Credit to WSU Athletics for the cover photo.
It’s okay not to be okay
By Kyler Little
Running has always been the perfect escape for me from the real world. Running is my happy place. Whenever life becomes extraordinarily stressful, I can drop everything and go run my heart out. Reeled over from the exhaustion of putting my all into something so trivial as to get from point A to point B, I paradoxically feel amazing, having the twofold benefit of dopamine coursing through my veins and also having briefly forgotten the 100 items on my never-shrinking to-do list. To me, running is freedom. But also, running represents my core identity beyond anything else. It embodies my work ethic, my values, and my attitude towards life. I get out of it what I put into it. I do my absolute best at it — always. Legendary runner Steve Prefontaine said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that quote because it resonated so deeply within me. I knew that it was the motto I had already been living, but now I had words for it.
College changed running for me. In college, your sport becomes your job. The NCAA puts a 20 hour cap on the amount of time you can legally spend on your sport, but nobody looks at the fine print. A competition, regardless of its length, counts for only 3 hours. The plane flights and travel times don’t count towards the limit. The prep time before practice doesn’t count. Afterwards doesn’t count. The hours you spend in the training room don’t count. The hours of emotional anxiety before a competition (or even just practice) don’t count. This is why I’ll never use the term “student-athlete.” You’re an athlete way before you’re a student.
As a result of this, running became a significant chunk of my identity, whether I wanted it to be or not. When you invest so much of your identity in something, a victory feels like an other-worldly experience. The highs feel euphoric. But by the same token, the lows are crippling. And in college sport, there are a lot of lows. And sometimes, it just takes a single low, whether it’s your season being cancelled due to COVID or a text message from your coach, to send it all flying to pieces.
One of the greatest highs I experienced running was winning this 1:1 battle and having WSU win the Dual Meet against UW. Credit to Todd Linton for the photo.
It’s 6:30 PM on Sunday night. October 22nd, 2017, to be precise. I have practice at 6:30 AM tomorrow. Well — I have practice at 6:30 AM tomorrow IF my coach chooses to travel me to the PAC-12 cross country championships. I’m about as anxious as I’ve ever been. A year ago around this time, I stressed myself out so much that I didn’t have the mental capacity to understand how ill I was and consequently passed out in front of my roommate, which quickly led to a trip to the emergency room. So much in my life was in a whirlwind, and all I wanted to know is where I’d be in 12 hours, whether I should work extra hard tonight to prepare for travel, whether I should email professors, whether I could call my parents to let them know that I’m racing so they could come and watch.
Then I realize, IF I’m taken to PAC-12s, I leave Wednesday morning and don’t get back until Saturday night. With practice and class, that’ll sum to about 3 hours of free time tomorrow and Tuesday… I really should prep some emails to send to teachers… maybe dive into this mathematical analysis proof… Oh god. The back of my head feels like it’s tightening. Like right in the neck area. It almost feels like there’s a heartbeat in my neck. Then the top of my chest feels like there is an army of miniature insects just below the epidermis, spewing some poisonous chemical, making my skin go numb. Then there are the uncomfortably loud palpations that I can feel pulsating my skull. I can’t even swallow. Wait. I’m not even breathing… I gasp for air. Get a grip, Kyler.
Of course, telling your anxious self to stop experiencing anxiety is about as effective as telling yourself to stop coughing when you’re sick. The next few hours painstakingly elapse as an all-out war between the emotional and logical sides of my brain. It’s 9:30 PM now, and I’m emotionally drained. I really need to go to bed. And when I say I need to go to bed, I mean it. As a college athlete, there’s no catching up on sleep. It might be weeks or even months before you have a day to sleep in, so a bad night of sleep can set you back far, especially when you’re required to be on your A-game almost all the time. Just the fear of getting a bad night of sleep can cause you not to be able to sleep. So, as you might have guessed, I’m lying dead awake.
Bzzzz. FINALLY. A text from my coach.
Hello Kyler. I’m sorry but I won’t be taking you to PAC12s…
Just like that, my junior year season of cross country is over. I’m actually somewhat relieved that the wait is over. The anxious feelings start to abate, but despair instantly replaces it. My heart sinks from my throat to the bottom of my stomach rather than to its normal place in my chest. I know it’s just one meet, but deep down, this one hurts. I’m a college junior and I haven’t even been close to making our varsity squad. I’ve poured my body, heart, and soul into running for a decade. Worked my ass off. In everything. School? 4.0. Nutrition? Haven’t had soda since age 14. Sleep? Rarely got less than 8 hours. I’ve been grinding like this for so many years, and one simple text yanks my soul out from me and stomps it into the curb. On top of this, I haven’t seen my long-distance girlfriend in months. I’ve been trying to get a summer internship, and I have been denied at literally every single place I’ve applied. All forty companies. I am an utter failure…
A week and a half go by without running, and I feel less and less motivated to start training again. But unfortunately, my break ended 3 days ago, and I have to start. I feel absolutely empty inside. I’m 3 miles into my first run back, and I can’t even explain what happens. I start to cry. Hard. An onslaught of pure sadness completely takes over me. And I’m literally in the middle of the road. The fact that cars can drive by and see me makes me cry even harder. I immediately look for cover and find a bush to hide behind. I sit there on the cold weed-ridden ground for a good 10 minutes while I attempt to calm myself down. It’s early November in Pullman, so the freezing temperature quickly reminds me that I’m no longer running, and crying, astonishingly enough, doesn’t produce much body heat. I decide I’m capable of making it back to my apartment. I get back, and thank GOD my roommate isn’t home. I start wailing. You know that uncontrollable sobbing where your lungs are competing with your emotions for control of your body? Like, you start choking after a bit because your sobbing is going at such a jarring frequency compared to your lungs… If you ever get to this point, please pick up the phone and call me. 208-819-4684. No one deserves to be here.
At this point in time, I have no idea what “depression” is. I have no idea that this feeling of heaviness means I’m depressed. I have no idea that this isn’t normal behavior. That I’m supposed to reach out for help. Most of all, I have no idea that mental damage isn’t something you can heal overnight. That it takes months, even years to overcome. I’m one of those people that believes a positive attitude can change anything. I’ve experienced breakdowns like this before… maybe not at this severity, but I’m a college athlete. I’ve gotten to where I’m at now by toughing it out through anything and everything. Sport taught me that you can overcome anything with your attitude and your work ethic. People look up to me and draw inspiration from my strength, and that, in turn, gives me the fuel to be disciplined and work hard. My own family even says WWKD — what would Kyler do? — to help them through decisions like nutrition, exercise, etc. I can’t even imagine what they’d think if they knew about this. Crying isn’t inspiring. I felt embarrassed to bring it up to anyone, so I put on my usual happy mask and tried to resume normalcy in my life.
But mental damage doesn’t heal itself. Weeks go by, and I finally reach such an awful point where I’m physically incapable of leaving my apartment because the depression feels so heavy. After my roommate left for class one day, I went to the couch and started sobbing for hours… I don’t know what prompted me to do this — God, almost certainly — but I pick up my phone and call my mom. Moms are truly creatures of God. I will never comprehend how much a mom loves her children. I call my mom, and she knows exactly what to say to me. I’ll never forget that phone call. My mom is at the airport. I think she might even be on the plane, and she’s like “Nah. Y’all gonna have to HOLD this flight.” I tell her everything. Well, I cry a lot while she just listens… but then I tell her everything. I admit something that I didn’t even realize I was thinking — I tell her that I’m going to quit running. The idea popped out of my mouth so unexpectedly, but once I spoke it into existence, it felt instantly liberating. The idea was also completely incomprehensible. I had dedicated 1000s of hours of my life to this pursuit and based my entire future around it. I could have gone to Yale, but I chose WSU for athletics. But somehow, the idea of giving it all up was so mesmerizing that I actually stopped crying. My mom thought it was a great idea. I was convinced that this was the solution, so I did it. Well, I didn’t tell anyone… but I just stopped. I’d run if I felt like it. Simple as that.
This wasn’t the solution, but I kept telling myself it was. I experienced more severe breakdowns and several more depressive states, but I convinced myself that it was just one really hard semester — that I’d be totally fine afterwards. When the semester actually did finish, I was so confident in my theory that I even made an Instagram post about how much better I supposedly felt.
Eight days into the following semester, the unthinkable happens. “Washington State QB Tyler Hilinski dies of apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.” Oh. My. God. This hits hard. Maybe I’m not okay after all. I’ve never talked to Tyler, but he’s my Cougar teammate. We’re all family at WSU, and we could have done something to stop this. I think about Tyler and where he was just before his passing. Tyler also trained his ass off since he was a kid. He had the same relationship with football as I did with running. At the Holiday Bowl, a few weeks before his suicide, WSU was absolutely crushed by Michigan State, 42-17. The pressure surrounding football is immense. When you lose, even if you played well, you not only get chastised by your coach, you also get berated by fans. Thousands of fans feel the need to personally give you their hot take on the game, sometimes forgetting that the athletes are real people underneath the helmets, who experience emotions just as richly or as painfully as them. Some fans even send death threats. I can only imagine the messages sent to Tyler after that game. Of course, I’m sure there were 1000s of extremely supportive messages, but those aren’t the ones that stick out, especially when you’re suffering from a mental illness. I don’t know what Tyler’s exact thoughts were after that game, but I know in my heart. And I know that perhaps Tyler wished he could have been in my position and not been taken to the game. He played well, but the fans don’t care. A loss is a loss. It would have been a lot nicer to not lose that game. Not to get all that hate. To have the luxury of hope while sitting at home, instead of watching it get stolen from your arms. I wondered if Tyler ever broke down like I did. I wondered who Tyler called when that happened. I wondered if he didn’t call anyone. I wondered if he felt embarrassed like I did, that he would be perceived as weak. I wondered if it was, in fact, the supporting messages from people that eventually got to him. I wondered if Tyler thought that they wouldn’t look up to him any longer if they knew what he was going through. I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have told him his thoughts were tricking him, that we actually loved him and would support him through this. I wish I could have told him that it’s okay. It’s okay not to be okay…
Credit to James Snook-USA TODAY Sports.
Strength is Asking for Help
After that, I emailed the WSU Athletics Counselor asking for help. I proceeded to do counseling for the next year and a half. It took about a year for me to mostly eliminate those overwhelming feelings of heaviness and sadness, and the fight is never really over. But it’s still the best decision I’ve ever made. Strength is asking for help.
But I want to be clear on this. You don’t have to be depressed to do counseling or therapy, or to ask for help. Just like you shouldn’t have to become ill or gain weight to recognize that diet, sleep, and exercise are important, you shouldn’t have to experience depression to recognize that dedicating time to your mental health is important. Your mind is the lens through which you experience life. Any thought that you’ve ever conceived has had to pass through your mind. It is literally everything. If counseling or therapy isn’t the right way for you to work on your mental health, something else exists, guaranteed. It can even just be reading an article on the topic, like this.
I hope that it doesn’t take a suicide for you to realize that your mental health is important, like it did for me. People are here to help you when you’re down. And if people aren’t, I am.
from the Author
I wanted to share my story with mental health for a few reasons. One, one of our values is advocating for authenticity. If I can share something deeply personal like this, then any other college athlete should feel safe to share their story. I cried several times while writing this just because it puts me back into that depressive state, but I can’t expect people to be real with us if I’m not real with them. Two, like many other college athletes, I put out a very polished image of myself. That’s what your athletic department demands of you. “Remember, you’re representing all of [insert school here] when you travel.” I want people to know that an image doesn’t tell the full story. Three, and most importantly, I really hope I can inspire people with my story. If it inspires a single person who is struggling to reach out for help, then that alone makes it all worth it.