The Perfect Storm
Hello! My name is Rachel Kolb. I’m from Naperville, Illinois, and I’m currently a junior studying political science and business administration. I was on the Varsity Women’s Rowing team my freshman year and the beginning of my sophomore year, and now I’m on Women’s Club Team Handball. I’ve been an athlete all my life, with soccer, basketball, volleyball, and now the new additions. I like lifting, reading, listening to music, and playing card games with my friends and family. After a friend at UNCUT asked if I’d like to share my story, I decided that I would. This is my story about my ongoing journey with mental health.
TW: This story speaks about mental health experiences that may be sensitive to some readers.
For as long as I can remember, I have had perfectionist tendencies. A need to perform up to what I feel is the best of my abilities academically and athletically. Somewhere along the line, I decided that I must also be perfect in my emotions. To me, that meant only having what I had deemed “good” emotions. Really it was just one emotion. Happiness. The dichotomy of good and bad. Labeling feelings as such. Anger and sadness were bad. Joy and happiness were good. In retrospect, it was obvious that I was setting myself up for failure. But I was a kid in middle school, so what did I know?
I was living large in middle school. I had a great group of friends who stuck up for me and who I stuck up for in return. I was praised for my academic motivation and ability, only getting A’s and always in the advanced programs. I played on the soccer, basketball, and volleyball teams and helped to win conference championships for two of the three. I was in band, built a website to handle art commissions, and was – by the middle schooler definition – popular.
Life was great; therefore, I should have been happy. But that’s where I got confused. Because I wasn’t happy.
I found myself holding back tears while I was doing the things I was supposed to enjoy. I was always thinking about the next time I could get a break to get to the bathroom and cry for a little while. I wrote it off as being okay because I still had fun sometimes, but at the end of the day, I was really struggling. Even still, my life was good, so it didn’t make sense.
Mutual exclusivity. The idea that two things cannot be true at the same time.
A comes before B in the alphabet.
A good life means happiness.
A good life meant I didn’t have the right to be sad. At 12 years old, I didn’t have a solid grasp on mental health. We had covered it in our basic health class that was required one semester in lieu of PE, but since I knew everything at that age, I knew I wasn’t the kind of person to suffer from depression and anxiety.
Good students can’t have depression.
Good athletes can’t have depression.
I had to be perfect for my teachers, coaches, friends, and family. Depression meant I wasn’t perfect, and I couldn’t reconcile what I felt on the inside with the outside. Everything was going well on the outside. I was doing things I used to enjoy, but I wasn’t enjoying them anymore. I was around people I loved and people who supported me, but I felt so alone because I thought they could never understand. I smiled every single day, but once no one was watching, I couldn’t contain my sadness.
I was determined to stay as busy as possible. I poured myself into soccer, school, and band. I refused to let myself acknowledge what I was going through.
I was performing at the expense of my health but being perfect for everyone else was more important to me than my own safety.
I put up a dam and watched day by day as the levels rose on the other side. They rose and rose and rose until one day, when I was 13, my dam broke, and I had to tell my parents in a hospital room that I didn’t want to be around anymore.
My first therapist was pretty cool. She gave me worksheets so that I could try to make sense of the pieces I felt didn’t go together. We ate candy in her office. Unfortunately, the tootsie rolls weren’t enough to keep the perfectionist at bay, and I decided I was going to win therapy. I planned to fill out the worksheets and graduate therapy with honors and put all that stuff behind me. I wasn’t honest with my therapist or myself so that I could rush the process. It seemed like a great plan at the time.
Right before my freshman year of high school started, I decided I was cured.
I didn’t feel any different, really, I was still incredibly depressed and angry at myself for feeling that way, but I wasn’t planning on starting out high school with depression. So, on the surface, I was perfect. Honor roll, soccer team, marching band, group of friends. I was more preoccupied with stress than I was with the depression.
But then I wasn’t. Panic attacks, anger outbursts, making sure that my methods of dealing with the ‘problem’ were invisible. I built back my dam, and I threw all my weight behind it. I wasn’t going to let it break again. I couldn’t let it break again. My life was objectively good, and I didn’t deserve to feel sad. But I was, and the weight of it was crushing. I watched, feeling helpless, as the levels rose and rose and rose until one day, when I was 14, it broke again, and I had to tell my parents in a hospital room that I’d failed at therapy.
In the six years since my failed dam construction, I’ve found more reasons than I can name to stay. I find that I’m enjoying music, card games with my family, and trying new sports like rowing and team handball. I’m enjoying going for walks, complaining about the buses, and going to classes. I’m enjoying my life, and I am so glad that six years ago, I was able to tell my parents I needed help. Because of them and so many other positive influences, I’ve gotten the support I needed to challenge some of my flawed perceptions about what life is about.
I’ve also gained the language to more fully explain how depression feels for me. Someone once told me that you can think about depression as being a boat in the ocean: you ride the waves until the sea is calm again. This metaphor wasn’t helpful for me because I get seasick, so I picked another metaphor. My depression is more of a dark cloud or thunderstorm. I’m always aware of it, but after it storms for a while, the cloud becomes less menacing. I used to be terrified of storms, so this metaphor works really well for me.
This was my first step to having a better relationship with myself: taking the abstract concept of depression and turning it into something I could picture and name.
I went to college, in a global pandemic, with the power of being able to talk about my depression. That didn’t make it easy. I joined everything I could because I wanted to make friends but also because I thought that was what the perfect student would do. I joined the Marching Tarheels, the mock trial team, applied for NC Fellows, walked on to Women’s Rowing, applied to the business school, and eventually joined Club Team Handball. I loved the friends that I had made, and I loved what I was doing, but some familiar thoughts began to creep in.
I felt I didn’t deserve to be a part of those groups. I convinced myself I was somehow worth less than my peers around me. I’ve come to recognize this as imposter syndrome, and with that recognition, have furthered my belief that naming these abstract concepts we struggle with can make a major difference. This sense I have that I don’t belong isn’t the reality. I do belong. I wouldn’t be in these groups if I were unwanted or undeserving. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that and see through the clouds that my brain tries to put in the way. But the people around me help me to remember that I’m wanted and that I’m deserving.
I have been seeing a new therapist for some time, one that – regrettably – doesn’t give me tootsie rolls. Through our sessions, I’ve been forced to rethink my worldview: feelings are not good and bad. Because of this fact, we are not ‘bad’ for feeling sad or angry, even if our lives are perfect – which they are not. Perfection is stupid, and mental illness is not a character flaw.
We are allowed to feel whatever we need to in response to the events in our lives or to the chemicals in our brains. Our oceans, clouds, and imposter syndromes can exist within good students and athletes.
The most important lesson I’ve ever learned: these ideas are not mutually exclusive. Dean’s List, two jobs, club team handball, NC Fellows, marching band, group of friends, and still working on my mental health.
My 14-year-old self would be mortified to know that I have yet to beat therapy. I’m 20 now, and still struggle some days to reconcile what I feel with what is going on around me. In the moments when my life does get cloudy, I try to treat myself with kindness. When my therapist first told me to try to do that, I laughed and told her that I can’t always do that.
But once I remind myself that I’m talking to the 14-year-old girl who is kicking herself for losing at therapy, and to the 13-year-old girl whose dam has just broken, and ultimately the 6-year-old girl who was terrified of thunderstorms, I find I can manage some kindness.
Depression and other forms of mental illness don’t just go away. None of this is fully in my past, and I still deal with these thoughts and feelings almost every day. It could very well be me and the cloud until the end. But with time, and with a lot of help from the people around me, the cloud will not be quite so menacing, and it certainly won’t stop me from becoming the best version of myself.
For now, in the moments when I cannot like myself, I can respect myself for standing in the storm I was once so afraid of facing.
From me to you, your mental and physical health are always the most important considerations. It’s respectable to strive for the best in all you do, but never at the expense of who you are, and not with the goal of perfection. It’s so important to take care of yourself and reach out when you need help, because there are so many people out there who want to help you. You are not inferior because of your struggles.
- Rachel Kolb