Nadia Popov: ‘Mental illness left me guilt-ridden’

Nadia Popov: ‘Mental illness left me guilt-ridden’

‘I would collapse into my bed with tears streaming down my face until I awoke to do it all again,' says Canadian rugby player

By Nadia Popov for CBC Sports
January 5, 2017
Canadian rugby player Nadia Popov, left, was diagnosed with mental illness a year before the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Ron LeBlanc/via Rugby Canada) Canadian rugby player Nadia Popov, left, was diagnosed with mental illness a year before the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Ron LeBlanc/via Rugby Canada)

This is the first of a three-part series where high-performance athletes discuss their battles with mental illness, an affliction that affects millions of Canadians.

It was one of the most difficult moments in my life.

Years of training, competing and representing my country couldn’t have prepared me for the nerves I felt standing there in that hallway. I wish I could say that hallway was in a rugby stadium in Rio de Janeiro, but it wasn’t.

My journey wasn’t meant to end on a podium. I was standing in the hallway of a therapist’s office, a year before the Olympic Games, about to learn that I was one of the one in five Canadians who experience mental illness in their lifetime.

I was lucky enough to be one of 24 women who trained together full time in the lead-up to Rio, and I enjoyed three incredible years as part of the national women’s sevens program. Alongside the countless battles I faced on the field, from daily training, to World Series events and the 2015 Pan American Games, I was also fighting a personal battle deep within myself.

It was shortly after winning gold at the Pan Am Games that I began making a list of everything that could stand in my way of earning a spot on the Olympic roster the following summer. My mind quickly went from, “I need to improve my pass accuracy,” to “Who are you kidding? You don’t deserve to be an Olympian. Making the Pan Am team was a fluke. Everyone will soon realize how weak and pathetic you are.”

Fighting with these negative thoughts all day at training left me exhausted. By the time I got home I would collapse into my bed with tears streaming down my face, and remain there until I awoke the next morning to do it all again.

I could hardly bring myself to cook dinner every night, and everyday things like doing laundry felt like an insurmountable task (this despite living in a house where the laundry machine was LITERALLY in my bedroom). I was functioning well enough to perform every day at training, and to do so with a smile most days, but on the inside I was falling apart.

The guilt I felt for feeling this prevented me from reaching out sooner, even though I had been dealing with these symptoms on and off since I transitioned to the centralized training program when I was 19. At first, the feelings of hopelessness and emotional turmoil would surface during stressful setbacks, like rehabbing a pair of stress fractures in my legs, but by the fall of the Olympic year the darkness remained even when everything was going right.

I loved training every day, I loved rugby, and I was highly motivated to becoming the best player and teammate I could be, but none of this brought me happiness anymore. I was empty inside.

My heart was full of guilt for being filled with sadness while living the life I’d always wanted. I had teammates who were separated from their parents who were fighting cancer; who was I to be sad and depressed? But I was at a point where I hated myself for every dropped ball, every missed tackle, every non selection, even though I knew deep down that this was unhealthy.

Being frustrated and motivated by mistakes is one thing, but feeling worthless as a human being for these failures was another. Finally, after nearly two years of suffering alone in silence, I began seeing a therapist at the referral from our team’s sport psychologist, and I took the first steps toward healing. It was the best decision I ever made.

Clara Hughes' mental health battle inspires Popov.
Popov was part of the women's team that won gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.

Diagnosis and treatment plan

With a diagnosis and a treatment plan, I finally felt like I was capable of making the changes I needed in my personal life to find myself and my inner joy again. Most importantly, I began to accept that the way I was feeling wasn’t my fault, that I wasn’t a failure for lacking “mental toughness.”

I was sick, and I was going to get better. I worked hard to develop mindfulness so that I could start identifying my triggers and develop an understanding of how my depression operated.

In the same way that you can feel a cold coming on, I’ve learned to sense when a depressive episode is on its way. When the darkness threatens to take hold, I make an extra effort to connect with friends, spend time in nature and check in with people I trust.

This doesn’t make my depression disappear, but staying engaged and connected with the world helps to soften the impact of my symptoms and allows me to continue living my life until the clouds begin to clear.

In the six months leading up to Rio, I realized that I needed an ally in the daily training environment. Since my diagnosis, I had been relying too much on my partner, my therapist, and friends who were across the country in Ontario, when I also needed someone who understood what I was going through while I was at training every day.

The first teammate that I opened up to was my roommate, Karen Paquin, and I found comfort knowing that she was always there to talk to at the end of a difficult day.

Popov, left, makes a constant effort to remain engaged with friends. (Derek Stevens/via Rugby Canada) Popov, left, makes a constant effort to remain engaged with friends. (Derek Stevens/via Rugby Canada)

I also relied on my strength and conditioning coach, Dana, who quickly learned when to make me laugh and when I needed to be left alone to get through my workout. By the end of my time in national team program, I’d assembled my own little army to support my battle with depression, but I still kept my struggles hidden from the rest of my teammates and staff.

I still feared the stigma of mental illness in sport and how it would affect my teammates' and coaches’ opinions of me, and, quite frankly, I didn’t want to bring everyone down.

As an athlete, we tend to view mental toughness and mental health as synonymous. It’s drilled into us early on that resilience and mental fortitude are what separates the champions from the rest.

While this is most certainly important, it doesn’t leave much room for athletes who are experiencing mental health issues to feel comfortable talking about it, and this creates the isolation that mental illness thrives on.

It’s time that we address mental health in sport the same way we emphasize strength and conditioning, nutrition, physiotherapy, and video analysis.

Creating an environment where athletes feel safe to talk about mental health with teammates and coaches is key to identifying at-risk athletes early and giving them the tools to reach their full potential.

Amidst the temptation to classify each athlete as a combination of their physical attributes and performance statistics, we need to remember that every athlete is a human being above all else.

Popov is reminded every day that living with mental illness requires finding the right balance. (Ron LeBlanc/via Rugby Canada) Popov is reminded every day that living with mental illness requires finding the right balance. (Ron LeBlanc/via Rugby Canada)

Pressures of competing

Not every athlete will experience mental illness, but if you’re on a team of more than five people, statistically, someone you know will. Every athlete, every coach, every support team member can admit to a point where their mental health suffered as a result of their role in sport, even if this didn’t lead to a diagnosable illness.

The pressures of competing and working at a high level require a special kind of commitment and dedication, and sometimes that impacts your personal life. By improving our understanding of mental health in sport, and its uniqueness from the discipline of sport psychology, we will ensure that all athletes and coaches have the education and awareness to reach their full potential.

Taking control of my mental health allowed me to endure the heartbreak that came with failing to achieve my Olympic dream. By the time selections were announced, I was finally in a place where I knew that even though rugby was the most important thing in my life, it wasn’t the only thing I had to be proud of as a person. Today, I’m taking some time off from the national team to finish my university degree, and I’m in the process of discovering who I am without a full-time commitment to sport.

Every day, I’m reminded that living with mental illness requires an intentional commitment to finding your own balance. It’s about learning when to push yourself beyond what you feel capable of, and when to allow yourself to rest and just be. It requires a lot of self-love and patience, but prioritizing mental health has helped to make my depressive episodes fewer and farther between.

When they do arise, I do my best to get out of bed and go for coffee with that friend I planned to see, and I’m almost always glad I did. But there are times the exhaustion of fighting with my own brain becomes too much, and I allow myself to reschedule plans and be alone for a night. And that’s okay. The sun always rises the next morning, I drink my coffee, and I tackle the new day.

It’s okay to not be okay all the time. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to someone you trust, whether it’s a friend, family member or your doctor. Taking that first step is hard, but believe me, it is worth it, and you are worth it. We all have a role to play in making sure no one has to battle mental illness on their own.

Living with mental illness isn’t easy, but with the right support, self-love and the patience to persevere, it becomes just another challenge to overcome in the pursuit of a dream, no matter what that dream may be.

(Large photos courtesy Getty Images and Ron LeBlanc/via Rugby Canada)

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