I’ve suffered from depression all of my adult life. A few days ago, I felt sadness, pain, and worthlessness unlike anything in recent memory. I wanted to end my life and was the closest I’ve been to ever following through. Fortunately, I did not.
Depression is a serious and rising global problem with 264 million people of all ages suffering from it and 800,000 people dying from suicide each year (World Health Organization, 2020). To me, 264 million people out of the world’s 7.8 billion seems insignificant, but we should realize that the statistics will only count actual diagnosed cases (those created through an organized, reporting health care system) and not people who remain undiagnosed or who take their lives before being diagnosed.
Regardless of what the statistics say, my point in writing this is to spread awareness for a mental health disorder that is often mischaracterized, misunderstood, and often invisible to everybody except the person suffering from it. As dragon boat is a team sport involving relatively large groups of people, chances are extremely high that multiple members of YOUR team suffer from depression and that fellow paddlers may not even be aware.
“How are you?”
“Good and you?”
How many of you bust out this script multiple times on a daily basis? I know I will say these words as automatically as smiling, shaking a hand or giving a friendly hug whenever seeing friends, acquaintances, or even family. Even if I’m hurting on the inside, I hate the idea of sharing that pain with others who appear so…normal on the outside. Even if they are also hiding depressive symptoms, it hurts me to think about pushing the weight of my sorrows upon them. This is, as I’ve come to realize, a common challenge with depression. That being said, this realization doesn’t help my ability to overcome my reservations with casually sharing my true feelings at any given time.
The same phenomenon would happen all the time when I was a paddler. I’d be surrounded by 19+ other people I loved and cared for. I knew they ALL cared for me but through all the meals, jokes, blood, sweat, and tears we shared, I never once let on that I could be feeling symptoms of depression. Conversely, I never saw anybody else showing signs of depression and felt like I must be the only person on the team grappling with those feelings.
When I was coaching, things become so much worse for me internally. I felt like the role of “coach” required me to insulate myself somewhat from the rest of the team; as if I was a leader who needed a level of inaccessibility from those I lead in order to maintain authority, impartiality, respect, and an air of professionalism. Stress was a daily opponent. Stress over meeting weekly performance goals, recruitment strategies, moderating team dynamics, creating workouts, race day planning, and the self-doubt and frustration that came with any perceived shortcomings or apparent failures ate away at my soul without anybody (I think) ever seeing it. I wore a good mask, a good smile, and used an encouraging voice every practice and race that I attended. When I finally gave up the coaching role and simply paddled for a season, I was almost happy to hear and see my replacement’s stress and frustration with the new role. To think of somebody suddenly be acutely aware of my own struggles was oddly fulfilling (sorry Huy).
Dragon boat is a sport that is accessible to all sorts of people at every level of fitness. It can offer incredible amounts of camaraderie, love, and support between all members and all teams. To be a dragon boat paddler is to be part of a global community. One of the greatest strengths of dragon boat is also its greatest weakness. Teams are just SO large with gatherings so loud, boisterous, action-packed, and “happy” that they often don’t provide a comfortable way for people to connect and share personal challenges.
Call to Action
As a dragon boat paddler, I challenge you to take the time this week to connect with a fellow teammate you don’t often talk with and offer the time and space to get past the usual pleasantries of the usual “Wassup.” You don’t have to pry, try to “fix” them, or give feedback, just actively listen.
For team leaders, I challenge you to plan a team event this month to break into small groups of 3-4 and give 5 minutes per person to voice their replies to general prompts like, “this week I struggled with…”, “something I felt good about today was…”, or “something I feel inside that nobody knows about is…”. Make rules that anything that is spoken about stays confidential, does not leave the small group it’s shared with, and isn’t brought up outside the event unless by the person who shared it. I think such an opportunity can provide teammates a safe space to relate to each other in ways not generally seen with team events and can really strengthen the bonds between everybody; helping team cohesion and maybe, just maybe, saving lives.
If you are considering suicide and reside in the US, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always ready to listen. Call them at 1-800-273-8255.
I want to live and I know you do too. You are not alone. I also want to hear from you directly, even though we may not have ever met in person. My number is 1-415-987-6328.