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Connection is the ultimate antidepressant

Sport is a drug. And I was addicted to it. When I was cut from the United squad a few weeks ago, I went through some extreme withdrawals. I went from training 8-9 times a week in a competitive, social, professional environment, to working out voluntarily by myself only three times a week. And I was fucking struggling. Not only was I not getting endorphins from exercise, but I also wasn’t getting the dopamine from competition, the oxytocin from working with my teammates, and the serotonin from feeling valued. So how did I cope?

At the start, I didn’t really. I was having thoughts of self-harm that I hadn’t had in three and a half years. I had thoughts of wanting to get fucked up, to do things I had never done before. I just wanted to run away from my feelings, to mask the pain and the disappointment that I was feeling and I was willing to do whatever that took. But I couldn’t. Because the girl I’m seeing is involved with United. So all of those emotions I didn’t want to feel, I had to feel. And I was forced to focus on something other than myself: her. And as challenging as that has been at times, I can honestly say it’s helped.

Thinking about ourselves is one of the fundamental causes of depression. Believing that “nobody can help you but you” is a myth: we all need people. We’re social creatures by nature, so when we isolate ourselves to focus on ourselves we’re actually denying our basic human instincts to connect which consequently makes us feel terrible (Johann Hari, Lost Connections).

When I was struggling a few weeks ago, I recall telling people exactly that. I told them I was struggling and having thoughts I haven’t had in three and a half years. And invariably the responses I received actually made me feel worse – numerous people responded with, “Maybe you need to see a therapist.” I believe therapists only exist because we do such a shitty job of being there for one another. When someone comes to you, telling you that they’re struggling, and you suggest they see someone else, what that indirectly communicates is, “I don’t want to deal with what you’re going through.” And maybe that’s because they’ve got their own shit going on. But quite often what anyone ever needs is not a therapist. They just need someone to be there. To listen. To not react. To not judge. And to not try to fix anything. Because often there isn’t anything that needs fixing; people just need to feel what they’re feeling and be given an environment in which they can do just that.

There’s a brilliant example in Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections which looks at these individuals who are extremely obese. They partake in an experiment designed to help them obtain a “healthy” weight. What they found though, was that there was often a backlash – the participants would lose the weight and then put it straight back on. And it wasn’t from a lack of knowledge – people know that it’s “healthier” to not be overweight, and they quite often know what and how they should be eating. But there’s a fundamental question that many dieticians and doctors neglect to ask: why. This study did just that – they asked the participants when they started over-eating and if there was anything significant that happened during that time in their life. And the answers? Over 50% of those participants had been sexually abused when they were kids. Eating then, served as a protective mechanism; it made them feel invisible. How often though, do you look at someone overweight and think, or perhaps even suggest, why don’t they just reduce their portion sizes? Or eat a more balanced diet? As though it’s that simple. And as though they don’t already know that’s what they should be doing. What if, instead of trying to “fix” their problem, we asked them why they were having a problem? What if, instead of offering a solution, we offered them a connection?

I didn’t need fixing. I needed connection. Compassion. Understanding. Safety. And time. I needed to be allowed to feel what I was feeling. To be angry. Sad. Disappointed. I needed to grieve – to grieve the failure of not achieving my dream. To grieve the time and energy I had invested into it. Time offers us the greatest gift: perspective. And that’s what I needed. Because I know that when we’re in pain, it’s because of our perception of the situation. But often we can’t alter our perception until we’ve felt all there is to feel from it. And avoidance robs us of this experience.

Numerous people have told me over the years, given my injuries and disappointments in not making teams, that perhaps soccer isn’t on my path. And as much as I haven’t wanted to, I’ve listened to them. Because as much as we get told to not give a shit about what other people think, it’s almost impossible when you care about them. And hearing that something you’ve invested your entire life into, that has been the central part of your identity for the majority of your life, isn’t for you, is pretty disheartening. And I’m not sure people understand the repercussions of this suggestion. So instead of telling someone to essentially “give up” on their dreams, why not just listen? Listen and let them feel what they feel; don’t try to fix. Don’t try to help. Don’t take their anger personally. Just be there. Because that’s honestly the most valuable gift you can give them.

What I’ve found over the years is that I’ve never really struggled in others’ presence. These thoughts of self-harm, I didn’t have them when I was working. Or when I was with the girl I’m seeing. Or when I was playing soccer. They only surfaced when I was alone. When I was consumed by thinking about myself. And that’s because I believe connection is an antidepressant. I’ve been so fortunate to find a workplace in which I immediately felt safe and supported; I’m surrounded by beautiful individuals and I get to work in an environment, hospitality, in which the fundamental premise is to give and serve which forces me to focus on others. Much like I’m having to do with the girl I’m seeing – I want to support her and I can’t do that if I’m consumed by my own negativity. Focusing on and being around others, I believe, is a remedy worth prescribing. Although therapists have their purpose, it’s a one-way relationship that misses a fundamental component of being human: connection.

So when someone is struggling, try not to fix them. Try to really hear what they’re saying. Support them. Validate them. Be there for them. Create an environment in which they feel comfortable enough to feel their feelings, even if they aren’t “constructive”. When people are struggling, they actually don’t need much. But they do need people. And your willingness to connect through a state of non-reaction and non-judgment, might just be what saves them.

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