***This piece contains sensitive material and may trigger emotions for those who have shared similar experiences. Reader discretion is advised.
Please let me preface this by saying that I absolutely love Dartmouth. The College is one of my favorite places. It has been since I committed in the fall of my senior year of high school, and remains one still. However, no amount of love for Dartmouth could have kept from facing the most difficult challenge of my life.
Flashback to my freshman year of college
My freshman year of college brought on a beast like nothing I had ever faced before. Playing Division 1 basketball at an Ivy League institution 13 hours from home created stronger demons than I had ever faced - demons I couldn’t shake. So I didn’t. I succumbed to them, because I couldn’t find the strength to fight them, let alone beat them. I spent my freshman year fighting severe depression and anxiety. It was a mental, physical, and emotional deterioration.
At the beginning of the year, I felt myself slipping. I reached out to a few friends, some at school and some at home. Most of the feedback I received was that it was normal, that everyone was feeling the way I was feeling – homesick, exhausted. It would pass. It would all be okay.
I hadn’t made friends and I didn’t really care to. I was losing my appetite. I was losing my desire to do anything but lay in bed. It didn’t feel normal. I didn’t see other people slipping like I was slipping. So I pretended like I wasn’t.
Day in and day out, I would drag myself out of bed, knowing that each day would bring another losing battle. That was the hardest part - getting out of bed when I knew what I was up against, then dragging my feet all day trying to face it, failing miserably, and having to do it again the next day.
Morning workouts consisted of going through the motions, hoping nobody would notice my inability to look up from the ground or make eye contact. In class, I tried to focus but found myself on edge. I would glance and smile at a few of my classmates. I’d occasionally offer a hello to my professor. Mostly I just kept to myself. I didn’t want anyone to see past the facade.
When I told a professor I didn’t participate in class because I didn’t have confidence, she was shocked because I was an athlete. Apparently there is an assumption that athletes must be confident all the time in every aspect of their life- that athletes have it all together. And I wanted to seem that way. People couldn’t see beneath my skin. They couldn’t see me falling apart.
I had no appetite. When it came to meals, I ate just enough to give myself the energy I needed to get through the day, but often felt sick after eating. I would eat alone- never with anyone. Eating with other people meant conversation, and I was never up for conversation. So I’d walk past my teammates eating together, give a quick wave, and find a quiet place to spend another lonely hour.
Then came practice. The team sat in the locker room all together beforehand while I hid in the bathroom, dreading the moment when I would have to return. Over the course of practice, I dragged myself through the drills, always checking the clock, always wanting to be somewhere else. Then, when we were let out, I returned to the bathroom so that the busyness of the locker room wouldn’t overwhelm me. Most days, I cleaned up alone and was the last one out. I didn’t mind.
After three hours of practice, I would go lay in bed and stare at the ceiling for hours. I didn’t really talk to anyone, other than a short hello to my roommate as I walked in my room. Maybe if my parents texted me, I’d give a quick response, but not much else. Sometimes I skipped dinner, maybe eating a turkey sandwich if I could stomach it. I was never hungry and always exhausted, so eating after practice was particularly hard. I didn’t have the patience or focus to complete my schoolwork, so my homework rarely got done. If I made an attempt to do some work, it was subpar.
Most social interaction caused horrible anxiety attacks. I felt like I could barely breathe, like my legs were going to give out beneath me.
I had no passion for anything. I couldn’t open a book or pick up a pen. I only played basketball when it was mandatory, and even then, I didn’t want to. All I ever wanted was to slip silently into a cloudy oblivion within the comfort of my bed. But then night would fall, and sleep wouldn’t come. Nearly every night, I’d lay awake for hours. I tried to not look at the time because that would bring panic attacks on top of the anxiety that was already consuming me. So I would lay awake waiting for sleep to take me. Eventually it would, but then I would be awoken by my alarm a few hours later only to have to suffer through another day.
For so long, I tried to keep it together in solidarity. The depression was wearing me down. I lost my carefulness. A few conversations with my coaches, a few questions from teammates. Some people could tell something was going on, but they didn’t know what or how bad.
One night mid-January, my team went to a movie together and I opted out. They didn’t expect anything of it. I didn’t usually do team things if they weren’t required. Instead, I sat in the locker room for three hours after practice in hysterics. I had finally been pushed over the edge, so I called my mom. I couldn’t breath, I could barely talk. I can’t imagine what she was thinking during our call, or the time thereafter. My parents made a trip out to Dartmouth the following weekend for our first home Ivy game. Everyone thought it was for the game. It wasn’t.
I am so fortunate to play basketball in a program that focuses so much on the person rather than the basketball player. My head coach was the first person to reach out to me about my changing behavior. I didn’t realize it was as noticeable as it was. I shrugged it off, gave vague answers, not enough to reveal what was inside my head. The first person my mom called after she got off the phone with me was my head coach, and the next day I went into her office and told her that I was falling apart. She kept me on steady ground. She was there always.
My body always hurt. I was in a constant state of fatigue. I got migraines. The depression and anxiety was running its course, and in turn, took a toll on my body. On top of the exhaustion, it was so much self-loathing and wondering why I wasn’t good enough in any aspect of life. It was a constant push to be better at everything but then a quick drop thinking that it would never be enough. Feelings of inadequacy consumed me. I wasn’t good enough for anyone or anything. I wasn’t a good enough basketball player, I wasn’t a good enough student, I wasn’t a good person or a good friend, I was always letting people down, I was a disappointment. I felt so alone. It felt like a physical emptiness. I saw no worth in life. These thoughts crept into my head everyday, and slowly sucked the life out of me.
There was a lot of bad. But not all was bad. And those good moments, I savored. I clung to them on the worst days.
My freshman spring term was much better. There were good days and bad days. But, for the first time in a long time, the good days outnumbered the bad. I felt myself climb over a wall that felt infinitely tall, wide, and deep. I was finally able to breath again.
Fast forward to present day
I have just completed the end of my sophomore year and have been open about my mental health for nearly a year. I have stood in front of hundreds of people and talked about the all-consuming battle with my mental health multiple times. I let people glimpse into the most private part of my life. I stand on the steadiest ground since the beginning of college.
But just because it is the steadiest that it has been does not mean it is completely steady.
I am still depressed. I still have anxiety. I still take my antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. Some days I can’t find the physical, mental, or emotional strength to leave my bed. Sometimes I can’t breathe and I don’t know why. Sometimes I cry for hours inexplicably. But sometimes my stomach hurts from laughing so hard with my friends. Sometimes I feel invincible. Some days, the dark clouds are a blip.
These past two years, I have had a difficult time coming to terms with how this has affected me. For an entire year, I allowed the depression and anxiety turned me into someone that I wasn’t. I let it strip me of my passions, my interests, my love and laughter. Finding all of that again has been extremely difficult.
Falling in love with basketball again was particularly hard. At the start of my sophomore year, I couldn’t remember what it was like to play with a boundless joy. For a long time, I struggled to rekindle that passion. About half-way through the season, basketball had reclaimed my heart. I nestled back into the comfort of the gym and found the spark that lit the fire in me as a kid.
Day to day, I never know what to expect. There are always new challenges. The biggest difference between then and now is that I never lose the light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how far away it may seem on any given day, it is always there.
I am who I am and it is what it is. This is my life, and no matter how hard it may be at times, I have to learn to love it and love myself.
People don’t like to talk about mental health. The negative stigma surrounding mental health inhibits people from receiving the help they may desperately need. However, those are the conversations that people need to have. Mental health is not an issue to be ignored. I know this. I experienced this. Those are the conversations that saved my life.Whatever you may be going through, however bad or lonely or unwanted you feel, you’re never alone. Keep fighting. It gets better.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255