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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?


When I decided to come back in the fall, I promised myself that sophomore year would be my year for growth.

Right before summer arrived, I already had housing arrangements in place. I basically threw a Hail Mary and reached out to the only friend I made outside of rugby. She connected me with one of her teammates and before I knew it I had agreed to live with eleven strangers. However, when I made those plans I told myself I could always back out later if I wanted to. When later finally arrived, I forced myself to follow through. My ultimate test. Still, I spent the first two months going out of my way to avoid my suite mates. Despite being so anxious, I really did try to say yes when they invited me to do things with them. I knew I needed to embrace those uncomfortable situations if I was going to grow at all. Little by little it got easier, and as sophomore year progressed I taught myself independence.

Now, I am twenty-one years old and proud to announce that I am a rising senior at Sacred Heart University. And yes, I still play rugby. As I share my story, I know that my coach was right. If I had chosen differently, I would’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.

I bet you’re wondering how I improved my mental health. Did I just wish for a change?

With the help of my family, I was able to make remarkable changes in my life. My dad taught me how to implement mindfulness techniques into my everyday routine, my mom took me out for weekly Sunday brunches, and my sister called me frequently.

I choose to live every moment by being present, and by doing this I enjoy everything more. Also, to keep myself grounded I do a daily focus of gratitude, and as of recently, prayers. As a child, religion was forced into my life, so I pushed it away. It wasn’t until I was struggling that I realized I wanted to believe in more, and I turned to God for help. The acceptance of God into my life has brought me a feeling of peace I never knew I was missing. I consider myself to be truly blessed for everything I have, and everything I am.

I was diagnosed with anxiety and bipolar depression at a young age, but these are no longer words I use to define myself. I now know what it feels like to laugh for no reason, and smile just for being alive, and it really is amazing.


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