Redefining Mental Toughness

Mikaela Brewer

I inadvertently wore the Joker’s famous golden yellow and cardinal red contrast the day after I saw the new movie with my best friend who saved my life. I panicked for two days about everything in that sentence.

Many people ask me what it’s like to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and what it’s like to be comorbid with Major Depression. They ask me to describe my thoughts to them. Although I study the brain at Stanford, I’ve only ever been able to describe my mind abstractly. It’s like this: the irreverent fear that I don’t have every aspect of my life in complete control. But, it’s also many other things. Things science can’t yet explain. It’s linking a series of events and thoughts that need not be correlated, all to ensure I have planned for every possible negative outcome. I live my life in fear. I don’t understand my thoughts, but let’s be honest, nobody does.

I’ve always been a believer in storytelling. It’s the way humans learn. It’s the way we retain information. And it’s the way we connect with one another. This is a fragmented collection of stories, directly from my mind. I trust my readers to piece them all together however they choose.

When I was very young, it was evident that I was debted to OCD, but the air didn’t get thin until I was a teenager. Depression made an appearance in my nightmare. In my junior and senior year of highschool, I was rising to basketball stardom. I had represented my city, my province and my country on world stages across Canada, France, the Czech Republic and Chile. Basketball became my crutch as I helplessly spiralled further and further into the darkest corners of my mind. Obsessions and compulsions wrapped their fingers around my neck, leaving bruises and scars that I will carry forever.

You should be able to control this…you have controlled this all of your life. You can’t do it now because you’re not strong enough. You’re breaking. You’re not good enough.

But I loved basketball. I managed to keep my life afloat on 5 hours or less of sleep and that evil shade of purple under my eyes. Despite the features in T.V. segments and newspaper articles highlighting my name, the awards and being accepted to Stanford University, I felt inferior. I felt things so deep and dark that I didn’t know how to confront them. My mind clock clicked, counting down outside of my control, eating away at my confidence, my heart and who I thought I was.

“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to be as if you don’t” were some of the only words the Joker scribbled in his notebook. As an elite athlete in a community where the stigma of mental toughness reigns supreme, these words struck my lungs and plucked my heartstrings.

In the fall of my senior year of highschool, my grandma, one of the people I was closest to in life, had a stroke that shattered my heart the day after she walked home from one of my basketball games. One month later, one of my best friends died by suicide. A part of my soul died with him and guilt oxygenated my blood, flowing to my heart and pumping relentlessly throughout my body. My mom spent long days at the hospital while I did my best to help my dad at home with my 5 younger siblings. I escaped to basketball to release my anger and grief, but my performance was a slow-burning decline. My symptoms climbed to heights that they hadn’t before, and I was afraid of myself. My confidence, self esteem and sense of wonder in life vanished.

My teammates at Stanford teased me; they told me that I whispered everything I said. They told me that I didn’t talk enough on the floor. They were right, and I laughed. My voice was stripped bare of all confidence those four years ago.

But I never used to be this way.

My coaches used to tell me I was a great communicator and leader. I captained Canada to silver at a U18 FIBA Americas Championship.

But I didn’t trust my voice anymore. I didn’t trust myself anymore.

I had hoped Stanford would help me start fresh and walk away from torment. The darkness only became more viscous and seeped into every aspect of my life. It was beautifully sunny in Palo Alto, California, yet I wrapped myself up in a thick wool blanket of pain, grief and guilt. I gave into everything my mind demanded of me and reprimanded me for.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of reintroducing myself to Meg Murry from a Wrinkle in Time. Meg despises herself, her anger and her quirks, but must use them to defend Earth from the Dark Thing engulfing all that’s good in the universe. Meg describes the pain and disorientation she feels when she ‘tessers’ – something she must do to fight against this Dark Thing in order to save her father and the world.

As I sit at Backyard Brew, a small outdoor cafe on California Avenue around the corner from Stanford University, I am feeling the worth of my pain shining down on me through and between these transparent blue umbrellas. The Dark Thing is profoundly and rapidly ascending on our world today. It’s the mental health crisis.

I have a platform to make change with my story.

In February of my freshman year at Stanford, I made an attempt on my life. In the years of therapy since then, I still experience powerful, thick waves of depression, anxiety, obsessions and compulsions that will always lay dormant or restless in my stomach. Unfortunately, I will never have the option to choose which happens when. The difference now is that I know they are there and I’m ready for them when they decide to make an appearance on the basketball court or anywhere that they most likely aren’t welcome.

My favourite Bible verse is 2 Corinthians 1:4: Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. In the message, this translates to: He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.

This verse speaks volumes because it is applicable no matter what or who you believe in.

I now feel purpose for my pain.

The other difference is that there are also waves of irrevocable good that I scramble to write down should I need them to pull me, or someone else, from the bad.

Recently, my therapist asked me to make a list of the things I am painfully afraid of and therefore have to perfect in order to feel stable:

“Everything must add to 11, you must not eat one morsel of ‘unhealthy’ food or the day becomes unhealthy and you’ll underperform, your basketball stats must be perfect, you must be a certain weight and body fat percentage, your outfits must match perfectly down to the earrings, you must be perfectly efficient with your time and actions, you must hold perfect conversations and good days and bad days must alternate.”

I need these things to be completely in my control or I panic. In a devotional I read a few weeks ago, the author wrote that trust and control cannot coexist. Whether we want to trust God, ourselves, or anyone else, we cannot do so if we are afraid of our lack of control.

This idea drives the continuous battle in my mind. It’s not one sided anymore. If Captain America “can do this all day” then so can I. And so can YOU.

Remind yourself that it’s OK to live in the unknown and that stress and worry do not need to be a desperation for control.

Only now am I beginning to trust myself and my voice again. I’ve realized that releasing my mind’s control over my life means trying to foster love, harmony and peace with my thoughts.

OCD latches itself onto what means the most to us. So I say: let it. Let it latch onto how much it means to me to be able to write and speak about my experiences. Let it latch onto how much I care about changing the stigma around mental health and giving voices to those who can’t speak, and for those who I hope will find that they can. Because by it being there, it will only motivate me further.


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