How This Olympian's Battle With Depression Changed Her Relationship With Mental Health
"The shift from feeling helpless to feeling in control was the greatest feeling ever."
Warning: This story discusses suicide.
Sundays are a day to recharge and reset by hanging with friends, turning off your phone, bathing for hours on end, or doing whatever else works for you. In this column (in conjunction with our Instagram Self-Care Sunday series), we ask editors, experts, influencers, writers, and more what a perfect self-care Sunday means to them, from tending to their mental and physical health to connecting with their community to indulging in personal joys. We want to know why Sundays are important and how people enjoy them, from morning to night.
While Alexi Pappas may be best known as an Olympic runner who competed for Greece in the 2016 Rio Games, she is so much more than an athlete. The 30-year-old is also a writer and actress who starred in the 2019 film Olympic Dreams with Nick Kroll and, two years earlier, co-directed and co-wrote the semi-autobiographical movie Tracktown. Now, Pappas is adding one more title to her list: author, with her memoir, Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas, out January 12th, 2021.
Running and writing a book are two very different disciplines, of course, but Pappas sees a connection between them. "[Running and creative work] are actually very similar: Both are crafts I can study and practice and become better at over time," she tells HelloGiggles.
But Pappas is no stranger to hard work—even when it comes to her mental health. She was diagnosed with severe clinical depression after running in the Rio Olympics and experiencing episodes of insomnia, pain in her hamstring and lower back, and suicidal thoughts. As Pappas' mother also experienced clinical depression and died by suicide, the diagnosis hit the athlete (who now deals with her depression through therapy) hard.
"I think many people, especially athletes, make the same mistake of not taking a mental 'injury' as seriously as they would a physical injury," she says. "This is probably because a mental injury is invisible and doesn’t necessarily limit you from showing up to work or otherwise continuing your regular routine, however terrible it might feel inside. I want to shift that perspective."
That's why Pappas wrote Bravey—to share her story and to help those who may also be struggling with their mental health. And even though the book is there to support other people, Pappas says writing it taught her an important lesson. "My biggest and most positive mental breakthrough while writing was realizing that the story we tell ourselves about our past experiences dictates how we feel about them, and we can control our own narrative," she explains. "Athletes and artists put ourselves in positions to fail, and we can choose to either beat ourselves up or frame our failures as learning experiences within a larger picture of success. It feels cathartic to put into words the experiences I’ve had and the lessons I’ve internalized during my career so far."
For this week’s Self-Care Sunday, we spoke to Pappas to learn more about her mental health journey, her go-to self-care rituals, and what she suggests people do if they're struggling with depression.
HelloGiggles (HG): How has being an athlete impacted your relationship with mental health?
Alexi Pappas (AP): Being an athlete initially put me in a mindset predisposed to an unhealthy relationship with mental health. I wanted to push, push, push and overcome. But then I had a lightbulb moment: When I was at the lowest point of my post-Olympic depression, I found a doctor who explained that depression is like when you fall and have a scrape on your knee—except instead of the cut being on your knee, it is on your brain. The point is, your brain is a body part that can get injured like any other, and it can also heal like any other.
For example, a hamstring injury starts out as a sore leg that can be fixed with some rest and physical therapy. But eventually, the sore leg will turn into a torn tendon that needs medical intervention because it can no longer heal on its own. My brain was the same way. I had been depressed long enough and severely enough that I needed medical help. I needed therapy from a doctor.
HG: What are some practices or regimens you suggest for people who have depression?
AP: First, make sure you are getting proper help. Remember that the brain is a body part and depression is an illness just like any other. If you had a severe fever or if you broke your leg, you wouldn’t try to tough it out or “just get over it”—you’d go to a doctor! Then, once you are getting the right kind of help, understand and accept that healing takes time. A broken leg doesn’t feel better right away after your first physical therapy session; likewise, don’t expect your depression to go away after one session with a therapist. Show up every day and commit to your healing just like an athlete would commit to their training.
HG: What do you wish people understood and acknowledged about people with clinical depression, and how do you suggest others show up and give support?
AP: I feel that normalizing mental health treatment in this way is the best thing we can do as a culture to support people suffering from mental health injuries. It takes away the stigma and shame. We don’t feel ashamed to see a physical therapist; why feel ashamed to see a mental therapist?
HG: You lost a parent to suicide. What advice would you give to someone else who is in that situation and struggling to cope?
AP: Feelings of resentment and even anger at any parent who died too young [are] normal, but kids whose parents died by suicide may feel that even more. I think we need to understand that they were sick and didn’t get the care they needed. When I was helping my dad clean out his garage, I found an old filing box of medical reports from the final year of my mother’s life. When I saw what type of treatment she was getting for her depression, it broke my heart. I go into more detail on this in the book, but it would be the equivalent of telling a cancer patient to “just try harder” and to “write down all the benefits of being healthy.” It was not her fault.
HG: Aside from running, what physical activities have you been doing to connect with your body and mind?
AP: I consider cooking a physical activity, at least when I’m in the kitchen. I love using my body and my coordination to produce a deliciously tangible result.
HG: What would you say was the hardest physical thing about learning you had a mental health injury? And what was the easiest?
AP: Honestly, once I realized that my depression was an injury that I could heal like any other, I suddenly felt empowered. I felt like I could take action and attack the injury just like I’d attack any other injury. The hardest thing was before—when I saw my depression as a personal failure. The shift from feeling helpless to feeling in control was the greatest feeling ever.
HG: Are there any quarantine purchases you've bought and have come to love?
HG: What are some ways you’ve been connecting with your personal joy?
If you or anyone you know is dealing with thoughts of suicide, you can reach The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone.