It has been an incredible year of growth and discovery for me. It is hard to put into words how I believe the world works, but I will say that I have never been disappointed in the way it teaches me things and answers my questions.
I love people. I love being around them, understanding them and appreciating everyone for what amazing unique contributions they give to our planet. I love how different we all are, but how we have something in common with everyone we pass on the sidewalk each day.
One thing that connects us all is our struggles. There aren’t a set of feet walking the planet that doesn’t know the meaning of struggle, and that is a blessing. Over the course of the last year the topic of mental illness has been brought to my attention again and again. Too many times to be a coincidence honestly.
Growing up I was exposed to many different illnesses of all different severities from ADD to Autism to Depression and schizophrenia. There has never been a stigma around the topic of mental health in my family because we have always been comfortable talking about and caring for those loved ones in our family and community.
What the last year has taught me, is about those of us who are suffering in quiet. Yes myself included. There are thousands, arguably millions of people who the stigma has effected to the point where their suffering is worsened simply because they’re too afraid to talk about it.
The life of an athlete is the best example I can give because I live it and witness it each and every day. As an athlete we’re expected to be a champion, a hero for our country, and a role model to those who follow in our footsteps and dream of achieving the many accomplishments athletes do. What makes the newspaper, the internet and the television are the Gold Medals, sponsorships, broken records and the joyful tears of proud parents when they’re son or daughter has “Made it!” The sad reality of this is these moments make up the tiniest portion of an athletes career.
Out of my seven heptathlons last year, I won two. I still finished second in the country, but I only took GOLD in two of those seven meets. I’m often asked how close I am to making the next Olympics, but never how far I’ve come in the short five years I’ve been doing the heptathlon. There is a certain interest in and value placed on being the best or being on top, but not always the journey to get there or the many oh so close attempts. I am an athlete 365 days a year. I eat, sleep and train like an animal for those TWO, sometimes ONE day of gold per year. Of course we don’t only do it for the medals, but we do thrive off that desire to encourage others, and make the country proud.
When I first met with a sports Psychologist a few years ago he told me about a story of a man who FINALLY won the Stanley Cup after many years of playing hockey, and as he hoisted it above his head all he could think was “Thank god I’ve finally done it, I can’t wait to get away from all of this.” We all do it, we chase other people’s dreams and expectations as hungrily as we chase our own, so each time we don’t achieve the results we want we feel as though we’ve let down far more people than just ourselves.
Depression claims the happiness and sometimes life of many athletes world-wide. I would argue that nearly all successful athletes have had a time or two in their life where they didn’t know if they would be able to make it or not. Chasing numbers produced by only a few every year, or constantly wanting to be bigger, faster and stronger, is an expectation that we will fall to more times than we will achieve in the many attempts to get to the top. This past September, I was almost positive I was finished with my pursuit of excellence in Track and Field.
Clara Hughes was a name I heard over and over again when I moved to Calgary in 2010 because of her incredible accomplishments and many Olympic medals. Now, in 2014 I hear her name over and over again but for a different reason. For sharing her story of depression and helping Canada end the stigma around all Mental Illness.
I have been following Clara as she biked across the country and talked to thousands of people in every city and town along the way. I believe when she arrived in Calgary on Friday we broke the 48 or 49-thousand person barrier! What was more amazing than her courage to bike across the country and her courage to share her story over and over again, has been the people, like myself, who she has encouraged and inspired to share and acknowledge their stories as well. My favorite quote from the evening was by the amazing man who introduced Clara and hosted the event, he said “Talking about your weakness takes strength.”
Before Clara came on to the stand to talk to us at the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, Olympic Medalist Helen Upperton took the mic to talk about her own depression leading up to the Olympics. Proving once again, that no great accomplishment comes without a struggle, but every struggle will leave us with a valuable lesson to be learned and something to be gained.
When Clara first started speaking I had a lump in my throat. She was so incredibly happy and enthusiastic about everything that she has done and everything she is currently doing. Clara showed me more hope and encouragement through her incredibly positive personality and genuine contagious laughter than the words she would later speak.
Immediately I felt inspired to write a blog post, whether it was to encourage people to follow and support Clara as she bikes for another month, or to share with someone around them a struggle they have been going through. I have realized the importance of creating the conversation around mental health and normalizing it.
As I decided to continue on with my career in athletics I took note of a few things that had to change, and one of them was the way I thought and spoke about myself, and my accomplishments. I had lots of help along the way from many different friends and professionals, but one of my favorite tools to get me back on track towards success came in the form of a book. Reading DARING GREATLY inspired me and allowed me to accept everything for what it is, and truly be happy with myself. Recently I started reading THE CHIMP PARADOX, which is helping me piece together all the how’s and whys to our brain and thought processes. It will be a never ending battle I am sure, as I continue to work my way to the top, but since engaging others in the conversation, and discovering many wonderful things about myself and the beauty of sport, it’s a journey I no longer fear, but welcome with open arms.
Clara said 1 in 1 people are effected by mental illness. If not you than someone you know. Let’s end the stigma. Get Talking.