Mental illness is the global pandemic that nobody wants to talk about. Regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other demographics, we are all susceptible to suffering from a mental health disorder at some point in our lives. Even though millions of people have a mental illness, we still stigmatize those who suffer. Men, in particular, are taught to not talk about their feelings, to bury their emotions, and to “toughen up.” This often results in men staying quiet about their struggles, refraining from seeking support, and further contributing to the toxic stigma that surrounds mental health and masculinity. It’s time that we start talking about mental health more. We need to educate our communities on how to support those who struggle, as well as how we can contribute to breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness. Nobody should suffer in silence.
My name is Patrick Maneval. I run Division III Cross Country and Track & Field at Shenandoah University, in Winchester, Virginia, and I live with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Growing up, I knew that mental health disorders existed, but I never thought I would be one to struggle. After learning more about anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and mental health as a whole, I realize how I have struggled with my mental health for most of my life. I used to bury my feelings to protect myself from being hurt by others, and vice versa. I kept these emotions locked away in a cage, metaphorically speaking, and threw away the key.
I struggled with performance anxiety in my sport for most of high school. I remember lining up for the 2017 XC District Championship race during my junior year, feeling sick and wanting to drop out before the gun had even fired. I was so concerned with how well others were going to perform, (which was outside of my control), that I had no confidence in my own ability to succeed. After that race, I was determined to change my approach to the sport. I accepted that not all races can go my way and learned to be more forgiving of myself when battling injury or a poor performance.
While my performance anxiety was significantly lower during my senior year, other stressors in my life led to my first panic attack. I distinctly remember being at Chick-Fil-A with a friend, late one night, when I thought I was having a heart attack. My heart was pounding, my chest was tight, my vision blurred and shifted, and I thought I was going to die. Afterwards, I downplayed its severity. I did not believe my experience warranted seeking professional help. For almost the next year, I would continue to bury my feelings and hide my emotions, pretending like they were not worth addressing.
I committed to run Cross Country and Track at Shenandoah University and after graduating high school, I was looking forward to a new beginning. However, the fanfare surrounding college life quickly faded, as I began to suffer from frequent anxiety attacks. The emotions I had bottled up for almost a year were forcing their way into the front of my life, leaving me helpless and overwhelmed. I once again tried to downplay how I felt, claiming that it must have been homesickness or poor nutrition, nothing more. Homesick or not, I was struggling to complete my runs and workouts during practice. My body was telling me something was wrong, but I refused to listen.
My parents convinced me to seek help. After one meet, I left my team and headed home, citing “urgent family matters” to my coach. I went to my doctor, who diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder and gave me medication to help reduce my symptoms. Later that night, I was back with the team at the hotel, lying awake for hours, unable to get any sleep. Despite my physical and mental state, I raced the following day. Despite my experiences in high school, racing would prove to be one of the few moments that I actually felt in control. Afterwards, I stayed at home for the weekend to try to ground myself. I was embarrassed to tell anybody about my mental health struggles, because I did not want to be viewed as crazy or weak.
After returning to school, I began experiencing severe side effects from the medications. I felt completely numb inside. I felt nothing. I was approved to stop taking the medication, but things would get worse before they got better.
I began having intrusive and suicidal thoughts during several anxiety attacks. Fearing what I might do to myself if left alone, I forced myself to be surrounded by others at all times. I met with a faculty member in Spiritual Life on campus and opened up about my past. Every unprocessed emotion I had buried deep down inside for the past year came pouring out. When I told him about my suicidal thoughts, he immediately took me to the university’s counseling center. I began to see a counselor twice a week and was determined to overcome my struggles.
Despite my desire to not be medicated, my condition continued to worsen. I had spiraled to the point of having several uncontrollable intrusive thoughts every hour. There were track practices where I spent the entire workout battling very dark, intrusive thoughts. I was in a constant struggle with my own brain, which was constantly telling me that I should or would die. These were some of the scariest times of my life. My brain told me that I no longer wanted to be a part of the world I was living in. I was exhausted from fighting against myself and wanted to quit. I spent the first 2-3 hours of my day using every coping skill that I knew just to keep myself from completely falling apart.
Despite the little control I had over my thoughts and emotions at the time, I refused to miss a single race. On the outside, I was the same old Patrick. There was no way that my team could physically see that I was struggling; after all, I was running new personal records weekly and was accomplishing more than I ever had in high school running. On the inside, however, I was broken, confused, and lost.
During the month following my initial diagnosis, I had exactly three “good days.”
I define a “good day” as one where I’m not in a state of panic, overwhelming anxiety, or battling intrusive thoughts frequently. Looking back, my bar for a “good day” was so low, yet I still came up short, day in and day out. Starting once I woke up in the morning, I felt my anxiety go from “0 to 100” in a matter of seconds, followed by the constant cycle of guilty and intrusive thoughts throughout the day.
While I began to take new medication, my struggles were not yet over.
Next, came grief.
While in high school, I had the blessing of living in the same home as my grandmother, who we called “Momily.” She was a light to the world and was my biggest supporter during high school and the start of college. Momily was like a third parent to me. I took care of her often, cooking her dinner, playing Scrabble, and being her chauffeur to appointments. When my parents would bring me home to seek help during my first semester at college, I wouldn’t tell Momily about my struggles. I did not want her to worry about my well-being. However, during the fall of my freshman year, she went to the hospital with pneumonia. Later that week, she entered hospice care and I came home from school, yet again, to say my final goodbyes. I spent the evening with her and my family and said one last goodbye the next morning, before heading back to school. Before the day was over, she was gone.
Less than 12 hours after Momily passed away, I was warming up for another XC meet. I was completely drained; mentally, physically, and emotionally. However, I knew that the last thing Momily would have wanted is for me to miss a race, so I ran anyways. Running was the last thing on my mind that morning, which made the race even more challenging. The following months were filled with tremendous grief, heartache, and despair, longing for her to come back. While I was able to center my emotions towards grieving her loss, I was left feeling empty, yet again.
As time went on, I opened up to my XC team about my struggles. We were able to have tough conversations together regarding my condition and my teammates made me feel supported. My coach was also flexible when I needed to leave school for a couple of days, for which I am so thankful. I finished the season by running a personal record in the 8-kilometer run at the Conference Championship with a time of 27:59. This also would be the first race where I was not anxious, grieving, or panicking since August.
Being a collegiate athlete provides unique opportunities otherwise not available to college students, but it comes at a price. In college athletics, there is an overwhelming amount of pressure to be perfect. An athlete must perform at a high level on a daily basis, practicing perfection in their scheduling, preparation, recovery, nutrition, academics, and even social media presence. Athletes sacrifice their weekends, social lives, sleep schedule, extracurricular involvement, and many other aspects of being a “normal” college student, all because they love their sport. The student athlete experience is truly a lifestyle, one that is very rewarding, yet very demanding. Finding time for self-care can be challenging. Mental health falls by the wayside and is not prioritized like it should be in athletics. Everybody has bad days, but as athletes, we are often taught to never let anything interfere with our sport. We are expected to push everything to the side and be ready to perform when called upon. If we want to be successful in our sport, we are to “win at all costs,” which puts mental health on the back-burner.
We all have mental health, so why don’t we talk about it?
Male athletes are often too embarrassed to talk about their struggles. I know I was. Toxic masculinity plagues sport and society, fueling the negative stigma surrounding mental health. We can talk all we want about “breaking the stigma,” but without action and support from administration, coaches, teammates, and the community, we are doing a disservice for those athletes who struggle daily. This needs to change.
That being said, sport is not meant to be easy; that’s half of the thrill of competing. You have to push your mind and body out of its comfort zone to improve. However, we, as an athletic community, must empower and support all of our athletes, rather than chastise and criticize them for imperfection. Athletics can be an incredible catalyst for societal change, I hope that our generation of athletes can become leaders in improving the perception surrounding mental health.
I write this as a person who still struggles with mental health. In the past year, I have had over one hundred mornings of waking up to obsessive and intrusive thoughts. In the past six months, life has been turned upside down with the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, my other grandmother passed away; and since coming back to college this fall, I have returned to counseling and have been taking antidepressants for over a year now. However, while my anxiety is certainly a part of me, it does not define me.
Here are a few things that I have learned from the past year that help carry me forward. I hope these may resonate with anyone reading this…
First and foremost, you are never alone. The days may feel long and lonesome, but there are so many people feeling the exact same feelings you are. By seeking help, you do not have to prolong your struggles.
Next, your feelings are valid. While you may feel like what you are thinking and feeling makes you crazy, I promise that you are not. Just because someone else may “have it worse,” does not mean that what you are going through is not important. Even if it goes undiagnosed, anyone can experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, OCD, and other mental health disorders. Listen to your body and take care of yourself!
Lastly, sharing your feelings does not make you weak. By being vulnerable, you take the first step towards a healthier life. Do not let others dissuade you from being transparent about your feelings. By sharing your feelings, you prove to yourself, and others, just how strong you truly are. Have the courage to take that first step towards recovery!
If my story impacts just one person, then writing this will have been well worth it. Initially, I was hesitant to write my story because I know that there are so many people with stories just like mine. This goes to show that my story is unique, but not special. Millions of people suffer from mental health disorders and have a story of their own that is worth telling.
For those who feel they have no place to go, please do not be afraid to reach out for help. That is the most difficult, yet worthwhile, thing you can do. The road to recovery is never a linear process, but taking that first step is the best decision you can make.
The best is yet to come <3