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If Michael Phelps Battles Depression, So Can You

by Anneli RufusNovember 09, 2018
Heal
man in ocean

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If depression can happen to world-famous gold-medalist millionaires, it can happen to anyone.

The Olympic gold medalist revealed recently on the Today show that in 2014, "I didn't want to be alive."

"I was so down on myself. I didn't have any self-love. ... I didn't want to leave my room or talk to anybody," said father-of-two Phelps, adding that he had endured depression throughout his swimming career "but was always good at hiding it."

If record-breaking millionaire athletes can hate themselves and be depressed ... well, so can we.

Not that we want to. But ... we can. And so can anyone.

As an ex-English major, I can say: "can" is a quirky verb.

It can (ha ha) be conjugated, as can more typical, action-tastic verbs — such as "bring," "fly" and "run." "Bring" becomes "brought," "fly" becomes "flew," "run" becomes "ran." "Can" becomes "could."

But while we can (ha ha) easily picture scenes involving bringing, flying and/or running, can we picture "can"?

No. That's its quirk. As a verb, it's a "doing" word, but what does "can" actually mean?

Merriam-Webster cites several vaguely varied definitions, ranging from mental ability (you can read) to physical ability (birds can lay eggs) to logical ability (four can be subtracted from six) to customary or legal ability (Congress can declare war) to possibility (mistakes can happen) to having permission (you can go).

"Can" holds an infinity of promise, potentiality and not-quite-certainty.

Why am I saying this? Because I can. And can. Ha ha. Mainly to demonstrate that we can do things when we want to, when we are mentally and/or physically capable, but also when we are not. We can also do things when factors beyond our control force them to happen.

Thus: Not everything we do, say, feel or think occurs by choice.

If you or I received a dollar each time someone — well-meaning or otherwise — told us to calm down, cheer up, grow up, be brave, break our bad habits or love ourselves, we'd all be rich.

Maybe even as rich as Michael Phelps, who despite winning six gold medals at the 2004 Olympics, eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, four gold medals at the 2012 Olympics and breaking a vast number of all-time records, told another interviewer recently that he contemplated suicide after the 2012 games.

Phelps said on the Today show that after reaching rock bottom following two DUI arrests, he sought professional help and began finally to "manage the condition," although he expects to battle it for the rest of his life.

Levels of confidence, happiness, energy, serenity and even sleep often defy black-and-white logic.

Some of the the smartest, richest, most accomplished and seemingly luckiest among us are joyous and calm. Yet others in those lustrous echelons suffer incalculable pain.

Meanwhile, some folks who seem the poorest, sickest and most alone radiate contagious bliss.

Mental health is not math. It laughs at "can" and "should." It is a swirling, no-pair-of-us-is-identical morass of chemistry, personal history and baffling mystery.

Not that we want Phelps — or other celebrities — to suffer from self-hatred and depression, but his honesty might at least help us stop blaming ourselves for struggles that are not our fault. His revelations — and similar ones from Dolly Parton, J.K. Rowling, Owen Wilson, Sheryl Crow, the Rock and so many more — might lend us support when others, well-meaning and otherwise, tell us to just ignore our triggers, stop being so negative, and change right here, right now.

As if we didn't wish we could. As if we hadn't given ourselves this exact advice a million times. As if we haven't tried.

If depression can happen to world-famous gold-medalist millionaires, it can happen to anyone. There is no shame in that.


Anneli Rufus’ latest work, Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, was released by Tarcher Penguin in May 2014 and continues this path, addressing self-esteem.


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