It is 3 a.m. and I am in pain. My body is fine. My mind is not. As I sit in my dark bedroom, I can’t make sense of how I’m feeling. I want to put a name to it, but I can’t. I scream into my pillows. I yell. I sob. It isn’t enough. I hold my fist so tight, my nails cut into my palms. Then I punch my legs. Punch after punch until the feeling is gone.
Finally, I rest my swollen eyes. The black bed sheets, which earlier served as a towel for my tears, are now used for its intended purpose; I am tucked in.
The next morning, my head is pounding. My legs are bruised, my palms are scraped, and my eyes burn at the slightest bit of light. The rising sun offers me a cleanse. As I peer through the blinds, I decide to forget the night. Doesn’t everyone get sad?
I cannot recall what made me so upset. All I know is that if I simply act like it didn’t happen, no one will notice. And I am right. The following day, my routine is the same: school, practice, workouts, homework, repeat.
Back then, I was 16 and in high school. Today, I am a third-year softball player at Duke University. Until a few months ago, those anguished nights repeated themselves again and again.
In the past year, mental health in college athletics has been a hot topic. The conversation usually arises in the wake of a suicide. But by then, it’s too late. We constantly hear “care for your mental health.” But what are we doing in support of this? Why are we hearing about more suicides among student-athletes? And what is the cause?
In April 2022, four student-athletes took their lives: Lauren Bernett, Sarah Schluze, Katie Meyer, Robert Martin. An all-conference James Madison University softball player, a record-breaking female track star at the University of Wisconsin, a world-champion soccer goalie at Stanford University, and a tough men’s lacrosse player from the University of Richmond. Four bright, young adults reached a point where they saw no purpose in continuing.
They no doubt asked the question I have asked myself many times: Who are we without sports? Without the number on our backs, would anyone care for us?
In high school, I hid this part of me; no one knew. Living the role of a student-athlete goes beyond the fame of social media. Imagine living up to the ideal of perfectionism, where you need to fight through any discomfort or else you aren’t worthy. The sports mantra of “You need to be tough, can’t show anybody your weak side,” is how I have lived my entire life. I needed to be a straight-A honor-roll student. I needed to be the best player on my team. I needed to be popular in school. I felt as if I needed to portray this perfect person to reach my dream. Yet, I was so far from it.
Student-athletes are more than the jerseys they wear, but the athletes I mentioned above did not see that. Neither did I. Nearly every conversation I hold somehow turns to softball. “How was practice?” “Did the team win?” “When’s the next game?” Softball seems to be the only thing others care about, and that’s what it’s been like for 15 years. At some point, we student-athletes don’t recognize ourselves without the uniform.
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One fellow student-athlete, Mackenzie Fitzpatrick, is a survivor. The University of Connecticut softball player, who goes by Fitz, tried to take her own life. She now speaks as an advocate for The Hidden Opponent, a program that aims to raise awareness about student-athletes’ mental health issues.
Fitz was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a blood circulation disorder that caused frequent fainting. Her condition kept her from traveling for games. She didn’t know who she was without softball. In October 2020, she took a handful of pills, hoping to escape the numbness.
Luckily, she survived. And she instantly regretted the attempt. “I’m going to be honest,” Fitz told me earlier this year. “I don’t know why or when everything started to spiral. It was just time.” A time of constant darkness, failures and worries piling on top of one another. Fitz described it as “running a full sprint on a treadmill, and I wasn’t allowed to turn the speed down.”
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, 30% of females and 25% of males in collegiate sports report anxiety issues. Doctors have found that student-athletes are more susceptible to depression due to the stressors of overtraining, injury, pressure to perform, and lack of free time. Similarly, research by Drexel University and England’s Kean University found that 24% of Division 1 athletes in their study suffered “clinically relevant” levels of depression and 6% experienced “severe” levels. Female athletes were about twice as likely to experience clinically relevant symptoms.
For me, the spring of freshman year was the start of a lot of things. I began college, I beat out a fifth year senior who played in front of me, and I was part of Duke softball’s first Atlantic Coast Conference championship. I won the job as starting catcher. I was named rookie of the year. All my work had paid off; I should have been happy.
It wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough. I needed to do more; I needed to prove I was even better. That summer, between freshman and sophomore years, I wasn’t eating. Dissatisfaction with my results was translating into my entire being. I wasn’t skinny enough, pretty enough, smart enough. The list went on. I lost 30 pounds.
The fall of sophomore year, I couldn’t hide anymore. Everyone had noticed the weight loss. For the first two months, I heard remarks from my teammates: “Kelly has an eating disorder.” “What’s wrong with her?” My struggle was now public, and it was only the beginning of the decline.
My living situation was terrible. We lived in suites freshman year with our own bathroom and room — the only great thing to ever come from COVID. But sophomore year, things began to return to normal. On the third floor of a cockroach-infested building with no elevator, I lived in a closet-size room with another teammate and shared a two-stall, two-shower bathroom with a hallway of 40 females. I had no time alone. I had no outlet.
At this same time, softball and school picked up speed. With everything going on, all I wished for was to not be here. My thoughts were my worst enemy. I had no room, no place where I felt safe. I began to use empty stairwells in the middle of the night to cry. I went for walks so I could let out my emotions. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did, I couldn’t stand my thoughts.
My spot became the patch of grass that sits right in front of the Duke Chapel. I would lie looking up at the chapel and pray as my restless mind ricocheted from one thought to another: Did I get enough extra reps in? Am I falling behind in schoolwork? Did I eat too many fries today?
I’d return to my room and lie awake, dreading sunrise. I’d wish that I would wake up the next day and my mind would be silenced. Every morning I was disappointed.
One day, I hit bottom; I couldn’t recognize myself. It was early April, after a game against James Madison University. I sat on the bus and quietly wept. My thoughts had become so evil. I’d think: “You don’t deserve to be here.” I sat toward the front so that I could be alone, away from the rest of my team. It was easier to hide my face that way. My only comfort was the thought that we were one day closer to finishing the season. I remember thinking: a 20-year-old girl shouldn’t be this broken. I worried that I would become a statistic.
The season came to an end, but the thoughts didn’t. This is when I realized I needed to do something. I opened up to my family, which was the hardest part of this journey. It killed me to tell my parents that the angel they raised was far from perfect. They weren’t surprised. They noticed the old me was gone before I did.
I am not sure what I was so scared of; they accepted and loved me the same as before. My parents put me in contact with a therapist. It was freeing. In therapy, my feelings are justified, and my perspective is valued. I used to think, “People have real problems in life: taxes, food, etc.; I am simply sad. Get over it.” Therapy reversed my thinking: Kelly, your situation is hard. It is okay to not be okay.
Last summer, I took the time to disconnect from school, from softball, from any responsibilities. I couldn’t remember when I last had this much time to myself. The recurring question, “Who am I without softball?” was getting an answer.
I started to write, and I loved it. It was empowering to tell my story. I started taking a second to breathe and calm my mind, which is how I found a love for meditating to center myself. I found spirituality. I suddenly noticed that the beach, the ocean, the nature that surrounds us — it is all beautiful. “Was I in a coma my whole life?” I thought. As my thoughts changed, so did my feelings. I grew happy.
After two months of therapy, August came around. It was the start of my junior year in college, and I was scared. I felt like my old self was rising. I was still in denial; I didn’t accept I had a mental illness. Within two weeks of classes and softball, the sobbing nights were back.
My therapist and I agreed to start medication. I realized depression isn’t a linear process; everyone’s experience is different. But I refused to lose the battle. I didn’t have the beach, but I found a home at the Duke Gardens. I try to go every morning to meditate in nature. I joined an all-female publishing club. I have passions beyond softball, and my off day is truly an off day. I am more than just a softball player.
I sleep better at night, knowing the next day holds new opportunities to make me smile. When doubts creep into my mind, I try to replace them with gratitude. I haven’t regained the 30 pounds, but I have found healthy habits to maintain my weight.
My journey is not over, but through therapy and with the help if medication, I am closer to the free-spirited girl I found on the beach this past summer. Some days I feel powerless, but on others I can fly. I am not just a number on a jersey, and my results do not define the person I am.
I am Kelly Torres, and I will not be a statistic.
If someone has suicidal thoughts
Those contemplating suicide or who are in a mental health crisis can call or text 988, which is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They can also use an online chat tool to reach the lifeline: 988lifeline.org/chat. Family, friends and bystanders can contact 988 on behalf of others. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.