An Uncomfortable Conversation
Editor’s Note: This original piece is the second in a series of two athlete letters to be published in May — Mental Health Awareness Month — to bring more awareness to the topic of mental health and the real-life struggles athletes of all shapes and sizes go through, often unseen, as they’re coming in and out of their gyms each day. It’s our hope that by sharing intimate stories like these, coaches and affiliate owners will be inspired to reach out to their own gym communities to support others.
In 2015, a couple of months before first being diagnosed with a mental health disorder, I got a tattoo on my left ankle.
It’s two arrowheads. One has the Polynesian symbol for storm, (my Dad’s a Cook Islander and I got the tattoo done there ) and the other is empty.
At the time I was mentally unwell. I’ve always kind of been mentally unwell. Oscillating between feeling completely overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings and then void of feeling altogether. Sad and empty. The contents of the arrowheads were meant to reflect these two states of being.
The arrowheads however were meant to serve as a reminder that even when those feelings took hold of me, I could always keep moving forward. I have two smaller arrows on my thumb to match my ankle. I felt compelled to open this piece with that sentiment as it is what has guided me through both the best and worst moments of my life.
All feelings pass.
Some of my earliest memories are of being different. Thinking and feeling differently to others.
My childhood was one spent locked in an internal tug-of-war between how I felt and how I thought I should feel.
All the other kids seemed to just know how to be kids. I was anxious, emotional, sensitive and had an assortment of intrusive thoughts and imagined sensations I had to manage with a variety of ticks.
I also overanalyzed EVERYTHING. I’d leave every encounter with others plagued by thoughts about if I had done something wrong, or bad, or just plain weird.
I was weird and I knew it and what’s worse is I knew that other people knew it too.
I was my parents’ first child. They are the most beautiful two people I know.
When I was born they were both working as theatre actors and instilled a deep passion for creativity, individuality and self-expression in me and my brothers from the moment we were born.
Mum, heavily influenced by the self-esteem movement that was the in-vogue parenting style of the time, would tell me all the positive affirmations you could conceive.
To her I was the most handsome, special, talented, smart, bound-to-be-successful little boy on the planet. I can remember one of the first instances in which I realized this wasn’t true.
I was at pre-school, or play group, the exact details are a blur (I would have been maybe 4 at the time).
We’d had a dress-up day and I believe I turned up the following day still in costume. Everyone was sitting in a circle and, though I can’t remember exactly what was said and by whom, I remember vividly that I had done something wrong by dressing up. I loved dressing up as a kid. My parents encouraged it. But there was something wrong with that, at least according to my pre-school peers and in my anxious little mind that idea mutated into there being something wrong with me.
This seemingly innocuous event is so clearly imprinted in my memories because it served as the first moment in which I began to question the way I saw the world. I would have been maybe four, gripped by my first existential crisis. It seems kinda poetic in hindsight.
It probably comes as no surprise that I was an incredibly anxious kid. I was picked on as much as any chubby, different kid would be I guess. But I was a sensitive kid and the teasing made me desperate to fit in.
At high school I started playing sport. I was decent at it and, searching for acceptance by my peers, I worked hard at it. My body began to reflect that hard work and when I was 15 or 16, suddenly girls started to notice me.
For a kid who’s first kiss was administered out of pity, on the last day of primary school, surrounded by people laughing at me for looking like a deer in headlights, this new found attention from the fairer sex had exactly the affects you could imagine.
I really, REALLY liked it.
The logic was simple. I looked fit, which girls found attractive and therefore I finally had worth.
What wasn’t as simple was the subsequent eating disorder I developed in my late teens and battled with through to my early 20s.
I was bulimic.
The pang of deep, gut wrenching, chair twisting shame I still feel typing those words is nothing compared to the way I felt during those years and I often wonder just how influential carrying that shame for so long has been in deepening the anxiety and depression I still manage.
This was a time where mental health and mental health disorders were hardly spoken about, let alone mental health disorders in men and the amount of shame I felt being a young man that had an eating disorder is hard to properly articulate.
I can vividly remember the moment I stopped. I was living out of home and I had gone to visit my family. I knew they had long suspected something but I’d denied and lied through my teeth that they were wrong.
My dad asked me to go for a drive with him.
We went to the beach and pulled up in the car park. We talked about a few things. I could tell he was nervous and wanted to say something but he couldn’t get it out. He began to drive away from the beach towards home.
As we left the carpark and turned onto the main road away from the beach he blurted out, “do you have an eating disorder?”
“Yes.” I answered.
He pulled over and we cried and from that moment onwards my entire relationship to food and my body changed.
With the knowledge I now have of psychopathology and the damage eating disorders can have on a person I consider myself extremely lucky I was able to have such an instantaneously transformative moment. I love my Dad so much and seeing the pain my pain caused him and mum was a powerful catalyst for instant change. In some of the darkest moments of my life, thinking about them has been an incredibly powerful source of hope.
But the dissipation of this issue did little to make any marked changes to my general mental health and, if anything, the gravitas of what I had been doing the past few years became more apparent. That brought more shame and guilt and I felt unable to share those feelings with anyone. It became this deep, dark secret I carried in silence for years.
In 2012, I found CrossFit. In many ways it was the perfect thing at the perfect time. Purely performance focused. I really enjoyed it and was good at it right away. I consider this an extremely rare and lucky thing, finding something I liked and was good at. It gave me a sense of purpose, the importance of which can’t be overstated.
In 2014, I qualified for my first CrossFit Games and suddenly, for the first time in my life I felt like there was this thing I was objectively good at. Something I enjoyed, I worked extremely hard at and could be proud of my success in because I had earned it fair and square.
2014 was a strange year though. I went through some huge and challenging changes in my personal life, while simultaneously trying to elevate my athletic profile to match my performance.
I liked the success I had so quickly in CrossFit, however it came with a price. My anxiety sky rocketed. My success as an athlete was tied to my sense of self-worth and I knew I was only ever one poor performance away from that being taken away from me.
I was a mess. Self-Medicating with the cliché cocktail of booze, partying, sex and anything to give myself a break from the pressure I put on myself as an athlete. I was also writing a lot.
I’ve always loved to write and found it therapeutic. Writing provides a place to organize, structure and release my thoughts. I’ve pulled over on the side of the road to mash my inner dialogue into the notes section of my phone on many occasions. It allows me to externalizse my internal chatter. To make tangible the intangible ramblings that would otherwise drive me mad if left whirring around in my head.
One day, in early 2015, those ramblings took an especially dark turn.
The noise in my head was unusually loud and for the first time in my life I considered turning it off altogether.
Suicidal ideation, or the contemplation of suicide without intent, is a lesser spoken of affliction of the mind in which the sufferer becomes preoccupied with taking their own life, without necessarily intending to do so.
I think most people have contemplated their own death at some point, but this was different. I sat down and in the notes section of my phone wrote as if I were going to do that. A series of letters to the people whom I believed it would affect, trying to justify why this was the right thing for me to do.
A girl I was seeing at the time found the notes. She called my best mate, Byron, who called my parents and the next thing I knew I was on the couch at my family home, justifying why justifying taking my own life wasn’t cause for concern.
But it was a concern.
As a team we set about finding me some “help.” We Googled and made enquiries until we found a GP who specialized in mental health. I booked in to see him, told him I thought I was bipolar (as was the consensus amongst my family, friends and I after doing our own research), he asked me a few questions and in no more than 20 minutes I left diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, referred to a psychologist and with a couple of packets of lamotrigine and asenipine (common bipolar medications) to try and sort myself out.
I got stuck into the medication, however the side effects, which included weight gain and insane episodes of lethargy, made training a challenge so I sort of went on and off them over the next 12 months or so.
I didn’t click with the psychologist and he was expensive, so that stopped shortly after as well.
I had my diagnosis. A doctor had confirmed what I’d long believed, that I was fucked up and I accepted that. I would just carry on as my fucked up self, being fucked up and being ok with it.
Except I wasn’t ok with it and neither were the people around me. I tried a few more psychologists but either didn’t click, or didn’t have the money to see them regularly enough and so that dropped off too.
In 2017, things got pretty dark again and I decided to get a second opinion from a psychiatrist. We met a few times and he confirmed the extremely obvious, that I had fairly severe anxiety and episodic depression but was not bipolar. He suggested instead I should consider seeing another specialist to be assessed for ADHD.
I thought this seemed ridiculous. I had such misconceptions about ADHD, however when I started to look deeper into it, it was like reading an autobiography. All over the internet were these neat little charts describing symptoms that fit and explained so much more about me than bipolar ever had.
As I was travelling a lot and organization isn’t my strong suit it took me another year (and another bad period in my life) to finally go and see the specialist recommended by the psychiatrist. He was expensive but after two long and involved sessions he said it was fairly clear I had ADHD and, possibly OCD.
Like ADHD, I had a lot of misconceptions about OCD. I was definitely NOT a neat freak, was terribly unorganized and never felt compelled to switch lights on and off, or wipe doorknobs repeatedly. However, anyone who’s ever shared a bed with me or sat next to me on a plane will likely have encountered my “I can’t relax” ticks and OCD also explained the intrusive thoughts that compelled me to cross my toes, or grab the edge of a table with three fingers, or mutter words or phrases repeatedly to get rid of those thoughts. OCD is a far more complicated and (subjectively) interesting condition than most people think.
Around this time I also started seeing an incredible psychologist, Darren, who reignited my interest in pursuing that as a career myself. I’m now in my second year of a Psychology degree and have almost completed my Diploma of Counselling.
Talking about my experiences with mental illness is still confronting for me at times but it is also liberating. They have shaped the person I am and the person I am becoming. Conversations about mental health can be polarizing. Arguments can be made for the over-pathologizing of normal(ish) mental functions as mental illnesses and it can be hard to conceptualize something that can seem abstract at best to many people. But these are important conversations to start and have. To attempt to blur the lines less and less until speaking about mental health is no different to chatting about sustaining an injury or having a physical illness.
Above all else though I hope that in sharing my own journey, others may feel less alone on theirs and see that mental health IS a journey. There is no quick fix. It’s an ongoing process and, whether you think you’re suffering from a mental illness or not, we all experience difficult times mentally, be that through stress, a tough break up, fear or anxiety around something or loss. Being proactive in working on your mind is just as important as training your body but it requires you to acknowledge that mental health IS real. It requires work.
Life is crazy. None of us really know what we are doing and we are all a little fucked up in our own ways. But that’s ok because it’s the moments of darkness we’ve all faced that makes us most appreciate the light.