How I Learned to Cope With Mental Illness as a Division I Swimmer
For too long, a collegiate swimmer kept her mental health issues a secret from her family and team. Then she found a way to open up about them.
I was introduced to the world of competitive swimming when I was 11, and I joined the intramural team at my local YMCA. A year later, I was introduced to cutting myself and the world of self-harm. Both remained a fixture in my life for years after. My little intramural crew grew into a competitive team, while I grew into my depression as high school got closer. No one knew how I felt or what I did to myself. I’d cut on my stomach so it would stay under my suit, and I’d hide the emptiness I felt until nighttime in the comfort of my dark bedroom.
Things changed in ninth grade. Someone suspected that I was hurting myself, so I found myself in the high school guidance counselor’s office being questioned about my mental health. I denied every question about depression and self-harm, and kept the happy mask on. She believed me, but I was still terrified. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was feeling. Instead of a razor blade on my stomach, I picked at my hands or wrists until I bled so I could make excuses about my clumsiness to mask the self-inflicted hatred. I thought this was an improvement. I started to open up to my friends. I told them my struggle, told them I was clean and lied through my teeth that I was finally happy. In reality, I’d go home at night and lay in bed, silently staring at my ceiling and wondering what was wrong with me. I had friends, I was successful in school, I had a good home life. I had no reason for my soul to feel so completely empty.
I Was Unprepared to Handle the Pressures of College
The pool became my escape. I joined the high school team with my older brother, and I was one of the few freshmen picked to practice with the varsity team. I got faster each year. I finally discovered I was a distance swimmer, which led to earning medals in league championships and districts during my junior and senior years. I got into my top college choice, a challenging academic school with everything I dreamed of. I even walked onto the swim team there at the beginning of my freshman year. I made friends and joined clubs and, on the outside, seemed to thrive.
Inside was a whole different animal. I convinced myself I was OK, and that the whole “undiagnosed depression and self-harm” thing was just for attention, even though I still kept it a secret.
This shield I put up to block the bad feelings eventually cracked. It started in high school. I wasn’t pretty or popular—crack. I had a knee injury that kept me out of the pool—crack. My grandfather, my favorite person in the world, had a long and ugly hospice before he died—crack. My first relationship started and ended—crack. I got involved with some guys who pressured me into things I wasn’t ready for—crack.
Then college hit me like a truck.
I realized I wasn’t as smart as I thought, and I didn’t get a 4.0 with the minimal effort I was used to. I had walked onto a Division I swim team that I was wildly unprepared and too slow for, and I was coming into the year after a summer off because of shoulder tendinitis. Not to mention, my lack of high school popularity meant I was thrown into a party culture of drinking and sex that I’d never experienced before.
I was a swimmer, but boy, was I drowning.
After Surgery, My Darkness Spiraled Further
The spring of freshman year came, and I felt relief. Swim season was over, so training would lighten and I could do more work on my own to catch up to the rest of the team. I was ready to get stronger, faster and skinnier so I could finally fit in. But that plan went out the window when I got a call from my mom. Over spring break, I’d had an MRI to confirm that a round of physical therapy would have my shoulder set to go for the next season. Instead of the happy news I expected, I learned that there was a tear and I needed surgery if I wanted to keep swimming and competing. This was a huge crack in the shield, and it kept splintering through a grueling recovery.
I wasn’t in the pool all that summer, and came back to campus sophomore fall even slower, still unable to practice with the team. I split my time between kick sets in the diving well, the stationary bike in the gym and therapy exercises in the training room. It sucked. I already felt out of place being the fattest and slowest girl. Now the freshman didn’t even know my name. I felt like I barely existed anymore.
Going into that winter, the shield finally shattered. Between surgery, being raped by a now-ex-boyfriend, having huge fights with close friends and just so many little inconveniences since the spring prior, I once again took the blade to my skin, and with it came such relief. I could control this pain. It was physical, tangible. I knew why I hurt, and why I cried, and there was a physical symbol for all the pain I suffered. It once again became an addiction, something always in the back of my mind, a constant craving to see those drops of blood surface on my skin.
I spiraled, and let myself fall into depression. I let it embrace me like an old friend, without realizing it was really strangling me. At a young age, I had seen the effects of a friend’s suicide, and I decided then that I would never do that. I believed I didn’t deserve the relief of death, while my family and friends suffered, but it was incredibly tempting. I was terrified of being alone. I’d stay awake with friends until the sun came up. Eventually, a few of them started to catch on.
COVID-19 Pushed Me to My Breaking Point
Then, as soon as they figured it out and tried to intervene, we were sent home for this novel virus called COVID-19. I lost my team, my friends, my life. Between online classes and keeping up with friends, I was so exhausted I was ready to burst. Finally, the stress culminated in a breakdown on the phone with a friend. I sat in my empty bathtub, bleeding and sobbing to him when he finally convinced me to stop going through it alone. His encouragement got me out of the tub and got me to write a letter to my parents to tell them what I felt, and admit I needed help. I held onto the letter for days, tucked under my mattress, until I got the courage to leave it for them. I was raised to be strong, to take care of my own problems and be the best. Telling my parents that I was broken made me wonder what they’d think of me.
I was met with so much love from them. They helped me find a therapist, and with her, I got medication and skills to combat the darkness. Over time, I shared parts of myself with my friends, some teammates and my coach, and I was met with so much love and support that I never expected.
I wish I could say I am fully recovered and got all the help I needed, and that things are perfect now. But it’s still been just a few months. I’m still growing into happiness. I still have to tell some people the whole story. I’m still finding the medication cocktail that allows me to function, and I’m not quite clean from self-harm. I spent the last semester learning remotely, along with the rest of my school, and while I’m so excited to get back on campus, I’m also terrified. I’ll have to meet all the new freshmen on the team. I’ll have to learn to live in a weird pandemic while away from home. I’ll have to tell my coach and maybe my teammates why I have scarred lines on my upper thighs and light ones down my arms. I’ll probably cry a lot. I’m worried about the changes, and how they’ll affect me. I still have catching up to do in strength and speed with the rest of the team, and I have challenging classes that I’m bracing myself for.
As scary it is, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m no longer alone. I have wonderful teammates to cheer me on through the hard sets and the hard days, and I have friends who will call me and come knock on my door or bring me food on the days where getting out of bed is impossible. I have my coach telling me I don’t need to be a rock star every day, and that sometimes it’s enough to just be alive and maybe smile. I have my therapist and family, and so much love that even when I feel empty, there’s something or someone there to fill me up.
Wish me luck.