Updated: Sep 2, 2020
What I have discovered through my athletic career is that although every athlete has a different journey, we all have a lot more in common than anyone would originally think. I believe that most applies in the realm of mental health. Around 5th grade, I started to realize that I felt different than other kids. I would get really nervous for games (I grew up playing basketball, lacrosse, and soccer) and I would get pretty upset when I played poorly --much more so than other kids I played with. At first, my parents, and later I, would convince myself that I was just really competitive. But then, as I moved through middle school, and eventually into high school, the pressure I was putting on myself was in everything: sports, running, school, other extracurriculars, and it was insurmountable. I was unusually strained compared to my classmates and teammates. I would have a hard time talking and eating the days of tests and competitions and if I did poorly, for hours or days afterwards I would shut down completely, not wanting to talk to anyone or eat anything. I ended up self-isolating a lot from people because I needed space to figure out the confusing and frustrating emotions rearing their ugly heads inside of me.
My sophomore year of high school was especially tough because I had switched into running as one of my main sports. It had a different atmosphere than the other teams I had been a part of. I was used to being the kid on the team that cared the most about everything, from grades to athletic performance. But on the running team, it felt like I cared the least. Now I felt pressure to care more, which was the exact opposite of what I should have been doing. I heard comparisons to the other girls in terms of school, running, and demeanor and those comments made me think less of myself. There were some days that showing up to practice took a lot of self-calming. I would be worried about a test I just took, or a test the next day, or I would be worried about how I would perform in practice or an upcoming race. My teammates, whether they realized this or not, seemed to act like if they acknowledged my anxiety, it could infect them. As if my sadness and worry was a disease to be contracted. I was made to feel that my emotions were a product of immaturity rather than a product of a deeper rooted problem. I can’t really blame anyone for not knowing what to say or do because when I was a sophomore in high school, mental health was not a huge topic of conversation.
I have concluded that many runners view mental health problems as a weakness and that anyone who has them is an inferior competitor. Maybe this is because people need to feel as if they have a mental edge on their competitors, as running is a highly cerebral sport. But to anyone who has mental health issues that is reading this, just know that so many athletes that make it to the highest levels of sports have suffered in the same way. In fact, the high emotional intelligence and high functioning capabilities incurred by mental health disorders could be considered a positive attribute if managed correctly. Mental health problems make no one inferior, and always remember that.
That year, I really didn’t know if I could get it together. I was asking my mom to skip days of school because I was sad and miserable. I cried at least once or twice a week. It truly felt like there was someone else who had the reigns of my mind and was making me feel miserable. No matter how hard I tried, I never felt like I could be carefree like the other kids. On top of that, I was competing at a high level in running, and I was taking the max level of difficulty classes that I could take as a sophomore. I was imploding under the pressure of it all and the fear of failing at anything that I did.
Of course there are silver linings to everything. My sophomore year made me stronger. I felt at the end of my sophomore cross country season and at the end of the academic year that I could move on and I could brush it off as just a bump in the road. But even though I managed my emotions better did not mean they had gone away. My junior year and senior year I was still really hard on myself. But, those two years I had gotten a routine down and lowered my standards slightly, which was enough for me to manage myself. I still struggled, but it was better contained from most people, aside from my teammates, close friends, and family. However, when college rolled around, my freshman year blew the can off of all those emotions and everything came back much much worse.
My first week at college my freshman year, I got an injury at team camp for cross country, which took me out for five weeks. I was also having issues with my coach. She wanted to do things one way even though her approach did not suit my needs as an athlete. She also didn’t want me asking questions. I was just supposed to do as I was told even though I didn’t feel comfortable. I was afraid to talk to my teammates because I didn’t want to skew their opinion on the coach. I also didn’t want to seem uncoachable or inferior, so I kept dragging along in silence. I developed a lot of stomach aches from the stress of going to practice. Being anywhere near the coaches, mostly the coach, made me feel super self-conscious and inadequate. I was pretty good at hiding the really bad parts, so I don't even think those close to me saw what I was going through. It is even painful now to reflect back on the internal anguish I was trying to cope with by myself. At this point in my career I had not consulted a therapist, so I was essentially on my own dealing with depression that I didn’t even know I had yet.
Most of my days during freshman year fall went like this: I would wake up at 5:20 am, in the dark, and walk 20 minutes across campus to the athletic facilities. When I arrived, I ate an oatmeal or power bar from the snack room at the athletic facility. Then I was forced through a really hard workout that was far beyond realistic for my current fitness level, in which I would finish minutes behind the other girls. The coach would tell me it was in my head and to try harder. Even on easy run days, I could barely keep up with my teammates, so I either treated recovery days like workouts or accepted that I would run alone on those days. Then I went to class. I was good in the classroom, and at least during my freshman year, school was both my outlet and confidence booster. But every now and then I would do badly on a test and I would feel like everything was out of my control. After class, I would have to log study hall hours in the athletic facility. I didn't particularly like it there. A lot of the other athletes were not friendly, as all of the teams were segregated. Coming into college, I had thought that everyone would be friends. But it was the complete opposite, and in some respects reminded me of high school with the hierarchy observed amongst some of the teams. This hierarchy was perpetuated by the athletic department, and ultimately made some athletes feel popular and worth something and the rest of the athletes feel like they were irrelevant. Then, after working on a pile of homework for engineering, I would go to the athletic dining hall to gorge myself on food because I was hungry from not getting enough from the meal plan I was on. Sitting with my team at these meals I was reminded that I was basically a worthless runner that was failing miserably at my sport and who had no friends outside of the team. The girls were nice, but no one resonated with my story, so I felt really isolated. After I was full to the point of feeling pain, I would walk 20 minutes back to my dorm. From the beginning of the year, my roommate had since moved in with her boyfriend, so I had no one to talk to about my day. I never had any fun nights or weekends unless my team was going to a party. I equated going to parties and drinking as a reward for being a successful athlete, so even when I went out I didn't have much fun. My mentality was that until I was accomplished in my sport, I could forget having any fun because I didn’t deserve it. Instead, every night, I would cry to my mom on the phone or suffer in silence. Then, I would close my eyes and wish the day away, until I had to get up and relive it all the next day.
A lot of those moments mentioned above happened during my college career, but I think the worst stretch of all was my junior and senior years, during which I never caught a break. It was also during this time that my relationship with my coach was the most strained. Over the course of two years, I sustained four injuries, one of which required surgery. Every time I was coming back from injury, I was thrown into workouts that were too much for my body to handle at the time and would get sidelined with another injury.
I think the biggest obstacles I faced during those two rough years were:
● Separating my self-worth from my achievements
● Dealing with my mental and physical health head on
● Surrounding myself with supportive people
● Identifying and ignoring people who did not have my best interests at heart
● Enjoying my time at college from a holistic standpoint
Of course, in the midst of everything going on, I had no plan. No one ever does. I was just stumbling through my life, learning as I went.
Someone who helped me sort through my emotions was my therapist. I started seeing an off-campus therapist during the second semester of my freshman year. She helped me cope with a lot of the growing pains during that time. I was still adjusting to my new environment and responsibilities. Just being able to verbally work through everything with someone who didn’t know me was unexpectedly relieving. I continued with therapy during my sophomore year, but I switched into the athletic department’s sports psychologist. In the fall, I really needed her because that was my hardest semester academically and I had a lot of steam I needed to blow off. But in the spring, which was my best athletic semester, I continued to go. It was important to me to continue therapy even in good times so that I could continue to monitor my mental state.
I know therapy sometimes has a stigma around it, but more student-athletes that I talked to than not went to therapy either off campus or on during my time at college. I think many people are starting to realize how vital it is to work on the mental side of sports in order to continue to be able to perform on the physical side, especially as one moves up through the ranks. The higher up one goes in a sport, the more attention they should allocate to taking care of their mind. At first, I felt like a weirdo going to therapy. Over time, I realized I was a part of a larger population of student-athletes who were prioritizing their mental health, and I became proud of myself. Every time I walked into my therapist's office, I would think, ‘This is an hour of my time that I am dedicating to myself today.’ It felt good, putting myself first instead of everything else. I got a lot off my mind and was able to work through some of my more complex thoughts.
One of the biggest things my therapist and I worked on through college was separating my performance in school and sports from my self-worth as a person. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this went hand in hand with enjoying my college experience more holistically. She encouraged me to try different hobbies, and pursue different passions that would distract me from my injuries. I was told not to worry about how I did, as long as I was exploring. Sometimes, I went really out of my way to do this. I tried out for stand-up comedy one time, I tried rushing a sorority, and I went to a variety of shows and events across campus. I met a lot of new people I wouldn't have normally gotten to meet, but I also started to realize that those friends didn't care that I was an athlete; they were just happy that I was at their event, smiling and supporting them. I also went out more and was more present when I did.
Sometimes, doing activities to distract myself felt like I was just putting a bandaid on the larger problem. What was going on inside my brain had yet to be explained. The breaking point came sooner than I expected, at the beginning of February of my junior year. I could not get out of bed because I was so depressed. I physically had to pull myself out of bed and go to class. I trudged through the day. All I secretly wanted was someone who would see my pain and be there for me without having to explain myself. On the way to practice one day, I started to cry because I was so afraid to see my coaches who, over the years, had made me feel very uncared for. I had
been yelled at for being injured, threatened to be left at home from away meets if I didn’t suck it up, and scolded for asking if I could change the training that was clearly not working for me. At that point, I was coming off of my fifth injury in college and I was being worked really hard by my coach. I so clearly remember walking to practice that day and just expecting my coaches to make me feel bad when they saw my demeanor. When I reached the track, my coach saw my tear-stained face and she said “Is everything okay?” I was taken aback. Did she really care or was this some sort of reverse psychology? Of course, it was the latter. After I mentioned that I had just had a tough day and I was struggling with my mental health (which was really downplaying everything--I was actually wishing that I would get hit by a car), she said, “Are we going to let this get in the way of the workout or are we going to push past it?” I instantly tightened up. How could I have been so dumb as to say anything?
After that workout, which I actually performed well in but was just feeling so empty throughout, I decided to take a leap of faith and talk to my coach. I knew I was in no headspace for the upcoming race that weekend. I was feeling hopeless. I was scared of how I was feeling; self-hatred had consumed me and I felt I was drowning in it. I actually just wanted to die. When I approached her, I knew I didn't want to waste any time, so I asked, “Would it be possible to take this indoor track meet off? Or run unattached? I just don't want the pressure of having to represent our school when I may run horribly. I'm feeling so low. I’m not even sure that it is in my best interest to continue competing this season.” Nope, wrong thing to say.
“You didn't come here to train, you came here to race. So, no, you may not do that.” Since it was important to me, I tried again. “You don't understand, I am not okay. I can’t race this weekend. Racing unattached isn’t even not a good idea, but if I absolutely have to I'd rather do it that way.”
Again she denied my pleas. “No. You will race in the school issued uniform.” She was not about to budge right then and it was getting dark outside the indoor track.
“Okay, can we talk more about this tomorrow?” For some reason, I was hopeful that she would change her mind. I was desperate.
“I don't know what there is to talk about, but sure.”
The next day, I still struggled out of bed. I still felt empty. This was not a passing emotion. At practice, I got my coach to sit down, and again I tried to convince her to let me not race that weekend. I really wanted the season off, and to be healthy and happy so that I could build into a good senior year. I also wanted to get my period back, which I had not gotten in three years. I had endured so many injuries that I thought I deserved that. I did deserve that. I needed to push the reset button on everything to get my body back to health. The conversation went much like the one from the day before, except my coach finally showed her true colors. After I boldly said, “Not that I would do this, but for the sake of other girls, if you told them to push through their depression, what if they ended up hurting themselves because you were their last cry for help and you put running before them?” I couldn't believe that came out of my mouth but I was proud.
To that, she replied, “Look, my paycheck and job security is determined by the performance of a bunch of young women. If I let everyone take a race or practice off when they were feeling depressed, I would lose my job. I can't let every little mental health problem get in the way of the end goal. Maybe you just aren’t cut out for this.” I sat there, stunned. That was the moment in college when I completely shut myself off from her. If she ever showed any pretense that she cared about me, I reminded myself of that moment, and I numbed myself to her words and actions.
On the way home from practice that day, I lingered outside of the parking garage next to my dorm. If Maddy Holleran had thrown herself off of one, maybe that was the right way to go about things. I just felt so utterly worthless that I truly believed that I wanted to die. But again, I reminded myself of Maddy’s story and I peeled myself away from the parking garage entrance. Walking away from that building and into my dorm was a long and difficult walk.
With the upcoming race that weekend, I told myself again that I was strong and not to do anything stupid. ‘Just shut up and run’ I told myself. I ended up racing a season best that weekend, but I didn't care. I was more jaded than before, now realizing that the main adults in my life at school put their jobs ahead of my mental -- and physical--wellbeing. Oddly enough, that incident helped me to begin identifying and ignoring people that did not have my best interests at heart.
During my senior year, I was out for the year with an ankle injury that occurred during my second to last track race of my junior year. It was a weird injury and it took until May after my senior year to get the diagnosis-- I would end up needing ankle surgery. Even though my ankle injury really messed up my senior year socially, academically, and athletically, I am so thankful for what I went through. That whole year was dedicated to healing. I detached my self worth from my achievements in an absolute way. I mean, I was forced to because I didn’t have an opportunity to achieve anything major, but it worked. After actually considering suicide in the fall of my senior year (junior year I wasn’t actively thinking of different methods), my therapist diagnosed me with depression (I am continuing to learn what type of depression) and I went on low dosage medication for it. Once I went on the medication, I felt like I was finally in control. The edge that I had always felt, that had made my heart race and my mind cloud, was starting to lift. I was really happy I went on medication when I did because it saved me. There were a lot of factors that added up while I was healing that had me getting worse in the beginning of my journey. I was starting to feel gross in my body because I couldn't run or exercise without pain, which made me not want to wear certain clothes because I wasn’t confident. I didn't feel as a part of my team as I had when I was running because I wasn’t suiting up for meets or traveling. My injury in my shin continued to bother me almost every day of my senior year, which taught me how hard it is to have actually severe disabilities. I could barely handle a small, but persistent one. Additionally, I was extremely nauseous from the depression medication and birth control I was on that I could barely do what was expected of me. I didn’t even care about my schoolwork, which I had always taken pride in, because I just couldn’t muster the energy some days. I really was just getting by. What really got me through were the relationships in my life.
While at college, I was lucky enough to find girls on my team that I felt really understood me. They are kind, intelligent, empathetic, and talented. They would let me vent to them, and let me have my space when I needed it. They also knew when to intervene and suggest I got help when I needed it. My best friend at home was always a call away if I needed her and she always knew how to cheer me up. My sister, who is a best friend to me, would always have the right thing to say to make me feel calm. My parents kept me on the right track by encouraging me in my school work and gave me advice on jobs when I felt lost. They kept me motivated for the future. And my trainer was there for me to vent and coordinate treatment for my ankle and shin. She also advocated for me after I left school to help me get the right treatment, even though I technically wasn't her athlete anymore. All of these people made me feel loved and helped me get from day to day up until I was done with school and got my surgery.
Everyone has their own journey. I truly believe for many athletes (more than people may think), their journeys are guided by mental health and injury. For others, their path is shaped by winning and losing. For me, my journey to discovering what was going on inside of me took a long time, but once I had really committed myself to putting myself first, I slowly started to heal, even if it was a struggle at first. I was fortunate to end college with latin honors in Biomedical Engineering while in the honors track and while ranking 5th on the all-time list at my college in the steeplechase (in my sophomore year). I really clawed for everything I got, but I wanted to add that in because it is possible to still achieve even in the midst of injury and mental health, although it is far from easy. In my new chapter of my life, I will start my new job, but I will take my relationships, my lessons, and my newfound sense of self with me. I will be continuing going to a therapist and taking medication for my depression until there is evidence that I will be okay without it. It won’t always be easy, but I know I have all of the right tools to weather the hard moments this time around.