I can think of nothing more tragic and inhumane than to live a life unseen, a life devoid of the authentic connections, those all-important strands that intimately weave our life’s story to the heartbeats of others. For so many people, that’s exactly what living with trauma, addiction, and compromised mental health feels like. We, as a community, have only recently begun to engage in an open dialogue about the importance of mental health and the role that stigma plays in shutting down that dialogue. But what exactly is stigma anyways?
Stigma is showing up with a full heart and only revealing half of it. Stigma is having to stoically witness the pity in someone else’s eyes while they look on helplessly as your life unravels before them. Stigma is only feeling safe sitting in the waiting room of your psychiatrist’s office, knowing that here, and only here, are you truly able to reveal yourself. Stigma is that unvoiced pain inside you as you slowly come to terms with the fact that you have no other choice than to fill out the disability benefits form from the Human Resources department because you can no longer function at work. And stigma is feeling broken and unworthy of love as you sit across from your partner as he or she desperately struggles to find the right words to take away some of your pain in a last ditch attempt to bring you back to yourself.
My own experience with tenuous mental health is not dissimilar to that of countless others—a stumbling free-fall through the cavernous abyss of depression, one accompanied by waves of nausea-inducing anxiety attacks, and the unforgiving echoes of PTS(D). But where did it all begin to go so wrong, and how did I arrive at a place that feels so far away from myself?
It’s said that with time and distance, comes wisdom and discovery. Yet for me, the only wisdom I attain comes with the daily commitment to revisit that haunting abyss, filled with memories I’m so desperate to forget.
For me, it’s always been a chicken-and-egg scenario––did my alcohol and drug addiction lead to my suicidal depression? Or, was the addiction simply a ready balm to quiet and postpone the inevitable mental health breakdown? And if I delve even further into that dark abyss, I arrive at the real source of all the trauma that has been the soundtrack of my life: the suffocating secret I tried desperately to bury and numb for years with drugs and alcohol. Here I am today, a husband, a father, an elite athlete, and it was not until just five years ago that I felt able to give a voice to that secret that haunted me for so long. It wasn’t until then that I had the strength to say these words out loud: “I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape.” It was that buried trauma that lay behind my struggles with addiction and depression. And it was my ability to harness all that trauma and need for escape that served as the catalyst for me to find a renewed sense of worthiness through sport as a long distance runner.
I’m not going to lie to you and say that I haven’t replaced one addiction – alcohol – for another, the endorphin high of endurance sports. But here’s the thing––whereas I may have initially used my running as a way of quite literally “running away from myself,” somewhere along the way all those hours and hours pounding the pavement somehow allowed me to “run into myself.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that running saved my life. It forced me to re-inhabit a body that sexual assault had taken away from me. Running has shown me that I am stronger than my fears and that I can achieve greatness when I commit wholeheartedly.
Because of my profile as an athlete and author, I have the privilege to share my story with a wide range of audiences. And because of those encounters, people often come up to me and tell me that I’m resilient. To be honest, resilience is a quality that I find as elusive to define as I do to recognize it in myself. It’s likely that what others see as an “inspiring” ability for me to recover from trauma and addiction, I see as nothing more than the universal human capacity to find a way forward through even the unimaginable.
Lately, I’ve begun to entertain the notion that resilience may have more to do with our accepting that in order to move forward we must come to terms with the fact that it’s a path that involves our “healing with” something, rather than “healing from” something.
The word ‘resilience’ comes from the Latin resiliens, meaning to rebound or recoil—an elastic response. And herein lies what interests us most when we look to those who have weathered adversity for inspiration in our lives. There is nothing unique about being present for trauma and pain. If you live long enough, you will accompany adversity over and over again. The trick is to learn to get “comfortable” with the “uncomfortable” and to be fully present in the adversity to the extent to which you can mine it for the lessons of resilience it has to offer. Resilience is not so much a gift we receive as it is an invitation to discover that which already lies within us––our innate capacity to rise. I believe we are all drawn to stories of overcoming because they speak to us at the most primitive level. And resilience itself is such an elusive quality because we can rarely recognize it in ourselves, but see it manifest in the inspiring lives that surround us. But above all, resilience is a clarion call to other more tenuous souls to hold onto hope, to weather that storm of adversity just a little longer until that mysterious moment when our own resilience opens a way forward.