Two years ago this week, I covered my first professional tennis tournament in Memphis. I was credentialed last minute as a videographer for my friend Jennifer’s blog Racquet Required. I got to ask questions in pressers, shoot and edit an interview with Andy Roddick, and watch this point live. The entire experience was a whirlwind of awesome, and it was a a much needed distraction from my life, which had taken an unexpected and traumatic turn a couple of months prior.
In Memphis that year, I met a 20-year-old girl named Rebecca Marino. I sat in on her press conferences, filmed an interview with her, and watched her march through the field on the way to her first WTA final. Along with Milos Raonic, she was part of a Canadian invasion. I was in awe of her amazing serve, powerful forehand, and mature and easy-going demeanor that commanded a room. She seemed wise beyond her years, and I was convinced she would be a top 50 fixture for years to come.
But by now most of you know this story, and know that wasn’t to be. Marino reached a career-high ranking of No. 38, but a year ago she decided to take a break from tennis to recover physically and deal with some burnout. She made a comeback last fall, but after talking with the New York Times last week about cyberbullying and depression, she announced that she was retiring from tennis.
A lot of media attention has been given to the cyberbullying, which is absolutely an important issue that needs to be addressed, but it was her candid accounts of depression that really stood out to me. She said that depression, which she had been dealing with for about six years, felt like a “smothered feeling of grey.” There have been days where she couldn’t get out of bed, much less get dressed.
I know that feeling all too well.
I first realized how debilitating clinical depression was when I was 17. Though I had been to therapy in middle school when my parents divorced, and dealt with my mother who would go through periods where she didn’t get out of bed when I was in high school, the disease didn’t fully hit me until I was deep into the stress of my senior year. Trying desperately to get in all of my college applications and find my way out of my hometown, I suddenly lost the motivation to do anything. Usually an honor roll student who loved school and enjoyed going out with friends, I suddenly couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I stopped going to classes, turning in assignments, or even engaging with my teachers. I ignored calls from my friends. I watched deadlines for college applications get closer and closer, and felt completely helpless to do anything about them. I was sure that I had mono, but when tests proved that I didn’t, I began to believe that I was just a lazy good-for-nothing who was going to be trapped in Greensboro, North Carolina in that very bedroom for the rest of her life. I was so tired and apathetic that I didn’t see another way.
One night as I sat by the computer staring helplessly at an essay that wouldn’t write itself, exhausted beyond belief despite having slept most of the day, and about to break out into tears for the fourth time that day, I found myself looking up my symptoms in an AOL search box. (Yes, AOL. It was a while ago.) Somehow I found myself in a depression forum reading the stories of others who were suffering, and I found comfort in their similar struggles. Suddenly everything made sense, or at least began to. I made an appointment with a doctor the next week, got put on some medication, and soon found myself with the energy to finish my senior year. I felt like myself again.
I went to NYU film school where I excelled. I produced dozens of projects at once, was president of the largest club in the arts school, and wrote and directed my own films. I was living the life I had always wanted to live, far away from the drama and limitations of home. But depression found me there too, and suddenly there I was back in bed during the second semester of my junior year. Things were bad at back home and that fall I had lost someone very close to me. I started skipping out on the coveted internship I had earned. I stopped turning in assignments on time, if at all. I missed a lot of work. I ate constantly. I never went for help that semester, and still have no clue how I scraped by. But eventually, with time, I felt better.
I’m not Rebecca Marino (obviously), and I certainly don’t mean to put words into her mouth or to project my feelings onto her. I do not know what it feels like to hit an ace against Venus Williams, or to travel the world playing tennis, or to have the weight of a nation on your shoulders in your early twenties. I certainly don’t know what it feels like to check Twitter and have people hurling insults and curses at me. But I do know what “grey” feels like. I do know what it’s like to suddenly not be able to handle the same pressure you could yesterday. And I do know what it’s like to have to take a step back from things you have worked hard for because you have to put your feelings on the inside above your goals on the outside.
Depression doesn’t care if you’re a beautiful professional athlete or a struggling broke writer in New York City. It doesn’t care if you’re in a relationship or single, if you’re black or white, if you’re young or old. Depression doesn’t discriminate.
The two years since the 2011 Memphis tournament have been a whirlwind for me. I’ve discovered an even deeper love for tennis and for writing than I ever knew possible. I’ve traveled around the country, written and published and promoted a novel, and met countless new friends. I’ve begun to build a life and a career, but I’ve also been running and hiding from depression and from that same trauma that I sought distraction from two years ago. Due to fear, fatigue, and an extreme lack of funds, I stopped taking medications and stopped taking care of myself in the proper way. I thought I had learned enough about myself to out-smart depression, that my knowledge of the disease and history of overcoming it would keep it at bay.
Then last December, after I unknowingly spent months isolating myself from friends and family, I once again found myself at rock bottom. A week late on an easy deadline, I found myself wandering aimlessly around Manhattan prior to a meeting. I collapsed onto the dirty concrete in sobs. My entire body ached to the core. I did not think I had the energy to stand up, let alone focus in a meeting. I didn’t even think I could make it to the subway to get back home to Queens. I’d never experienced anything like that. The real me–smart, capable, sarcastic, hard-working, outgoing–was lost so deep inside this distraught mess that I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again. I was trapped.
I don’t talk about depression much, even to my closest friends and family. I certainly never thought I would talk publically about my struggles until they were over. I figured one day I’d be a successful writer who had a savings account, a bustling social life, and could fit into that size 6 dress, and then I would talk about the “dark days” and how I overcame all my demons. But that’s not how mental illness works, and as I get older and go through the highs and lows, I’m coming to terms with the fact that this is something I will have to manage the rest of my life.
Still, this is the by far hardest thing I have ever had to write. I’m afraid that it will haunt me in terms of employment, relationships, and reputation. But I wrote this because I’m a writer and because not writing about this has made me feel like I was living a lie. I wrote this because I want to make sure Rebecca Marino knows that she is not alone, and to thank her for sharing her story. I wrote this because I have gotten so much strength through the years by reading about the struggles of others, and I wanted to be a part of the conversation.
As Rebecca Marino came forward with her story this week, I found a lot of people expressing pity and sadness. I cannot speak for her, but I know that as I put this story out there, pity is the last thing I want. Rather, I hope that by doing my part to further the dialogue of what depression is, I can help alleviate the guilt and isolation that comes with it. Compassion, understanding, and listening go a lot farther than pity.
Today I have more strength than I did two months ago, but I have a long way to go. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but figuring out the right treatment, expectations, and plan for the future is an ongoing process, and one that I will have to keep working on. My short-term definitions of success change day by day, even hour by hour, but I still know that I am capable of living the life I’ve always dreamed of. I just have to be kind to myself along the way and allow my dreams to be fluid. Most importantly, I have to learn to be honest with myself and with others about how I’m feeling.
I assume that’s what Rebecca Marino is doing now, as she steps away from the game at the age of 22. She can still play tennis. She could continue to chase success in the way she’s always defined it, the way the outside world defines it for a pro tennis player. But instead she’s taking care of herself and speaking out about her struggles. So many think that depression is a sign of weakness, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Opening up about depression shows a lot more strength than winning a tennis match.
The truth is that despite being so widespread, depression is still very misunderstood and stigmatized, often even by the people suffering from it. The only way to change that is by talking about it.