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Natalie Murphy: My Battle For My Mind

Trigger Warning: details of self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety

Rewind to my freshman preseason. It’s intense but I make it through. It’s my rookie season and I appear in 16 games and make 12 starts as a freshman. I’m excited about college and am thrilled by the rigors of college academia, especially since I’ve been accepted into the honors program. I put intense pressure on myself to be the best and constantly measure my self-worth by my accomplishments on the field. Like so many athletes, I increasingly feel the pressure to be perfect and compete at a higher level. I want to jump higher, run faster, lift heavier. Good is never good enough. I’m always reaching higher and higher. Never satisfied, never stopping or pausing long enough to reflect on milestones, always onto the next. Always in go-mode.

My depression is getting worse. My cutting is no secret. It’s hard to hide my self-harm, but it’s never addressed as I excel in my workouts in the weight room, on the field, and in the classroom, so no one presses me on it. Most people simply pretend not to notice the growing number of scars and fresh cuts on my arm. I try reaching out for help, but the campus isn’t fit to address my concerns and no referrals are made. I decide to keep my head down and ignore the things going on inside me.

January 20th, 2012 is a date I’ll never forget. It marks the day when I almost lost my life. It’s the day that has since changed my view of mental health advocacy in college athletics forever.

It’s a Friday night and we’re called to a surprise nighttime fitness session on the field. My anxiety spikes. We finish our session just in time to head to the dorms to get changed for the Men’s Basketball game. My roommates head off to the game while I stay behind in my dorm room. Something about the surprise fitness session pushes me over the edge. I’m overwhelmed and can’t cope, my emotions are too intense, my anxiety too much, my depression worsening by the day. I turn to self-harm to relieve the anxiety and tension and anger I feel inside, without quite knowing why. Tonight is no different, except I accidentally cut too deep.

In a panic, a roommate manages to call 911 and the ambulance, EMTs, and police arrive in the dorms. I’m rushed to the hospital and it’s a close call. The first person to arrive in my hospital room is my Head Coach and I think I’m in deep trouble. I worry about my scholarship and my future, he assures me that my well-being is the only thing that matters. Most coaches are not so understanding and I know instinctively that I am lucky. I go home for a short time to recover and feel a burning internal pressure to return to campus to finish the semester and rejoin my teammates for Spring season, even though I’m in no condition to do so.

I don’t know anything about taking a medical leave of absence to recover. Like always, I have the mentality that I need to push through, grit, and bear it. I’m so focused on my comeback on the field that I don’t pay attention to my mind. I don’t stop to consider the alternatives or what’s best for me. I only focus on the need to compete in the sport that I trained for countless hours for so many years. The sport that I love.

I wait a long time to address my problems, so I continue to struggle with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation for the entirety of college without relief and without healthy coping mechanisms. I lie to myself and rationalize that I’m at my peak physical fitness, and therefore, peak performance so nothing is as bad as it seems. What I don’t realize is that my mental health affects my performance in more ways than I could possibly imagine. It took years, but I finally participate in treatment for my mental health. It’s hard to speculate on how life would’ve been different if I had gotten help sooner, but I imagine I would’ve saved myself, my friends, and family, a lot of heartbreak.

If I could speak to my younger self, I would give myself permission to ask for help and insist that it’s important to take a step back when problems arise. I wish I knew it was okay to take a break to focus on my recovery and get a proper diagnosis.

I personally know the determination, long hours, and drive it takes to make it to the collegiate level, but I can also tell you this: if you are struggling, you are not at your best, no matter how in control you think you are. Our sport is sometimes the biggest part of our identity and results are often how we measure ourselves –fitness tests, season stats, games won.

I wish I knew it was ok to take a break to focus on my recovery and get a proper diagnosis. Years later, as a volunteer Peer Support Specialist for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), I learn that there are resources. I learn that it’s ok to take a medical leave of absence when:

  1. Your mental health is disrupting your ability to participate in academic and campus life, even with support and accommodations.

  2. You feel you are in crisis or that your level of distress is becoming intolerable.

  3. You believe the stress and pressure of college is seriously disrupting your ability to focus on recovery.

  4. You feel you need an increased level of care.

  5. You are not able to access the services you need at your college or university.

  6. You feel that time away from classes would be beneficial for your long-term wellbeing.

My biggest hope for you, if you’ve read this far, is that you spread the word: there are people out there who care, who understand, and who know how to connect you with resources. I’m so happy to see that things are changing in the sports world, but it’s changing slowly and we still need to push for better mental health visibility in sports. We’re humans first, athletes second.

Sending love to all who enter battle on the field and also in their mind. You’ve got this.


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