TW: self-harm, suicidal ideations, sexual assault
I have been extremely hesitant to share my story and the thought of, “will people see me differently?”, makes it that way. However, I can no longer be silent and my hope is that my story can help at least one other person who may be going through a hard time.
My name is Kiara Feibusch. I am a rising sophomore student-athlete at the University of Pittsburgh where I play lacrosse. Throughout my childhood and most of high school, I rarely struggled with my mental health. And when I did have bad days, I never showed it. This is what we are taught to do as athletes, push through the pain.
But my senior year of high school changed everything. Many medical issues were thrown at me and a few other obstacles that I had to work around. In October of 2020, I had my wisdom teeth removed. I quickly became sick following the procedure. The antibiotics I was taking gave me a bacterial infection causing me to be unable to eat for about three weeks. I ended up losing a total of 13 pounds. I’d say looking back, that it was around this time that my depression began.
The following November, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. During the first two weeks of being sick, I faced severe shortness of breath, significant drops in my oxygen levels throughout the day and night, and spikes in my heart rate to about 180 just from walking up the stairs. My symptoms remained the same for quite some time and led me to experience anxiety. I had doctor appointment after doctor appointment, seeing both a cardiologist and pulmonologist, trying to figure out what was going on with my body. Since the pandemic was so new, there were no answers for me and my family. Having no answers on how to fix my body made me feel so lost and made my parents feel so hopeless. The worst part was seeing how upset it made my parents, given that they couldn't help. All we wanted was for me to be healthy and back to my normal self.
Doctors told me I could not do any strenuous activity, ESPECIALLY not play lacrosse, until they had more answers. Right away, my world flipped upside down. For the past 11 years of my life, I had played lacrosse constantly, it was all I knew. I used working out and lacrosse as an escape --something about getting a good sweat in always made me feel better. I couldn't even go to the gym to work out, like athletes always do to stay in shape for their chosen sport. The doctors and my mother (being a nurse of 25 years) told me I could go into cardiac arrest if I exerted myself too much. The thought of possibly making my condition way worse for just doing what I loved left me extremely anxious and confused. I slowly started to feel myself fade away. This was serious.
A few months later and after much stressful uncertainty, my mom had finally found a pulmonary rehab facility that would work with me (many places wouldn’t see me because, at the time, I was only 17 years old). For the next three months, I was attending pulmonary rehab three times a week which meant missing the beginning half of classes my senior year.
In the midst of trying to heal my body, I endured even more damage and it is not easy for me to open up about this. The time I began pulmonary rehab was around the time I was sexually assaulted. With all of the other struggles I was facing that year, this incident is what completely changed me. I won’t get into the details of the pain I experienced that day, but I will talk more about the struggles I’ve faced since then as a result.
I’m telling my story in this present moment to reassure people they are not alone, that what they are feeling is okay and valid. It is okay to not be okay. It is OKAY to need help, I promise. If you have been a victim of sexual assault and are afraid of being triggered you are more than welcome to stop reading now. If you want to stick around, I see you. Either way, you are an incredible person and I encourage you to reach out for help if you are in need of it.
I'll continue my story a few months after my sexual assault, on August 19th, 2021, my birthday, the day I left home to begin my freshman year at Pitt, and the day my self-harm began.
My whole life I dreamed of playing division one lacrosse and always looked forward to the day I would be able to go off to college. I had this dream it would be such a riveting and amazing experience. What I had dreamed of and reality were different though. Rather than happily leaving to begin a new chapter, I left home feeling broken, hopeless, and alone. I was experiencing the worst depression of my life --well, at least that’s what I thought at the time. I was only looking forward to going to school so I could leave everything I was going through those past couple of months at home. I wasn’t able to be excited about anything and I didn’t understand why. I thought I was broken and felt unlike myself. I knew I needed help, so when I arrived on campus I reached out to the therapist available for the student-athletes.
For a while, there were ebbs and flows. The only people that knew what was going on were me and my therapist. Some days were amazing, but most days I struggled. I struggled to get out of bed for practice, I struggled to go to class, and most of all I struggled with self-harm. The entire first semester, I kept my coaches, athletic staff, family, and friends completely in the dark. Some of my teammates might have seen or known a little bit of what I was going through, but I never let anyone completely in. Everything began to pile up and I lost control of a lot of my daily responsibilities. I would sleep through the day, not eat, skip all my classes, not do my school work, and my grades rapidly suffered as a result. When I was having a bad day or moment, I would turn to self-harm to cope. It was a vicious cycle that, on occasion, I would have the strength to break.
In regard to my lacrosse experience, I would dread going to practice every morning. It took everything for me to get out of bed and by the time I was at practice, I wasn’t focused on lacrosse. Instead, I was focused on how tired I was, thoughts of the night before, and how to hide the cuts on my body so staff and teammates would not see them. Just getting to practice was an accomplishment for me, so if I made a mistake or didn’t know the plays, I didn't care. On top of all of this, I was still experiencing long-term effects from COVID, which were ongoing for about a year and a half at this point. I could barely get through ten minutes of play before becoming out of breath. There were run tests I attempted but couldn't finish without passing out. Eventually, it would get to a point where I had to wear a heart monitor throughout practice. Worst of all, I was still left with no answers as to why my body was facing these symptoms. It wasn't until almost two years later that the doctors realized I had developed asthma from COVID. I decided to redshirt because of all this.
I stayed in this deeply sad state of mind for my first semester of college and it wasn’t until winter break, in December, that I realized my mental health was in a dangerous place. I dreaded going back home for the break to a place that would remind me of the trauma and memories I tried so hard to put behind me. Most of all, I was terrified for my family to see my cuts and scars. I knew I couldn’t turn to self-harm over break because my family was around, but not being able to resort to self-harm scared me too.
When I finally arrived home and as the days went on, my state of mind worsened and I continued to hide my emotions from my family. They didn't notice anything because I acted as if nothing was wrong. But, I reached a point where I no longer wanted to live. I had previously had some of these feelings at school, but this time, at home, I was actually scared that I would take my own life. I needed to go back to school and get more help. So as soon as I got back to school, I talked to the therapist and I told her I needed more help, she suggested I meet with the sports psychiatrist. She recommended starting to take medication for my depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
My parents were not on board with me taking the medication because they didn’t understand why I needed to. I could not stomach telling my parents the reasons because I did not want them to worry. I just wanted them to think that I was okay. It broke my heart for them to see me so hurt from everything I went through, telling them I was struggling with self-harm and suicidal ideation would have crushed them. So I continued to keep the details to myself. I wish I had told them from the get-go.
I did what was best for me and began taking medication for my depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I understood that just taking medication wouldn’t automatically make me better though. I also had to work on myself, by continuing to go to therapy and practicing the skills I was taught. It seemed like the days were getting better and brighter. That was until one day when I woke up feeling how I used to feel and this sent me into a panic attack. These panic attacks continued to happen almost every day for a couple of weeks. During this time my self-harm started back up again and was worse than ever, I also began to shut out my therapist. The panic attacks were so bad that I wasn't able to go to class and even struggled to make it to games. My teammates began to worry and my coaches quickly became aware of my struggles. My coaches finding out was the best thing that could have happened to me. The reason I had not told them earlier was because I thought they would see me in a different, potentially negative way and not value me as the strong person they recruited to join their team.
My coaches did not shy away, they leaned in and began to check in with me weekly. We would have meetings to make sure I was doing okay and staying on top of my school work. It made the biggest difference. I was no longer harming myself and I felt so much less alone. Knowing that my coaching staff cares so much for me and truly wanted me to be okay seriously made the biggest difference. Even though I was still struggling, I did not feel as empty and this gave me a sense of hope. My teammates and I are extremely lucky to have the support and resources we do at Pitt.
Not every school or team has therapists designated to their athletes or coaches who care the way our coaching staff does, which is completely unacceptable. There are some incredible student-athlete mental health foundations, such as Morgan's Message, The Hidden Opponent, and Katie's Saves. They are all fighting to change the student-athlete mental health crisis. Every single university should be fighting for its students. We can no longer sit here and watch people struggle without resources. How many lives will it take for there to be a change?
You matter, we all matter, and we all deserve more. As student-athletes, we need to stick together and demand higher standards for the support of those who struggle with their mental health. Mental health is not something to be taken lightly. Depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, eating disorders, and more are all tireless battles. Battles that should not be fought alone. I am forever grateful for the people who have helped me so far. I am better than I have been in a very long time because the people around me spoke up and actively worked to assist me. They saved my life.
To my future self and to anyone who is struggling: you are not alone. If you are struggling, please know there are people who want to help, all you have to do is let them in. If you are an ally, continue to demand schools do more to assist those who need it.
I will always be a work in progress, as all people are.