In high school I never really struggled with my mental health. I was one of the best players on a state championship team, I had a great group of friends, and an amazing family. The most I would feel upset about was being insecure about my body and looks, normal teenage girl obsessions. Overall, for my 4 years of high school, I could say that I was genuinely happy. When I got to college it was the complete opposite. I was new to campus, so I didn’t have any friends except my teammates, and even so I barely knew them. My friend group from high school separated, going to different colleges around the country. Eventually leading us to become so distant, we only speak on birthdays. My siblings got married and had kids my last years of high school, so they now had lives of their own they had to manage. They couldn’t always be there for me. School was way harder than it was in high school. In high school I never studied. I didn’t have to. I could pay attention in class, take notes that I’d never look at again, and still do well on the tests. I tried that my first few exams in college and it didn’t work out too well (and that’s an understatement.) Athletics was at a whole new level. Everything was feeling 10x faster. The girls are quicker, stronger, and smarter. I had to play catch-up fast, if I actually wanted a chance to play. Everyone warns you about the transition from high school to college, and how difficult it is from a student standpoint, but as a student-athlete it’s way harder and it takes a toll on you.
Sports were always what I was good at. I always felt like somebody when I was playing and doing well. I was happy, my family was happy, I had everyone’s support. I didn’t need anything else. But I never experienced what it was like to not have any of that. To not be playing, to not feel like somebody, to not have anyone in your corner. I felt useless. You go from being the best player on your team, to not playing at all. “Am I not good enough? Do I even deserve to be here?” The only answers you’re left with are, “You’re not good enough, You don’t belong here, You are letting everyone down. ” I truly believed all of these things. These thoughts went through my head every day for months.
I grew up in an African American house, raised by a single mother with three sisters and an older brother. The way my mom grew up, her mother pushed her with the idea of being an independent, strong, proud black woman. As a black woman you don’t need help. You don’t ask for help- that’s weak- and the last thing we are is weak. When you struggle you don’t let anyone see you struggling, and you persevere on your own. This will make you successful in the end. My mom instilled this into me and my siblings at a young age. I think this is why it was so hard and why it took me so long to tell someone that I was struggling and that I needed help.
It’s about 2 months into the season and everything’s gone to shit. It seems like I can’t do anything right in practice, I’m not playing in the games, and I’m failing most of my classes. Every week players have an academic meeting with their position coach. I had no intention of telling my coach everything that was going on or how I was feeling, but when she asked if I was doing okay everything just came out. It felt so good to just talk about what I was feeling. She sat there and looked genuinely concerned, so that made me feel even better. At the end of my rant I told her I was thinking about going to see a therapist. As soon as the word “therapist” came up, she interrupted me and said,“I think talking to someone would be a good idea, but you should start talking to someone after the season so it won’t be a distraction.” A distraction? So, you want me to continue to feel like this because you see a possible solution as a distraction? Athletics is more important than my mental health. That’s the message I got. Not that she cared or wanted to help, but that athletics is bigger than anything I’m going through. We continued our conversation but after she said that I didn’t hear a word she said. I was more broken than when I walked in.
A few weeks later, we were at an away game. After the game my mom pulls me to the side and I immediately break down sobbing. The only thing I kept repeating was “I’m not happy, Mom. I can’t do this anymore. I’m not happy.” I could see the pain in her face as she watched me cry, and how bad she wanted to help me, but she didn’t say anything. She sat there and watched me cry. After a few minutes, some of my teammates began walking by and she immediately stiffened her voice and said, “Wipe your tears. Never let anyone see you cry.” I wiped my tears and went to the bus with my teammates. At that point I was numb, and for the next few months that’s how I felt. Numb.
After the season, we had our individual post-season meeting with our head coach. I went in for mine and told him all the bullshit he wanted to hear. But as I was about to leave he asked if he sent me this article would I read it and get back to him. I said yes. I get home and I open the article and it’s about professional basketball player, Kevin Love, and his struggle with his mental health. I read the article and texted him that he had no idea how much this related to me. He sent back, “That’s why I thought about you. Not the suicidal thoughts or anything like that but just having peace in your mind. Therapy is a scary word but it can help. I’m glad you took it the right way!” (The exact message.) He cared. Someone cared. Someone cared enough to reach out. That’s all I needed. Throughout the season, my head coach would often check on me. Asking me what was wrong or just seeing how I was doing. At first, my pride wouldn’t let me tell him what I was going through because I believed I could handle it by myself, that I didn’t need help. And then after the conversation with my other coach, it really shut down any chance of me opening up. But I wish I took the multiple other times he offered to talk. Maybe I could’ve felt better and maybe I could have turned my season around.
I wrote this post for those who are athletes, for those who aren’t, for those of any race or sex, to remind you that your mental health matters. Regardless of what anyone tells you. You’re not weak for struggling with mental health, the strongest thing you can do is reach out to someone.