Maria Auth: I won back the freedom from my own mind

My name is Maria Auth and I am a 5th year senior on the Penn State women’s lacrosse team. I love my school, I love my team, and I absolutely love playing my sport. Regardless of some hardships and adversity I faced during college, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.

I began my career at Penn State feeling like I was on top of the world, not knowing that during my junior year of college, I’d be knocked off my high horse and encounter the most gut-wrenching, transformative experience of my life.

I found my footing on the lacrosse field early on. As a freshman, I became a starter on a Final Four team. I led my team in points the following season, and everything felt like it was going my way. When I was just six years old, I made a promise to myself and my parents that I’d play college lacrosse. I’ve played in an NFL stadium, I’ve played on live national television, and I’ve been selected as an All-Big Ten Conference player.  I was literally living out my childhood dream. If everything was seemingly perfect, why did I feel so terrible?

I’ve been taught my entire life to be mentally tough and push through pain. It’s how I made it to an elite level of athletics –by grinding through sickening workouts, playing through injury, and hiding my weaknesses. I had this unbeatable mindset that nothing could get in my way. I didn’t understand that I could somehow suffer from depression.  I should’ve been celebrating and feeling proud of myself and my team, but instead, I ruminated on all my flaws, mistakes, and everything that I thought was wrong with me.

Why can’t I just be happy? Why am I so ungrateful? I’m a D1 athlete living out my dreams, why can’t I just enjoy it? These thoughts consumed me, which turned into a vicious cycle. I’d feel bad, then feel guilty about feeling down, which in turn, made the spiral even worse. That’s the tricky thing about depression and anxiety, it doesn’t care if you’re an athlete, and it doesn’t care if your life seems to be going well.

I’m human, and I’m not invincible from the toxic grips of mental health problems, regardless of how “mentally tough” I may be. I stopped caring about everything I once loved, and uncontrollable anxiety haunted me. I felt completely alone. I felt slowed down on the field and the whole world seemed like it was sprinting past me. It impacted how I played, which became another horrible cycle. I’d perform poorly and beat myself up over it, which then made me play even worse. One day at the start of practice, I had a horrible panic attack. I had such bad anxiety that day that I could barely eat, and once practice began, I just lost it. I couldn’t breathe, the field looked like it was spinning, and I just started crying. I had to leave practice, which led me to feel an immense amount of guilt for not being on the field with my teammates. 

Off the field, I withdrew socially and gave up academically. It felt like I was doing anything in my power to self-destruct. At this point, I went completely numb. I was empty inside and unable to recognize the joys of life that were happening all around me. I felt like I couldn’t let my friends and peers see me in such a vulnerable state. However, the people closest to me saw through my fake smile and compelled me to seek professional help. I was reluctant at first, but eventually made an appointment with our athletic program’s psychologist. He helped me more than I can express and challenged me with tasks that seemed far more difficult than any drill, workout, or midterm exam. I stood in front of my team and coaching staff and spoke openly about my struggles with depression and anxiety. It took more courage than lining up to take the game winning shot in a championship game.

This battle took a long time, but I won, and I continue to win every day. I won back the freedom from my own mind and I now actively seek vulnerability. The beauty in my life fiercely returned. I’m no longer ashamed of my story, rather I radiate pride when I speak of the strength it took for me to recover. I’m more gratified by my journey with my mental health than any other accomplishment on the lacrosse field. I’d be lying if I said it’s easy to ask for help, especially when you’re hurting inside and can’t even explain why. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but I know for sure that it’s the best decision I ever made. I truly don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t reach out for help when I did. I’m so incredibly grateful for my family, friends, loved ones, and Penn State coaches and teammates for supporting me when I was at my lowest point. Throughout anything, I know that I have all of them to lean on. My Penn State lacrosse family means the absolute world to me. 

Fast forward to one year later, my senior season. This was probably the best I had felt in a long time. I finally felt like myself again. I was enjoying lacrosse more than ever and I was truly appreciating and soaking in every moment, as I knew that it would soon be coming to an end. I didn’t realize how soon though. The day before our game against Northwestern, the NCAA cancelled spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This might sound strange, but as heartbreaking as it was, I was grateful to be able to actually feel the pain and heartbreak. I was no longer numb and lifeless. It hurt, but I’d rather feel and embrace my emotions than feel nothing at all. Through all of this, I tried my best to maintain a positive outlook and turn it into the best situation that I could. Now, I’m taking my extra year of eligibility to play one final season at Penn State, while beginning my Master’s degree in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling. I’ve always known that I wanted a career where I could help people, so this felt like the perfect route. I want to help others the same way that my therapist impacted me. I want to be there for people who are struggling, and I hope that one day I can be that outlet for someone else that needs it.