In an op-ed published by ESPN this week, legendary swimmer Michael Phelps — who amassed the most medals of any Olympian in history over his career, some 28 medals total, including 23 golds — offered a blunt and excruciatingly candid glimpse into his state of mind in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the process of describing his serious difficulties in “handling quarantine,” Phelps, who has struggled with mental health issues for years, admits to being overwhelmed with a feeling of being “absolutely worthless” and fighting back a “bubbling anger.” The former Olympian also takes a moment to criticize the media for how it has exacerbated his mental health struggles in the past.
“How am I handling quarantine and the global pandemic? Put it this way: I’m still breathing,” Phelps says.
“The pandemic has been one of the scariest times I’ve been through,” he explains. “I’m thankful that my family and I are safe and healthy. I’m grateful we don’t have to worry about paying bills or putting food on the table, like so many other folks right now. But still, I’m struggling.”
Noting that the first time he’s opened up about his mental health issues publicly was ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Phelps says he doing so again so others know “they’re not alone” — particularly in the midst of all the fear surrounding COVID-19. While sharing his struggles publicly in the past did ease a burden from him, he is battling those “mental health demons now more than ever” because of being “cooped up in a house” and surrounded by “uncertainty.”
“Somebody who doesn’t understand what people with anxiety or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder deal with has no idea,” he says before taking a shot at the media.
“And really, to be blunt, the media is part of that,” he adds. “They dragged me through the dirt for everything I did wrong over the years — and trust me, I know there was plenty.”
“I’m responsible for every mistake I’ve ever made. Nobody else,” he continues. “I’ve gotten help and I ended my career on a high note, so the nice neat story is to put me back on a pedestal. But here’s the reality: I won’t ever be ‘cured.’ This will never go away. It’s something where I’ve had to accept it, learn to deal with it and make it a priority in my life.”
The pandemic, he says, has caught him off guard, and all the questions and fears are “overwhelming” him.
“All the uncertainty. Being cooped up in a house. And the questions. So many questions. When is it going to end? What will life look like when this is over? Am I doing everything I can to be safe? Is my family safe?” he says. “It drives me insane. I’m used to traveling, competing, meeting people. This is just craziness. My emotions are all over the place. I’m always on edge. I’m always defensive. I’m triggered so easily.”
“There are times where I feel absolutely worthless, where I completely shut down but have this bubbling anger that is through the roof,” Phelps adds. “If I’m being honest, more than once I’ve just screamed out loud, ‘I wish I wasn’t me!’ Sometimes there’s just this overwhelming feeling that I can’t handle it anymore. … This is the most overwhelmed I’ve ever felt in my life.”
The Olympian goes on to walk through his standard day, which involves “get[ting] in the gym every day for at least 90 minutes,” which he describes as an “escape” and essential “for my mental health as much as my physical health.” If he misses a day at the gym, “it’s a disaster” which sends him into “a negative pattern of thinking” that often results in a lot of self-blame.
“When that happens day after day, you can put yourself in a scary situation pretty quickly,” he says. “And that’s been this quarantine a lot of the time.” (Read the full op-ed here.)
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