Golfer Christina Kim's tweets, blogs helped conquer her depression
For Christina Kim, life was looking rosy until a back injury in 2010 sent her spiralling into depression and her world collapsed. But she found solace in blogging and tweeting, which helped her emerge from that 'dark place'
There is a school of thought that the name golf was derived from the acronym "Gentleman Only, Ladies Forbidden", but one extrovert in hip-hop hats and pink pigtail plaits has thrown the stereotype out the window.
Shortly after her 18th birthday in 2002, Christina Kim turned professional; in her flamboyant, colourful clothes she trailblazed her way through her first Futures tour. In August that year she won her first event and by 2003 was touring on the LPGA. At 20, she was the youngest player to reach US$1 million in earnings.
But at 27 things started spiralling out of control for the effervescent American daughter of South Korean immigrants. In 2010, her back had been injured after a massage in Malaysia. "For the first time since I was 14, I couldn't hit an eight-iron 145 [yards] on the fly. And the maximum skill set was depleted by 15 to 20 per cent. That's up to one fifth of your strength, it's pretty decimating," says Kim.
From being "on such a high for so many years, since I was 18", Kim found herself in a dark place. "I guess one of the main catalysts for my feelings of worthlessness would be the decline of my golf, although it's hard to say which came first and which affected the other more. It's the chicken and the egg story. I play like crap, I feel bad, I feel like ass, I play like s***. And the vicious cycle goes on."
In Spain in April 2011, Kim came close to suicide, as she revealed in her blog.
In hindsight, Kim feels as though she was in denial about her depression for some time. "The most recent stats from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention say that one in every 10 Americans suffers from depression. I was living in denial," she says. "I can see that now by how long it took for me to talk about it. And I will talk about anything!"
She is quick to point out that the depression was not based on anything that happened in her childhood in San Jose with a brother and sister and mother and father who continue to love her unconditionally. "No one has the perfect upbringing. The challenges you encounter as a child define you. I was not raised in a US$20 million home; I was raised in a blue collar family to respect my elders.
"I had a crisis at 27. It was just that I was in a new age bracket," recalls Kim. "It's a weird number [27, the age at which rock stars like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain died]. I didn't know what it meant. In America, we have certain milestones. At 16 you can drive, at 18 you can vote, at 21 you can legally drink, at 25 you no longer have to pay underage fees to rent a car. I was like, 'The next big milestone is 35 when you can be president'.
"Since 18, I had achieved so many goals I set myself. I was on track, I was progressing. Then things changed. My doctors explained that depression is often a result of chemical imbalances in the brain. There's serotonin to keep you happy, and melatonin to tell you to sleep. Maybe the candle just went out."
Kim has found an avenue online to express her emotions via Facebook, her blog and Twitter. She tweets at least 10 times a day.
She laughs it off by saying, "I'm Asian, I like my technology." But she admits: "I've found writing my blogs and tweets wonderfully therapeutic, it's cathartic. I always proofread what I write; I read it back before I post it, which is like an affirmation. If writing about my experiences helps one person avoid suicide or not self-harm, as seems to be a growing trend with teenagers, it's been worth something."
Kim is quick to point out that her blog about her suicidal episode was not a press release. "I really didn't want my blog about depression to be construed as seeking a story from the media."
Her social media savvy means she quotes other sports stars' and rock stars' blogs in her own. She has made genuine friendships with the band Shinedown through tweets, Sports Illustrated has listed her in their guide to social media and she is one of the LPGA's most prolific tweeters.
It is as though Kim instinctively believes keeping in regular touch with her fans is as important as keeping on form with her game.
"I will take notes on my iPhone everywhere, even in the bath, and will write up blogs in airline lounges or when I am flying. I still find it fascinating that people give a damn what I have to say."
Kim has one 19-year-old fan from Ecuador, whom she has got to know on a fairly personal level over the years through her tweets. Kim is keen to report that her "inner sanctum is small, very small" and she instinctively thinks before she tweets and self filters. Events like Roger Federer's on-line death threats in the lead up to the Shanghai Masters have not silenced her.
"I like the speed of Twitter," Kim says. "It's like holding a conversation. It's like taking my voice, putting it into 140 characters and putting it out there. I love the immediacy of it, the banter and the feedback. And sometimes your fans will keep you in check, too.
"I'll try anything once, I'll talk to anyone. However, I ignore 96 per cent of the people who don't know me personally and who tweet from their grandmother's basement, the people who tweet things they wouldn't say to your face."
Basement trolls aside, Kim does talk to anyone. At the recent 1O1O Golf Challenge, (which is run to find the champion social golfer in Hong Kong at the Clearwater Bay Golf Club), Kim took time out mid-interview to talk to the sponsors whose names she remembered from a year ago. She also shared the same genuine camaraderie with a waiter she remembered. Social golfers who met her last year in the Golf Challenge in the same role as 1O1O Ambassador still talk about the conversations they had with her.
Many are looking forward to seeing her back in Hong Kong in January and March next year for another round of the 1O1O Golf Challenge and the Grand Finals.
Kim doesn't just own the room, she owns the golf course. She laughs with her caddies so much that you want to be in on the joke.
"We all have nervous energy, we all have negative energy and doubts," she says. "For me, having a conversation is a way of releasing the negative thoughts and energies through my voice.
"I'll talk about pancakes for an hour. Find me a piece of string and I'll find a way to start up a conversation about that. Having a conversation is like releasing a pressure valve, only in my case, I'm a rice cooker!"
Kim completely understands why some Asian Americans or overseas educated Asians feel as though they have one foot on the dinghy, another on the pier. However, she says: "I never really thought about being Asian American until Korean golfers and Asian golfers started doing so well."
In fact, now only six of the top 25 LPGA golfers are American. "I suppose I combine the passion of America with the hard work and discipline of being Asian. I'm a unique cocktail, although I just think of myself as human. Like a blind person doesn't have a sense of colour, race has not really been what's motivated me."
Korean women have notably excelled and dominated in two sporting spheres, archery - in which they have won Olympic gold every time since Seoul 1988 - and on the LPGA tour. Some observers have speculated that as these are "feel" sports, Korean women may have heightened sensitivity in their hands and fingers.
Kim believes that she probably does have a greater sense of feel than many other golfers. And she also doesn't rule out factors of cultural tradition, such as family values and work ethic, as possible influences on her success. One of Kim's recent tweets notes: "Nothing says 'you did bad' like a stern mother's voice" revealing a depth of the respect for parents that perhaps Westerners can't always fathom.
Kim believes that golf is in transition for youngsters. "The new rising stars in the States are coming from soccer, rugby and tennis, and their fast-twitch muscles show an understanding of the game," she says.
"Time is spent perfecting their swing, understanding the creativity around the greens and having the brain read the shot, and feeling it rather than wildly swinging at it like Tarzan. I agree with all that, but if I was starting a golf institute, it would have to also be about the passion.
"There has to be enjoyment in the game, or there's burnout. I have seen kids dumped on a range at 13 and told, 'Your education doesn't matter now'. They don't go to university, they are denied many other aspects of life, and nine years later, they never want to pick up a golf club. At a certain elite level in sport, you have to have passion. A lot of golfers don't show it, you only see their work-face. But it's there."
And as golfers are made by practising step by step, Kim believes happiness is also more attainable by looking at life in smaller increments.
"It's important to be in the moment. I am able to live in the moment anywhere except on the green, where self-talk can see you fail, but I've learned to deal with those green pressures," she says.
"Golf is a lot like life these days: it's all about pass or fail. You are always looking at the numbers and everything is all about performance, and is measured in just those two options: win or fail. What's important is relishing the journey, as opposed to worrying about the destination. Once you do that, life - and golf - gets a lot easier."
Golf may be a numbers game, but for Kim other numbers matter as much as golf scores. "As I approach 30, I don't know what I will be doing in 10 years. Commentating excites, me, but then I have all sorts of interests. I have friends in Hollywood, and I have a passion for music.
"There's too much emphasis on big these days. There's the big picture, the big idea. It's an Everest. For many the fear of it makes them want to crawl back into bed and roll over. Life is better when you're in the moment and you break it down into smaller increments."
Kim is not only swinging from her heels (to paraphrase the title of her autobiography Swinging From My Heels: Confessions of an LPGA star), she is also flying by the seat of her pants and enjoying the ride.
She's living proof that you've only got three choices in life: give up, give in or give it all you've got.
To read Christina Kim's blog, visit thechristinakim.worldpress.com