The writer reflects on family, their experience with mental health when it comes to being an athlete, and how to take the first step towards recovering.
When writing a piece on mental health, the imperative is that a certain level of empathy and sensitivity must come to being. I was never formally diagnosed with Over-Compulsive Disorder, but I grew up with a dad who had been, plus, my grandmother and great uncle too. There must be an understanding that OCD is not synonymous to germophobia or predatory actions. It’s a disorder that is partitioned in bifold: one feels a ‘pattern of unwanted thoughts and fears’ which then convolutes to a ‘repetitive behaviour’; obsessions and compulsions, respectively. And the thing is, these obsessions range from fear of contamination to anxieties induced by the lack of order to unpleasant sexual thoughts.
My father had the ‘routine’ kind – if one were to try to categorise it – and therefore compulsions such as peeling off the skin from the finger and over-doing everything he did until he reached what he felt deemed “excellent”. He would always be writing or in thought, never stopping, but he was loving. I grew up with only him around and I always admired the behaviour but sometimes, when you deem these as ‘goals’ and ‘positive obsessions’, the outcome is burning out.
I started swimming lessons when I was three. I was competitive at ten and got into the Philippine National team at twelve, but burned out at fifteen. Most days then, it felt like the world would be shrouding on me. It was lonesome, to pulverise anxieties on your own. I knew I could never disappoint my dad; my troubles were: I had the obsession with only progressing towards having no peer on my athletic level. I’d see obscene visions of being obsolete if I felt like I were less… and I realised he had the same. Through the process, my dad would just exercise overwhelming positivity whilst disregarding mental fatigue. Don’t get me wrong, he was always supportive but he probably never fully got around to dealing with it. When the pattern was spotted in me, he dealt with me the way he did with himself. I never told him everything that was going on in my brain, but he could see how I was acting. He coped through emotional repression and finger-skin picking until it bled. I never paid attention to it, then it started happening to me.
The grind of swimming extorted me physically and mentally. Vaguely, sport is deemed to deal with the physicality of a human, but athleticism is when mentality is challenged. What most folks don’t see is that being an athlete is 20% fitness and 80% mentality. I was at the top of my game physically, but I’ve never felt so void and fearful at the same time. I was in a loop. Symptoms of emotional repression have become a routine. I was brushing my teeth one night and I just started tearing up.
I was crying, but my body’s immediate response was to stop the tears. I had a drill that I was never aware of. As soon as my tear ducts would feel heavy, my lungs would expand. I would stop breathing; my face formed a smile until the pain went to my cheeks and felt a spasm in my chest, so that my body would attend to that discomfort and not to the resurgence of feeling. Most of the time, I didn’t remember why I cried but it felt like a snowball of being strained in all dimensions: physically, emotionally, and mentally. Being an athlete, brings out a hybrid-human: a performer to be a ‘good sport’, an experiment by coercing your body’s animalism, whilst a teenager who has to navigate trepidation of life becoming your own. It physically hurt to cry. Then I noticed my fingers looked like my dad’s, callused and blood clot-filled
The thing about being a student athlete is that mental health was always second since I had ‘no time’ to attend to it. I always used to see myself as a quitter for stopping swimming when I was on top. Could I just not handle the pressure? If so, I could’ve reacted better… but it’s that cycle of noxious positivity that engulfs you. It turns into naïveté and creates an idealist that forges one off reality. It misleads mental health as merely “a concept”. I told my dad about everything. He told me about his OCD. He couldn’t identify all his compulsions, but I guess it’s easier to see them when you’re the one on the bleachers. I never wanted to get checked; I feared that I might use it as an excuse, for days where I feel one-step behind. Though, peace confided: the obsessions and the compulsions of excessive-orderliness belong to a human. So I’m booking an appointment and took the cathart this piece. Most days my stream of consciousness never rests, but she’ll be alright. No feeling is final: it’s never an immediate resolution but by just recognising, it’s a step beyond fear and a dive into mettle.