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No More Fake Smiles

The story of how I learned to cope with mental illness as a Division 1 athlete

Painting by Allie Rinaldi

At fourteen years old, I sat at my kitchen table counting the pills in front of me. Seven. For years, I tried different combinations of antidepressants and mood stabilizers, but what the bottles don’t tell you is that you may never find the right combination. The process left me feeling so discouraged that I gave up.

As a freshman in high school I chose to stop taking all of my medications. After each fake smile I plastered on my face, I felt more and more detached from my friends and family. It wasn’t until I found rugby that I started to feel better, but not whole.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get an offer to play Division 1 rugby at Sacred Heart University, but when I did, I accepted.

Amidst my difficult transition, I let anxiety and uncertainty consume me. Suddenly, rugby, the thing that kept me grounded in high school, was no longer enough. I cried almost every day and had a lot of panic attacks at practice. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, I also suffered from severe depressive episodes that left me feeling helpless for days. Although I was constantly surrounded by my teammates, I felt alone. They didn’t understand what I was going through, but how could they? I didn’t confide in my teammates, just my coaches. After speaking with them, I decided to go back to therapy twice a week despite my exhaustion.

At my lowest point that summer, I decided to quit. I was driving to work when I couldn't fight the urge to cry any longer. Within seconds of parking my car I felt the moisture on my cheeks. I squeezed my eyes shut, as if that would make it stop. Aside from my shaky breaths and trembling hands I remained still. When I opened my eyes I barely noticed the water marks that were left on my jeans.

On my third attempt, I was able to dial my coach’s number. I figured if anyone could understand it would be her, because we became very close at the end of the semester. When she answered, the only audible noise that filled the silence was the sound of my sobs. I could literally hear the panic in her voice as she asked me what was wrong.

Through rigid breaths, I mustered, “I can’t do this anymore.”

I cried for what felt like an eternity. She listened to everything. Every sob. When I paused long enough to choke on my breath, she was able to talk. As expected, the first thing she did was promise to be there for me no matter what, but then she got serious. She told me that if I walked away from this opportunity now I would regret it forever. After our call ended, I stared at my reflection through the cracked phone screen.

I asked myself the question I had been struggling with all year, is this worth it? <