Mental Health and the Athletic Experience
My WHY for writing on this topic
One of my own personal values that I try to work on regularly is being an open book. I try my best to be genuine and authentic, especially when it relates to topics of mental health. There aren’t a lot of people having open conversations about their mental health, and I totally understand why. No matter how much I want to be an open book, I am still one of those that is a little mysterious when it comes to my mental health. I know that the times are changing and the status of the conversations about mental health are shifting in a more positive direction. Which is awesome! This post today is my desire to share with you something that is hard for me to share. Although I strive to be open about my experiences, it can be very difficult to follow through with. In this post I hope to effectively explain why that’s hard for me, and to do my best to be real about my personal struggles with my mental health without being over detailed and graphic (I save the good stuff like that for my therapist ;). I hope that others out there who have similar struggles find some strength and hope from what I can share. If you don’t struggle with mental or emotional health, I hope at the very least you gain some insight into the struggle of others who are faced with it frequently, even daily. Overall, I hope to increase awareness, love, and compassion surrounding the topics of mental and emotional health concerns.
A second goal that I have for this post is a relation about how sports and continued athletic activity has helped me cope and manage with mental health, and yet what a struggle it is to do. For me, mental health and my ability to stay athletic are *very* closely connected. It is because of this close and positive connection that I have chosen coaching as my career. Where else do you learn mental health skills? For me, the only place in the real world (meaning outside therapy) that I learned and practiced mental health skills were in athletics. It is the reason it has become a pivotal part of my existence for a looong time, that won’t change anytime soon.
Without further ado, here is a bit of my mental health and athletics journey.
What it's like
For a long time I told myself that the mental health discussions I “hide” from most people are awkward for them! This took my focus off of what made talking about my deep mental health struggles uncomfortable for myself. It was easier to think that I was doing them a favor by keeping it private and avoiding an awkward conversation. The more honest I’ve been able to be with myself, the more I realized that my true hang up with keeping my experiences so guarded was because of fear of judgement. I didn’t always like how people responded when conversations steered into the direction of mental health. I was afraid of being judged, irrevocably labeled, pitied, or worse, crying! When I felt I could trust someone, or when it seemed that my relationship with someone was trustworthy enough, I would share some of my struggles. Still, no one really knows the whole story unless they have witness it.
Bottling it up, feeling like I had this big secret to keep from everyone around me, and living in fear of eventually having to tell people led to feelings of isolation and increased suffering. I would end relationships just so avoid judgement and pain. I’ve left jobs where I felt misunderstood. I’ve lost friends because of a lack of trust or understanding. The friends that I did talk to became worn out from my constant struggling. Which in turn led to guilt for wearing them out with my “complaining”. When I had my bad days and deep struggles, who could I turn to? My fear left me without a system of support, which in turn, only made the struggles escalate when they occurred.
I have felt for a long time and still feel like people don’t really want to know the continuous, daily, constant battle that goes on when dealing with deep emotional pain. At times, I want to share more with people, but my perception is that no one really wants to know about the more uncomfortable topics I could say about my “real” life. Which only perpetuates the cycle of isolation and taboo when talking about mental health.
I know now (finally!) that it’s not just me that lives life like this. There are SO many people out there who go through the same struggles. There is a shift happening where more and more people are realizing that the way we think and talk about mental health concerns is not working for our society. A person will seem all well and good on the outside, and then one day...they’re gone. Unfortunately, and fortunately, this has led to an increased awareness of these hidden and internal struggles. The current available resources to support people who do struggle are not working very well. I have learned for myself that it’s not just about therapy, medication, institutionalizing, calls to 9-1-1, taking people up on offers of “call me any time”, etc. It’s about having real support and understanding from people you care about. It’s about feeling togetherness rather than isolation. It’s about being able to be expressive rather than bottled up. Its about showing the real me, in all my glorious crazy mess, and still experiencing love, acceptance, and understanding. I hope the research to find out what the real solutions could be, is continued by professionals and non-professionals alike.
This next part may be triggering for anyone who also deals with severe mental health struggles. Please only continue if you feel you are safe from being triggered by a share about raw mental health episodes.
I have been working on my mental health for decades. I’ve been hospitalized many times for extreme self harm, been locked up for mandatory mental health holds on several occasions, and I have attempted to end my life. In these past decades I’ve seen more than 20 therapists/psychiatrists/primary docs, tried dozens of different types of therapies, read countless books, taken classes, attended group therapy, attended “Anon” groups, taken different medications, and experimented with various lifestyle changes (moving, jobs, schooling, etc). It has not been until more recently that I have found a type of therapy that has worked to help me make a shift in my desires to engage in self harming coping mechanisms. In the past it was described to me that self harm is treated often times like an addiction. However, I’ve learned that it’s more effective to treat it as if it were PTSD. Which is relevant to the type of therapy I do now that is helpful.
Throughout my ups and downs, it has always been very important to me to maintain a sense of normalcy in my daily routine so that I could stay grounded. It helps me to switch gears from my crazy brain to my logical brain. For example, going to practice for my sport was how I first learned that this was a big help to me. The schedule and requirements were intense. I wanted more than anything to succeed at my sport. Sports anchored me in reality and connected me to people. It was an opportunity to shift gears, hone my mindset, and practice mental tools to keep me in a positive, work oriented mindset.
In college, showing up to class and doing homework was vitally important to my stability. I would decline anit-depressants that made it hard to focus because school had a more positive affect on me that the drug. I wasn’t a straight A student, but I loved my major and it fascinated me. Acquiring new information and expanding my mind to the world was an essential part of my development as a person. It was important to me to do my absolute best in school.
In my phase of life now, showing up for work outside of my home and being around other people is vitally important. Being passionately connect to my job and my hobbies provides me a sense of purpose, grounding, usefulness. Over the years it has been difficult to find and keep a job or career that has been as engaging as sports or college. As an adult, it’s harder to make new friends and fit into new communities. In a short time of life I experienced divorce, change of career, change of CrossFit gym, and change of religion. Since then I have felt without a place in this world or a community that I fit into.
What I want others to know
What most people that I interact with don’t know is how hard it is for me to show up sometimes. They have NO idea of the hurdles that I went through in my mind and body to arrive to that place with a game face on. Or that I cried in my car all the way all the way there. Or that just the night before I had hurt myself in a bad way. I still put on a game face to show up because I want and need to feel like I have something to keep going for. When hope is low, that is really hard to do. However, it can be a double edged sword because often times I show up with this big “secret” that I feel the need to hide. It perpetuates feelings of misunderstanding and isolation, and yet I just have to go. This makes the struggle almost unbearable!
I think it's important here to note that I recognize these are my own feelings, and not logical thoughts. Logically I know people do care. I would like to be able to share my current status with a boss or co-worker in order to gain understanding, validation, and probably a hug. I don’t want to dump everything out or dwell on emotions. That’s what therapy is for! I have a fear that if I share or over share, it will create a dynamic where the other person feels they need to watch me for my safety. What I fear most is being judged, labeled, told to go home because I can’t work in this state, fired, or in some other way cast out or held back. I’m safe if I’m working. I’m safe if I’m busy. I’m safe if I can do activities that ground me and help me shift me mindset to work rather than how I feel. But showing up is hard, and I sometimes I would just like to feel understood.
Mental health and the athletic experience
In high school sports, the athletic regimen was very rigid and demanding. This was good for me because there was very little wiggle room for excuses about not showing up. I had to go, everyone was relying on me, end of story. I do very well with that kind of pressure. As an adult or non competitive athlete, there’s a lot more looseness in the demands of working out, and motivation needs to come from within. Since I found CrossFit, I know now that I prefer a more competitive athletic experience even as a non competitive adult.
With that, I have been in search for a fitting community that has a balance of competitive push and mental health struggle inclusion. What do I mean by that? Some days I want to show up and crush it. Some phases of life I’m more dedicated and consistent. And yet, some days are those hard days to show up. Some days I can’t stop crying, but I still want to show up and ground myself down in physical work. Those tough days are the days that I just want to be present physically, and go through the motions without pushing too hard. I need encouragement to not give up, but understanding that just because I did pull ups in the last work out, maybe I just want to do ring rows today without being called a sandbagger. Some days I don’t care what numbers are up on the board. Some days I just want to do hot yoga and let my tears blend with my sweat. Finding a community with a blend of firm pushing, and soft tolerance to be exactly where you are is hard.
As a coach, I aim to create a community that is exactly that blend. I want to be inclusive to mental health struggles, as well as motivating and competitive. I want to create programming that is flexible to “I’m just barely hanging on” days, and “put me in coach, I’m ready” days. I do my best to expect from my athlete what they can give that day, and make recommendations for their current situation. I want to tailor my coaching to be a guide for others to use athletics as a way to ground their focus in work, and to teach them more about themselves, and as a way to practice and develop empowering mental skills to create a healthier life amid mental and emotional struggling. It is a place to feel included, valued, and belonging. It is a place to work out and become uplifted by those around you. And on good days, to uplift those around you. It is a place to develop healthy, empowering, and lasting friendships with people who feel like team mates. I always want my community to feel like they belong, and like we can all understand. You don’t have to hide or bottle up. You can be free and loved no matter what.
I may be an idealist, but I’m not upset about it. This is my career path and journey.
This is where my struggle with mental health and athletics has led me. I'm not quite where I want to be yet, but I'm working on it. I aim to make a difference and an impact on this world, big or small, I hope to leave things better behind me. If I can help just one person like me that needed to feel understood or represented in their sport or community, I hope to be that for at least one person. Maybe more.
I’m a woman. I’m an athlete. I’m a coach. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a friend. I’m a sister. I’m an aunt. I’m a daughter. I’m a significant other. And I’m a mental health survivor.
If I can do it, so can you.
With all my love and light,
Do you struggle with mental health issues but would benefit from regular workouts and a supportive community?
Would you benefit from a community where you can be open about your struggles without having to focus on them?
If you think you would benefit from this kind of workout environment I would love to hear from you!
Email me at AndelinAthletics@gmail.com