Thanks to Michael Lennon for submitting this piece. In the midst of our ongoing series on mental health in swimming, Michael’s reflections offer swimmers, coaches and swimming fans a very honest look at an issue that is finally being talked about openly and addressed within the realm of athletics.
Other installments of our mental health series can be found here, here, here and here.
A Silent Struggle: One of Many
I know I’m not the only one. I don’t know everything there is to know about it, but maybe, just maybe, someone will learn from my story.
You don’t just wake up one morning and say “Oh I’m depressed.” It starts off small, a thought that creeps into the farthest corner of your brain and makes itself at home. As it grows more comfortable it begins to take over more of your mind, rewiring your thoughts and personality. That’s when you notice. It’s subtle at first. It starts as small moods you can usually shake relatively quickly. Once you begin to think deeper as to why you feel this way, it becomes embedded into your mind, and you can’t shake it. It becomes who you are. It engulfs you, contorts your thoughts and personality and you are powerless to stop it. It hurts your daily life, your ability to function plummets, as it attaches to everything you do. You begin to lose touch with those around you, as they can’t relate to your internal struggle. Eventually you feel as though it’s you against the world. You’re falling, falling faster than you can control until you hit absolute rock bottom. This is where you find yourself pinned under the weight of depression.
I wasn’t always depressed. For most of high school I lived every swimmers dream. I was one of the top distance swimmers my age in the country. I raced Olympians, NCAA qualifiers and soon to be top tier college swimmers and I could hang with any of them. I went to my first Junior Nationals my freshman year, I made Olympic Trials my junior year, made the podium at NCSA’s and swam at Olympic Trials my senior year. I was heavily recruited going into college and I eventually chose to attend UConn on a significant scholarship.
I wasn’t a particularly big guy. At 5’11 and 150, I was hardly a physical specimen. What I did have was grit and determination. I was mentally indestructible. Nothing could break me. I worked until I dropped and then I worked some more. I sat atop the swimming world and nothing could drag me down. Until it did.
It started off small, and crept into the farthest corner of my brain. It was the end of my senior year. My family life began its slow downward spiral. It’s not something I’m going to elaborate on, but I would never wish what happened upon my worst enemy. It started small, and it was something I could bury in the back of my mind with relative ease, so I did. Life kept going, and I began to bury more and more but I was still in control. The control lasted until the second semester of my freshman year in college.
The depression started to hit me, but I thought I could bury it as I had with everything else. I felt guilty for not being with my family in their time of struggle. Looking back now, it was totally out of my control but at the time I was too naïve to understand that. I thought I was okay, but before I knew it my life was out of my control. I started skipping class. It started off as just one time, but before I knew it I was rarely going to class at all. I began to drink heavily, as I thought it helped to push the depression away. Instead, all it gave me was a drinking problem. I was getting drunk on weeknights and not going to class the next day. By the end of my freshman year I had depression, a drinking problem and I was nearly ineligible to compete my sophomore year.
I told myself somehow it would get better that summer. But that’s when it got worse. It started to affect my swimming. I was so worn out from my problems I couldn’t bring myself to swim. When I came back to school my sophomore year my weight had ballooned to nearly 200 pounds. I lost a lot of the weight in my first few months back, but I also lost the desire to swim. I dreaded going to practice. I hated meets. Standing behind the blocks I found myself afraid. A once invincible figure, I found myself afraid of the pain racing would bring, as I could hardly bear anymore mental or physical pain. I found it impossible to get excited for meets. There was no more adrenaline. I started crumbling under pressure and the end of the season culminated in disappointment. I had become a shadow of my former self. People who I had no trouble beating two years before were miles ahead of me. I found myself standing alone, my life crumbling in front of me, and I had no power to stop it. What had I become?
This past year, my junior year, was when I hit rock bottom. I was a wreck. During the summer I thought about dropping out of school and retiring from swimming all together. I felt as though I had no one I could turn to who would understand what I was dealing with without being judgmental. At the start of the school year I began alienating those close to me. It wasn’t intentional. I couldn’t bear to be in a social setting, and often times on Saturday nights I found myself sitting alone in my apartment. I couldn’t deal with going home anymore, so for most of the holiday vacations I sat in my apartment alone.
Around November I couldn’t bear my burden anymore. I went to one person and told them a small piece of what I was dealing with. To my dismay they tried to tell me that it would be better soon and I just needed to wait it out. I then tried with someone else and they acted as if they had no time for me and they brushed me aside. I now felt hopelessly alone, and I began to slip even further away from what I used to be.
Then something completely unexpected happened. I remember the day vividly. I had gone home for Christmas Day to be with my family for the day when I got a text out of the blue. It was from one of my teammates, and they wanted to know what was up with me, as they noticed I was not doing particularly well. I wasn’t sure I could entirely trust that person at first, but after opening up a little at time, I found that person became my anchor. I could go to them with anything. It was the first time in years I felt comfortable opening up. I had been picked up off the ground and helped to my feet. It was a start.
Then I came crashing back down. A bizarre accident at practice left me with a serious hand injury less than three weeks out from the conference championship. It was enough to crush me, and I swam through the pain until my last race. Depressed and in serious pain, I was halfway through the race. One guy passed me, and then another. I was about to give up. I told myself I was going to quit after this race, this was it. But then I felt it. It was something I lost years before. Maybe the pain in my hand caused it. Maybe it was something else. For the first time in nearly three years there was a desire to fight back. It was small, and it planted itself in the farthest corner of my brain. It crept in, nearly going unnoticed and made itself at home. It was enough for me. I used it, and for the first time in a long time I didn’t give in. I finished the race in second and with a time I went in high school years before. But I didn’t care. As I got out of the pool, I brought something with me that wasn’t there when I dove in: the desire to be good again.
So here I sit, months later, confident my days of being at rock bottom are behind me. I’m still far from being completely better, but I know I’m on the right track. Sure I still have bad days, but now I know I don’t have to bury what I’m dealing with, as I have a few people I can go to.
I’m not writing this out of self-pity. I know there are others like me in both swimming and the athletic world, silently struggling. I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I made or for them to go down my downward spiral. If you’re depressed, don’t bury it, as it only gets worse and leads you down a bad road. I can’t sit here and tell you the secret to beating it, but I can tell you this: you aren’t alone.
Michael, my email is [email protected]
Take care 🙂
“Silent Struggle”: A very authentic phrase that describes the journey towards recovery that many with mental illness take. My name is Jharna Sutaria, and I battle Depression. Like you, I also have a rough home situation. I’ve stopped swimming and I’m falling behind in school. There are days when I feel hopeless and stuck. Despite the intensity of my inner demons, there’s a small part of me that holds hope. I truly want to get better. I deserve it, and so do you! As a fellow warrior who is diving through the rough waters of mental illness, I want to congratulate you on how far you have come and your drive to keep getting better. Keep it up!!
I… Read more »
i am not a swimmer, but i am a fan of this sport since i was a kid. when i am watching the rio olympics, i felt inspired, and yet triggered my depression. i asked my self “i should be happy, because for the longest time, i felt inspired”.
watching the games, i felt elated for my 31 years of existence here on earth, i have my favorite athlete (finally!)- michael phelps. hearing the issues and controversies about him that i didn’t know, i started reading his bio and what he went through. such an inspiration. the rio olympics is a blessing in disguise for me. it may triggered my depression, but it made me become aware of myself of… Read more »
I’m actually shocked that no-one noticed the change in your behavior or thought to further investigate these changes. I’m assuming training on a scholarship means you have a team of professionals working with you so I’m finding it difficult to understand how none of them thought to talk/sit with you to try to understand what was going on with you. Mental health is a major issue for serious athletes in all sports & this apparent lack of awareness or recognition of what you were experiencing is very strange.
Thanks for sharing your story. Hopefully it will give some one the strength to find help or to be the one to help!
Thank you for sharing your struggle, Michael. I hope those who have read your story have learned a lesson not to brush off a friend who is trying to reach out. And to identify someone who is in a downward spiral…and help them seek professional help
Thank you for sharing your struggle, Michael. I am sure a number of swimmers have read your story. And I hope this has taught them to identify a friend who is suffering internally and not brush them off. I also hope friends and coaches ,once they identify someone who is suffering from depression would recommend professional help right away.