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A COVID point of view: a pro athlete's take on suicide & how success isn't the same from the inside

Came across this poignant essay written last week by Atlanta Falcon tight end Hayden Hurst. As I read it, I was reminded of just how easily and powerfully our minds imprison us, how our decisions about our situation, about our own feelings, determine our achievements - as much if not more than do our material circumstances. Hurst writes about how his struggles with mental health impacted his career and nearly ended his life. Despite incredible talent, his mind distorted his self-image. These distortions destroyed a promising career in baseball, and nearly his career in football, too. A scary suicide attempt finally pushed him to make a powerful change in how he would allow himself to imagine others might see him. (Give the guy credit for eloquence, too - he starts by writing that he couldn't possibly explain a suicide attempt in five minutes, but actually, it took about that long to read his essay; I not only felt I understood, I was impressed.)

Similarly, I have been struck with people's reactions to the COVID-19 crisis. As I talk with kids and adults stuck at home, as I've read the news, and followed social media, it's hard not to notice how people's perceptions of being forced to stay at home, not the requirement itself, determine how they feel. Pretty much everyone feels some combination of lonely (of course), pissed (naturally), or longing (understandably) for the freedom just to choose where to be. Yet other feelings, under the exact same, strange circumstances, are so different. Some people feel defeated, some feel relief. Some people see an opportunity to accomplish, some an opportunity to pitch in, some a good reason to mope. Some people feel isolated, some feel creative, or compelled to connect, or to be silly. Some feel gratitude, some feel a sad satisfaction at having predicted correctly that life would find another way to screw them over. As you might imagine, being lonely, anxious, or bored is different if your mind tells you everyone else is in the same boat, compared to your mind telling you you have no right to complain because everyone else is in the same boat.

Shaming oneself for feeling upset long predates COVID-19, of course. Many do it because their life "looks good on paper." Whether they are athletic, wealthy, popular, attractive, or all of the above, they can't let themselves have the reactions that they have, they judge their feelings as incompatible with how life looks from the outside, and thus unallowable. Sadly, I see and hear the same thing even among people with few resources, among families struggling to make it from one month to the next. This criticism of one's own emotional experience doesn't just exacerbate their mental illness, it's usually a central component.

Luckily, just like seeing yourself in the same boat as other people can cut both ways, the fact that we imprison ourselves with such judgments is both the bad news and the good news. How good news, you ask? It's good news because if our current suffering and unhappiness arose from COVID-19 or from government policy, there wouldn't be a heck of a lot we could do to feel better. It's good news because knowing that we imprison ourselves means we do actually have a say in how our isolation feels and turns out. So the next time you're looking wistfully out the window, or at a photo, or daydreaming of when life goes back to normal, remember that you get to feel whatever you want, and you get to decide where those feelings take you.


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