On elite athletes and mental health.
For once I am not going to be the procrastinator I always am. The person that is always thinking, saying, and swearing they will do things, and just never getting round to it. Either finding an excuse like I was too busy, or I couldn’t get in touch with the right people, or I’ll do it later this afternoon…which turns in to I’ll do it tomorrow, which turns in to, I’ll never get it done. 2016 is the year of doing. And I’ve been doing just that. I just do things. Something as simple as booking that psychologists appointment, calling my coach, organising to see a friend I haven’t seen in a while. All these little things I know will help me in the long run with big things. Like I want to win that spring classic so I am going to do x,y,z starting now. The first step, the x, is dealing with my own mental health issues. Something that has brought me to my knees on many occasions, and came to a head in December, where I was so lost, and just so very sad.
After reading the sad news that bmx legend Dave Mirra took his life, I stopped, I paused and I just sat on my bed and thought long and hard for a second. Hadn’t I just been in a really dark place last night when I was home alone (we’ll get more in to that later), no one around, no one to talk to at that moment? And you find yourself slipping in to these dark thoughts. They just flood your mind, I can’t explain why or how it happens, but it does, and it’s so fucking hard to drag yourself out, particularly when you’re alone. The problem being, I feel, is we have too much, and we are always wanting more: nothing is ever good enough. Particularly with elite athletes, we only know how to function at the highest level. We base everything we do on performance, we judge ourselves, we compare ourselves, and to be honest, it can become quite exhausting. Now I’m generalising here, because there are a lot of athletes out there who might read this and not relate in the slightest bit. That is not who I am talking to, however, I’m sure all elite athletes can relate on some level. It comes down to coping mechanisms. For some of us, it doesn’t come as easy, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I myself am a very deep thinker, a worrier, for as long as I can remember, I have not had the greatest coping mechanisms. I can recall one particular moment at the 2000 pan pacific games championships at home bush where I made myself so nervous and stressed before the 800m final that I was in tears at the fence trying to hug my dad. Why the tears? I was pretty much guaranteed a medal based on my times, I had beaten most of the girls all year round, I was fit, strong, good to go. So what was the problem? Fear of failure, disappointing my parents, disappointing myself? I don’t know if I ever really stopped and thought “hey if you go out there and run your heart out, give it everything you’ve got and you win, that’s awesome! And if you don’t win, then that’s awesome, because you gave it everything, and that’s all you can do. Some people are just faster on the day”. Sounds like a perfectly logical conversation to have with one’s self before a race. But that is just not how my brain would work, I would focus rather on a poor outcome, and the repercussions of it, rather than just focusing on getting the job done. Just run like I did in every training session leading up to this moment. Anyway I digress, I’m giving a small example of how my brain functioned as a kid athlete, and how my anxiety has always been something plaguing me.
Going back to me falling in to a dark place just the other night, I can see and relate to these other athletes. I’m no legend like Dave Mirra, or Leisel Jones, but i understand the sadness that sometimes just overwhelms you. Even when to the outside you appear to be one of the happiest people around. It’s usually the ones like me with bucket loads of friends, always on the go, so outgoing which are the most depressed. I believe it’s because I try to distract myself from me. I have never particularly liked myself, I’ve always been my worst critic, we all are, but it’s like I just want more and more from myself, and I just can’t seem to get it. It’s almost this sense of self entitlement. I feel like I need to make a difference in the world, I need to contribute on some higher level, I need to be….special? Being “normal” whatever the hell that word means, terrifies me. Settling down, buying a house, having a car, being in one spot, working some job that ties me down scares the shit out of me. It always has. I’ve always searched to be different, to do things differently. That word, “search”. Searching for something…looking for meaning. Why? why does everything we do have to have some meaning other than just living? I get bogged down on these thoughts because I feel that the life I lead is such a selfish way of life, that I don’t deserve it in a sense. See, there’s that self-criticism again. And any good psychologist would now say “but why do you feel you deserve all the wonderful things that happen to you?”. My response usually, I have no idea, that is why I’m talking to you! It’s the way I think, it’s the way I’m wired, I am who I am, but one thing I’ve realised is I can be in control of my thoughts. I can choose to be happy or sad, and I can choose to seek help or not seek help. And I’m getting better at reaching out and seeking the help I need. Back to my story of falling in to a dark place last night. I was slipping, but I realised it, so I contacted my dad, and we talked. It was as simple as that. Someone who I trust dearly, even though we have had our differences, he is one person I know that understands my strange mind. I just wish, I hope that more people would just reach out and get the help they need. I know now it’s not a weakness, but if I just let things slide, and fall down the rabbit hole, that’s weakness. So I figure just talk about it, and maybe if I talk about, other athletes, other people will feel like they can just talk about what’s going on in their heads. We are all unique, we all have our flaws, and yes we all have our weaknesses. If you recognise your weaknesses, you can conquer them. We all have an Achilles heel, the difference between you and Achilles is if you recognise your weakness, you can figure out a way to protect yourself from it, and maintain your strength.
Loren has a wing tattooed on her right ankle to always remember her Achilles heel.
Words: Loren Rowney