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Mental Illness and the Power of Having Space

March 14, 2018




Interesting Thought: Mental Illness

A few weeks back I mentioned that I had a deeply personal essay in the pipeline with Outside. The essay is on my recent experience with mental illness.

The story ran last Friday, and the response has been utterly overwhelming. 

Perhaps most surprising is the sheer number of people who shared their own similar stories with me. I've received over 300 notes in the last few days, some from folks who are national or even world-class performers at what they do (athletes, coaches, creatives, entrepreneurs). This goes to show that mental illness is more common than most people think, and that the same personality types that fuel relentless drive and performance in productive activities are also prone to conditions like OCD and anxiety. (Probably existential insecurity, too.)  

It's unfortunate that there is still such a stigma around mental illness. The pain of these conditions is bad enough. The additional pain of needing to keep this to oneself or feel ashamed just makes it worse. While I was never personally embarrassed, I did face massive cognitive dissonance and associated distress. I'd get emails as if I was this performance guru with all my shit together, though at times I felt like I was losing my mind. Having this out in the world feels like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I still think I know a good bit about performance, but it's clear that I don't have all my shit together. Which is fine. Because not many people do. 

I'm much better than I was just a few months ago, but still in the healing process. I spent a lot of time discussing all of this with Steve, who isn't just a collaborator, but who has also become a best friend. He reflected on his experience being the whistleblower for doping allegations at Nike's Oregon Project. He said when you put something big out into the public it's easy to feel like you've "done it" and then "declare victory." He warned me not to do this. So I haven't. I'm just focused on getting better. There's nothing to lionize about this experience. It sucks, and every day I feel a bit better is a good day. 

There's not much else to say as prelude. The story is 

I appreciate the continual support. If you or someone you love is suffering, know that you are not alone. If you want to share your story with me, I promise I'll read and respond to every note. 

- Brad




 Coaching Corner: The Power of Having Space


It was June 2002. I was 8 miles into a 16-mile run. Even though it was only 8 am, it was a Houston Summer, which meant blistering heat and humidity. I wanted nothing more than to quit. In any other situation, I might have, but it was an out and back run, which meant someway or other I had to make it 8 miles back home.
A week before I’d decided to ditch the headphones on the solo long runs. Develop mental toughness, I thought. I was now severely regretting that decision. 2-hours is a lot of time in one’s own mind, especially for a 17-year old who distracted himself with video-games, or just about anything, during the down times.
As I searched for something to occupy my mind, beyond the miserableness of the run, I latched onto visualizing races. I pictured the upcoming cross-country courses on which I would compete, the track meets which would meet in the spring, and the athletes whom I would go to battle against. I could see them clearly in my mind, and as I drifted into this alternative universe, my energy levels rose and time past. Soon, it was the last mile of the run, and I was hammering towards my home.
If you venture down to a sports psychologist, they’ll tout the benefits of visualization. The recommendation that accompanies it is to find a quiet place, perhaps a couch or comfortable chair, and let your mind work your way through the upcoming competition. It sounds great in theory until you actually set out to do it, and it becomes torture. Laying there, forcing yourself to go through the anxiety, stress, and pain of racing, all in the comfort of your own living room. For this reason, and many others, high school, and college athletes shy away from this valuable technique.  Who wants to set aside 20 minutes for such a strange and structured task?
Instead, in my opinion, visualization seems to work best when we let it find us. In a
recent podcast, world-class free solo rock climber, Alex Hannold, was asked about his visualization before climbing El Capitan. For years, he’d been dreaming and planning on climbing El Cap without any ropes or assistance. He didn’t use structured visualization though, he created space to allow his mind to find it. A month before his big climb, he deleted all social media off his phone and stopped responding to any e-mails. His goal was simple. He wanted to clear his free time in a hope that his mind would think about the various handholds or grabs on his next climb. In the spaces between, he didn’t want them to be filled with reaching for his phone, but instead for his mind to wander, to grasp onto what was important at that time, his solo climb attempt. Hannold’s plan was to “give myself enough empty time so that my mind would naturally gravitate towards it.”
Whether in Hannold’s deletion of his social media, or my foregoing of music on runs, the empty time in between our “doing” is valuable. We need to create space for us to grasp onto and work our way through what is important.


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