With his hands gripping the steering wheel, Buster Juul turned into the large parking lot just outside the iconic gray box. The name Gigantium adorns the entire length of one side, and the building's volume can make even the biggest man feel small.

The car came to a stop in one of the white-striped parking spaces, but Buster's hands had not yet left the leather-clad steering wheel. A glance in the rearview mirror caught sight of the half-empty player bag on the back seat, a reminder that the road back to the court was still a long way off. A cartilage injury in one knee kept him out, or at least that's what his teammates had been told -and it's not wrong - but there was much more to that story.

Photo: Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com

There had never been as far from the car to the tactics room as that spring day in March 2019. For over half a year, Buster hadn't had much to say at the tactic’s meetings, in the locker room, or anywhere else.

"I had been absent, and at that time, I had been absent for a long time. I tried to maintain a facade, but I couldn't anymore."

The nervousness spread through the body. It was difficult to sit still on the black plastic chair at the large, long table. The gaze flickered from the blackboard, down the table, and out the small window, which gave an exclusive look down to the ice hockey rink.

Buster was sitting between well over 1,600 kilos of men and knew that he would soon have to stand up in front of the board. The board where the head coach, Stefan Madsen, had preached for several minutes about the strategy for victory. 16 boys, all of whom had been good at both growing tall and lifting irons, would look at him. In a world where war analogies are used interchangeably, Buster had to bare himself. He had to tell about the injury that his teammates could not see, and the physiotherapist could not ascertain. Yet he had never experienced greater pain. Easy - I don't think so.

Photo: Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com

It all started when the 2018 season ended.

"I clearly remember the first signs that I wasn't like I used to be. On July 1st, 2018, something started happening in my head. I had just gotten out of a seven-year-long relationship with my girlfriend at the time. I was living in different places. I had bought an apartment that I was supposed to renovate - but it just wasn't working for me. I didn't have control over things anymore. I thought I could handle the whole world and had 100% control over myself, but I didn't.

At that time, the season was over. It wasn't a great season for us, and personally, things hadn't gone particularly well for me either. I was in Skanderborg with my parents and could feel myself getting more and more upset", Buster explains.

For most of the 2017/2018 season, Buster had been struggling with a bad knee. He still played every game. For Buster, pain is an everyday occurrence, and warning signs of a serious injury can quickly disappear in the large amount of sore body parts - typical for a handball player. But now the season was over. The rebuilding and healing process was about to begin.

"It gave me some peace of mind that I didn't have to run around with pain," he says.

But peace quickly became his new opponent. When things were quiet, his head started working.

"I just didn't have that break in my everyday life anymore that could make the thoughts disappear," Buster recalls.

On the mornings
, the worst moments came. Alone in his room, alone with his thoughts.

"It felt like my brain was constantly out running. I began to doubt everything in my life. What do I really want in my life? Is it even handball that I want? Is it even in Aalborg that I want to be? Have I chosen the right education? Do I have the right friends? Am I doing everything wrong?"

In his search for a new state of mind, the fitness center at Buster's old home court in Morten Børup Hallen became his refuge.

"I couldn't do my strength training because of a bad knee, but I could pace myself on a cross-trainer."

Buster wanted to reach a point where the pain he inflicted on his body matched the pain inside his body. For a short time, this brought balance.

"There were several times when I blacked out on the cross-trainer, but there was something therapeutic about lying there with a heart rate of 200. I was completely drained of resources, and it was self-harming, but here my head could finally relax, and it was just the body that was working."

A quick release from one injury often results in another. An unpleasant truth is that the things we do to protect ourselves and each other from the world's unpleasantness are sometimes the things that cause them. Buster believed he could find some form of relief in the grip of the machine and did not think about anything else but finding himself again, even though he knew it was not healthy to find comfort in this kind of pain.

Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com

On 4th July 2018
, its escalated. "I broke down," Buster says.  

"I texted my mom asking if she wouldn't come home from work. She is the principal of a school outside Skanderborg. She came upstairs and into my old room. Here, I completely fell apart. We quickly realized that I needed an urgent appointment with a psychologist because it shouldn't be like this."

For the first time, the 196-centimeter tall left-wing asked for help. The difficult word that has not always been a part of Buster's vocabulary.

"In my childhood, problems were not something we talked about. I didn't ask for help with homework. I didn't say anything if I was teased at school. I have never reached out for help, but just struggled with it myself. I was more the cushion for many of the others' problems."

But this time, Buster lacked a recipe. If the problem had just been a knee injury, he could follow a specific rehabilitation procedure - easy. Along the way to stable physical fitness, there are road signs. But when it suddenly became about what was going on in his head - where nothing can be measured - it becomes more diffuse, more intangible, and what do you do then?

Photo: Diego azubel
Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com


I have been depressed for six months, and I'm a little embarrassed that I haven't said anything about it before"

- BusterJuul

In an overwhelmingly large room with beautiful panoramic windows at the end, there were only two empty chairs. Buster sat down in one and now looked directly at the psychologist who had taken a seat in front of him.

“I spoke for an hour and a half without interruption. There was no dialogue, it was just me talking to him, but here, for the first time, I just got a bit of peace".

That summer was filled with puzzles, PlayStation, and many hours in the hammock at Buster's parents in Skanderborg. "The month before the season started again is very blurry for me," he says.

Back in Aalborg, Buster had to return to his daily routine, but nothing was as it used to be. He tried to distract himself from his thoughts and sought out other people, avoiding any situations where it would become quiet.

"I had to keep myself busy. I had this huge painting project in my apartment. All the trims and doors were black. So often in the evenings, I would run around and paint them. I think my roommate thought I was crazy. Sometimes when he got up to pee at half-past one in the night, I could be found painting trims or caulking something."

Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com

In the following months, there were good days. They just weren't many of them. Not only did the depressive thoughts have a hold on Buster, but the pain in his knee did also not disappear, and in October, the injury sent Buster to the operating table. It was usually only in the chair with the psychologist that the light broke through in the gray existence.

"I talk to a psychologist here in Aalborg. I remember the conversations as if I just threw different skeins of yarn at her, and she had to try to untangle the threads for me. I could feel that it was when I talked about things that I processed them. It was also her who later encouraged me to tell my teammates about my situation."

That day in March 2019 was the day. Buster had decided to share his thoughts and give his teammates an insight into what was really going on.

"I had told Stefan beforehand that I wanted to speak." It was anxiety-provoking for the always humorous boy. Would the others now see him differently, and was there room to tell this kind of thing here? A deep breath, and Buster said, "I've been depressed for half a year, and I'm a little embarrassed that I haven't said anything before."

The teammates got the story - but not the reason. Buster didn't know that himself yet. He just had a need to feel better, and if this was the technique, he had to learn to master it.

"I'm sure they could feel that I wasn't myself, and that I had to use incredible resources to maintain my facade when I was with them."

Buster had no expectation of a response. A silent acknowledgment was all he sought, and that was what he got. "Although not many said anything, they acknowledged it 100%," he says.

"When there is so much focus on performance and results in everyday life, and the culture is characterized by routines like now you sleep, now you eat, and then you poop, and then you do nothing else. Then there isn't always room for personal feelings. At the same time, I have been a big advocate of only talking about locker room stuff in the locker room. Who has the biggest biceps, and who has the most chest hair? But I turned on a dime."

Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com

It is a little over two and a half years after Buster first came forward with his story that I meet him at Gigantium. We're sitting in a small meeting room in the administration hallway. After he has fully opened up to me about what he describes as the worst time in his life, I can feel his shoulders relax. After such a long time, talking about what actually happened is still a form of distancing himself from the experience and a way to regain control. "It's therapeutic," as Buster puts it.

Buster leans back in his chair when we discuss the cause of his depression.

"When I was in it and feeling bad, I had a different view of what caused me to end up where I was. I have a much better understanding of it now. I was a people pleaser and didn't have the necessary respect for myself and what I really wanted, and how I saw myself. I let everyone else define who Buster was, and eventually, I couldn't figure it out myself."

His self-esteem was low, even though his self-confidence remained.

"I had no filter when it came to myself. If someone said I played a bad game, I was more resilient. I knew I was a skilled handball player, but if they commented on the person I was, it hit hard. At that time, I didn't have the same belief that I was a good person."

It's been years since Buster was in the midst of an identity crisis, but like a ball that gets coated in resin, you're never the same again. It shapes you, and the grip can become easier afterwards.

"I personally took a quantum leap, and I've taken a lot from this crisis," Buster says, even though not everything has been fully processed.

"Today,I still sleep with a podcast in my ears because I can't always handle the silence."

Buster stands up. He's going in to sign a new contract for Aalborg Handball.

Photo: Diego azubel
Lars Schmidt / schmidtaps.com

On the way home in the car, Buster's story plays in my head again. What if he never called his mother that summer day in July - what then? What if he never had the courage to stand up at the tactical meeting that day in March - what then?

Buster's story reminds me of something I recently read: sometimes survival is just surrender.

Photo: Diego azubel