As a competitive CrossFit athlete and fitness professional, people are often shocked when I open up to them about my struggles with mental illness, specifically my anxiety and depression.
“You’re so fit, how are you depressed?”
“You’re in the gym almost every day; how can you be struggling?”
“You train and motivate others to be their best, so how can you be struggling when you’re smiling at work all day long?”
I get these questions often. And rather than get angry at the stigma associated with mental health, I prefer to educate and inform those who question my illness.
Mental illness does not come with a specific “look.” It is an illness of the brain. In some people, it manifests physically to the point where you can look at someone and see they are struggling; for many, including myself, it is an internal battle that haunts me at different levels, and to different degrees throughout my day.
We all have different coping mechanisms. Some are good, and some are downright destructive.
I have always been active. I was a handful as a child, so my parents threw me into sport. Sport and fitness were always a place where I felt safe — where I could excel, grow, accomplish and work off all the pent-up stress and energy that accumulated in my mind each and every day.
When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, the one positive constant in my life was fitness. In addition to the endorphins released every time I work out, the gym was always a place I could escape to. It was my form of “meditation.”
When I’m involved in a workout, all I’m thinking about is that workout. I’m focused on the movement I’m training, the breathing required to keep my body moving, the technique required to lift a heavy load, as well as the necessary drive required to push through a metabolic conditioning workout. My mind goes to the task at hand. The gym is a place that allows me to live in the “now.”
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It is also a place where I have to trust myself and believe I can squat that weight, run that extra mile, lift that heavy load or finish a grueling workout within a certain time limit. When I do accomplish a task, movement, or goal, I feel proud and confident. These are feelings that usually elude me when my depression and anxiety take over during other daily tasks.
CrossFit literally saved my life. I found it during a horribly depressive episode five years ago (and, ironically, on this exact date). It wasn’t just the intense workouts and the confidence-building challenges; it was the sense of friendship and community that came along with this sport that really pulled me out of my depression. The coaches and members supporting me, encouraging me and believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself were such huge factors in my healing and growth.
I love this sport so much that I became a coach as well. Helping others, seeing them smile, seeing them healthier, seeing them confident and happy also helps me heal. This is especially satisfying when I learn a member has been going through similar mental health struggles and has used my encouragement and understanding to help them get better too.
I am very open with my struggles. When things aren’t good, my CrossFit community knows. They never judge, they ask what I need, they help me, and they make me feel welcome, comfortable, supported and wanted. They let me work out with the group or let me work out on my own when I just need my space.
Yes, I am fit. Yes, I am an athlete. Yes, I work out two to three hours a day. When I wake up in the morning in an SSRI fog, after a sleepless night of tossing, turning, crying and panicking, I always know fitness will be there. Some days, I’m full of anxious energy, and let it all out at the gym. Other days, I’m in such a depressive funk — crying for no reason, questioning my worth, dealing with the symptoms of depression that exhaust me mentally and physically — yet I know if I just get to the gym and move around for a while, I will feel better after.
So when people judge me and ask how I am able to work out so much when I’m depressed, this is my “why.” I would be much worse off if I didn’t. Yes, I am physically fit. Yes, I work out a lot. Yes, I live with mental illness. Yes, I am sick, but I am definitely not weak.