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Matthew Mitcham’s story

I used to suffer from depression.

Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking… what would an Olympic gold medallist (not to mention such a ridiculously good-looking, talented and hilarious one) have to be depressed about? I used to think the exact same thing.

It took me years to learn that some people’s depression and anxiety is triggered by traumatic experiences, and some people are just genetically predisposed to these mental illnesses and suffer equally, even if they have everything under the sun and the whole world at their feet. I guess I fall into this second group of people.

I think I’ve always had pretty poor self-esteem. Ever since I was about 8 I had this belief that maybe if I became the best in the world at something then people would like me. It was a pretty tall order considering I’d shown no remarkable talent at anything up until this point. So when I “fell” into diving a few years later, I saw it as my only chance to be special and clung on through a period of depression from fourteen to eighteen.

The shame associated with my “unjustified” depression just made it worse. It also probably didn’t help that I saw having depression as a weakness, which was particularly unacceptable for an elite athlete, so I kept it to myself. Obviously I know now (with my 20/20 hindsight) that this belief was not reality, but the shame that prevented me from reaching out kept me suffering unnecessarily for years. I didn’t want to feel the way I did, but my reluctance to address my feelings properly led to me seeking relief in other, less ‘therapeutic’ ways.

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I recognised that binge-drinking/drugging were forms of escapism, but it seemed acceptable at the time. I thought it was normal to compete with yourself to see how quickly you could throw up and pass out.

By the time I was eighteen, not even diving made me happy anymore, so I quit. Things did get better after a year and a few big changes in my life: I met someone supportive (still together ten years later OMG), got comfortable in my perfectly cleansed/toned/moisturised skin, and moved interstate to start diving again in a wonderfully inclusive training environment. All those things contributed greatly to my happiness and motivation, which made all the difference in Beijing.

For some reason I had this belief that depression was something you got once in your lifetime, so because I’d been really happy for the two years that straddled Beijing, I thought I was in the clear. This was a mistake. I came to learn that unless you actually address the underlying issues, it doesn’t just go away, it just waits patiently for a trigger. In my case, that trigger was poor self-esteem. I had become completely dependent on external sources of esteem: how many 10s I got from the judges, how many followers I had on social media, how much (little) money I had… none of which was ever enough when I compared myself to other people. I felt like the Olympic gold medal was the only thing people cared about and without it I was worthless.

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The problem with external esteem is that it’s not reliable. I got injured so I couldn’t train or compete and all of a sudden I lost all sources of esteem that I’d become so reliant upon. Talking to anyone about the way I felt was the very last resort. My excuse to myself was not wanting to burden other people with my problems, but in reality I was actually feeling more ashamed than ever that I’d let myself get to this point. It wasn’t until my chemical escapism (and many failed attempts to kick the habit) got bad enough that I finally conceded I couldn’t do this by myself and sought help from specialists, which is too often the way.

Seeking help was the catalyst for change for me. Not surprisingly, the mental health professionals had some great insights and solutions, and that’s when I realised my own pride/shame kept me in pain unnecessarily for years. I learnt that my mental health was my responsibility and that being proactive about improving my mental health was a way to improve my self-esteem. I learnt self-esteem should come from within (which you think I would have figured out from the ‘self’ bit) and all your laughter and adoration should just be a bonus. And I learnt that feelings aren’t worth drinking over because feelings pass quicker than hangovers (and it doesn’t do anything to solve the problem anyway). 

It took me a while to learn out how to esteem myself, but I find sharing my story to be very rewarding. I’m not ashamed to talk about my history of depression and addiction because I hope it will make it a little easier for others to share what’s going on for them. The more we all share our stories, the more it helps to break down the stigma that prevented me from reaching out as a teenager. And I really encourage everyone to reach out as a first resort rather than a last resort.

I used to suffer from depression.

I don’t know if I’m cured, but I’m certainly not suffering today.

thanks for reading,

Matthew

Published October 10 2016