If you follow U.S. skiing closely, you’ve probably heard of Paul Everett. After three years on US Biathlon’s development team, Everett, 20, is currently a Montana State University sophomore and member of the Bridger Ski Foundation in Bozeman, Mont. He is studying exercise science and psychology, and wrote the following letter for an assignment. It’s about depression and anxiety in athletes, “more specifically ski racing about what it is like for those competing with these disorders and ways in which athletes and coaches can help with these mental conditions,” Everett wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I offer this letter … to spread awareness or help other skiers with similar struggles.”
Dedicating one’s life to a sport can fittingly be described as near insanity. As complete insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, an athlete’s job description nearly meets that criteria, but with at least showing the smallest increments of improvement each time. To compete at the highest of levels in any sport, an athlete needs this narrow, single-sighted vision of reaching their optimal best, and doing only that which will help them achieve this goal. For some this mindset comes easily, but for others like myself, this near insanity that is required of athletes may not always coexist with their own mentality. Much of my life I have suffered from depression and anxiety. Each time this struggle rises, I have always gone to skiing as a way to cope with this mental disorder. While skiing has done tremendous improvements on my mentality towards life and understanding of what it takes for me to be happy with myself, the competitive side of ski racing can take an emotional toll on anyone, especially those suffering this condition.
For a disorder that affects millions of people, including many athletes, its severity is not always recognized for the damage it can do. Living with depression, energy and motivation seem to drain at even the smallest of obstacles. While thoughts are occupied on unrealistic concerns or perspectives, much of what once brought joy now fades to empty routines. The ability to see the positives of accomplishments is replaced with highlighting the faults within them. It is this voice within the head demanding one’s self to quit, but never itself going away. Though exhausting, these symptoms are not what stop me from racing. While I can quiet this voice much of the time through skiing, it is only when I am faced with expectations of success in racing that my anxiety strengthens these destructive tendencies.
As a product of depression, you let yourself down countless times by not reaching the impossible standards you set yourself up to attempt. That pain may numb after a while, but the additional anxiety from letting down others cheering you on is what becomes unbearable. Competing with the heavy weights of depression and anxiety on your shoulders can become a crippling task. Trapped within your own head without a filter, negative thoughts become a constant stream for days leading up to a race. Self-esteem is lowered with every comparison of your vulnerabilities to another athlete’s strengths, and when time does finally come to leave it all out there, your only wish during the entirety of the course is to just be on the other side of that finish line. No matter the outcome, be it standing on the podium or the last page of the results, the anxiety always takes its toll.
Depression and anxiety are a tradeoff pair, both taking turns quieting the other, but also taking turns gaining control of your life. As anxiety acts as a distraction from depression, it is one that only heightens the inevitable fall of the melancholy to come. Being physically and mentally exhausted after a weekend of racing is the perfect time for depression to surface. You need a break like anyone after a hard effort, but this break when left alone makes you susceptible to that retuning voice in your head. Now without the distraction of skiing or the energy to combat it, the voice can take ahold of your thoughts, dragging you once more to your lowest point and letting you surface only when the next race comes for anxiety to take its turn.
As the years have passed with this disorder, I have learned new ways to help deal with this voice and the thoughts that come with it. While the voice may always be there, distractions and acceptance seem to be what aid me the most. Finding anything productive to do in order to keep my mind from wandering to these thoughts is the most efficient way I am able see positive changes in my mood. This is a disorder that thrives on isolation. To have the company of others I closely regard not only distracts myself, but brings an uplifting environment that can carry with me long after. While this companionship may not always be offered when I need it, finding acceptance is another tool used to great degrees of success. Anxiety is a product from fearing the future’s unknown. By doing what I need to at this moment to ensure the best future for myself and accepting the things I cannot change, there should be no reason for my fear to take ahold of me. Of course more easily said than done, these ideas are things I am still working out for myself today, and hope anyone reading this as well can gain from.
“Anxiety is a product from fearing the future’s unknown. By doing what I need to at this moment to ensure the best future for myself and accepting the things I cannot change, there should be no reason for my fear to take ahold of me.”
Depression is not something that will be relieved permanently from my life. That negative voice will always be there, but there are things I can do to quiet it. This letter is not only written for my own benefit, but for any athletes or coaches of athletes who share this burden with me. I have seen positive improvements from my own life by sharing my feelings with family, therapists and coaches. It is not something that should be hidden from others. As like any disorder, one needs support if it is to be managed properly. To the athletes, please shed light of your feelings to your family and coaches, so they can do their own part as well to help. Seek a therapist before you think you even need to. There are therapists out there that can do unbelievable work. It is something that can never be done too soon, and could possibly save your life. To the coaches, if you see your athlete show any signs of abnormal moods or behavior, it is your obligation to talk with them in an appropriate manner in order to know what the best choice is for their health. An athlete’s wellbeing takes priority over any race, and if that means taking time away from skiing in order to address changes that need to be made, so be it.
I have come out the other side of dark times brought on by this disorder, with a great amount of work still to come. Although I cannot completely prevent others from the reality that is depression, I do have the ability to spread awareness and provide tools to those and their supporters who need it most. There is no reason for you to fight this on your own. Skiing has never only been about competing, but more importantly about having fun, and it’s hard to be sad with a smile on your face.