Emily Dolloff-Holt (right) is a senior at the University of New Hampshire and a Head Campus Captain for The Hidden Opponent
TW: topics of suicide and self-harm
I have always struggled with my mental health. I grew up with anxiety and depression and as I got older, both got worse. In middle school, I was suicidal because of my depression. In high school, I felt extremely lonely because of my anxiety. Yet, throughout college, I have struggled with my mental health more than ever before. I started having panic and anxiety attacks my freshman year of college. My depression and anxiety had gotten so bad that I had this unbearable feeling of pain, and the only way I could rid myself of this pain was by cutting. Despite the difficulties of middle school and high school, my freshman year was the first time I fell into self-harm.
I felt like a cloud of despair and dread was surrounding me 24/7 and I could not escape it. After several months of this, I finally saw a psychiatrist in addition to my therapist in hopes of finding the right medication for me. The meds really helped, and I felt more like myself for the next year and a half.
Swimming has been my coping mechanism for my anxiety and depression all my life, especially when my mom got sick. I have always relied on the routine of swimming; it dictated everything in my life for the longest time. Then COVID-19 hit, swimming was taken away from me, and my mental health plummeted. All the hard work and therapy sessions that helped me feel better felt wasted and gone. I felt hopeless and like I didn’t know how to operate anymore. Swimming no longer dictated my life and that scared me. I didn’t know who I was without my identity as a swimmer.
This past spring and summer were some of the most confusing and frustrating times of my life. I felt so many emotions and I didn’t know how to express them without the freedom of being in the pool. I pushed through the summer hoping that I would feel better when I went back to school. But, my depression took control of me once again. My school didn’t even bother filling the pool and we didn’t having organized practices. The first two months of this school year, my senior year, I had little energy to do assignments or train for my sport. There were days where I couldn’t get out of bed because I didn’t have the energy. I felt like I was focusing all my energy on trying to wake up, but I just couldn’t.
I started missing more and more training sessions from over-sleeping. My brain was literally battling itself and I felt so tired and alone in the world. I started having intrusive thoughts about suicide and self-harm again. Even though I had people I could talk to, I thought there was never going to be a person in the world that could fully understand what I was going through. I told some people a little bit about how I was feeling, but never told anyone the full extent. I knew I needed help, so I reached out to my psychiatrist again. We decided to change my medication once again. My psychiatrist recommended that I redshirt this year because it can take up to 6 to 8 weeks to finally feel the effects of the new meds, and I would most likely experience intense side effects. So, in October I made the difficult decision of redshirting my senior year of college athletics.
Redshirting was the best decision I have made for myself in a long time. Without swimming dictating my life, I was free to make the best decisions for me, not for my team. I always put my team first, and I felt it wasn’t fair to my team if I couldn’t be 100% there for them. I do feel guilty sometimes that I decided to redshirt, especially because I am a team captain this year. But because I choose to put myself first and do what was right for me, I have had the time to focus on myself and figure out what is going on inside my head to slowly work through things.
I can honestly say I lost myself during the first few months of COVID and I started affecting my loved ones in a negative way because I was lost. Redshirting has allowed me to start the process of finding myself again and to figure out who I want to be as a person, with or without my identity as a swimmer. I have struggled trying to find myself and there are days where I feel so lost in the world and I have no idea why I am here. I still do not feel fully like myself, but I know I must be patient.
There are definitely times when I question if all of this is worth it. What if I do not find myself without my identity as a swimmer and I just remain lost? My depression and anxiety have taken so much from me already and it frustrates me that I still sometimes feel hopeless and alone, despite all I have done to try to help myself feel better. It is an endless battle of ups and downs, and I am exhausted from the rollercoaster of my own emotions.
Sometimes I feel like no one will listen or understand what I am feeling because they cannot see the struggles I am going through. I may seem happy from the outside, but on the inside, I feel like I am often drowning from all my emotions and thoughts. I know it will get better and I try to stay positive, but that patience is also exhausting. To keep myself from not giving up completely, I tell myself that I will come out a healthier, better, and stronger person on the other side of this. I try to focus on everything I have already overcome and what good things have come from the hard times in my life. I know everything will be ok in the end and I have a purpose on this planet.
I think the hardest part of being a student athlete is the unknown of what to do after you are done with your sport. Student athletes have been engrained to believe that our entire identity is being just that –a student and an athlete. We push aside our mental health and happiness to be student athletes, and it can sometimes cost us dearly in the end.
I have learned the hard way this past year that putting off my mental health not only negatively affects me, but my loved ones as well. I have come to realize that sacrificing my mental health and wellbeing for swimming is not worth it. I am absolutely thankful that I was able to participate in college athletics, but I’ve also realized that my happiness should always come first. Life is too short to not be happy and I know I did the right thing. My world did not come crashing down when I decided to redshirt, instead it opened my eyes to see how worthy I am of being happy. I could not have gotten through this last year without my Hidden Opponent team and I am forever grateful for the support they have given me.