Updated: Mar 2
A Linear Story, a Nonlinear Recovery
My name is Derek Schaedig. I am a senior at Harvard studying psychology and a goaltender on the Harvard Men’s Ice Hockey team. I’m also a writer for The Harvard Crimson school newspaper and the newest member of MyHuddle’s team. As a part of MyHuddle’s efforts to reduce the stigma and misunderstanding associated with mental health in sports, I will be authoring articles on various athletes’ mental health journeys.
Whether an individual’s mental health journey stems from a difficult day or week, an injury, the adjustment to the rigorous life of a student-athlete, a diagnosed disorder, or anything in between, every mental health journey is valid and deserves to be told. That’s what this series titled #breakingthestigma will do, and we hope you’ll join us along the way.
But before I shed light on other athletes’ stories, I feel it is important to share my own first.
Chelsea High School
I’m from Chelsea, Michigan where my high school has a student population of around 900. In a time span of just three years there, our community lost three teenagers — one who was an athlete — due to suicide.
This was the first time I could remember realizing mental health could have real, devastating impacts on people’s lives. Despite being smacked in the face with that lesson then, it took me years to recognize it in my own life.
I thought I could overwhelm the warning signs of being mentally unwell with positivity and hard work… until I couldn’t anymore.
Until recently in my small hometown, in my experience, people tiptoed around discussing mental health. It was too difficult to talk about, too personal, or too stigmatized. In part due to this and being a young “invincible” student-athlete, I ignorantly believed I was exempt from mental health challenges during my childhood. I have been described as happy, optimistic, and hardworking. I thought I could overwhelm the warning signs of being mentally unwell with positivity and hard work… until I couldn’t anymore.
Off to Juniors
After graduating in 2016, I went off to play “junior league hockey.” This system of highly competitive leagues, complete with general managers and thousands of fans, is where players ages 16 to 21 develop their game and get recruited for both college and professional hockey.
Coming out of high school, I was one of the top prospects for goalies in the United States landing on the scouting list for the NHL.
Being that my only job at this phase in my life was stopping pucks, my entire identity was wrapped up “between the pipes,” leaving little room to live a balanced, healthy life. However, after two years of inconsistent play during my time between high school and college, I fell off the radar of a lot of professional scouts and had my first taste of not being able to properly manage my mental health.
Thankfully, I was already committed to Harvard during this time. The head coach of the Crimson believed in me, and I started college the following year. The summer before my first college hockey season, I learned that a Harvard team member was forced to take a leave of absence from college because his mental health struggles affected his academic eligibility. Still, armed with that invincible attitude and the mentality that I can outweigh any foe on my own, I naively thought, “That won’t ever happen to me.”
When I first got to school, one of the pamphlets I received asked if I had ever been in a competitive environment before. I laughed in arrogance. “I was an athlete who competes at the highest level for my age,” I thought. Little did I realize though, competition extends far beyond the rink, the pitch, the court, the field, the office, or in any intense environment someone finds themselves in.
Having grown up without mental health literacy, I had trouble comprehending what was happening so instead of asking for help, I isolated myself.
After performing less than average, to put it lightly, on a few tests and being relegated to a third-string goalie, I was left a frustrated and confused first-year. Success meant A’s and wins, right? Failure seemed to circle me like a vulture.
Add to this the cold, dark Boston winters and a rigid, intense student-athlete schedule, I felt overwhelmed. My frustration and anger soon spiraled into full-blown depression.
Having grown up without mental health literacy, I had trouble comprehending what was happening so instead of asking for help, I isolated myself. Soon, my eating, sleeping, and alcohol intake habits all deteriorated.
Breaking Point Number One
When some people talk about their mental health healing process, many times they reference their “breaking point” or hitting “rock bottom.” Maybe they only have one. Like I said, every mental health story is different, but I have had many.
My first breaking point came one night when I decided I couldn’t stand it anymore. I sprinted along the river on campus with nowhere to go. All I knew is I had to try to outrun the relentless dark cloud that loomed over me.
Eventually, I ended up on a bench. With my mind attacking me and tears streaming down my face, I called my parents and told them what was going on. After their desperate pleas, I reluctantly called the Harvard mental health services. There, I received my first mental illness diagnosis — major depressive disorder.
The following summer, I went home determined to outwork this diagnosis. I went to therapy and even began taking medication after promising myself I wouldn’t. I thought taking medications would show that I can’t take down this opponent on my own. It was me versus stigma again, but this time I didn’t let stigma win. I began taking medication — anything to get rid of this horrible monster in my mind. But potentially even more powerful than a great work ethic and conquering stigma, time was what I really needed to heal.
But potentially even more powerful than a great work ethic and conquering stigma, time was what I really needed to heal.
Breaking Point Number Two
Despite all of the hard work that summer, I felt little improvement by the time August rolled around. I was terrified of returning to school feeling anxious, sad, angry, and like I couldn’t contain my own energy. I knew I was unwell, but I felt trapped. One night, in a blur of events, I found myself at a local park, battling with the monster in my mind. I called my sister, told her I needed help, and she raced to get me.
I was hospitalized for nine days while the doctors adjusted my medications and made sure I was safe to return to life outside of the hospital.
A Swing and a Misdiagnosis
For me, the symptoms of depression were striking, but sometimes they weren’t. “Must just be my hard work in therapy paying off,” I thought. So when this happened, I just told my clinicians I was having a good week. Little did any of us know, something else was bubbling below the surface.
During one of my therapy sessions, I offhandedly mentioned to my mental health clinician that when I came out of a depressive bout, I felt good… really good. I told her about the first week it had happened at school. I woke up feeling on top of the world. I beat my alarm clock by four hours every morning, went swimming, worked out, and studied, all before classes even began for the day.
After discussing these experiences further with my clinicians, they then determined the proper diagnosis for me was bipolar II — a milder form of bipolar disorder in which moods alternate between periods of two weeks or more of depression and an episode of elevated mood typically lasting at least four days.
A diagnosis of major depressive disorder seemed somehow easier to digest. I had heard of depression in the media repeatedly; however, being diagnosed with bipolar II was a different story.
I felt frustrated receiving the proper diagnosis took so long, relieved to finally understand what was going on with me, and like an imposter in the bipolar community. “Why aren’t my moods shifting from minute to minute? Are people going to look at me differently? Will they be scared I can’t control myself? Will I have to be on medication for the rest of my life? Am I crazy?” I asked myself over and over.
Over time though, I learned more about what bipolar II is and what it is not. The new diagnosis helps me understand myself better, but it does not define me. Just as having more than one breaking point took me by surprise, receiving a second diagnosis caught me off guard. But, it was what I needed to get better, and it taught me the importance of accepting myself for who I am.
Breaking Point Number Three
During the hospitalization before my sophomore year, a nurse practitioner watched over my shoulder as I picked out my fall classes. I wasn’t allowed to have any electronic devices so I could focus on my healing. When I was released from the hospital, my parents picked me up in our truck packed full of my belongings. It was time to return to school.
I was excited to see my friends at school again, but I had no idea how to reconcile with my new diagnosis. I felt lost and unprepared. I convinced everyone in my life that I could still conquer this challenge and return to school without having the proper time I needed to heal. I was wrong.
Without enough time to get on the right dosage of medications coupled with minimal mental health education, I lasted at school for two months. Just as midterm stress ratcheted up, my hockey frustrations intensified as a first-year goalie moved above me in the depth chart.
I messaged my psychiatrist that the monster in my mind was back. After failing to respond to his message, I woke up to a knock on the door. It was the campus police coming to take me to the hospital. After a week there, I had to take a leave of absence from school for the remainder of the school year.
Once I was forced to take the time I needed to grow and heal, I truly started to get better. I got on the proper dosage of medications, worked hard in therapy, and relied on the immense support from my loved ones. Two years later, after a long quarantine and double-hip surgery, I’m finally back at school playing hockey again.
But again, for me, healing is nonlinear. I wanted a quick fix to what I was feeling. I expected every time I felt like I was at my lowest that it would be the last time. However, I learned that my expectation of the healing process was different than reality. For me, there will always be ups and downs in my mental health journey. This is my story so far, but there’s a lot left to write, and I never underestimate the work it takes to maintain my mental health.
What I’ve learned and want to impart to others is that while leading a mentally healthy lifestyle can be challenging at times, there is always hope.
What I’ve learned and want to impart to others is that while leading a mentally healthy lifestyle can be challenging at times, there is always hope. The healing process often begins with talking to someone you trust about what you’re going through. With the support of loved ones, coaches, teammates, and mental health professionals, I believe there is a way to become healthy again, but that can only begin by reaching out. Stigma kept me from doing so for a long time, but this series hopes to help others get help faster by reducing that stigma.
My experiences with mental health are why I wanted to join MyHuddle and help improve access to mental health training for the next generation of athletes. Relying solely on my sport for an identity, struggling to fit in with teammates, a hip injury, managing perfectionism, and not getting the playing time I wanted are all challenges that I and many athletes have faced. If not proactively equipped with the right mental skills and support systems, these obstacles and other ones can become harmful to athletes’ overall health and wellbeing.
This is my story, but every journey with mental health is different. So stay subscribed, share this newsletter, and tune in for more stories from real athletes to come.
If you or a loved one feel unsafe concerning your mental health, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
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A special thank you to Andrea Montalbano (author, journalist, & MyHuddle friend) for your helpful review of this story.