If you are any form of athlete, you know what it is to feel pressure, adrenaline, tension, heartbreak, excitement, etc. These are all natural feelings and everyday occurrences for athletes, but being an athlete with anxiety and depression (or other forms of mental illness) takes these feelings to another level. Like the last articles I have written about mental illness, my quick disclaimer is that I don’t expect any readers to feel pity for me. I’m only writing this piece so that you understand what some of your teammates, or maybe even you, might be suffering from.
I can openly say that I fall under this category. I’ve gone through many cycles of how I feel about having this condition. There are days when I feel ashamed, wishing I could just enjoy the sport I play on a surface level, hoping that I don’t let the outcome define my self-worth as a human. There are some days when I feel special and proud, priding myself on being able to deal with the difficulty of college athletics plus the intensity that anxiety throws into it. There are other days when simply the thought of having to get up and get to the tennis courts and prepare myself for the physical and mental exhaustion can bring me to the verge of tears. It is a challenge every single day, that for whatever reason I refuse to give up on.
I remember before my spring season started, I had scheduled a meeting with my coach to talk to him about some of my “medical conditions”. I went into the meeting fully determined to tell him everything - to lay it all out on the table. I walked into his office and then immediately decided against it, warning him about my asthma and back problems instead. I left feeling angry at myself, because I was nervous that my anxiety would come back to haunt me and by then it would be too late for him to understand. I knew there was no way I could shove it down for the rest of the season.
Recently, I had an extremely bad match where the entire time I felt paralyzed with fear. I was so afraid of losing and letting my team and coach down that I physically couldn’t perform the basics of tennis that should have been ingrained in my body like autopilot. The entire time I felt like fighting back tears and I just wanted to walk off the court and give up. I ended up pulling out a win somehow, but was so distraught because I had never felt like I had let myself down more. I was so conflicted on how I should handle it, but felt the urge to reveal to my coaches the deeper side of things.
After we had met as a team in our private room, where we are given the low down on what we need to improve upon and what we did well, I pulled my coach aside and very nervously asked him if I could tell him something. Immediately, I broke down in tears. I was so embarrassed, come on Meredith, for once can you just keep your shit together, I thought to myself. I don’t know why I was so afraid; I know how kind-hearted my coach is, and deep down I knew that he would not judge me or kick me off the team. All of these fears were fabricated in my own mind, not an uncommon theme for those with mental illness.
Everything seemed to come out like word-vomit as I was talking to him. He was silent but I could tell how much he cared, and how much he was really trying to understand what I was feeling. My two other coaches also came in, and one of them started to smile. I remember looking at him and jumping to the conclusion that he must be laughing at me and thinking my reaction was just ridiculous, (again, another common theme among those with mental illness). He stopped me in my tracks and said, “Wait. I suffer too. I understand.” This man — one of my coaches who is so much wiser and more intelligent and more experienced in life than I am — admitted to me that although he was so full of life and experience, this tiny little part of his brain that was affected by mental illness still debilitated him. Although that thought might seem really upsetting, it is actually quite a relief. It proves that the strongest and most outwardly happy people we know still suffer and are weak at moments, but they’re still standing because they continue to conquer their illness.
Today I finish this article as I am on a plane flying back from California with my teammates. I took longer than normal to ponder this piece because I really wanted to make sure I did those suffering justice. What I’m realizing as I’m writing is how far I have come since the beginning of season and how much of that I owe to my teammates and coaches. If they happen to look beside me and ask me what I am writing about, I know I can tell them without shame. Although I am still taking this college athlete thing day by day, I am happy to say I get to see another day of the struggle, because ultimately I’m going to be that much stronger of a person because of it. This was quite the confessional, and something that I felt I needed to get off of my chest but also something I felt called to by God to share. The tricky but beautiful thing (I think), about mental illness is that even the happiest people have this secret side of them that nobody knows. For some, it is easier to keep that part secret, and I completely respect that. For me, though, I have realized I just cannot keep this part of me hidden, because although it is one piece of me, it has completely transformed me into the dynamic person I have become. I used to feel like there was a “before mental illness me” and an “after mental illness me” but I’m starting to realize that this is just me now. Love it or leave it!
After a tough loss as a team the other day, our coach made a great point regarding our confidence. He told us that the best way to deal with low confidence is to face the problem head on, and to not fake confidence, but to build it over time as we grab the issue by the horns, so to speak. As he was making this point, I figured I could apply it to those suffering from mental illness, athlete or not. I was recently listening to a devotional by Sadie Robertson the other day about how God wants us to use our insecurities as our strength. I think I’m starting to learn how to use my illness as a positive in my life and as a way to help people start to talk about mental illness without stigma surrounding it. If that is what God has called me to do, then I will proudly make it my mission. Anyway, however you choose to deal with your illness, either publically or privately, face it head on with strength, and for God’s sake be proud of who you are because it’s hard as hell and you’re still alive to see another day. That’s pretty damn cool if you ask me.