Labor day, September 4th, 2017. One year ago today I made the hardest decision of my life….
Anyone who has spent time around me knows I am an extreme extrovert. At first shy, but once I get comfortable around you, I am one of those people who always pushes the boundaries of personal space and inappropriate humor. I am the first one to do something daring or just plain stupid (Call me if you ever want to roll your bosses house or walk on the edge of a cliff). I love hard. I aim to spread smiles. I give everything I have to those around me.
But how much can you give, if you yourself are empty?
Almost two and a half years ago, I began a journey I was not at all prepared for. I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder. Was I surprised? No, if anything I was relieved. Since my junior year of high school I had felt “off”. I was driving myself crazy and beating myself down because I couldn’t figure out why would I, a collegiate athlete on scholarship going to one of the best swim programs in the country, could be feeling so worthless and empty all the time. Yet I finally had an answer, and so began the process of getting better.
But I didn’t get better. In fact, I got worse. I cycled through meds. Trying brand after brand, dosage after dosage, just looking for the perfect combination. I tried therapy. I met with the team psychiatrist and psychologist most days if not every day of the week. Then my mental illness began affecting my physical state. I was a regular in the doctors office. Between always getting a cold, and my lower back pain driving me to tears in class, I was a mess in all wellness areas. I was missing more practices then I was making. I was frustrated nothing was working, and I took a dangerous path.
Over the next year, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Therapy and meds weren’t working, so I self medicated. I drank all of my frustration away. I drank when I was sad. When I was upset. When it was a weekend. When I had practice in the morning. When I was with friends at a bar. When I was alone in my room. I would have sold my soul to the devil for a drop of liquor. Sometimes, drinking wasn’t enough. I have struggled with self harm since high school, and it came back naturally in those hard moments. The bottle and a razor became my best friends. Which in turn, pushed away my real friends. I didn’t care about my friends. Looking back, I didn’t even give a shit about my team or coaches. All I cared about was escaping the pain and emptiness that took turns radiating through my body.
I did a decent job at hiding my pain, or so I thought. Teammates knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what to do, so they left me alone. I was thriving in swimming. I became an SEC champion. I set school records and anchored relays. My accomplishments confirmed to me my way of healing was working. Then I truly screwed over my team. I had suffered panic attacks for a year now. Usually when drunk, or in a hard situation. What I never saw coming was the worse panic attack I have ever experienced happening about 20 minutes before finals at the 2017 NCAA Swimming Championships in March. One minute I’m swimming, noticing my chest is a little tight as I warm up for our 200 Medley Relay final and my 100 fly final. Next thing I know, I’m on the ground. My athletic trainer staring down at me and a couple concerned teammates looking worried. I can feel my heart pounding through my body. I start to feel a rush of static through my fingers and the tip of my nose as I struggle to get oxygen. I spend about 90-120 minutes on the floor trying to get my breath under control. Despite my demands that I was okay and begging to be allowed to swim, I am taken to the hospital to be checked out. I don’t remember everything that happened, but I what I do know is that I gave up between 10-40 points by missing my races and played a big hand in the Vols placing 22nd that year.
Between March and September, I thought about how I let my team down every single day. It weighed on me more than I can describe. I thought it was impossible, but I began to slip even further downhill. I was past the stage of being able to drink everything away. I began to go numb by thought alone. I started to isolate myself, spending hours alone in my room “doing homework” or “watching Netflix” while in reality, I was staring at my wall. I would curl up in my blanket, squeezing myself so hard trying to get the fuzzy pain to go away. My friends started giving up on me, and me on myself. I’d go days without sleeping or eating. I’d fight through practices with the little energy I had. I would skip classes, and if I went I would sleep or stare off into space. I’d pick fight with my friends, wanting so desperately for someone to do something to help me, even when I knew they couldn’t. I threaten to quit the team. I was tired of dealing with the emotional pain, and to pile on another 4 hours of physical pain a day was too much for me. Everything became too much. I found myself not wanting to fight anymore. I was too tired, my illness took a piece of me every day and I wasn’t strong enough to stand for much longer. I wanted to die. I had toyed with idea for a long time, but I was serious with myself this time. I planned, I said goodbyes and apologies.
Finally, I had hit rock bottom.
It took two of my best friends stopping me from doing anything stupid and sitting me down to talk to really make myself realize that I needed help. And I needed to accept the help. I had scared myself. Almost reaching the end made me see just how far in the hole I had been buried. So on Labor day 2017, I chose to leave my team, give up half my season, drop all my classes, leave my entire life to go get help. A year ago today I left for Chicago, Illinois and checked myself into an in-patient treatment center.
Treatment, or “camp” as some of my teammates call it, was the most challenging and enlightening moment of my life. I struggled with being away from everything I knew. I was constantly berated with rules, restrictions and sometimes with very traumatizing situations. I had limited contact with the outside world, and my fellow patients and staff quickly became a support system. It was tremendously difficult, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I learned more about myself in those 30 days than I have the past 20 years. I learned how powerful the mind is. I learned what true friendship looks like. I learned how people think, how vulnerability can bring even the most different people together, and how strong we really are. I learned nothing is more powerful than belief in yourself, and that something as simple as a smile can save someone’s life.
A month later I returned to Knoxville. It was a hard adjustment. I wasn’t allowed to train with my teammates per NCAA rules until the next semester. Many teammates weren’t sure how to interact with me once I came back, and I spent the next few months training alone and rebuilding relationships. In the end, I ended up getting back into classes, regaining eligibility, and qualifying for NCAA Champs with only half a season under my belt.
A year later, I am thriving and not just surviving, which is not something I have been able to say in a while. My mindset is more motivational than it ever has been. I have big dreams, I have a hope for the future and I have so much love for my team. I am excited to come into practice every day and learn something new. I dream about racing and winning finishes along side my Lady Vols. . I go to classes with a determination to push myself and do the best I can. I come home every night to my baby girl, Remi (border collie, very cute), and I can finally get a good. nights. sleep. Sure, I still have my hard moments. You can’t be perfect and its okay to take a step backwards every once in a while. But I am finally moving forward and getting better.
I didn’t want to share this story. I struggle with being vulnerable. I like to portray myself as a superhero badass, but even superheroes have their weaknesses. Everyone has a weakness, and that’s okay. Especially as an athlete, was are supposed to be invincible. Grit our teeth and take the pain. Be the role model for fans people who look up to us. But we aren’t perfect, we are still human, and humans hurt. I want to share my story because I hope it can show that it is okay to hurt, and it is okay to be slipping. It is okay to ask for help. Someone cares, and if you don’t believe that, then know I care. I’ve felt the pain, the emptiness, the loss of any hope. Listen to me, you deserve so much more. So do something scary. Make a hard decision and reach out. One leap of faith is all it takes. I promise, you will not fall.