A year ago today, I was struggling with some mental health issues for the first time in my life. Around this time, I heard an eye-opening message from an older friend on my football team that touched on a somewhat confusing message for me. He said, “as you journey through college, something is going to knock you down”. Now, at first, I brushed this statement off my shoulder, not understanding the true meaning behind it. That was until I suffered a concussion in week three of our football season and had lasting effects of Post-Concussion Syndrome for the next six months.
Long story short, concussions suck, and mine completely altered my personality. It also amplified my mental health issues to a level I never thought possible, which is my true motivation for sharing this: to educate and aware in regards of mental health. After my brain injury, it was as if I was a completely different person. Because of this, I ended up reluctantly taking a gap semester to get my head straight and left campus in November, not returning until June of the next year. My parents were aware of my issues and had their heart set on taking me home, so they drove down after Thanksgiving, but I did not want to leave. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, almost as if I was running away from everything that made me who I was. However, they were not the only ones who noticed the change. Two of the greatest people in my life during that time and to this day even, were members of my position group on the football field. After I told them my parents were in town trying to get me out, they put their foot down, picked up the phone, called my mother, and voiced their similar concerns. I often thank God for that phone call because I truly do not know what would have happened to me if I had stayed and finished the semester.
TW: mentions of sucidial thoughts
The start of 2022 was a rough patch for me, but it ultimately gave me a good perspective on life, and I truly grew as a person. I learned to appreciate every beautiful detail of waking up as a healthy young man and breathing every day. Although that was a hard time for me, I recently realized something that I was unintentionally hiding because I never wanted those feelings to be with me again. I realized the spring of 2022 was not the worst part of my six-month recovery. If I’m being completely honest, it was the rest of my fall semester as a sophomore playing Division 1 football at a world class college. Now, I’m aware that not everyone is fully educated on mental health. Those who don’t experience it, truly do not know what it is like and those who do, may not understand it or how to feel when they have said experiences. People may perceive this journey that I ventured the wrong way, so I’m going to set the record straight before I dive in.
My true motivation for sharing this is a quite simple one: everyone on this earth has worth, and you are not alone. This is not a story of pity or spite, and it most definitely is not a “feel bad for me” story. It’s a TRUE story and one that I alone want to share with whoever takes the time to read these words because I feel like my own experiences can spread good, first-hand knowledge about mental health awareness. It took me a long time to be able to do this, and deep down, with everything in me, I truly hope that I help or educate someone in need.
So here it goes. Following the clearance of my concussion, I noticed that I would experience slight headaches in the back of my skull that I never actually had before my blow to the head, and I changed completely as a person, I later learned that this was known as post-concussion syndrome. Even now, a year later, I am still not the same. Although I am symptom free and most aspects of my life have returned to normal, there are still certain personality traits that are unlike my true character, most likely credited to that concussion. But I’m actively working on getting back to the old me. I am still in therapy to this day, and I AM okay with that. I enjoy it and it really does help my overall well-being. Do not ever be the person to put someone down and discourage them for going to therapy because it is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. It’s very clear cut: if someone needs help, they need help. They should be able to get said help with no judgement casted upon them. That is how it needs to be.
On another note, I am absolutely not here to talk about the dangers of playing football regarding head injuries because I signed up for those risks the minute I decided to put on a helmet and play in between those lines. I own that and accept what happened to me. Because like I said before, I am now grateful for the experience. What I really want to talk about is mental health.
After my concussion, the preexisting anxiety and slight depression I had snowballed into a complex mess. I worried constantly about my performance in both the classroom and on the football field. I often asked myself “can I really do this?” Managing a sport accompanied by college schoolwork at any level with mental health issues is no easy task and I struggled immensely with this. Enough to the point where after so many bad grades and wasted reps on the field, that I became fully engulfed by worrying and noticed that my anxiety still existed, but I now realize that I entered a severe state of depression. I have always held myself to a high standard in those environments and at this time, I was not meeting those standards. Consequently, I saw no way out. No matter how long I studied or did my best on the field, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted, and this crushed both my confidence and the respect I once had for myself. So much to the point where I decided that I would not be able to keep up with it all and I essentially mentally tortured myself.
I went to every class but told myself I would not be able to pass any of them because I was not smart enough. I ate small meals if any meals throughout the day. I stopped going out and became very isolated from others. I started to sleep on my floor at night or throughout the day because I no longer felt worthy of sleeping in my bed. Although all these concepts seem absurd, it is how I was living at the time. And I would just like to say: that is no way to live, and I thank God every day for the people in my life who would not stand for this, even if I would. My parents took me out of the environment I was living in and basically had to force me to leave because I was very reluctant to do so. It felt as if I was throwing in the towel, which quite ironically, was not the case at all. It was a sign of strength and the first one I had seen in a long time for that matter, even if I did not see it then. This allowed me to finish my semester at home and barley earn my credits for the semester, which was a great move by my two biggest supporters in my life.
Now concussion or not, mental illnesses are a serious issue in today’s society, and I feel as though not many football players share their experiences because of the stereotype that we need to be tough and suck it up. Well, I’m here to tell you that I tried that, and going down that road is simply not the answer. I had a horrible mindset doing it that way. I stopped caring about messing up at practice and waited for the day my coaches told me to leave the field and not show up ever again because I was wasting everyone’s time. I went into every exam that I took so numb from the thought of failure and told myself “there’s too many things to remember, you’re going to fail no matter how hard you study.” I learned that with that mindset, the outcome would always be what I told myself it was.
Deep down, I know what I’m about to say is not true, but it was the way I felt, and I will not hide that. I come from a family where almost everyone goes to college, comes out with a successful job, and lives very successful lives. So, I figured, if I don’t do this, I am going to lose their love, respect, and perception of who I always have been to them. I told myself this every day, “mom and dad are going to hate you for failing out” and “nobody will want a thing to do with you after you quit football this season” because those things were who I was, and I felt so bad about my playing experience from the fall that I figured I would never be good at the sport I always excelled in ever again. Those were my pillars of life and even though they weren’t in jeopardy, it felt as if they were deteriorating more and more each day, until one day, they would completely disintegrate before my eyes. I woke up every day and felt these horrible feelings of fear and confusion when I looked at my calendar and saw that the end of the semester was nearing, and there were so many unknowns. It felt as if I was stranded out at open sea and there was a storm brewing that I was drifting into, getting closer and closer each day. So, I called different family members multiple times a day because I told myself “they won’t love you after this semester is over so cherish it now while you are able.” They never actually knew why I called so much because like I said, this experience has not been shared with anyone on this planet. As awful as it sounds that’s the truth, and it is how I really felt. Even though it’s comforting knowing now this would have never happened, I did believe all of those awful thoughts that were spreading through my mind and growing like an infection each day.
When you flood your mind with these horrible thoughts, it can really mess with you as a human being. Before this, I never did understand how someone could rob themselves of the greatest gift of all and take their own life. But after having these thoughts live rent free in my head 24/7, I started to understand. I did more than understand, and for the first time in my life, I was mentally defeated, and contemplated committing suicide at the end of the semester because I felt so alone, minuscule, and worthless. That was my mindset until I was taken home. Just typing that sentence out makes my stomach turn because I made it out of the darkness, and I am so ironically grateful for my grueling experience now. I truly can’t tell you if I ever would have done it, I’d like to think now that I wouldn’t, but it was just in my thoughts too frequently and I am beyond blessed to have gotten the help that I did, when I did. I figured my family would think I was a disappointment and at that point and would not even care if I was gone. Which let me just say, is one of the most far off statements one could ever say about my family. They were there for me through thick and thin. They took every single phone call I made that semester, even if it was twenty calls a day, and they got me seen by one of the best concussion teams in the country to get me well. Most importantly, they bestowed it in me that no matter how hard you fall, you can always get back up and keep going. Because of them, I did make it out, and I am back in school playing the sport that I love, soaking up the “little things” aka the gifts of life that God provided for me. And for that, I will always be eternally grateful.
My mother always tells me “everything happens for a reason”, and maybe mine was to grow from that experience but I also think that it happened so I could share my story to help someone in need and spread awareness on these common but very serious mental health issues. See the thing is, when I stated those thoughts that were in my head, it was not my true thinking self. That was the depression talking. And it honestly felt like I was falling in a dark hole, further and further each day. It felt as if I was consumed by that darkness, and I saw no way to get back to the light. My true motivation for sharing this is for all the people out there who feel as if they are in their own dark hole, with no way out. I’m here to tell you that it’s not an easy journey and nobody is saying that it is. But you are not alone. You are so important, you matter, and you are loved. No matter how bad you think it is, there is a way out of that hole, and you do not need to climb out alone, it’s okay to not be okay. There will always be help.
With that being said, I have a birthday coming up, and I’ve never been a big birthday guy, I guess I didn’t understand the magical celebration of life that was under my nose all along because life was easy before this experience. Like my friend predicted, something did knock me down, but I got back up stronger, pushing both my mental and physical and limitations beyond my greatest imagination. Because of this, I will be eternally grateful to see another year and keep absorbing the smallest joys of life, celebrating every victory I can get my hands on, no matter the size. I hope this message reaches someone in need and if I could tell them to take one thing away from this bittersweet journey it would be: KEEP GOING.
Take the path of resistance, climb out of that hole, and find your way to the light no matter how hard it gets. People will be there to help you along the way, but ultimately, deep down, you are the one who must believe you can. It will not be easy and yes; I still have my own battles mental illness every day but, I am well enough now to tell my story and my hope is that someone like the broken kid that I was in the fall will hear these words and know that it will all work out. Who knows, maybe this won’t even be my last tough battle with mental illness and that’s okay. It truly is okay to not be okay and that’s what people need to realize. Read that over and over again if you are in a dark hole like I was. Because I made it out, and now that I did, I hope to inspire people like the Mikey Malone in the fall, who had no hope. That is my why for this horrible but heightening stretch of time that I went through. To anyone who is struggling out there I want to say one final thing: I hear you and I feel for you. You are not alone, you matter, and you are loved. God bless.