TW: sexual assault, suicide, self-harm
My story begins my freshman year of college. I had started at the University of Tennessee, and I was so excited to begin my college career as a student athlete and a Volunteer. I had struggled with depression for several years prior, but I had done well to hide it with my performance in school and swimming. This became harder for me to do once I was at college and on my own for the first time. I struggled with feelings of worthlessness after I didn’t make the travel team, and I felt like I didn’t matter or contribute to my team, which was one of the best in the country. I could not see my worth outside of my accomplishments, and when I was not meeting my unreasonably high expectations, I was crushed.
Then, things took a turn for the worse once the season was over. April of my freshman year, I was sexually assaulted and raped at a party.
I had been drinking, but I had also set clear boundaries that were completely disregarded. Yet, I wholeheartedly believed what happened was my fault. I was “asking for it” or just “sleeping around.” I was in denial. Soon after, my mental health became much worse. One afternoon, my negative thoughts became so overwhelming that I had a panic attack and missed practice. One of my teammates was concerned and reached out to the athletic department’s therapist on my behalf. I ended up starting weekly therapy shortly after. I had never been to therapy before or even talked about my innermost feelings, so it took me a long time to open up. I also began taking medication at this time too in an effort to help with my depressive episodes.
That summer, I began restricting what I ate, and I lost a significant amount of weight. I felt like my life had become too much to handle and my body felt like the only thing I could still control. I became suicidal and I thought my team and everyone around me would be better off if I was gone. But, because I had kept these feelings secret for so long, it didn’t feel safe to share or reach out for help.
Once classes started in the fall, I appeared to be doing very well on paper. I was getting good grades, lifting more than most of the women on the team, and hitting faster times than I ever had in practice. But, that was all a facade, as I was dying inside.
I began going out on Saturday nights and drinking on an empty stomach, and getting myself into precarious and even dangerous situations. It got so out of hand one night that a teammate, out of concern, told my coach . Once they became aware, they, and my therapist, decided that an intensive outpatient treatment program for eating disorders would be the best course of action to get myself well. I was suspended from the team indefinitely in order to focus on attending the sessions.
The adjustment was very hard for me, and I felt extremely ashamed and like I failed my team. I relapsed in self-harm and, since no one would see me in a swimsuit, I was not subtle about it like I had been in the past. I felt hopeless and worthless. As time went on, I became increasingly unstable.
My eating disorder symptoms escalated and I became suicidal. I did not want to live anymore and I told myself that no one would even miss me. Once I finished my finals, the staff at my outpatient treatment and my therapist recommended I go to residential eating disorder treatment to stabilize both my eating and suicidality.
I ended up going to a treatment center in Chattanooga, where I gained an arsenal of coping skills and received a more intensive level of care. I ended up staying for two months, then I was discharged back to intensive outpatient. I moved back into my apartment on campus and even got a job at a local juice bar. I was stable for a while, but I felt isolated from my friends and the team and ashamed that I needed help in the first place.
Then, that spring around the anniversary of my rape and assault, I finally came to terms with what had actually happened that night. During a group therapy session, a woman was processing an assault she experienced, and it sounded exactly like what happened to me. I became hysterical and I no idea how to deal with or process this information. I blamed myself, thinking that maybe it was what I was wearing or how I was acting. I felt powerless, worthless and disgusting.
I starting having flashbacks and nightmares about that night, and, as a result, I stopped taking my sleep medications because I was too afraid to fall asleep. Then, because I was so sleep deprived, I couldn’t wake up once I would fall sleep, and this eventually got me fired from my job. I hated myself so much at this moment, that I relapsed in self harm again and had no motivation to take care of myself. It took everything to even get out of bed or shower. Eventually, though, I found work at a coffee shop and a sports bar to fill my time.
As the summer went on, my eating disorder got worse, and I began lying to my therapist and treatment team about how I was doing. I would spend all of my money on food to binge and purge, diet pills and laxatives, yet I could barely afford rent. I became suicidal again and, one night, I took a handful of my sleeping meds in an attempt to end my life. Once my team learned of the incident, I was immediately sent back to residential treatment. There, I was diagnosed with bulimia and PTSD, and I began trauma treatment to process my assault.
As a part of my treatment, I began EMDR therapy, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, to help me heal from the emotional stress of trauma and make my PTSD symptoms more manageable. Unfortunately, it did the opposite for me. During the processing sessions, I uncovered repressed memories of childhood rape and sexual assault by a family friend. As you can imagine, this was very difficult to swallow and I became very unstable and suicidal again, so much so that they discontinued the EMDR processing.
I was constantly anxious and on edge, and I would have dissociative episodes and flashbacks daily. I blamed myself for what happened, and was filled with so much self-disgust and self-hatred, that it was hard to function day to day. While at the treatment center, I obtained the means to hurt myself and became very suicidal. As a result, I was transferred to a hospital psych ward in order to stabilize. I ended up staying there for two weeks, then I was admitted to McLean hospital in Boston to receive further eating disorder and trauma treatment. There, I started to actually talk about my sexual abuse and assaults, and it was very difficult. Thankfully, I had an incredible treatment team that were there to support me and hep me process these difficult memories and experiences.
I ended up staying at McLean for 4 months. While there, I fell in love with the city of Boston and my treatment team. So much so, that I wanted to continue outpatient work with them after discharge. So, I decided to move 1000 miles from home and transfer to a school in Boston to continue my education and swimming career.
Once I discharged to partial hospitalization, I began the recruiting process again. After talking with coaches from multiple schools, I eventually decided to transfer to Northeastern University. I was so excited to have a new start and I felt like the coaches and swimmers there would be able to support me in the transition. After discharge from partial hospitalization, I continued my therapy and treatment, and got a job at a local coffee shop.
Then, when the pandemic began and businesses began to shut down, and I lost all of my hours at work. It was very hard to handle all of that free time, but, after some of my co-workers left the city, I was able to pick up more shifts and even work full-time. During the summer, I began my integration back into swimming with the blessing and guidance of my outpatient team. With most pools being closed due to COVID, I swam in the ocean or in local lakes. It was very cathartic to get back in the water after so much time off, and the prospect of finally returning to college swimming helped me to stay on track with my meal plan.
I continued to train on my own throughout the summer and work full-time, all while continuing trauma and eating disorder therapy with my treatment team. Then, in the fall, I began my first semester at Northeastern and finally, after two long years, got back into college swimming. I immediately meshed well with my new team, and I was even able to be vulnerable with a few teammates and share my story. Although my first year back has been difficult with the uncertainty and limitations due to the pandemic, I feel as though I have truly found my place again in the swimming world.
Some advice I would offer up to those who are struggling: feelings are not permanent. Although difficult emotions feel endless and unmanageable, I remind myself this to help get through especially tough times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. There is no shame in not being okay.