For all you This Is Us lovers, this opening should be familiar…
A father and son are on a road trip together in celebration of the fathers life as his days are numbered. They did not know each other until late in the father’s life. In efforts to get to know as much about each other, they hop on a road trip to the father’s hometown. The son is a well put together, successful businessman. On the outside, everything looks great. He is happily married, has two beautiful little girls, drives a Benz etc.
As their journey begins, the father attempts to free his son from being a slave to perfection, planning, and self- inflicted pressure. The father was shocked after what he had learned about his son through his daughter-in-law. The conversation goes as follows:
Father: You know I didn’t believe it at first when she told me about your breakdown. Is it okay to call it a breakdown?
Son: Lots of names for it. Anxiety attack. Stress-induced trauma. Mental Distress. You choose.
Father: It’s quite a shock to see you so vulnerable… it’s hard to fathom, you seem to have it all together
Son: Too together always been like that…
“This is Us” Season 1 Episode 16
I had to press pause after that scene. It hit home.
On one end, I can relate to how the son must have felt when his father said,“you seem to have it all together”, when if fact, “having it all together” feels like a constant spotlight of pressure. The personal pressure to be perfect. Pressure to exceed expectations — to not disappoint myself or anyone I care about.
On the other, I can only imagine the energy it took for the son to own and embrace his anxiety let alone have his condition exposed to a loved one — someone who sees him as “all put together”.
As a student-athlete at a mid-major Division I , I felt the pressure to be a perfect leader, athlete, and student, always under the spotlight. I can only imagine how athletes feel at high profile institutions, specifically in revenue producing sports. Family, friends, and fans look at the press releases, social media posts, and lit pre-game snapchat stories thinking “wow, they have it all”. In addition to the athletic glory, being a leader on campus brought great opportunities and cool experiences to share on our favorite social media platform — but this also meant people scrolling through your profile assuming “their life is perfect”.
Of course we want to share that we were selected as an All-American, accepted for a prestigious Leadership program, or even show off the new Championship bling. Who doesn’t want to share their highlight real? But every shared post was the ONLY REALITY and every action was an endorsement for what is acceptable. That is pressure.*
What was the son’s only reality to the father? His only reality was what he saw. His son had a beautiful family, lived in an upscale neighborhood, financially blessed, and was extremely educated.
The son felt otherwise. Knowing the perception of his reality to outsiders, this birthed constant pressures in every facet of his life. He has to be the perfect husband, father, son, employee or he will disappoint everyones reality of him. His reality though, was living in the perfect storm of anxiety.
For 17 years of my life, I have had sports and the game of softball as a coping mechanism. In middle school and high school I was involved in at least two sports at a time, all of the time. In college, at least “20 hours” (my fellow student-athletes know why the “” are used) of my week was dedicated to the game of softball. Competition, practice, training, sisterhood, service, winning… they were all great coping mechanisms for me.
“Sable, the first year out is the hardest. It’s the hardest for everyone I know”, my Coach said during one of my last meetings as a student-athlete. In my head, I naturally thought I would be fine, that I would stay active, join fitness clubs, and adult leagues, but she was right…..
Discovering a new “friend”
Today, my last day of graduate school (yay!)**, I finished my last counseling session. My counselor feels like my friend, well I mean she does know more about me than I like but as she said, “put your pride aside”…I digress.
Today she uttered the words, “well, I am so proud of you and am going to close your case today”. I immediately reflected on the beginning of October when her tone was of high concern. She did not hesitate to “take on my case”. I am not sure about you but referring to my circumstance as a “case” was a bit uncomfortable– but accepting that was part of my process. She had made up her mind within the first 15 minutes of hearing a sample of the mental storm brewing in my head. I thought that a one hour venting session with a stranger was good enough but as I sit here 2 months later, I am so grateful for the process it took to reach the personal breakthroughs I experienced the past 6 weeks.
The decision to seek professional mental guidance was a task in itself.
Seeking and talking about help, is viewed as taboo in our society. While I kept my appointments to myself, during the time, I feel as though sharing my positive experience may influence another. As many other former student-athletes know, we were conditioned to learn our bodies and how to take care of them. We should treat our minds with same respect and proactive care as we do our physical selves.
About four months into graduate school I started to feel this unfamiliar, uncontrollable (at the time), uncomfortable feeling. “I am okay”, I told myself (see All but Alone. for more on why that is a dangerous thought).
With the time demands of Grad school, dedication to my assistantship, and constant challenges in my personal life, I started to lose grip of my ability to feel–lose grip of myself.
My passion faded. My focus blurred. My purpose hid. The voice of God muffled. I was so conditioned to thinking “sucking it up” or “staying busy” was the prescription to this feeling. Saying to loved ones, “I am okay”. I was wrong. Staying busy, sleeping on it, or venting to a trusted friend may have taken care of the symptoms in the short-run but in reflection to how I really felt, I realized that the root of it all was my unowned anxiety.
It had been very common to hear myself say, “I have never dealt with anxiety before until now” but as I write this message, I have concluded that this anxiety is not new. As a matter of fact, we all face a level of anxiety at some point in our lives. The difference between owning it, and it owning you, is how honest your are with yourself and whether you have found your coping methods.
Up until I started graduate school, my coping strategies were immersed inside of my obsession with striving toward perfection within the game of softball. I would go do ladders, take fly balls, hit in the cages, practice slap hitting tricks and even challenge one of my teammates in a race (probably in that order).
Although my softball career was over, I also stopped the other things I had grown to love. The energy to discover more hobbies was nowhere to be found. I stopped running daily, listening/mixing music, and even lost a sight of my love for serving the community. I started expecting myself to hit .1000 (perfect batting average) in every aspect of my life. Personal pressure to be the perfect student, cohort president, graduate assistant, friend, sister, and the list goes on and on…
This pressure took over who I was. The frustrations toward how I was really feeling replaced my gratitude. My actions reflected a person I was not. I was untruthful to my closest friends by telling them things like “I am here for you”, “you know I am here to lend an ear”, “I am here if you need to talk”.
Was I really there for them?…. How could I be there for them if I wasn’t even available for myself?
(read that again, but a little slower….)
So…What made me pick up the phone to make the initial counseling appointment?
Besides the time when I heard the opening line to Biggie Small’s Juicy “It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up magazine” and didn’t rap all of the lyrics….
I found myself in a very similar situation to the This is Us seen above. One afternoon, on my way home from school, I was speaking to a family friend on the phone. Rather than asking the general question, “how are you doing?”, they went on and answered the questions for me–“well, I see you’re doing just fine–traveling everywhere–saving the world–doing big things”. In my mind, I had a completely different answer.
That’s when I knew I needed to give attention to whatever was going on in my head.
The perception of perfection is toxic.
Over the past three months, I have learned to accept that it is okay not to have it all together.It is okay not to be perfect. It is okay to feel. I am not the only person in the world who has had an anxious phase. It is okay to be human.
If you look back to All But Alone and Bottom of the 7th, Jack and I write about mental health, especially when it relates to student-athletes. We have preached how important seeking mental guidance is in our articles. This fall was a time for me to practice what I preached. Now that I have experienced the benefits of counseling, I advocate for it even more.
I am so blessed to have discovered another part of myself. Don’t worry! I’m gucci — getting back to doing things I love! Focusing on my career goals, fishing, listening/discovering music, exploring new places, traveling, catching up with close friends, being a jungle gym to my nephews, and discovering new ways to exercise.
I am sure you too– are navigating new waters in your personal life. Just know, you are not alone! Keep your mind in shape. We all know the benefits of training and taking care of our bodies. Transfer that same investment into the health of your mind!
Enjoy the journey you only get once! Start discovering hobbies/talents outside of your athletic gifts. It may even help you balance the physical and mental demands of your awesome career!
My Personal Compasses
If you can relate to any of this, I encourage to you take the first step out of the storm!
I am no expert on how to face stress, anxiety, or overcome tough times but here are some personal notes I strive to remember:
- Whatever you are facing, OWN IT, or it will continue to own you!
- Pray! Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything…” (Phil 4:6)
- Start and discover coping methods. Find a new book. Take yourself out to dinner. Try Yoga. Do something out of your comfort zone***
- Practice self-appreicaition by celebrating your little wins.
- Start a Gratitude journal. Meditate on the good things.
- Gratitude = Energy (you’ll need this to find your coping methods) (Phil 4:4-8)
- You are blessed. Your gift is collecting dust. Get busy with your blessings.
If you know someone who is owned by their anxiety, don’t just wish they would [ _____ ]:
- Encourage them to seek professional guidance! My counselor was tough love, but she helped me help myself.
- Pray for and WITH them.
- Ask them how they are really doing.
- Simply and sincerely be there for them
The scene ends with the father encouraging the son to roll the windows down, turn up the music, and enjoying the journey.
I think I’ll take his advice. Who’s coming with me?
Sable A. Lee
If you are a former student-athlete and would like to share your journey without the game, please comment below! We would love to hear your story.
*This paragraph highlights the underlying realities that people, and many student-athletes, may not be aware of. The lessons learned during this 4-5 year time period is what makes us so special. I wouldn’t change my hardships as student-athlete for anything in the world. I hope my perspective helps some see student-athletes from a different lens.
**83 weeks after my last collegiate game. Coach was right.
*** Although my father wasn’t to keen of the idea, I went skydiving. It was one of the best decisions I have made. For anyone who is looking to do something out of their comfort zone, hit up your local Groupon deals and go skydiving!