My name is Meredith, and this is what running did to me. Throughout middle school, I was a competitive cheerleader and a cheerleader for our school football team. I was also playing soccer for a recreational team.
In 8th grade, I began playing soccer for a competitive team locally. I decided to try out for the basketball cheer-leading team at our school, but I did not make the team. Girls that I had been cheering with for a handful of years had made the team, girls that I felt like I had worked just as hard as. I was absolutely crushed; for the first time in my life, I had failed. I had been a cheerleader for years, I was on two teams competitively and had been cheering for our school team for two years. After the competitive cheer season had ended, I quit cheer. This failure made me feel like I wasn’t good enough anymore.
This is when I began running. Our middle school had recently started a track team. I was one of the fastest people on my soccer team and on my old cheer team. So that spring, I started to run track. I focused mainly on the shorter distances, primarily the 400m. I was really good. Each time I raced, my times became faster and faster. I started to run the 4x400m relay. When the season ended, I was anchoring the relay; I was the fastest person on our relay. We met with the cross-country coach for our high school and that summer I decided to join the cross-country team.
This was a major change for me. Cross country meant running almost 50 miles a week. The coach wanted to start the rising freshmen at a lower amount, but I wanted to push myself, to train among the older girls on the team. I had the endurance for it, and he let me. Cross country was way different than track had been. You had to compete for a place on the varsity team, the competition between other schools was much larger, and you had to keep improving your times. You could be good, but someone would always be faster. I wanted to keep getting faster. I ran varsity throughout my freshman year, even finishing top 5 for our team in the state meet. I went on to run winter and spring track. I raced in the 4x800m relay both seasons and at both state meets, but by spring track, something had changed. The pressure to keep being faster and faster was catching up to me. On top of that, I was in hard classes, taking precalculus and sophomore English as a freshman.
The state meet for track, I had my first panic attack. I had been anxious the whole day, I was worried that I wouldn’t race fast enough, that I wouldn’t be able to compete at this level of competition. For me, panic attacks are shaking, shallow breathing, hyperventilating, and I get sick to my stomach. It was extremely humiliating, not only was I worried that I wouldn’t succeed in this race, but I felt like everyone was judging me. Judging me for not being mentally strong enough or judging me for not being prepared enough for the race. The race went well, and I brushed the panic attack off as a fluke event. Maybe it was something I ate, or maybe it was I just didn’t sleep well, maybe I was dehydrated.
That summer, we had a ton of new girls on the team who were rising freshman. The girls who I had been running with had graduated and I was the new leader of the team. I was the picture of a dedicated athlete. I was at every practice, pushing myself, trying to run faster than I had last year, faster than I had last week. I was eating healthier, drinking more water, and getting more sleep. I was determined to have an amazing season and be the best athlete on my team. We had a girl transfer in and she was a great runner. We began training together and I began to run faster. When our first meet came around, I was ready to break my fastest time from last year. I had another panic attack. From this point on, I had a panic attack at every race that I ran. I wouldn’t eat anything before my race so that I wouldn’t have anything in my stomach to throw up. My times through cross country weren’t awful, but they also weren’t any better than they were my freshman year. I still raced in the state meet, but I was our 7th girl. I was a failure. I was running with our top girl in practice, but my times were horrible in races.
This continued throughout my sophomore year. Every race was worse than the last. I was in two AP classes and I wasn’t doing great in either of those. I was getting B’s for the first time in my life, I was no longer succeeding athletically, I felt alone, I felt like a burden, and I felt like I was letting everyone down. I started to withdraw myself from my friends, I dreaded going to practice, I had no motivation for anything anymore. I did not race at states for spring track.
That summer, I started going to less practices. I didn’t want to run anymore. In my mind, I was failing. Whenever I would go to practice, I would run alone. I felt like an imposter running with the girls who were talented and successful because I was not one of them anymore. I spent most of my time alone in my room. I began self-harming and contemplating suicide. I felt like death was the only option that would end this failure I was experiencing. I felt completely worthless. Our first race that season, I had a panic attack so intense, I decided not to race.
Then school started that Monday and I had my first panic attack which was not related to running. I threw up into a plastic bag in my car that morning. That panic attack lasted for almost an hour. I went to the nurse and my mom came to pick me up from school because she did not want me driving home in that state. I was up for most of the night having panic attacks and I did not go to school for the next two weeks because I was at an inpatient mental health hospital.
This September, I ran for the first time in over a year. I have started going to the Y and walking with my mom. I’ve reached out to my friends and talked to them about how I had been feeling. Every single one of them admitted to feeling the same kind of pressure, although mine had been the most intense. I have been admitted to two of the colleges that I have applied to, and I’m waiting for answers from other colleges. I’m still trying to find a balance between my desire for success and my mental health, but I’ve realized what makes me anxious and depressed and I have learned how to deal with those things better. I have learned where my perfectionism becomes destructive. I see a fantastic therapist once a week, I have a handful of friends who I check in with about my mental health, and I am on a strong antidepressant. I still have bad days, bad weeks, even bad months, but I have help to get me through these things.
I am in a better place than I was a year ago, but that doesn’t mean that things won’t ever get bad again. I am depressed, I am anxious, and I am a perfectionist to destructive levels. This is who I am. That won’t change. What can change is how I deal with it and how our society deals with it. My name is Meredith, and this is my step to erasing the stigma associated with mental illness. Happy mental illness awareness month.