“Your brain can get injured just like any other body part, and it can heal just like any other body part.”
Olympic Runner Alexi Pappas had no choice but to be surrounded by mental health growing up. Her mother, who had bipolar disorder, died by suicide when Alexi was only four years old. That did not mean, however, that she really understood mental health or had the vocabulary to describe it. It was both a taboo subject in the 1990s and in her household. Nobody around her talked about it in a way that helped her to know that mental illness was treatable and her mother’s death in any way preventable.
Alexi explains she thought that her mother, “Was so sick and unhelpable that she had to go. Therefore, I wanted to never be in that situation where I reminded myself of her, because I thought in that case I might be unhelpable, too, and I might have to go.” So, Alexi tried to do everything she could to be different from her mother. To her, that meant becoming someone great, someone happy, and ultimately an Olympian. She did what she describes as, trying to solve an internal problem with an external solution.
But, that that didn’t stop her from becoming depressed. It did, however, make her unprepared for it.
After the Olympics she experienced a post-Olympic low, as many athletes do. She describes herself as being nearly at crisis level. She says, “I was in the middle of Mammoth Lakes, California with no vocabulary or understanding [about mental health] and just a complete denial that I was experiencing certain feelings, because I thought if I admitted it...if I wasn't okay, then I really might not be okay. And that just, of course, makes things worse.”
She didn’t even notice how bad she was herself. It was actually her dad who made her get help. Even still, getting to help was much harder than she could have ever imagined. She did not know how to find a provider and describes the process as humiliating, feeling she needed to ask for favors to find doctors and get in quickly given her urgency. This humbling experience inspired how she thinks about the challenges in the mental health system. It is one of the reasons she has since teamed up with Monarch, the largest therapist directory in the United States that allows people to both find a therapist and to request an appointment directly, as she believes that if it had existed when she tried to get help, a lot of her story would not have happened the way that it did.
Her treatment also profoundly changed the way she viewed mental health by her doctor simply reframing it for her. All it took was the right words that she was missing all along.
Her doctor explained, “Your brain can get injured just like any other body part, and it can heal just like any other body part.” By equating physical injury to mental injury, Alexi felt she could commit to healing her brain, just like an athlete commits to recovering from a physical injury. Healing, she says, then became a process she could understand just like an Olympic goal. When she explained the same concept to soldiers about PTSD in a talk she gave with the Pentagon’s US Army Resilience Directorate, they also resonated with it.
For Alexi, this messaging has been the number one thing that changed the course of her healing from mental illness. Understanding depression as a broken bone, allowed her to give herself grace for how long it could take to heal. Broken bones, she says, take time, and that is OK. Just like there are not many things that could prevent someone from breaking a bone in the first place, the same is true of an episode of depression or a mental health crisis. Within that frame, it became easier for her to have self-compassion and focus only on healing. Struggling with your mental health is not your fault, let alone the timing of those struggles.
There is perhaps no better example for this than Simone Biles withdrawing from her Olympic events, as one can only imagine that given the option no one would want to have to stop competing mid-competition at the Olympics.
Yet, if a person feels they can’t compete, physically or mentally, it should their decision to make. Alexi explains that if an athlete said they thought they would risk a leg injury by playing a match or doing an event, people would embrace the decision, and understand that they don’t want her to hurt her leg. Mental health is no different.
Alexi emphasizes, “[It] is a legitimate bodily need. I think the answer is so simple. It's like, what do you need in order to compete? And if you're unable to compete, because you're risking your body then don't compete.” By understanding that the brain, too, can get injured, Simone’s decision, and Naomi Osaka’s, make so much sense. But, given some of the backlash, perhaps more people could use to understand the vocabulary.
Mental health, like physical health, is also not only for the people who are extremely ill, or as Alexi describes, so self aware that they know what to look for. It is for everyone along the healing spectrum, and includes, where Alexi is now, maintenance. Her goal today, by going to psychiatry and therapy appointments, is to continue her health after her injury, or prevent another injury from occurring in the first place, with what she calls “prehab.”
In her newfound conceptualization of mental health, Alexi has also changed how she views sports and how we can actually be mentally prepared to survive and thrive within them. She says, “I think the big misconception is that the problem is chasing the dream. I think we could be much more prepared to handle that dream and to handle the moment after as like a legitimate chapter in the process.”
In other words, the problem is not wanting to be the best, or striving to be an Olympian, or even becoming one, but not including mental health in every conversation. Pappas, who is also the author of Bravey, adds, “I think it's just being able to come into it as prepared mentally as your body is prepared...We might be physically peaked, but mentally, we’re still human beings”
Even the GOAT Simone Biles is slowly realizing that herself.
by: Jessica Gold, July 29, 2020
Krysta Oehm, the founder of Mind Matters.
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