better remembered and written about than experienced.”
Most stories have some sort of happy ending. I couldn’t figure out what yours was – or what it will be?
“There is no happy ending in life. There isn’t. There is just an ending. My life is going and when it ends it isn’t going to be happy. It will be just like everybody else’s ending.
“If I wanted a happy ending for the book it would have been when I beat Hachem for the bracelet. I would have held it up and it would have been… the end. But that’s not how life is. You have these ups and downs and it never ends on an up or a down; it just keeps on moving and you have to keep adjusting and keep making the right moves.
“I feel like there is a little bit of dishonesty when you try and wrap everything up as a happy or tragic ending. Life is just not like that.”