Last week was tough.
There was the unrelenting heat, which made opening the door (at least for those of us not in love with summer) a journey to the hottest reaches of hell, and stretched people and electrical grids to their limits. It got so hot that by the end of the week, I headed to a motel just to get away from the heat at home for a few days and recharge my batteries. (And there was an hour-long outage while I was there, so that was fun.)
There were all those new covid-19 cases and deaths, with Arkansas seen in a very unflattering light not just because of its growth in cases, lack of available hospital beds, and its abysmal vaccination rate, but because anti-vaxxers have so nastily greeted Gov. Asa Hutchinson and members of his administration at town-hall meetings. Hutchinson has been trying to encourage vaccination and tamp down misinformation about the virus and the vaccine, but hecklers have abounded, which means it made the news (woo hoo). It’s not a good look for the state to be seen as so hostile to reality and science, but at least there’s been some increase in vaccination; at last check, we were finally up to about 50 percent with at least one dose of the vaccine.
And there was Simone Biles having to withdraw from most gymnastic events at the Olympics after the qualifiers. Her decision was met with opprobrium of the worst kind, with critics calling her (among other things) selfish, a “national embarrassment” (Texas Deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz, who deleted his tweet and apologized after being reprimanded) and the “biggest quitter in sports” (Ben Maller, Fox Sports Radio).
The harsh reactions from some on Biles’ withdrawal, like those to the governor’s efforts to boost vaccination rates, show that we as a people have lost much of our empathy, which doesn’t speak well of us. Someone’s suffering? Pile on!
Biles has long been a champion, and remains one today. Her decision to withdraw shows more strength than weakness; she was strong enough to see that she could endanger the team’s chances at a medal if she stayed in, and to admit that she needed a break to take care of her mental health.
We should all be supportive of that sort of attitude, especially as so many of us (about one in four American adults) suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental-health issues. I’m one of them.
A lot of us were raised to believe that we must forge ahead, no matter what, even when our bodies or minds tell us we shouldn’t. We don’t pay attention to the signs that we need help, or we think that seeking help is a sign of weakness.
I’ve always lived in my head a lot; my mom used to say I was born a worrier. When I got started on a task, I was determined to finish it and would continue past the point of exhaustion, and feel terrible if I couldn’t finish it. That set up a mental block I still struggle with; I get overwhelmed, so I don’t even start some things. I overthink everything, and I get very maudlin. I very often don’t feel connected to anyone, like I’m on the outside looking in.
For years I continued as I always had, until I reached about 35, at which point I was barely functional some days. Once I finally had health insurance, I started seeing a doctor again, but it wasn’t until my first doctor left the practice that I finally understood what was wrong. I was assigned to the remaining doctor at the clinic, and she instantly saw what others hadn’t, partially because she suffered from the same problem: depression. It took a while to figure out the right treatment for me, but once we did, I was back to functionality.
I still have bad days and probably always will because my depression won’t just go away. But I know my limits now, and build in mental breaks for myself, which last week included that trip outside the house for a few days.
Simone Biles needed a break too, though she didn’t realize it at first.
“As an athletic matter, Biles had absolutely nothing to prove,” Jemele Hill wrote in The Atlantic. “She showed up in Tokyo having won every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013, and at the Olympics she was seeking to become the first woman to win back-to-back gold medals in the all-around competition in more than 50 years. Having won five medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics—four gold medals and one bronze—Biles’ only competition in Tokyo was herself.”
Still, there was a lot of pressure on Biles, who is considered the greatest gymnast of all time and has said in interviews that part of the reason she decided to compete in Tokyo was to hold governing authorities accountable for failing to protect her and others. Biles was one of more than 150 women and girls who were sexually abused by Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
It would be unrealistic to think that none of that would have an impact on Biles’ mental health, or that of anyone else involved. Biles did compete in the balance beam final Tuesday, coming away with a bronze medal. She told NBC, “It means more than all of the golds because I’ve pushed through so much the last five years and the last week while I’ve even been here.”
Former Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who has struggled with anxiety and depression, said of Biles in an interview with Chris Bengel of CBS Sports: “The Olympics is overwhelming. There are a lot of emotions that go into it. … I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we could even ever imagine. This is something that’s gonna take a lot of time, a lot of hard work and people who are willing to help.”
We need to prioritize mental health and normalize getting help. First, though, we might want to work on that empathy thing.