Alexi Pappas is a professional long-distance runner (an Olympian in the 10,000-meters, to be exact), and a writer, filmmaker, and actor. Her just-released memoir, Bravey, on sale today, tackles everything from dealing with mental illness to finding female mentors. It's a thoughtful, beautiful read; breathtakingly honest and poignantly insightful. The following excerpt was adapted from a chapter about Pappas's experience with depression.
When it began, it came in the form of sleeplessness. I began to lose sleep shortly after returning from Rio. It’s not uncommon for Olympians to feel a sort of post-Olympic depression, however mild or severe. It makes sense: You’ve worked your whole life toward this exceptionally challenging and singular goal, and then it happens, and suddenly it’s over.
For some people depression comes on slowly, but for me, it happened all at once. Every night I’d lie in bed, frantically trying to figure out what to do next. It felt like I was brushing my brain with a brush whose bristles were made out of fear and anxiety.
I felt anxious to do anything I could to climb out of this pit. I feared the worst: Both my mom and her brother had died by suicide.
Over the weeks and months since the Olympics ended, [my dad] had been there for countless phone calls where I described step by step the unfolding disaster that was my life. He has always been super calm and there to listen to me, rock-solid and attentive, but this time was different. He was hearing things that were red flags. For the first time, my dad told me I needed professional help.
At first, like many people who need help, I was defensive. Psychiatric help can feel scary and unnecessarily extreme. At last, through a personal referral, I met with Dr. Arpaia, who saved my life. Dr. Arpaia was both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy. I told Dr. Arpaia what was going on in my life. I also told him how you only get one chance at everything in life and I had messed it up. It was all my fault and I was so spoiled and stupid to think I deserved more than I was being offered, and I was especially stupid for not being grateful for what I had before. I told him that if I could only go back in time I could fix things, but since that was impossible I had accepted that I’d had a good life, but my bubble of good luck had run out and there was no way out of the mess I had created. My life would never be better than it was before and frankly, it would be better to die now because my best days were behind me, and it’s better to quit when you’re ahead.
I had been thinking these things in a repetitive, taunting way, like a soundtrack incessantly playing in my head.
Dr. Arpaia listened quietly, much like my dad might have, and calmly explained to me that I was sick. He told me I was experiencing an acute crisis — high- risk situational depression — which is when everything is going great and then suddenly, specific things occur in your life that make you feel like you’ve fallen off a cliff. This was the first time I’d been given a diagnosis that I understood.
Oh my god. I was sick. I was sick. I was sick. I was mentally ill. It was temporary, but it was severe. It was the realest worst thing I could ever imagine. But at the same time it was so unbelievably refreshing to meet someone who understood exactly what was going on. He explained that mental illness is like when you fall and have a scrape on your knee — except instead of the cut being on your knee, it is on your brain. It takes time to heal.
What began as post-Olympic depression could have probably been okay if I had taken some time to rest and mentally recover. But after months of living in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight mode, my brain was chemically altered and needed medical intervention.
Dr. Arpaia told me he would pair medication (mild antidepressants and pills to help me fall asleep) with intensive talk therapy. I did not believe I could ever emerge from my depression happier than I was before, but I had nothing to lose. I already wanted to die, so why not give this a try? Why not live one more day and see what happens? That mantra got me through so many days.
Dr. Arpaia told me I was doing great, even though I did not feel great. He gave me one of the most valuable truths anyone has ever taught me: First your actions change, then your thoughts, then finally your feelings, in that specific order. He told me to stop trying to convince myself to not be depressed — a depressed person can’t be convinced of anything. He told me to instead expect that I was going to feel very sad for a long time, and that the most important thing was to focus on my actions. Actions change your thoughts over time, and over even more time thoughts change your feelings.
It’s sort of like when you are in a race and you might feel absolutely terrible in one moment, but that doesn’t mean you should stop. Racing is about understanding that pain is a sensation but not necessarily a threat, and if you continue to put one foot in front of the other you will break through your rough patch.
Likewise, I now understood that my mental rough patch could be handled similarly by showing up one day at a time and putting in the work with Dr. Arpaia to get my life back on track. I had faith that if I focused on my actions — on going to therapy, rehabbing my injury, and making a plan for the future — my feelings would get better in time. This new understanding saved my life.
I stopped judging my sadness and focused only on my actions. I brought the same relentless dedication that I’d normally bring to my athletic training to my mental recovery. I kept taking my medicine, completing the exercises Dr. Arpaia gave me, and trying to slowly progress in the other areas of my life.
Slowly, I began to heal. I was sad, deeply sad, for at least six months. But sure enough, the sadness began to slip away, like I was a snake shedding its skin. I focused so intently on my actions that I began to forget about my feelings. I came to think of myself as a slow cooker. I had to throw a lot of things into it and then wait a very long time. If I looked inside mid-cook, it might not appear as though anything was happening. It would have been frustrating to peek into the pot too often, which is why it was important not to evaluate myself based on how I felt on any one day. I was an accumulation of all my days, good and bad. I can never know for sure what the single most helpful thing was for me, because in the end everything blended into one stew. I just know that it worked, and in time I became well again.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
Excerpt from BRAVEY by Alexi Pappas, copyright © 2021 by Alexi Pappas. Used by permission of The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. http://www.randomhousebooks.com/campaign/bravey/