An Open Letter To the Coach or Athlete Battling Mental Illness:

Whether we like it or not, there indeed exists a stigma in athletics that players and coaches must be “mentally tough”, and that discussing mental illness is taboo. As a result, those who are struggling do so in silence for fear that they will be labeled soft, incompetent, or mentally weak. 

Recently, I posted some tweets sharing the fact that I have personally struggled with depression throughout my life. Thanks to the positive response and the many people sharing with me their own battles, I want to take some time to pen a more open and thorough letter.

Today I want to briefly share with you my story of living and working in athletics with depression, and how finding acceptance and deriving strength from others (friends, family, and ultimately teammates) has helped me grow from the same struggle you might too be facing.

***

My parents claim they noticed it when I was just 11 years old, although my earliest recollection on the matter only dates back to my high school years. Regardless, I know this much: it’s been well over a decade now that I’ve been dealing with depression. Over that time, the nature and severity of my condition has fluctuated, while my understanding of depression and its impact on my life has developed incrementally in stages.

At first, I had these thoughts, though I didn’t much understand them. I just felt them; experiencing them in their most raw, uninterpreted form. I felt sadness, resentment, loneliness and anger. I despised what I saw each time I looked at my own reflection. But, I thought these feelings were normal, chalking them up to bad self-esteem and body image issues. Totally normal for a kid that age, right?

But, I also felt emptiness.

An analogy to help you understand: you know that feeling when you leave home and feel like you’ve forgotten something? Quite often that is how I would feel, except what I had forgotten was why I should be excited — hell, why I should just be willing — to get out of bed in the morning. What is it again that I’m supposed to look forward to or be happy about? Can I really keep doing this? Still, for some time I was certain this was all normal.

With age, though, came maturation and progression of introspection; I began to realize thoughts and feelings like these weren’t common amongst my high school peers.

Maybe I have some kind of problem, I thought.My parents just so happened to be thinking the same. They took me to see somebody; not a psychologist, but a counselor, who proceeded to inform us that I had symptoms consistent with depression, though she couldn’t legally diagnose me.

Yet despite this pseudo-diagnoses, skepticism still prevailed: it was much easier for me to believe I was simply an angsty teenager. Thus, I smothered any inclination that I might actually have depression, forgetting all implications tied to ignoring mental illness. The bullheaded mindset of a stubborn athlete showed its ugly face: Depression? Nah, I’m just soft, immature, and mentally weak. Thus, I entered the next stage of my battle with depression: coping.

During this time of my life (from roughly the age of 16 to 23) I developed and subsequently overused “healthy” outlets as coping mechanisms, all the while still partially denying that I had a real problem.

How did I cope? I used strength-training, running, and the relentless pursuit of professional (coaching) excellence as a means to exorcise what I viewed as personal defects: depression? Doubt it. What does that counselor know? I’m a coach, a former athlete. Mental illness? Not likely. I’m just mentally weak. Just soft and immature. 

I thought changing my appearance while riding the endorphin high of two-a-day and three-a-day workouts would help.

It didn’t. Yet I continued on: training and running and training and running and training…

Most would call exercise a healthy outlet, but by 2016 I had lost 40 pounds, and nothing about dropping from 185 to 145 lbs was healthy for me; I felt weak. I felt alone. And, I felt exhausted when simply walking. Friends and family told me I looked sick, but I was indifferent. I have a 6-pack so who cares? I’m “happy”. Not so surprisingly, though, I never actually felt happy. I felt alone.

But, I wasn’t in this alone at all. While I continued to hold all of the pain and feelings of inadequacy (while also beating myself up for it through my work and training), my actions, moods, and habits affected those around me, and the relationships in my life suffered as a result. I made up for this in earnest at work: I continued my diligent pursuit of professional excellence in order to establish some kind of positive in my life. But, the disparity in my moods became even more pronounced as a result. I held it together at work just fine (the weight room and field were my comfort and outlet after all), but by work’s end I returned home exhausted and broken down.

At some point, though, things changed. I suppose I had gained enough life experience, seen enough, and talked to enough people to know I might actually have a very real problem. I will not lie — things got ugly. And, as a culmination, I knew the time had come to accept vulnerability, and as coach and former athlete, to swallow the toughest pill of all: admitting that my true “weakness” wasn’t that I was depressed, it was that I refused to acknowledge the problem for what it was and accept the help that I needed. 

In 2017 I finally got a real diagnosis: no surprise, I have depression. What was a surprise, though, was just how relieving it was to hear the words out loud, “you have a mental illness”. 

I could finally stop beating myself up — both literally and figuratively — for being “weak” and “soft”, and I could take the necessary steps to get better.

Getting better by way of a process focused on improvement; music to a coach and athlete’s ear. It was liberating to find out that I could learn what my triggers are and combat the negative thoughts through hard work. I could stop pretending, acting, and coping out of desperation. I could actually, truly get better. 

If there was a name for the stage I’m in now, it would probably be acceptance. Since getting help, I have made progress. I have also become more aware of the need to be open about what I’m dealing with. Not just for me (although sharing my story with others does allow me to open up and truly be myself around them) but also for others that are battling their own mental illness, and are too afraid, embarrassed, ashamed, or worried to reveal their plight. Especially in athletics, where mental illness carries the same exact stigma that I held myself to for years: soft, mentally weak, immature…

Even upon acknowledging that I might have a very real problem, I began to fear what others might think. As a coach in professional athletics, the last thing I want is for somebody to question my competence as a leader, my fit as a role model or as a mentor and influencer of young men and women. I can imagine many coaches and players having similar fears and anxieties over sharing their story.

But, the fact is, athletics provides one of the greatest environments for camaraderie, togetherness and support. When I finally broke down and asked trusted colleagues for help, they were there for me. And, when I confided in others about my internal battle, they heard me and accepted me all the same — maybe even more. Our relationships seemed to actually get stronger. What’s more, so many of my athletes and colleagues actually helped me tremendously without knowing my struggle at all. Their acceptance of me for who I am (despite all of the self-inflicted negative light I cast on myself due to depression), and that was vital for my progression and develop through the hardest of times. 

Will everyone, everywhere be accepting of you — the athlete or coach — if you share your own story of struggle with mental illness? Probably not. Unfortunately, there are still people who will judge for anything these days. I fully expect some people to misunderstand or misrepresent my battle, or to opt out of trying to comprehend why I am sharing it at all.

But, I have to believe that most people are good. They will see and understand our vulnerability in their own insecurities. 

I firmly believe that shared vulnerability brings out the best in humanity. 

They will identify with our struggle — because we all have something we’re dealing with. We all have our own hardships, mental health-related or otherwise. 

They will appreciate that depression, anxiety etc. are not things for which we asked. Above all, when you decide to share, they will accept you. And when they do, they will be a part of your support system.

Whether they or you realize it or not, a strong support system can make a profound difference in the quality of any person’s life. One single person who accepts you for you and all of your blemishes — mental illness or otherwise — can catalyze the development of your self-worth. Now, imagine an entire team rallying behind one another.

Athletes, coaches — really anybody who is suffering from mental illness — you are not alone, nor do you need to be. I struggle and continue to fight. So do many others. And, much like a team working toward a championship, we are all in this together. So, when you’re ready, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. Be proud of who you are, accepting of your areas in need of improvement, and be willing to put your fears and/or pride away and let others help you grow.

Respectfully,

RJF

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