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Hailey Bianco: Athlete to Artist, My Beautiful Story

I’ve tried to find the words to express my thoughts but I never could. Art gave my thoughts life when my words couldn’t speak. This is my beautiful story. 

Hailey Bianco art

I was born broken. I spent most of my childhood at Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago because of my disability. I was born without a bone in my ankles which caused severe pronation. At the age of 12, I went through ankle reconstruction which left me in a wheelchair. Sports were never supposed to be a part of my life. Needless to say, I was never supposed to be a college athlete.

I had a rough upbringing. Every vivid memory I have from my early childhood is traumatic. I remember coming home from school to find my mom passed out on the floor and when my dad got drunk while he was alone with my brother and I on Christmas Eve. I was separated from both my parents at a very young age and through the eyes of an innocent little girl, I watched alcohol tear my family apart. Naturally, I matured at a very early age and became very independent. Sports were my only escape, my only sense of a normal childhood.

Haley Bianco

TW: suicidal thoughts 

I used perfectionism as an attempt to fill the void that losing my parents left in me. I began experiencing panic attacks at the age of 14 because of this constant fear of failure. My mental health progressively got worse as I continued to ignore it until the point where I was having a panic attack after nearly every game. When I was 16, I endured my first of many knee injuries and while I was sidelined I started experiencing the early stages of depression. Instead of seeking the help I so badly needed, I pushed my recovery to get back on the court as soon as possible. A couple of short months later I injured my knee yet again but with the season quickly approaching, I took a week off and then played through the pain. I was in so much pain mentally, I was willing to compromise my physical health.

I hit the point where I didn’t want to be alive anymore. Suicidal thoughts and self harm started to consume my life, I felt utterly helpless and alone. I started slipping farther down into a sea of negative thoughts and they soon consumed my everyday life. I remember hiding in the corner of the locker room where I would just cry wishing everything would just stop. No one knew about the battle I was fighting inside my mind. The only way I knew how to express my emotions was through art.

Hailey Bianco

I fought a lot of silent battles in order to take control of my recovery. I started opening up about my struggles and found a lot of freedom in vulnerability. On February 8, 2019, I presented “Inside the Mind of a Successful Student-Athlete” at the Indiana Academic Decathlon State Finals, which was a speech for student-athlete mental health awareness inspired by Victoria Garrick’s TED Talk. This speech gave me a state title but the medal was never important to me, that three-minute speech gave me a voice as I then went full force into being a mental health advocate.

I soon began my transition into college athletics. I found myself terrified to open up about my past and struggled to find confidence in myself. About mid-season, I found myself battling a relapse in my depression. This one particular Wednesday morning I woke up exhausted and had a weekly check-in meeting with my coach later that day. I almost rolled back over and went back to sleep but something got me out of bed to go to chapel. The sermon was about healing and I knew that God had gotten me out of bed for a reason. I distinctly remember the guest pastor saying “God cannot bless who you pretend to be.” During that service, I encountered God and finally accepted that I had been faking my happiness. I found that my relationship with God has been the missing piece of my recovery and I recommitted my life to Him. Later that day I went into my coach’s office and broke down. I finally let out all the pain I had been holding onto. I walked out with a weight lifted off my shoulders then went to the locker room and pulled up my knee pads for practice.

Hailey Bianco tattoo

I started prioritizing my faith and, for the first time, my physical and mental health were aligned. When the pandemic first hit, I felt the isolation start to send me to a dark place fast. However, the isolation is what pushed me to get back in touch with art. Just when I felt myself falling back into this dark place, I was given the opportunity to intern for The Hidden Opponent. I know that THO was my saving grace and a sign from God that this is my life’s purpose. While I am not proud of my past, I am thankful for the struggle because it has led me to make a positive impact in other people’s lives. I know now that I want to spend my life helping athletes be heard in their darkest moments. Being a mental health advocate saved my life.

In January of this year, my mom passed away. Life has been anything but easy ever since that day, and that’s okay. Today I stand here in the midst of the chaos just trying to hold on. As I’m currently battling another relapse in my depression, I refuse to let history repeat itself. I’m struggling to find the energy to get through the days but I swore to myself that I’d keep fighting for recovery. Even in the midst of the struggle, I am worthy of peace and healing.

With that said, in March I endured a season ending concussion and ended up coming to the hard decision that it’s best for me to retire early from my college career. While I am very disappointed that I was not able to achieve what I set out to do nor did I get a joyful ending, I know I’ve given it my all. There is a part of me that loves the game enough to show up everyday and work hard but there’s another part of me that is so burnt out. I’ve found myself having to fight myself to get out of bed everyday just to simply show up for practice. I’ve recently gone back into active treatment for my depression and it’s given me a new perspective of how much I’ve used volleyball as a way to neglect my mental health. Ultimately, I’ve realized I need to put myself first if I ever want to heal. So this is me taking control of my recovery. This decision was not easy but I am so thankful for the continued support from my coaches and teammates. While this may be the end of my playing career, I am so grateful to be able to stay involved in the program and be able to make an impact from a supporting role. I am certain that this is only the beginning of God’s plan for my life and I know it is far greater than anything that I could imagine. So I am trusting Him, knowing that His timing is everything.

Hailey Bianco selfie

My volleyball number is 16; my number stands for Psalm 16 because through the highs and lows I have everlasting trust in God and He will bring me through the storm. Even when I lost my faith, He was still working in my life. My depression continues to be a battle but I’m not giving up. 

I keep the Lord always before me, because he is at my right hand, I won’t be shaken. Psalm 16:8

This is my beautiful story and it’s not over yet.

Hailey will be featured in The Virago Project’s “Sportswomen Create” art exhibit this weekend on Sunday, May 23, 2021, at 7pm EST. The virtual art exhibition to give women athletes space to showcase their talents and share original creations that tell their personal stories.

This virtual exhibition will be free to the public and artists will be given the opportunity to sell and auction their work, or donate a percentage of their sales back to The Virago Project, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to improving the mental health of all women athletes. Get your ticket now!


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