Before you dive into the writing below, I wanted to provide a little foreword – I am very aware that my struggles with mental health are not necessarily unique, but that being said, no two experiences are exactly the same. While my story may not resonate with everyone, it is my hope that some small part of it will resonate with some of you. My journey is ongoing; however, I have chosen to share a snapshot of my experiences from age 16-24. I have structured this time period in 4 stages: hiding, struggling, learning and healing.
- Friend, daughter, sister, niece, cousin, girlfriend, teammate, coach
- UBC Kinesiology graduate
- 5-time Academic All-Canadian and U-Sports Champion
- Elite athlete for 9+ years
When you read this, you’ll probably think: Wow! This person has it all together. For many years, that’s what I wanted everyone to think.
My name is Hannah Haughn and I was a serial pretender. In fact, sometimes I thought maybe I should have pursued acting, until I realized that would actually entail performing in front of an audience *cue heart rate spike*. The truth is that for 7 years I pretended I had my life together, and boy did I fool everyone, even myself.
- Throwing up before every game & exam
- Recurrent insomnia
- Social isolation
- Crying episodes
- Generalized anxiety, depression
Now when you read this, you probably think: Wow, this person needs help or What’s wrong with her?! This is what I hid.
So why did I hide it? Because as a 16-year-old kid who’d just made the Canadian National Field Hockey team, I was supposed to be living my dream. In many ways, I was. I got to travel the world and compete at the highest level in the sport I loved. At the same time, I was forced to grow up quickly in a highly stressful, competitive environment. I’d barely gone through puberty, yet suddenly I was expected to make adult decisions without having the time to figure out who I was. I’d spend 10 hours each week on the bus getting to practices and missed over half of my Grade 11 and 12 years to play field hockey. Socially, I no longer fit in with my high school friends, and I was “just a kid” to my new teammates. So, I pretended. Like every other kid, I just wanted to be seen as ‘normal’ even when I wasn’t.
In my 2nd and 3rd year of university, I spent most of my time stumbling through the dark. I lost family members to illness, and I lost friends to my social isolation and rigorous training regime. People kept saying that once I settled into university I’d find a balance between academics and athletics. For me that balance does not exist; either I’m 100% in, or I’m out. I began to fear failure more than anything in the world.
So, I tricked myself into believing I was striving for excellence when in reality I was striving for perfection. Something that doesn’t exist, and never will.
Slowly but surely, my mental illness became a drug: reinforcing. When it showed up uninvited, my unhappiness allowed me to narrow my focus obsessively on the task at hand so that I thrived in the classroom and on the field. Part of me knew I needed to seek help while another part of me thought, Why change a good thing? The second part always won the battle.
LEARNING & HEALING
By my 4th year my shining, perfect reputation was still intact. But I was tired. Meanwhile, 4400 kilometres away, my sister Heather was dealing with her own mental health issues. Unlike me, however, she was waging a full-on war with it and seeking help. What was more, she began using her art and social media platforms to expose her issues. She wasn’t hiding anything; she was shouting out and she was unapologetic about it.
It was Heather who taught me more about strength and courage than anyone I’ve ever known. Sure, I could bench press and squat much more than her, but her mind out-sprinted mine by a long shot. As always, I wanted to be just like my big sister. Unfortunately, it turns out that once you decide you want to seek help, the fight has only just begun. The more I opened up to people about my issues, the more friends I lost and the more doctors and counsellors I had telling me there was nothing wrong. When I sought a referral to see a psychologist, the doctor at the walk-in clinic took one look at me and told me, “You aren’t depressed, you got out of bed this morning, didn’t you?”
So, you might be surprised to hear that the proudest moment of my short, but exciting life, has been connecting with my psychiatrist. The mountain of societal barriers, the self-doubt, the guilt and, most of all, the anxiety over what everyone will think, led me to believe I would never get help. It has been the hardest thing I have ever done.
In the last two years, I have learned more about myself and other people than I ever thought possible. Firstly, I have realized that I will never be “cured” of my anxiety or depression. Mental health issues will forever be with me and will perhaps also be passed on to my own children someday; these realizations are difficult to swallow. However, through hard work, introspection and a lot of trial and error, I have begun to learn ways to help me cope with my everyday challenges and recognize when I’m getting run down.
In our social circles and in the media, I feel that self-care has become a sort of buzzword that many people forget to explore for themselves.
Self-care activities are unique and essential for everyone and should be seen as tools to help you slow down, bring yourself back to the present, and improve your self-perception. I still have hard days amongst my good ones, but now the hard days seem much more manageable.
My struggles have also taught me empathy and brought me closer to people. This is because they have forced me to have tough conversations with my teammates, coaches, friends and family. These are the people who want what is best for me and want to help me succeed, but they often just don’t know how best to lend support. In times when I can’t pinpoint what I need from someone, just having them listen helps.
Finally, through navigating my mental illness, I have realized how little room the sporting world gives for vulnerability. Instead, we are encouraged to adopt a “suck it up” mentality and this often leads to negative outcomes. Maybe being ‘tough’ actually means putting aside the fear of disclosing your problems and admitting something is wrong. Maybe it is learning how to say no, asking for help, or putting yourself first. I believe there are many forms of strength, we just need to recognize and value them as a collective.