When the 6-foot, 7-inch, 330-pound Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle first walked into her office, Susan Wilson suspected Ryan O’Callaghan’s drug abuse had deeper roots than physical injury.
In time, her suspicions would prove true.
At first glance, O’Callaghan fit the bill of a chronically injured NFL player who became reliant on prescription pain medications to soothe his discomfort.
This was not the first run-in with a player who struggled with drug abuse for Wilson, a former consultant psychologist for the Chiefs and the NFL substantive abuse program (now UMKC's vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion).
“I knew he had a painkiller problem, and that’s not unusual in the NFL,” Wilson says. “So that wasn’t shocking to me.”
O’Callaghan revealed two things to Wilson that made her aware something else was going on. The first was that he took the painkillers because they helped ease his emotional pain.
The second was he planned on killing himself once his NFL career was over.
“I remember being frustrated and saying, ‘I don’t know why this guy wants to kill himself.’ And I couldn’t get an answer,” Wilson says. “You can’t really help someone when you don’t know why they want to kill themselves.”
“I kept kind of pushing him, saying ‘I can’t help you if you won't level with me and you won’t tell me really what’s wrong,’” Wilson says. “Eventually, he did.”
About four to five months after their first meeting, O’Callaghan told Wilson that he was gay.
O’Callaghan spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of Up to Date.
“For whatever reason, I thought that killing myself was the only option,” O’Callaghan says. “When I was going through it, I convinced myself that there's no possible way I can live an honest life.”
According to O'Callaghan, football served as a cover for his sexuality. The sport clashed with every gay stereotype he envisioned and was the perfect way to hide in plain sight.
Wilson was the first person O'Callaghan ever came out to.
“I felt like, wow, I’m really fortunate that I’m the first person he has said this to, and I feel honored by that,” Wilson says. “And for me, it was also a relief because now that I knew what was wrong, I could help him with his suicidality.”
“It's not easy to say those words for the first time," O'Callaghan says. "I spent 29 years at that point practicing not slipping up, and just saying 'I'm gay' for the first time, that was the hardest thing I did at that point."
From their first meeting when O’Callaghan walked in with a spit bottle for his chewing tobacco, he and Wilson agreed that the two didn’t exactly have a lot in common.
Wilson is an African American woman from an urban area in Pennsylvania. O’Callaghan is a white man raised in a conservative rural California town.
“We were as different as night and day,” Wilson reminisces with a smile.
The two built a relationship of trust and mutual respect, with the goal of helping O’Callaghan beat his drug abuse problem and get past the root of that problem: his fear of rejection from his friends, his parents, the NFL and everybody else.
Wilson says that people widely believe therapy consists of just talking. While therapy does involve a lot of conversing and exploring, a key step to achieving success requires taking active measures.
“My motto is that talk without action does not produce change,” Wilson says.
She cautions that as a psychologist, it can be “reckless” to tell someone to share their secret of being gay, because a suicidal person can be spurred to take their life if they experience a bad reaction.
However, after spending time getting to know O’Callaghan’s inner circle, she encouraged him to take a life-changing step.
“I said, ‘You mean you’re willing to take your life, and you don’t even know if these fears that you have are founded?’” Wilson says. “‘That doesn’t make sense to me, Ryan. I want you to find one person and test out your theory that they’re going to hate you, then we’ll go from there.’”
And so he did. O’Callaghan told a close friend of his and then moved on to the “Big Man,” Scott Pioli, then-general manager for the Chiefs. Both responded positively. O’Callaghan, Wilson says, was flabbergasted by their overwhelming support.
That, Wilson and O’Callaghan agree, was the turning point.
“I was like ‘So Ryan, your whole theory is not true. People love you anyway. You still want to kill yourself?’” Wilson says. “And he said, ‘No, I don’t still want to kill myself.’”
Years after that fateful turning point, O’Callaghan lives openly as a gay man, his football days behind him.
Wilson is encouraged by his success story.
“When I’m really able to help someone in this big a way, it’s why I’m here, as the James Taylor song says,” Wilson says. “That’s why I’m here. It’s been my life’s passion and it makes me so honored and so humbled that I was able to help someone like that.”
In the recent days since he came out in an article with Outsports, O’Callaghan and Wilson have received a flood of attention.
When the first reporter called Wilson, she immediately called O’Callaghan to give him a heads up that his story was out there.
“And he said, ‘Didn’t I tell you that I was going to tell my story one day and you were going to be in it? You better talk to them,’” Wilson says.
Since then, Wilson and O’Callaghan have been sharing the story of his journey from the dark days of drug abuse and plans of suicide, to where he is today.
Wilson warns that keeping your problems to yourself can do more harm than good.
“When you do that, you start to create a narrative about your life that isn’t really true,” Wilson says.
O’Callaghan’s narrative was that everyone he cared about would hate him because of his sexuality, and he would never live a productive life. However, the reality differed greatly from what O’Callaghan anticipated, and getting that truth changed his life for the better.
“All these people that I was so worried about, they would've been there for me the whole time,” O’Callaghan says.
When dealing with NFL players such as O’Callaghan, Wilson recognizes the importance of being authentic. Often, athletes are wary of therapy, which Wilson suggests stems from the “macho” environment they are in, where vulnerability is avoided like the plague.
“There’s still a lot of people who are unwilling to get help, because they feel like ‘well if I talk to a psychologist that means I’m crazy,’ or ‘I don’t want to tell my business to someone else,’” Wilson says.
Wilson’s secret weapon in her time helping NFL players overcome their problems? Cultivating relationships.
“I didn’t pull out a textbook and do textbook psychotherapy with them,” Wilson says. “I really spent a lot of time getting to know them and building a connection, and in doing that, they became open to telling me what was really bothering them.”
With Wilson’s help, O’Callaghan chose to live openly as a gay man and decided against ending his own life. He wants his story to encourage those with similar struggles to do the same.
“I know I've already made an impact," O'Callaghan says. "I'm going to keep this going with the goal of helping as many people as possible."
Ultimately, Wilson hopes O’Callaghan’s story will help others recognize that they are not alone.
“It’s a story about the importance of getting help and not just simmering inside yourself with your problems,” Wilson says.