It’s okay to not be okay
[TW: contains discussion of suicide ideation]
In the past four months since my Bipolar II diagnosis, I learned to be proud of myself for everything. Although I lift hundreds of pounds almost every day as a thrower, tasks as small as getting myself a glass of water, getting up to brush my teeth, or putting on clean clothes are large accomplishments for me.
Even though millions of people in the U.S. struggle with some form of bipolar, not many people understand the disorder and why "small" wins can be so impactful and rewarding.
I often see terms like bipolar, mania, or depression being used by people to describe how moody, crazy, or sad they feel in response to a situation. But most people don’t understand that being Bipolar isn’t situational and it can’t be fixed or healed with time.
People with bipolar disorder experience very intense emotional states that vary from a few days to a few weeks to a few months, known as mood episodes. In these episodes, your mood can either be high during mania/hypomania, low during depression, or mixed. The length and intensity of these cycles vary depending on the type of bipolar disorder. Those with Bipolar I experience manic episodes that last for at least a week and may be so intense that hospital care is needed. However, those with Bipolar II experience hypomanic episodes that are shorter and less intense than manic episodes, but it is often reported that depressive episodes last longer.
For me, it was clear for years that I had experienced periodic depression. There were always periods in my life where everything came crashing down. I would be so incredibly happy and cheerful one day, and then a wave of depression, sometimes lasting for months, would hit me. For years I blamed my depression on situational issues such as burnout or personal flaws. But even when I did all the things everyone told me to do in order to "fix" these issues, I felt that nothing I did could make me happy. And I mean NOTHING.
But sure enough, there came days where I finally thought I solved it. I was happy again. In the blink of an eye. I finished all my homework, had the best practice of my life, hung out with friends, and started a lot of new hobbies - things my normal introverted self absolutely hated. I couldn’t stop myself from staying up late with restless thoughts and ideas, planning my next move across the country, or envisioning my future. Meanwhile, the day before, I was experiencing the most disparaging self-hatred and isolation I had ever experienced in my life.
In high school, I just thought to myself “maybe this is all normal”, or “maybe I’m just being dramatic.” I was high functioning after all, and I filled my day with things to do, so I never had the time to think about how horrible I really felt. Because even though I thought this was “normal,” I was just doing the best I could and suffering in silence most of the time.
This was extremely unhealthy, but in a way, all the pain and hardship I was facing alone fueled my urge to reach my goals of becoming a student-athlete. I started throwing discus in high school, and quickly it became my outlet for stress and anxiety. I spent hours watching other throwers on youtube and dreaming of throwing at the collegiate level one day. It felt like the ultimate goal - go to a great school and do something I love. I didn’t realize that becoming a student-athlete at a D1 school was going to test me mentally in a way I never thought was possible.
In my first year at UVA, I knew I had to do something about my depression. It had started to get significantly worse, and became a physical fight for me. Getting out of bed was difficult, a “good day” was eating two meals, I had intense brain fog, suicidal ideation, and nights often ended in me sobbing until I puked. Even in the happy moments, I felt a deep, unexplainable, darkness in my thoughts and aching in my body. I knew I needed help because I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. Coming from Texas, I didn’t have anyone nearby I trusted to confide in, and I wanted my medical and personal information to stay safe. I made the decision to go to UVA’s available sports psychologist.
I went for the first time, and I hated it. I thought I would feel better with one session, but I was in for a rude awakening. I left sobbing and never wanting to come back. And I didn’t go back for an entire year. I tried to fix myself, and I told myself things like “I’m just not being positive enough” or “I’m being dramatic.”
Just like highschool though, there were periods where I felt better all of a sudden, and I thought I solved my depression. Again, I had the best practices of my life, started on new projects, made new friends, began new hobbies, stayed up late romanticizing my life, and was so extremely, EXTREMELY happy and productive. Then, overnight, I broke again. I became nonfunctional. My body ached, my grades slipped, my relationships were dull, practices were not going well, and suicidal ideation entered my mind once again.
I decided to give sports psychology another try, this time with another psychologist, and guess what? Well, I still left sobbing, but this time, I knew it was time to face my own personal fears and doubts. So I kept meeting with the psychologist, and even though things weren’t always perfect, I developed a greater understanding of who I am and what I was going through. Almost two years later, I finally realized there was a pattern. I wasn't just experiencing waves of depression between waves of normalcy. I was experiencing hypomanic episodes followed by depressive episodes.
That's when I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder.
The most difficult part of accepting I had a mental disorder was accepting that I did everything in my power to get better, and I still needed medical help.
Bipolar disorders are lifelong. With all the self-care and positive thinking in the world, Bipolar doesn’t just get better on its own. Although medication seemed scary at first, I knew that I needed to give it a shot or I would end up in the hospital. While medication doesn’t solve everything, it helps lower the intensity of my hypomanic and depressive episodes, which gives me my independence back to do the little things in life that, at one point, felt so big.
Although I was scared at first, I decided to open up to my coach about what I was struggling with. When I was facing difficult times trying to figure out my medication dosage or working through a depressive episode, he let me take the time I needed off from practice. While this was incredibly helpful and kind of him, I still felt like when I didn’t show up to practice, that I was a failure. I felt like since I didn’t have a physical injury, my teammates would think I wasn’t dedicated enough or mentally strong enough to perform well.
It’s still hard to come to terms with accepting the parts of mental illness that are out of my control because I worry about other people’s perceptions of me.
It didn’t help that I would hear teammates talking down to other teammates who weren't “dedicated enough” or “good enough” to be on the team. Although most of the time I just sat there and listened, it hurt to hear things like that because people like me are just fighting to live sometimes.
When the stakes are so high as a student-athlete to perform inside and outside of the classroom, people can be ruthless with their words and thoughts.
In collegiate athletics, there are so many people coming from different backgrounds with a multitude of hardships, working towards a common goal of being their best. I think we lose sight of ourselves in that mission sometimes. We are athletes, but we are also people who are just doing the best we can.
If you’re reading this as an athlete, coach, or administrator, remember to put the person first. Talking about mental health and illness can be very difficult and vulnerable for people, and it's difficult to disclose personal struggles to others. The added pressure of being a model student-athlete makes it even more difficult to speak up and ask for help when you need it. At the end of the day, we are young adults with a lot of responsibility on our shoulders and a lot of people to please. Between families, coaches, friends, and teammates, we as student-athletes are being pulled in every direction.
So, to my fellow athletes struggling: It's okay to not be okay.