I can remember standing on deck at the fastest meet in the world. For a moment, I had a flicker of pride; feeling like maybe I deserved to be there and I was finally worth something. And just as the quickly as the confidence came, it was drowned again by the negativity and worthlessness. I was at the pinnacle of an athlete’s career, standing at the World Championships in Rome, Italy having qualified for the 4 x 100 free relay. This was it; this would finally make me happy, make me worth something. I felt nothing.
One of my favorite books, The Shack, calls it the Great Sadness and for me, that was my home. I have lived with depression for more than half of my life. I felt like it always made me a better swimmer; I would push myself because I thought I deserved to be in pain. The numbers on the scoreboard were somehow directly correlated with my worth and performing badly meant punishing myself.
Yet, I loved swimming. Following the black line was my therapy and that feeling of complete exhaustion was what I looked forward to every day. My team was my family, but not all families always understand how to best help someone. Some people thought it was an attitude issue, that I was purposefully “moody” so that I could drain the energy from those around me. So I was isolated. Completely. I was asked to not practice with the team and I wouldn’t be competing either for a while. Some of my family avoided me, maybe thinking that they’d “catch” my depression. Everything in my body was screaming to just be done, to quit, to succumb to my depression, but a few individuals took the effort to help me back on my feet.
Swimming gave me my highest of highs and my lowest of lows, but swimming doesn’t define me just like my depression doesn’t. You aren’t just one thing. Sure I am a person that struggles with depression, but I’m also a fierce friend, a student, a Believer, music lover, former athlete, a person worthy of healing and grace, and so much more.
Things aren’t magically different and there wasn’t a “top of the mountain” moment for me, but I understand the process of healing and how to treat myself with the same grace that I treat others. I believe there is a purpose for my struggles and for that reason I sought out ways to help others dealing with similar issues, especially athletes. I was blessed enough to be able to return to my alma mater and graduate Auburn University again with my Masters of Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I am now in school for my Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology and am incredibly passionate about using my education to continue the conversation around mental health and athletes. Being honest like this feels raw and slightly uncomfortable, but it is my hope that maybe someone resonates with some part of this story and realizes that their worth isn’t singular. You are so much more.
I don’t really know where to start, but I figured this was a chance for me to truly open up about my struggle with mental illness. As I’ve grown up, honestly talking about my feelings has been hard for me and it has taken me many years to figure out how to really let go and utilize the resources I’ve been given. So, what better way to completely open up than by sharing my experience?
Ever since I can remember my mind has been consumed with thoughts of “what if.” My brain is exhausting, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out how to best manage the thoughts, worries and lists running through my mind. Growing up, I didn’t think that anything was different with the way my brain worked until I reached my breaking point in middle school. It wasn’t until one night on a family vacation when I broke down to my mom and told her how tired I was of trying to cope with these feelings on my own. Crying on the bedroom floor and not even looking at her was a clear indication that this was not something I really wanted to be talking about, but I knew I needed someone else to help. At first, I don’t think anyone really knew the severity of the anxiety that I was dealing with. From the outside looking in, when I was little I could have just seemed like a spoiled little girl who only wanted things done her way, or maybe I just seemed liked I was having typical childhood fears. However, I rarely went a day without becoming paralyzed by my fears. Sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, trouble breathing…panic attacks and anxiety were getting in the way of me living my life.
I regularly checked locks on doors and windows (over and over again) and suffered through nightmares and night terrors. When I was younger the worries and fears were mostly about death. Fears of burglary, murder and kidnapping. My nightmares were so vivid and detailed that I seriously think some of them could be turned into horror films. Looking back on it, it sounds pretty bizarre thinking about the disturbing scenarios I would conjure up in my mind as an elementary school student, but these fears were something I couldn’t control. I was afraid to go out in public places (especially with crowds) because I was always thinking about something violent or scary happening. Even stepping outside of the house at night made me panic. As I got a little older, I saw my anxiety holding me back from things…staying alone at home, driving by myself, going to overnight camps, traveling, and even living on my own when I went to college.
In sixth grade I saw my first psychologist. It felt uncomfortable and strange at first but I was happy I was there. This psychologist recommended I see a psychiatrist in order to get a diagnosis and to explore treatment options. After what felt like the longest game of twenty questions ever, I learned that I had anxiety and panic disorder. I also learned that the thoughts in my mind like, “if you don’t make that bottle face a certain way, someone is going to get hurt,” were obsessive compulsive disorder. Not only did I feel a sense of relief knowing I was on my way to finding out some ways to manage this, but it made me realize that at the end of the day, I wasn’t “messed up” and I wasn’t going to have to feel like this forever. I regularly met with my psychiatrist and eventually we found the right medicine to help along with therapy. A few years went by and with medicine and my psychiatrist appointments, I felt pretty in control. Then, as if out of nowhere, the moods of hopelessness, worthlessness and just unexplained sadness overwhelmed me. Again, it was incredibly hard for me to share these feelings (even with my psychiatrist) and I ended up writing a note to my mom to tell her. I think part of me felt bad for thinking I could possibly have depression. I felt silly...I had friends, a wonderful family, a great school and a million other things to make me smile…yet some days I just felt like I wanted nothing to do with the world and it was better off without me. It was also hard to start talking about this because I am generally an outgoing and talkative person…so it seemed hard for me to believe that I could be feeling this way for seemingly no reason at all. I felt like it was so wrong of me to sometimes feel like I didn’t want to even get out of bed, yet I had all of these happy things in my life.
Since college, I’ve felt more in control than ever thanks to an amazing psychiatrist, support from family and friends and medication. I still struggle with my anxiety and compulsions at times, but things are definitely not like they used to be. Sometimes I still find myself stopping and stepping up with my right foot, or tapping a door until it feels “right,” but these things aren’t making me feel like I’m not in control. I look back and I wish I would have opened up more from the beginning. In the world we live in today, we have amazing resources and support for mental illness…you shouldn’t feel like you don’t have anywhere to turn…or that you will be judged if you start talking about it. That first conversation can be frightening, but once you get started, it is so worth it. I can’t imagine living today with the fear and panic attacks that I dealt with when I was younger. I appreciate my appointments with my psychiatrist so much more as I’ve gotten older, and I plan to take full advantage of the resources I have as I continue to manage my mental illness. When Courtney started Connection in Mind, I knew it was another resource that could be helpful for me. I also thought it was a great way to potentially give someone that nudge they need to start talking honestly about how they are feeling. Everyone has challenges in life but there is no reason for anyone to have to feel that they need to face them alone.
In February 2012, I was diagnosed with bulimia nervosa. During the diagnosis, I was facing an intake specialist at an inpatient treatment center for eating disorders. The year and half or so prior to being admitted into treatment, I had slowly developed severe signs it, patterns, and behaviors of binging and purging. This disorder developed as a means to cope with the uncontrollable, negative factors going on in my swimming career at the time.
Being an elite athlete and having a healthy relationship with food can be quite challenging. Food is supposed to be our body's fuel, and not a substance that our emotions rely on. For me, food became more as a tool for numbing out certain things I didn't want to feel. when I didn't perform in a practice or meet like I had hoped, I turn to food for comfort, but really it left me feeling more ashamed and guilty than before.
In 2012 I gave up the opportunity to compete for the US 2012 Olympic team because I knew I needed help and I felt like my eating disorder behaviors were controlling my entire life, and of course affecting me physically. Up until this point I had been trying to maintain performance and act like everything was ok, when really I was hurting so deeply inside and trapped by a cycle of binging and purging behaviors. I know I always put on a happy face because it seems like our society views elite athletes as unstoppable, unbreakable, and perfect. I wanted to be portrayed that way to others, my competitors, and just everyone. I didn't feel like I could show any vulnerabilities.
Fast forward to today, i'm doing extremely well! Although some seasons are harder than others I've created a support team that I can rely on and count on no matter how things are going. I still see a therapist, a dietitian, and a psychiatrist. And that's OK. One of the biggest things I've learned in my experience is that it's OK to be vulnerable, show your flaws, and be transparent with people. A lot of good can happen when we take pride in our imperfect human selves!
If you or someone you know needs immediate assistance, Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)