It has been a concern of mine for sometime now: I am troubled by my own inner psychic battles, and those of my fellow Bills fans, from trying to cope with defeats on Sundays.
I remember the effects of losing four straight Super Bowls. I remember the splitting headaches after those losses, and many other regular season losses. I remember the sense of being deeply depressed for the remainder of the day after the game ended at 4pm. My Sunday was built up in anticipation and torn down in disappointment over the course of the morning and afternoon. The pattern repeated itself over and over again. It got so bad during one recent period of Bills football around the time of Greg Williams I decided to celebrate not the wins (which were few and far between) but the quarters when we outscored the opponent. In almost every game, we either broke even or outscored the opponent in one of the four quarters, even though we almost always lost the game. That was a rational coping mechanism I designed to allow me to try and find some joy in the larger agony of defeat.
I remember the pain of the Miracle Forward Lateral against the Titans the last time we as Bills fans actually experienced the playoffs. I remember flying up from the south to witness what turned out to be the only playoff loss in the history of The Ralph/Rich Stadium, when the Jaguars defeated Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and closed out Kelly's career with a fumble recovery/concussion, in a desperate late 4th quarter scramble, ending the Bills comeback effort. I remember going to a local bar in a state thousands of miles from Buffalo for years on end only to watch in dismay as the post-Kelly, post-Flutie, post-Bledsoe Bills were blown out almost every week, especially whenever they played on the road.
Though I have lived and died with the Bills on Sunday for decades now, I am convinced I only suffer from a mild form of RTLS, because living away from the local area for over twenty seasons has cushioned my psyche from the full effects of repeated exposure to the collective local conscience of the Bills predominant way of being. But many Bills fans have not been so fortunate, and hence suffer from the more severe forms of RTLS. Some local journalists, if in public denial, also suffer from RTLS, having made a corrosive if innocent living covering the team for most of their professional lives.
I know my distance from the local media has provided me with a buffer from the potential harm of their efforts to transmit the communal consciousness or some version of it. For most of my adult life, I did not have to listen to the negative sports jocks that dominate the airwaves, nor read much of what Jerry Sullivan wrote in the sports pages of the Buffalo News (re. his never ending cynical if largely accurate chronicle of OBD "dysfunction"). I did not follow the team all that closely during their retreat into the basement of the NFL over the past decade and change. But I also missed out in sharing the full joy of being locally present during the glory years of the early 1990s, and so I cannot say how much of a positive emotional buffer such an extended run of winning football has provided for those whose experience of being a Bills fan, for example, began with those championship years.
Perhaps the fans who came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s are the healthiest emotionally because the power of their good years was formative. But I worry about the current generation who came of age in the first decade of the 21st century, because they have had so little to cheer about. Perhaps their lack of attachment from never having experienced the joy of a winner has provided a kind of relatively detached cynical buffer: while traumatized from the losing, it has never sunk as deep as it has for those of us who have been teased off and on over four or five decades, and enter our twilight years increasingly desperate for another wave of winning. In other words, some fans suffer from RTLS but others were hardened in their formative years such that they are both largely immune from RTLS but also emotionally stunted as a learned coping mechanism: they will never truly feel what those of us older Bills fans suffering from RTLS have felt.
Luckily for me, I did not feel the full effects of the team's more recent decade plus of decline. Nonetheless, I believe I have experienced RTLS if only because I also spent many years in Buffalo prior to the glory years of Marv Levy's Bills, when more often than not the Bills were really really bad. When I grew up, the collective Bills fan psyche was not scarred from always losing to the Patriots, but from always losing to the Miami Dolphins.
But having recently returned home to Western New York, I have had the opportunity to re-familiarize myself with all things Buffalo, and in particular have become increasingly conscious of how much the professional sports teams in general, and the Bills in particular, effect and reflect the mood of the people of the area.
So, as we enter into the mid way point of the third year of the Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey regime, the question needs to be asked, especially after this most recent last minute loss to the Titans of Music City Miracle fame: do Bills fans show increasingly severe signs of suffering from Repeated Traumatic Loss Syndrome (RTLS)? And if so, what if anything can be done about it?
I suggest that, if my reaction is any indication, the previous weeks victory in the Valley of the Sun against the Arizona Cardinals was a clear sign of deepening RTLS: despite the victory, most of us experienced the emotions associated with a loss more than the emotions normally associated with a win. We were all, or most of us, so sure we had, or our team had, blown the game that, when miracle of miracles, we ended up winning, we as fans struggled to accept the victory as worthy of being called one because deep down we felt we deserved to lose.
So, one sign of a fan base suffering from RTLS is the general inability to experience the joy of victory. Fans suffering from RTLS suffer almost as much when they win (because they are not deserving of their precious few victories) as they do when they lose (which fans fully anticipate but still go through additional bouts of emotional suffering).
RTLS has not been officially recognized by psychologists, nor by the NFL, nor by OBD (One Bills Drive), nor by local Bills journalists and pundits. And though it has not yet been officially recognized by any of the authorities in the sport, the organization, or the mainstream media which cover them, it is reflected in spades in social media, radio shock jock commentary, and fans calling in to express their feelings and offer their assessments.
The Bye Week is a relatively new tradition in the NFL, a product of the extension of the 14 game season into 16 games. And while the Bye Week offers fans an opportunity, like the players, to take some time off from thinking and worrying about the season, it also helps extend the season for an additional week, into late December.
RTLS has become worse for Bills fans because the season now lasts longer, and so, the losses seem never ending and the meaninglessness of the season begins earlier as the losing accelerates. This experience of deepening alienation from the season itself involves a strange codependency with the deepening attachment to the hopefulness of the off season. RTLS fans dread the actual season of NFL football, but experience emotions approaching if not reaching euphoria as the off season free agency period and the college draft approach.
Naturally, a fan accustomed to losing during the regular season experiences a form of psychic renewal during the off season flight from reality, only to be humbled again during the extended regular season. The local and national sports media reinforce this tendency, making the annual decline from irrational off season optimism to the rational regular season pessimism more likely to produce and deepen RTLS for fans like those emotionally attached to a franchise like that of the Buffalo Bills.
The off season euphoria serves to deepen the attachment to a fundamentally alienating condition: being a fan of a losing franchise. RTLS appears to go into remission during the spring and early summer months, but it tends to return once they regular season begins.
RTLS can be transmitted culturally, and therefore individuals exposed to Bills fan culture over long periods of time are more susceptible to develop symptoms than those who remain in mixed fan or non Bills fan environments, or choose to avoid all forms of collective fan experiences.
RTLS affects the way Bills fans tend to think about the second half of the season. As a rule, instead of thinking about the Bills winning games to compete for a playoff berth, the RTLS fan base thinks about losing as many games as possible in order to earn a higher slot in the upcoming college draft. Most interestingly, a fan base experiencing RTLS becomes obsessed, usually beginning in mid-October/early November, with the best QB prospects coming out of the collegiate ranks.
Last weekend, the loss to the Titans in the final minute in the seventh game helped grow the number of fans suffering from RTLS, if social media and radio call ins are reliable indicators.
There is no known clinical treatment for RTLS beyond 100 percent abandonment of the activity of being a fan of the losing franchise, but even then, the effects cannot easily be reversed and/or undone and still tend to diminish the quality of new and preexisting social relationships while making more difficult the rehabilitation of an individual's self esteem. In other words, never forget that being a Bills fan is potentially dangerous to your mental, emotional and physical well being, as well as the quality of your family life and friendships.
Of course, the risk of abandoning ones fidelity to the Bills is the chance that they might finally turn the corner and return to the glory days of decades past and then all the years of suffering on Sundays will have been for naught. This is the Catch-22 of being a Bills fan and helps explain why a rational communal logic can be derived from the paradox that so many traumatized fan-survivors remain committed to staying in what is an essentially abusive relationship with Buffalo's tribal version of the Red, White and Blue.
While many will reject the idea of RTLS as a real sickness deserving of serious investigation, I believe there are decades of still uncollected data in Buffalo and the surrounding Western New York community, as well as in the Buffalo-WNY diaspora, which would prove otherwise.
The quality of communal life is intimately tied to the health of the communal psyche: the Bills losing tradition is no laughing or socially trivial matter. Indeed, one could make a strong case that the collective security of the WNY/Buffalo area is at growing risk if the Bills do not soon develop a sustainable winning football culture.
In the end, the only structural and collective cure is a long run of consistent winning football by the Bills, and the comfort Bills fans can provide for each other in the meanwhile: we all need to take better care of each other.
When you see a person struggling Monday morning after another loss (or unworthy win), try and brighten their spirits by changing the subject away from the game towards something less emotionally charged like the weather, the latest movies, a new locale for chicken wings, pizza, or some such familiar Buffalo banter. Whatever you do, do not bring up how you feel about Fitz or Mario, which around these parts is often worse than bringing up politics or religion.
But short of providing a long term cure, the best advice for coping with RTLS during the Bye Week is to enjoy a week away from the worry and fear of another loss. Spend time with family and friends Sunday afternoon, enjoy the beautiful fall weather, and try not to think about the Texans and Patriots road games coming soon to a TV near you.