She is sitting in a closet, and she is all alone, and she is bawling, and she cannot stop.
Trenni Kusnierek has just come home to Milwaukee, an all-too-rare occurrence for the budding national TV personality. It is 2009, and her new job with the fledgling MLB Network takes her from its New York studios to ballparks all over the country. Just never enough to Milwaukee.
She loves this place, adores its sports teams and its people, relishes running its streets and biking its trails. It’s where she was born and schooled, where she cut her broadcasting teeth, where family and friends always welcome her back with the warmth of a summer day.
And that’s why, on this summer night, those loved ones have gathered at her boyfriend’s house. They are upstairs in the midst of revelry. She is downstairs in the midst of misery. “Normally, I’d be singing and dancing,” she says, just what you’d expect from the bubbly blonde behind the microphone. But now, normal is nowhere to be found. She’s trying to feign happiness, as she’d done so many times before, but this time it doesn’t work. People try to engage her, but her mind’s too foggy to match their efforts. “It was like, robotic,” she says. “And so I excused myself.”
She goes downstairs, into her boyfriend’s bedroom, but this is still not far enough away. She goes farther, now into his walk-in closet, and slumps to the ground. The tears begin, and she feels like they’ll never end.
“What is wrong?” she recalls thinking. And as she’s telling the story, now three summers later inside the far less-confining walls of Alterra at the Lake, the tears begin again. Just a few this time, though, and they’re easily wiped away. “I’m sorry,” she says, and continues the tale, the words spilling out faster now.
“I was sobbing and rocking back and forth and I literally, at that point, I was like, I don’t even want to live anymore. Like, this is the worst feeling in the world. And you can’t tell anyone because people will think you’re crazy.”
She is not crazy.
She does need help.
“I had this six-figure job, with makeup people and hair people and, like, 10,000 Twitter followers. I had this smart, attractive, funny boyfriend. And I just could not snap out of it.
“That’s when I decided to go back on antidepressants.”
The relationship with her boyfriend was over in a month. Her stay in New York would end later that year. She simply had to move home, back to her support network, back to a better sense of stability. And while she spent another year working for MLB Network from her Milwaukee base, they agreed to part company in 2010. Her run on national TV had ended.
Her rejuvenation was just beginning.
[PAGE] She knows all of this will come as a surprise. Trenni depressed? As in, clinically? But she’s the one who runs marathons, climbs mountains and takes solo trips to the other side of the world. And just this summer, she was telling WTMJ-AM 620 listeners about her motorcycle lessons. No adventure seems too big. Who could possibly enjoy life more?
Besides, the 35-year-old is always smiling on camera or talking your ear off on the radio. She’s got some cheerleading in her blood, too, be it as captain of her Muskego High School pom squad or a fervent supporter of alma mater Marquette University. She apologizes for neither her sports opinions nor her left-leaning politics. She has little patience for rudeness, and whether it comes from an athlete she covers or one of her Twitter followers, she’ll call out the offender. “There’s no reason,” she says, “you should act like a jerk.”
This is what the public sees. And while these snapshots may not lie, they don’t tell the whole truth, either.
“I think unfortunately, in our world now, you get Facebook versions of people,” she says. “But there are parts of all of us that are messy and real, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
So earlier this year, she and I talked about peeling back her own Facebook version for a Milwaukee Magazine profile. She agreed to share her story of a hometown girl made good, tell how she’d climbed the ladder to a spot in the national TV pecking order and come home again. She’d speak up on being a woman in a male-dominated business, speak out on issues she thought important, like childhood bullying. And perhaps she’d share a few stories from some recent adventures – a monthlong trip to India and a trek up Mt. Rainier in 2011, or discuss running in this year’s Boston Marathon.
Then former star NFL linebacker Junior Seau shot and killed himself in May, and the tragedy put depression front and center in the sports world. That’s when she shared another suggestion for the piece we’d discussed: For the first time in public, she wanted to discuss her own battle with depression.
She’d thought of opening up about it before, but something had always stopped her. “There’s always been that little bit of fear,” she says. “Is it going to ruin my reputation?”
So why now? What was it about Seau’s suicide that finally prompted her change of heart?
“Just understanding a little bit of what he must have been going through, and people not understanding,” she says. “Then thinking they’ll never understand because he’s dead. If people aren’t willing to talk about it, how can we move forward?”
It was time for her to move again.
“There’s such a stigma to depression,” Kusnierek says.
And you don’t have to look very hard to see it in action. For instance, when the Milwaukee Brewers gave a midseason break to a fatigued Zack Greinke, some wondered aloud about his mental health. Greinke’s well-publicized social anxiety disorder had once nearly wrecked his career, but he overcame it to become one of baseball’s elite pitchers. Not depression, but social anxiety disorder. And yet…
“I am guessing depression is part of it,” one person said of Greinke’s situation in a Twitter statement to Kusnierek. “Love how ppl who weren’t there make claims,” she fired back.
She knows that much of this stigma stems from ignorance about depression, and helping dispel that is part of her motivation now.
“People say, ‘Well, why don’t you just feel better?’ Well, if it was that easy, I’d be a millionaire. I’d wave my magic wand, and you’d just feel better. That’s just not how it is.”
No, the closest thing to magic with regards to depression or any other mental illness is professional treatment. Just as it is with any other chronic physical condition like asthma or heart disease. Because depression is a physical condition. Simply willing it away doesn’t work.
Depending on which study you look at, anywhere from 6 to 9 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some type of depression. But Kusnierek knows how someone living with it can feel like they’re on a desert island.
“If people just knew there was somebody else out there, maybe that is the tipping point for them to not be a Junior Seau. To not be a kid who gets bullied and feels like the situation is so hopeless that they have to go to such an extreme measure,” she says. “I think that’s a problem, that people feel like there’s no other option, and they’re so alone, and they’re the only person that’s ever gone through it.
“I would hope that if someone reads this,” she says, “I would hope that people who have challenges in their life or have been through a lot, they don’t feel like that has to define them. I’m not alone. It’s not insurmountable.”
Kusnierek’s history with depression began long before she was in the public eye.
She’d suspected something was wrong as early as her teens. Her version of homesickness came complete with deep physical reactions. “I don’t think I ate for the first two weeks of college,” she says. And she saw her first therapist in her early-20s. Medication became part of her treatment, too, but she discontinued it after a few years. Her career seemed none the worse for it, given how she progressed in the broadcasting business.
After starting her on-air career at WQOW-TV in Eau Claire in 2000, she went to Milwaukee’s CBS affiliate in October of the same year. Come November of 2002, she was ready to head for Fox Sports Network in Pittsburgh, and though the antidepressants had stopped, she saw a therapist while there. She stayed in Pittsburgh through 2007, when it was time for her next Milwaukee homecoming, a job with FSN Wisconsin. She followed the Brewers’ 2008 playoff run, their first since 1982, and met that great boyfriend. Life was just fine, and looked to be getting better when the MLB Network came calling. This was what she’d worked for and wanted so much, a job on national TV.
“I should’ve been ecstatic,” she says. “I felt sick to my stomach.”
She was 31, and even though her gut was telling her to stay, she didn’t listen. She remembers taking some final runs along Lake Michigan’s shore, one of the great pleasures in her life. “I literally would stop, and I’d be doubled over sobbing. I mean, sobbing.”
Still, she went. The opportunity was just too tempting. And she can admit now that she wasn’t ready to go.
“I think I was prepared from a professional standpoint,” she says. “From an emotional standpoint, I don’t think I was.”
Depression was only part of it. “The job didn’t feel right, and the environment at work didn’t feel right,” she says. Moreover, as one of the network’s youngest on-air personalities, she never quite fit in as one of the gang. Nor, thanks to her busy schedule, could she build up much of a social network in New York. Her network was back in Milwaukee, including the boyfriend, with whom she struggled to make a long-distance relationship work. And all the while, she was on a bigger public stage with more pressure and demands, from the work she produced to how her hair was styled to what dresses she wore.
She knew, on some level, that something needed to change, but she needed one last push to crystallize things. She got it in the unlikeliest of places.
“When you’re sitting in someone’s closet…”
[PAGE] So she went back on antidepressants. She arranged with her bosses to work from Milwaukee and travel to New York or other assignments as necessary. She came home to the warm, familiar embraces. She recommitted herself to therapy here and started working through everything.
And even today, she knows how it all might look.
“I worry,” she admits. Will someone see the story and think she can’t handle things? “But then I think, it says more about me that I’m willing to take the necessary steps to keep it under control, to want to help other people. If you don’t see that being a positive attribute, then I don’t want you to be a fan of mine anyway.”
When her run with MLB Network ended – “An amicable divorce,” she says – her on-air presence shifted back to being a local one. She worked with 540 ESPN Milwaukee, then in March 2011, went full-time with TMJ on its TV and radio outlets. She got to know Milwaukee again, and Milwaukee got reacquainted with her.
Meanwhile, she kept running her marathons and traveled and climbed. She took a healthier and more holistic approach to eating. She grew. She found balance.
Once, she even tried going off the antidepressants again. Maybe the therapy and comfortable environment were enough. “The last thing you want is to be on medicine your whole life,” she says. But within two weeks, she knew it was the wrong decision. She was more emotional, feeling like she’d lost some control, and she didn’t hesitate to start the meds again. “Maybe,” she says plainly, “I’m just a person who needs to be on medication for the rest of my life.”
And so it was. She was comfortable. Enough to make the decision to share her story. Then, after we’d started talking for that Milwaukee Magazine profile, a funny thing happened.
Somebody asked her to move away again.
It was a job in Boston, where she’d twice run in the city’s famed marathon, once this April and once in 2010. (This year’s race featured 22,426 runners, and her time of 4:05:43 put her among the top 3,000 women – bad, she says, and mentions her personal record of 3:28:41 at Philadelphia back in 2010.) Comcast SportsNet New England, a regional network serving one of the most fanatical sports markets in the country, wanted her on its airwaves.
This time, she was ecstatic.
She was not sick to her stomach.
She took the job.
“I feel infinitely different about this move. I’m mature enough this time to leave,” she says on Labor Day. She’s at another Alterra cafe, this one on Prospect Avenue, and she’s 24 hours away from hitting the road for Boston. “I even talked to my therapist about it. She said, ‘You had to go through all of that.’ Sometimes, you have to go through really shitty stuff to get to a better place.”
So even if the MLB Network gig didn’t work out as she planned, she wouldn’t give up the experience. “I’m glad I did it,” she says. “I don’t regret it.”
She expects that won’t stop some from doubting her or expecting a repeat performance from the last time she left town. But she also expects those who do to form a distinct minority.
“I think like anything, 97 percent will be compassionate and empathetic and feel as if they know me better as a person,” she says. “And I know there will be 3 percent who use this as fodder. But to be quite honest, fuck ’em.
“Never in your life are 100 percent of the people going to like you,” she continues. “So if it makes you happy, and you’re good to other people, and you’re good to yourself, then who cares if there’s a few out there who don’t?”
It’s time for her to go. She’s meeting friends back at her apartment, and together, they’re packing up her things for the trip. It’s a busy time. Her schedule is hectic.
But she’d worked in one last run along the lakeshore that morning. She didn’t stop to sob.
“I stopped and took pictures.”
Howie Magner is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Feel free to follow him on Twitter, where he tweets as howiemag.