This past week, Olympic gold medallist Allison Schmitt opened up about her struggle with depression following the 2012 Olympics. Here are my thoughts:
Dear Allison Schmitt,
I really just want to say thank you.
Any woman who wins an Olympic gold medal in swimming is a hero to me, but by opening up about your depression, you became the biggest hero of them all. It is not easy to own up to a mental illness. Too many people will brush off depression as simple sadness or apathy, as something made up in your head. It is far too easy to pretend that your suffering is the result of anything else.
I know I did.
I didn’t know it was depression at the time. In my mind, it was difficulty adjusting, a lack of real friends, a lack of support. Anything that wasn’t my fault. And when the depression started to affect my performance in the pool, it was far easier to blame it on a hurting shoulder than on my complete and utter self-hatred.
I didn’t think anyone would understand. I thought it was all in my head. I didn’t know at the time that my disastrous emotional state was the result of unbalanced chemicals in my brain. It wasn’t me. It was the depression.
Even when I knew, even years after I had reclaimed my true self, it was still hard for me to admit to friends, coaches, and teammates that my shoulder was the least of my worries. I used that minor annoyance as a crutch, a way to keep from admitting to mental illness. It was just easier. There were less questions, less judgement, less problems. Athletes are supposed to be strong. We’re not supposed to show our emotions or speak up when things are tough. It took that fight with depression to show me how destructive that line of thought can be.
It really means everything to me that a public figure like you was willing to admit to depression in such a public way. You are showing the athletic and swimming communities that mental illness is a fact of life, even for the toughest and most talented of athletes.
Thank you for letting me know that I am not alone.
Thank you for letting thousands of young girls in the swimming world know that their feelings are valid, and that it is okay to ask for help.
Thank you for showing coaches, teammates, and swim parents that depression is a real illness, and teaching them how to help.
Better yet, know that you too are not alone.
I wish I had a quick answer for how I got better, but the truth is that I do not know. I know that swimming helped – setting little goals and achieving them made me feel a little better. Devoting myself to working out helped keep my mind off the uglier things. Surrounding myself with positive coaches and teammates made a world of difference, too. I also know that devoting myself to my friends and my studies helped me to feel a stronger sense of self. So know that, much like you don’t wake up one day knowing that you have depression, you won’t wake up one day and know that you are cured. It will take weeks, months, maybe even years. There will still be days far from now when the ugly feelings will come back. Know that it is temporary and know that you are still greater than your illness.
Know that there is a huge community of swimmers out there who, whether or not they have lived through a mental illness, want nothing more than to see you happy again. Know that we will support you through the ups and downs. Know that we will stick by you.
Know that you can do it.
Know that the journey will not always be easy.
But, most importantly, know that it will always be worth it.