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May 26, 2017

In his words: Ivy League runner chronicles his battle and overcoming depression

Ben Sutherland, a rising senior on the cross-country team at Brown University reached out to Citius Mag with a story that he wanted to share just days after Gabe Proctor took his own life at the age of 27. Sutherland has been battling depression for the past year. What began as a therapeutic exercise resulted in this personal essay about his experiences. 

While battling depression, Sutherland found that there is a lack of personal narratives that chronicled similar experiences from other college athletes. A lack of open discussion and discourse had a detrimental impact on dealing with his problems. 

“I was too embarrassed to share my feelings with my teammates and coaches for fear of being portrayed as weak or soft,” Sutherland says. “I realized that if there were more publicly available stories of people in my shoes then I would have felt more validated and acted sooner. I was initially reluctant to share my experiences, but the tragic death of Gabe Proctor this week has compelled me to try. I hope sharing my experiences can help, if only slightly, to stimulate discourse and help other sufferers out there feel less alone, particularly in the running community.”

This is Ben’s story in his own words.

It was late at night as I walked alone back from the library to my house on the outskirts of campus. I was sad, inexplicably sad. I had no answer for the deep loneliness, the crippling fatigue and the extreme sadness that had come to define my everyday life. As I walked up the street, I looked up and saw a car driving quickly towards me. I thought to myself how easy it would be to walk out in front of it.

I wouldn’t have to deal with this feeling anymore. The disinterest and apathy toward my current existence manifested into this rash idea. Just step into the road and it could be done. Months of torment could be resolved in a split second. I gave this thought far more credence than it deserved. Stood completely still, staring up the street, for a brief moment, I considered taking my life. Fortunately, this impulsive thought was not strong enough to surpass the remnants of my rational thinking and I passively watched the car drive on past me. I continued my slow trudge home, sad, lonely and completely defeated.  I lay in bed that night staring at my ceiling. The depressive fog that had clouded my mind a few hours earlier began to lift. I quickly came to the distressing conclusion that I had an incredibly serious problem which I was swiftly losing control over. Rather, I realized that I could no longer deny the problem that had been eating away at me for months. That one sobering thought was enough for me to begin to take my issues seriously. It didn’t take a genius to extrapolate and realize the terrifying proposition I found myself facing.

I began to notice something was wrong during my summer training. I was unusually tired and irritable and was increasingly reluctant to hang out in large groups. As any distance runner will tell you, fatigue is part of the job and I paid no notice to it. At the time, I wasn’t self-aware enough to fully recognize my desire to withdraw and so this was also disregarded. As the summer progressed, I began experiencing more drastic mood swings. My interpretation at the time was that I was just pissed off, simply overreacting to minor irritation. Soon though, I began to realize that there was no concrete reason for this feeling. It wasn’t something that I could just logically explain away. As time progressed, this feeling became more piercing. The pissed off, irritated feeling was substituted for a deep sadness. The exact feeling is extremely difficult to articulate. It can be best described as a strong sense of loneliness accompanied by a growing desire to be on my own.

By the time school started, the desire to isolate myself had grown to the point that it could no longer go unnoticed by my friends who began asking if I was okay. Confused by what was happening, I just played it off. The assistant coach on the team with whom I maintained a pretty lighthearted and jovial relationship also quickly noticed that something was off. He told me that he thought I was suffering from depression, probably from not being able to run from the insurmountable fatigue I was experiencing at that point. At the time, mental health wasn’t something I gave much credence to and I put his diagnosis down to his Canadian origins. He told the doctor I was seeing about my fatigue that I was depressed, and accordingly the doctor sent me to a shrink. I found it hard to take the sessions seriously.  

It was like something out of a movie; I sat on a couch opposite a woman wearing a forced smile and expressing fake sympathy for my situation. I attended the sessions to humor those around me but I just sat there telling the shrink what she wanted to hear. I refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of mental health, especially that it could be this debilitating.  As a result I kept, at least on the surface, acting like I was fine. Asking for help didn’t even cross my mind.

As time passed my symptoms only got worse. Insomnia exacerbated my fatigue which began to increasingly wear me down. I found it impossible to concentrate on my school work which, given that I already wasn’t the best student, quickly became problematic. The sad feeling was slowly beginning to overcome me. My existence had become a chore. Getting up in the morning was the most challenging part of my day. I lay there at night, staring at my ceiling, wide awake, with my thoughts racing. There were multiple occasions where I messaged my girlfriend late at night, begging her to come over because I was too scared and lonely to be by myself. When she arrived, she would ask me what was wrong and all I could do was shake my head and say “I don’t know.” I was lost and confused, I didn’t know what was going on. I internalized everything and did my best to act like my normal self. I hadn’t told my close friends the full extent of how I was feeling. I was embarrassed to tell ‘the boys’ that I was struggling emotionally, ostensibly for no reason.  Watching the team training and racing without me didn’t help. Running was the centerpiece of my life and its sudden removal left a void which was slowly being filled by this constant feeling of sadness. There were good days and bad days but it was always present to some degree, constantly chipping away at me. I continued to jog but even then there were days where I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t will myself out the door; the prospect of running was too onerous and mentally exhausting. When my coach asked me what was wrong I just pointed to my head and gave him an exasperated look. We desperately ploughed through my training log to try and find answers but we couldn’t. It was slowly becoming clear that there were factors at play aside from the physical toll of training.

One night in the fall, I just cracked. I broke down in tears to my girlfriend. It was 2 AM, I woke her up and just crumbled in her arms, crying uncontrollably. “I feel so on my own” was the only explanation I could muster. I wasn’t on my own, I still knew that on some level but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I desperately searched my consciousness for a reason for my sadness. I couldn’t find one. I was attending an Ivy League university, I was a D1 athlete, I had great friends, a loving and stable family and a caring girlfriend. Objectively my life was great. Yet this sad and lonely feeling persisted. This wasn’t helped by the fact that these feelings came in waves. One or two weeks at a time and they would disappear again. When these feelings left, there were no scars, no bruises, no marks to remind me how I had felt and so helped reassure myself that it wasn’t real, it wasn’t legitimate and I should just be a man about it and stop bringing everyone down with me.

It was becoming apparently obvious that to some extent I was depressed, but I was in denial. My friends pushed me to do something but I resisted. They constantly pestered me and kept my coaches informed about what they were seeing away from practice. The problem still wasn’t clear in my mind, “I’m just being a pussy” I thought to myself, “It will go away eventually, I just have to ride it out”. Some of my friends were having what I deemed, far more serious problems and I felt weak and selfish for attracting progressively more attention from them. Again and again the idea of medication was pushed to me. Aside from being convinced that I didn’t need it, the idea of medication horrified me. It wasn’t because I was worried that it would change me and I wouldn’t be me anymore. It was because I didn’t want the stigma: I didn’t want to be that crazy guy on meds or that ‘pussy’ who is soft and hides behind mental issues to illicit sympathy.

Going home for winter break, my family immediately noticed that something was off. I was never the most outgoing person but the difference was dramatic. I did my best to act like it was all fine but if I couldn’t convince my friends, there was no way I could convince my family. They began to ask what was going on and slowly but surely I began to describe my experiences from the semester. This was the first time that I seriously articulated and admitted to myself that I was depressed. My family assumed that it was because I hadn’t been able to run and that I was frustrated. I knew it was much deeper than this, less explicable and more ingrained but it didn’t really matter. They were very receptive and supportive and coupled with far more rest, a relaxed environment and an improved diet, I slowly began feeling like my old self.

Returning from break, things started to deteriorate once again. This was when I hit rock bottom. Still unable to sleep from the fatigue, I lay awake at night wondering why I was going on like this. I felt like I was burden to those who were close to me, I felt like I was bringing them down with me.  I was so worn down by the constant fatigue, the inability to sleep and what at this point, had become crippling sadness. I started to think how easy it would be if I could just disappear. What if it could all stop so I wouldn’t have to go on like this? I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. Suicidal ideation pushed itself closer and closer to the forefront of my mind. It is a very hard feeling to exactly describe. It certainly wasn’t rational and calculated but much more of an impulse. A jerk reaction to my emotional predicament. It was in the midst of this haze that I found myself walking up Thayer Street. I saw the headlights of the car moving down the road towards me through the darkness. I thought how easy it would be to step out in front of it. It could all be over, it could all stop. Fortunately, the impulse wasn’t strong enough for me to act on. A couple of hours later as I came out that particular depressive episode I realized I had to actually do something. The terrifying realization that if I didn’t do anything I might end up seriously harmed or dead spurred me into action.


Photo by Michael Scott, courtesy of Ben Sutherland

I didn’t tell anybody about these thoughts but I went back to the doctor and was immediately prescribed anti-depressants. I was still incredibly reluctant to take them, clinging on to the last semblance of my perceived masculine pride. It took me about two weeks and constant encouragement from people around me to start taking the meds. I started taking the talk therapy far more seriously, rather than giving the shrink what she wanted to hear I began to actually talk about my problems. Things slowly began to look up. It wasn’t an immediate fix: probably better described as a progressively better management of my condition. After about a month I was making noticeable progress. I began to run again, I was functioning normally and I was motivated to study: harboring newly found ambitions for law school.

Reflecting back on this dark part of my life, it is hard to believe that I let it get so bad when help was so accessible the entire time. After much internal reflection it is pretty clear that this denial and neglect of the feelings I was experiencing came from the masculine ideals that I aspired to. I am from a military family. Both my Dad and Grandad served in the armed forces so growing up my male role models epitomized manliness. Dinner table conversation in my household centers around track and boxing rather than intellectual or philosophical discussion. This perception was instilled further through five years at English boarding school, a hierarchical system where chasing women and top notch banter were prioritized over ‘feelings’.  It was drilled into my head that men had to be hard. Being upset or showing signs of weakness was deemed as “being a pussy” and discouraged. I did my best to fit this mold, often finding myself embroiled in fights on the rugby pitch or in night clubs.

For me running embodied this ideal. One of my first idols in running was Emil Zatopek, a man who didn’t believe in a pain threshold and bore a grimace on his face from the moment the gun went. This attitude made me into a successful athlete. I wasn’t always the most talented guy in the race but I refused to lose to someone because they were tougher than me. For me running was the ultimate test of will, in order to win you had to push yourself harder than anyone in workouts and be able to take more pain than anybody else in a race. This mentality served me well on the track and in many other aspects of life. However, this tunnel vision, the ability to ignore suffering and the deep rooted reluctance to yield to it, combined with an old fashioned view of what it meant to be a man ultimately did me a great a great disservice when I found myself confronting depression. I didn’t give my suffering the credit it deserved and I came pretty close to some disastrous consequences. I was embarrassed to tell my friends and family what I was going through because it was something I wasn’t supposed to be dealing with, or something I should just deal with by myself. I thought I was tougher than my condition, that I could beat it by on my own with mental fortitude and resilience.

I didn’t tell anyone until writing this piece that the idea of taking my life crossed my mind, not the doctor, not the shrink, no one. That was the ultimate embarrassment, the idea that I was mentally unstable or too weak to handle it. As a man, asking for help was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took me far too long and ultimately I needlessly suffered on my own.

I am not fully cured but I am managing myself much better with medication, regular appointments at psychological services and avoiding stressful situations and alcohol when I can. I now understand how it is that people come to end their lives as a result of depression. It wears you down and if you don’t get help it can become insufferable extremely quickly. It is not hard to imagine a situation where I might not have bounced back from this. If it wasn’t for the support system of my close friends, teammates and family who were constantly there for me throughout this ordeal despite my efforts to isolate myself, its likely things would have been much worse. It’s a crazy thought, but they probably saved my life.  I owe them all: my family, the Brown cross country coaching staff who were incredibly understanding and accommodating, my close friends who constantly checked in on me: Mike, Dan, Sheila, Smiz, Jmann and everybody else on the Brown team.

However, not everyone manages to rebound. Being a part of the Heps distance running community, I was particularly hit by the recent death of Hale Ross. I can’t help but feel that if there was a more open discussion about these issues that these instances could be prevented in the future.

The recent passing of Gabe Proctor provides another example of just how real and damaging depression can be. There is something about the mind of an endurance athlete: an innate craziness that urges us to train twice a day and masochistically beat ourselves into the ground for what are objectively very arbitrary goals. It seems these traits that predispose us to excel as athletes also leave us especially vulnerable to mental health problems. These issues are incredibly prevalent, particularly in the high pressure environments student athletes often find themselves. Every time that somebody in our running community tragically loses their battle with depression there is an outpouring of emotion and an acknowledgement of the severity of mental health problems. However, when normality resumes these issues are sidelined again. There is a massive disconnect between mental-health related deaths and the emphasis that is put on discussing, treating and managing mental health issues. This is particularly true for young men, especially athletes who find themselves adopting contradictory mindsets which embrace the ideals of toughness and resilience.  

Nico Composto wrote a great piece a few years ago for Letsrun about his experiences with OCD, but for the most part there are very few personal stories of athletes suffering from mental health issues out there. I don’t have the answers to these problems, far from it, but I think a more open and honest discussion of these issues is a good place to start. This would help to alleviate the stigma that surrounds mental health and make help more accessible.  

I have no doubt that if I had read or heard an account of another person in the same shoes as me that it would have validated my experiences and encouraged me to act sooner. In my attempt to recount my experiences, I hope I can in some small way, encourage someone out there to seek help sooner. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it is one of the bravest things you can do. It has taken me a long time but I feel I can now open up about my experiences and it is my sincerest hope that everybody else out there can too.

If you need help or knows someone that does, don’t wait. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800- 273-8255) offers free and confidential support for people in distress 24 hours a day.

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