Ellsworth Tennis Center

Chris Angell
(11/8/1972 - 4/26/2012)

In Memory of Maine’s Best Tennis Player

Shortly after Chris died in a failed suicide attempt (April 2012), the Bangor Daily News ran an article about him.  While the article was, on balance, accurate and very complimentary to Chris, it made one error—it reported that Chris’ death was the result of his mental illness. In actuality, the proximate cause of Chris’ tragic death was the medical delivery system—not his mental illness.

While it may seem like hair-splitting, the distinction is important to me because my family and I loved Chris. Since he came into our lives six years ago, he had become a regular at our home and our family’s tennis center.  He was a good person and, flat out, the finest tennis player to play in our center.  My husband and I came to regard him as our fifth child and were extremely protective of him.  Our oldest son, BobTom Flynn, who now plays with the Columbia University Division 1 Tennis Team, was coached daily by Chris—they were inseparable. 

Despite our affinity for Chris, he could be difficult.  His illness caused him to say strange things and act unpredictably.  While he was generally okay, he would occasionally go on rants about people.  When it became obvious that he wasn’t going to receive ‘institutional support,’ we coddled together a support system.  When he was ‘feisty,’ we would sit down with him and listen/talk to him. At the end of each conversation, we’d conjure a plan (‘do this when you talk to your dad’ or ‘say this when you talk to the judge’). 

Every day, we’d make certain that he had tasks.  After BobTom went to college, we arranged for Chris to play tennis with family members, employees and anyone else who ‘understood.’  We had him string racquets.  We made certain that he had purpose and function befitting a ‘tennis professional’ which was extremely important to him.  We listened to him, talked to him, treated him with dignity and respect, and helped him when he needed it. 

The system wasn’t seamless.  We received complaints from patrons and workers.  No doubt we lost some clientele who didn’t understand what was going on or why.  Things were further complicated by frequent squabbles between Chris and his family (who also struggled to operate a business amid Chris’ periodic lapses).  They got protective orders against him that created housing issues. Chris also had minor brushes with law enforcement—usually due to substance abuse. Despite these occasional setbacks, our system basically worked. 

Then, after years of trying to get Chris proper medical care, his parents succeeded in getting him first class institutional care.  Everyone had high hopes.  When, after two months, Chris was released, he was totally different.  Given a powerful ‘cocktail’ of psychotropic drugs, he had lost his bravado, drive, wit and personality.  Docile as a lamb, Chris was medicated until he was no longer a problem for anyone.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left of the Chris we had known and loved. 

It was sad for those of us close to him.  I realized an important lesson about our society.  While we may value racial, ethnic, social and cultural diversity, personality diversity is something our society spurns:  unless you fit within a narrow band of ‘normal,’ you may be medicated until you do. 

As it turned out, the drugs that had been administered to make Chris ‘normal’ worked a little too well.  They made him depressed and despondent.  Despite impassioned pleas for help from Chris and his family, the medical establishment failed Chris yet again.  After adding a few more meds to the already abundant cocktail, he was simply left to flounder.  Our little system of dignified support and love proved ineffectual against the cauldron of powerful drugs that altered his neurochemistry.

Anyone who knew Chris (before he was institutionalized) would have been stunned that this incredibly talented man with an ego the size of Texas was reduced to a sobbing, whimpering mass capable of rigging his car to kill himself.  Although different and, at times, difficult, he certainly should not have been drugged to incapacity and suicide.   

There is some distasteful irony in this.  During the years we knew Chris, he expended tremendous energy avoiding doctors and the mood-altering drugs they peddle.  We thought he was being paranoid when he told us that they were going to kill him.  In retrospect, he was prescient—we were wrong to dismiss his fears.

I do not usually cry when someone old or very ill dies; I am a realist and understand that death is part of a natural cycle.  Chris’ death is harder to accept; I look back and think that it wasn’t too hard to maintain the cocoon for him.  The extra effort was more than compensated by what we gained from his presence—it was okay if he didn’t ‘fit’ exactly.  We could handle it.

We loved you, Chris.  We mourn your loss deeply and will miss you always.

On behalf of the Scherbel/Flynn Family and the Ellsworth Tennis Center Community