In the Water, They Can't See you Cry
The summer Olympics still fresh on our minds, Noah S. Philip, MD, Butler Hospital psychiatrist and Assistant Professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, takes a look at Olympian swimmer Amanda Beard's memoir of how she was able to stay afloat in spite of a life-long struggle with mental illness.
Atlanta, Georgia, 1996: In her first Olympic games, fourteen-year-old Amanda Beard of the US swim team wins—gold, silver, silver. Four years later in Sydney, she wins a bronze. The next games in Athens, she clinches one more gold and two silvers. Olympian Amanda Beard's life seemed to shine as bright as the medals that hung around her neck.
As viewers and Olympic fans, we know how hard the athletes train, dedicating their lives to be the best in the world at what they do. Still, it's easy to look at people like Beard and simply think they're on top of the world. Delving into Amanda Beard's memoir reveals the reality that while she was winning Olympic medals and making the cover of magazines, this world-record-breaking young woman simultaneously felt broken inside.
Beard was able to hide years of emotional pain from people. She maintained a back-breaking schedule of distraction, refused to speak about her feelings to anyone, and used her media image to project herself as a happy, humble all-American girl with a supportive family. The truth was, as this was going on, she endured her parents' divorce and suffered from a learning disability, which led to long periods of sadness, drug abuse, bulimia, poor self-image, and tumultuous relationships.
In order to relieve periods of anxiety and rage, Beard also engaged in one of the most perplexing behaviors of all—skin cutting. "I didn't cut to bleed but rather to soothe," she writes. "There was never any thinking, just instinct. After I'd finished, I took it all in, allowing myself to breathe and enjoy the clear-headedness that dried up the darkness sloshing around and threatening to drown me from the inside…It seemed like a no-brainer that if something worked, I should do it."
The darkness Beard refers to that led to those behaviors was, in fact, Major Depression, better known to the public as clinical depression. She didn't recognize her illness for years, and, even then, only with the help of the man she would eventually marry and a therapist he insisted she see once he discovered her self-destructive cutting. Once in therapy, Beard was finally able to speak the words out loud, "I don't get why, even though I'm successful in my sport, own a beautiful home, can afford nice things, have a great boyfriend, and have lots of other things going for me, I'm still miserable."
It was here she began to learn for the first time to talk about the things she had never been able to communicate before. Amanda's therapist helped her see that fueling her emotions and behaviors was a real, biological illness and suggested she also see a specialist for depression treatment. Beard wrote, "Initially, I bristled at her recommendation. A psychiatrist? Really?" Like many who are on the fence about getting help, she feared the worst—that an antidepressant would "dull the edge that fueled her competitiveness" and creativity; that it would cause weight gain, or she would lose her core personality. What she found is what often happens—the people closest to the person suffering begin to see subtle improvements in their loved one's moods and behaviors, and, as Beard put it best, the medications "gave me a floor to stand on while I did the hard work in therapy."
Inevitably, Beard's desire to feel better outweighed her fears of seeking treatment. She admitted, "There was no aha! moment or huge change in my personality. I continued to have ups and downs, which I liked. I didn't want to become a robot that didn't laugh or cry," but her all-or-nothing thoughts and reactions began to level out.
She learned to accept, "The difference between being healthy and unhealthy was that I didn't let my failures kill my successes." We learned from her memoir that even the strongest of Olympic athletes are no different than you or I: There will always be times when we need help, and even the best of us may need to rely on others to seek it out.