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“The Swimmer”

Written by: Brittany Johnson Todd, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

A personal story highlighting the need for increased mental health awareness, requirements, and resources for athletes, their family members, and their organizations.


Athlete mental health is in its own pandemic. Too many athletes have taken their life, and a shocking number within the past few years have died by suicide. A number of athletes have recently come forward about their silent struggles with mental illness and response to pressures. These athletes are taking a stand to speak up for increased mental health resources, begging for change to be implemented immediately so more lives are not lost.

As a former elite swimmer myself, NCAA and US Olympic Trial athlete, I too have had my own intense and detrimental mental health struggles that went unnoticed, ignored, passed over, and/or undiagnosed for too long. When my athletic career came to a screeching halt due to multiple factors while swimming in college, it quickly became apparent I desperately needed help, support, and professional mental health interventions. In this article, I am sharing the story of my journey and experience in a vulnerable effort to continue to give voice to the incredible and imperative need for increased mental health care and support in the athlete and student-athlete world.


My Story (the “cliff notes”)


At this current place in my life, I am happy to confidently express I have finally made a new “name” / identity for myself outside of just “Brittany, the swimmer.” I am now a mother, a wife, mental health advocate, and the owner of a successful counseling and wellness practice. But, once upon a time all people knew me as and associated my character in general with was tied to the sport of swimming and my performance. “Hi, I am Brittany, ‘the swimmer’” was a normal introduction for me when meeting new people and making connections. Swimming was my entire identity for the majority of my adolescent and teenage years.


Everything revolved around swimming ‒ schoolwork, class schedules, other recreational sports, social events, friends and family, etc. Swimming always took first priority always, no matter what, even over my physical and mental health. I would attend club practice before and after school, sometimes participating in high school cross country or high school swim team in between club practices, attending weight training/dryland workouts, or occasionally squeezing in some sort of social and academic homework event. It was all a lot, it was always a lot. Overwhelming often, but also exhilarating.


Lifestyle


I was acclimated and conditioned to overload my schedule and multitask, to embrace “busy” and even value that lifestyle. I remember sliding study sheets in plastic bags and memorizing the content during kick sets or during set breaks at club practice. I would exhaust myself daily by burning my candle at every end. What I was unaware of at this time in life was my later mental health diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar Disorder is a mental health condition characterized by extreme mood swings that include emotional and energetic highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). What I didn’t know was that because of the way Bipolar Disorder manifested in my brain, I could exist in a hypomanic state most of the time, especially when constantly fueled by swimming and the challenges it presented (in conjunction with heavy doses of adrenaline and endorphins) which put me at risk for a multitude of issues both physical and mental.


Of course, what I also experienced were low moods, depressive periods that I brushed off as fatigue from over-training periods, and occasional possible burnout. But what I never mentioned was the fact that those lower moods hurt and left me feeling very sad, scared, and sometimes hopeless. Swimming was always something I seemed to be able to do whether I was feeling high or low in my mood; it was a role I played easily and I knew so well. Swimming was more than my outlet, it was an extension of myself. I was good at it and I knew that ‒ I truly loved the sport.


Looking back it is easy to see that when I was at swim meets I existed mostly in what we as mental health professionals call a “productive hypomania phase.” I felt invincible, alive, amazing, confident as if I was “the best” etc. Teammates and spectators later told me I walked around the pool deck like I was “the shit”‒ honestly, that’s because I did think that, I felt that way. I loved the atmosphere, the way the water felt, the sounds, the smells, and the anticipation of performance and pain from exertion. I swam my best in hypomania of course. If I felt depressed or down I struggled to perform well. This became very apparent during my college swimming career. I didn't piece together this equation until it all ended and things began to make sense over time.


Flip Turn


My swimming career ended 17 years ago this October. I pushed off the wall, my shoulder dislocated, and it all ended ‒ came crashing down. The instant it happened I knew it was over but had a hard time admitting it and an even harder time accepting my swimming career had come to an end. I wasn't ready. I knew this particular injury was bad since at this point it was only 1 year after my last shoulder surgery on the same shoulder. I had just come back from surgery earlier that year and I knew I had stressed my body, I was aware, aware but in denial, completely unstoppable, but heartbroken at the same time.


The Beginning Of The End


Let’s backtrack a bit so you have some background. After my first shoulder surgery in the fall of 2004, it was expected by the surgeon, trainers, and coaches that I would make a full recovery and swim at the same level I had been prior. Before I was able to get back in the water, I initially gained some weight. This was anxiety-producing because I had always been thin and fit. Therefore, as soon as I could start working out and swimming again I went in full force, striving to compensate for missed yardage with excessive dryland workouts, kick sets, and running. By the summer of 2005, I was training 8 hours minimum a day and barely eating. Stressing my body to the extreme, overtraining to meet performance expectations. I restricted my food, counted calories, and purged with laxatives. I was determined to be thin and move through the water faster than ever. Because as I had been asked earlier that year by a coach ‒ “What moves faster in the water a paddle boat or a canoe?”


I came back to school that fall of 2005, very thin, my body was undernourished. It is obvious to me now that I had been in a hypomanic phase all summer, and moving at what seemed to be the speed of 100 mph all the time. I was out of control as was my eating disorder, and I had no intention of changing my new habits as I was hyper-focused to make a “come back” post-surgery to have an amazing season. I continued these behavior patterns through the start of the season and the 2004-2005 academic year. That was until the flip turn that ended my career that October of 2005. Like I said earlier, this was when I knew it was all over, I pushed off the wall from my flip turn and as my arm went into a streamline, my shoulder dislocated. It slid back in almost immediately and though I stopped the set at that exact moment due to intense pain, I did not tell anyone what had happened or communicate my level of pain; instead, I chose to vertical kick and push through, convincing myself it would be okay ‒ it had to be right?


Career-Ending


The next day, our team was leaving for an away meet but had an “optional workout” prior to getting on the charter bus. I continued my unhealthy behaviors, keeping my pain to myself, and kicking the practice to “rest” my shoulder. I was terrified to let down my teammates and coaches with an injury again. The reality was that at this point I could not even put my shirt on or carry anything without my shoulder sliding in and out and spasming. I was scared and frustrated and was hoping it would just go away. I went to the meet anyway but did not make it past warm-ups before I had to stop in the middle of the pool it was as if my shoulder would not even work and excruciating pain was shooting down my arm. It was over.


From there I had a decision to make, do I push more and try to continue swimming, or stop and take care of my body? This time they did not do surgery right away. But x-rays and MRIs showed bursitis, another tear, and my ulnar nerve was out of place. At first, I chose to wait it out. I went home for a long weekend and that's when I realized that if or when I stopped swimming my parents might love me less. This was terrifying. It would change all of our lives forever. The thought of “If I can’t swim then am I worthy to even be alive?” regularly circled in my brain. In November 2005 I sat down with our head coach and made the official decision to put a period at the end of my time in the sport. My heart was broken, I had no closure, and I was devastated. This series of events changed everything and set into motion a mental illness I was barely aware of at the time, and though previously diagnosed with possible Bipolar Disorder, I was very much in denial. A part of me truly believed I deserved to feel the way I felt though, I thought, “Who am I without swimming anyway?” in my mind I had failed. Failed me, my team, my coaches, and my parents.


Lost & Struggling


Following the end of my career as an athlete, I completely lost myself, I had no idea who I was without being “Brittany ‘the swimmer.” I immediately began demonstrating codependent behaviors with males and their attention, partying constantly with both drugs and alcohol, and feeling dangerously depressed behind the scenes. My behavior was erratic, impulsive, and unpredictable. I quickly began bouncing from deep depression to destructive hypomania frequently and with great intensity. I was an emotional and behavioral disaster, destroying many relationships and isolating myself from anything that involved swimming and my former teammates. The next year of my life is a blur of actual mania partying, over-working, over-exercising, drinking, and lying to loved ones, hypersexuality, impulsivity, and very little sleep.


I am not even sure when I came back down to earth or if I just skipped that part and plummeted into depression hitting the bottom hard. I do not remember much of this time honestly, so much of that time is a blur of gray and black in my memories. My boyfriend took me to the hospital at some point during these episodes as I was harming myself, dissociating, and having intense suicidal intrusive thoughts. I wasn’t admitted into care, though in hindsight I should have been, however, this was the moment I accepted I was struggling greatly and needed professional help. It became clear that I had to make some changes, I was not okay and had not been in a very long time.


Mental Health Matters


Why my mental health was something that had never been directly addressed and seriously treated prior to getting to this state, and why no one, especially my coaches and trainers intervened when I was demonstrating such destructive behaviors and habits, I will never fully understand. What I do know for sure is that as athletes we are pushed past our limits physically and mentally, we have held to the highest standards as well as an expectation of what seems closely like perfection. The pressure to perform is intense, the pressure to train often even heavier, and the supports outside those pressures are primarily associated with meeting the aforementioned expectations, not designed with any focus on mental health.


The theme of “buck up” and keep pushing is a loop in the heads of too many athletes, and the fear of failure is haunting. Therefore, we push, we ignore basic needs and warning signs, we put our sport first, and we play to win. But somewhere in there, and all too frequently we lose ourselves and the sight of what is most important our health. I lost myself and more toward the end of my swimming career, and then after it all ended I spiraled and fell apart because I did not have the skills and treatment I needed to support myself and my health. Something that I loved so much almost destroyed me because I did not prioritize myself and I lost sight of my “why” behind my drive and passion for swimming.


Life Today


Today, I am healthy. I am medicated and certainly practiced what I preach between coping strategies, mood management, and regular therapy. I have finally forgiven myself and the sport of swimming, though it took some time and deep therapeutic work. Not having closure after all of those dedicated years was difficult, and not having a “last practice” or a “last meet” was devastating. For too long a part of me blamed myself for what happened because I was not taking care of myself. I often wondered, did I give up? Did I really need the second surgery and third surgeries I had 6 months after I stopped swimming? Did I “quit” or did it have to end? Did I fail? I now clearly understand I was mentally unhealthy which certainly lead to great physical unhealthy and many unhealthy habits, there was nothing I could have done at that point to stop what happened to me with the lack of resources I was offered at the time.


Awareness & Change


Through sharing my story I am hopeful I can help prevent this from happening to other athletes, and if anything give them a resource to know they are not alone. I want you to know that I loved swimming with my whole heart, and I still do. It will always have a special place in my life as all the sport offered me over the years was incredible, priceless even. I will forever be grateful for all the experiences and memories, the friends and coaches, and countless bathing suits! I certainly would not be who I am and where I am today if things had gone differently, however, I am here to tell you that mental health is SO important and it is getting more than overlooked in the world of athletics. Something has to change NOW.


To all my fellow athletes Don’t lose yourself. You are more than your sport, you are more than a number, a time, a stat, a grade. You are more than an athlete. You are a friend, a family member, a daughter, a son, an artist, a writer, a listener and so much more. You are someone's smile and laugh, you are unique, you are talented, you are worthy and most importantly you are LOVED. Never forget “why” you love your sport, and why you show up daily for yourself, your team, your coaches, and the sport itself. Stay connected to this “why” every, single, day. Prioritize your self-care, your mental and physical health, and your identity outside of being an athlete.


You are important. You matter. And your mental health matters, it’s that simple. Love, Brittany


Emergency Hotlines:

Mobile Crisis Management Services: (866) 275-9552 (Forsyth County)

National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-784-2433

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (24/7)

National Self Harm Hotline: 1-800-DONT-CUT (266-8288)

Hope4NC Hotline: 855-587-3463 (24/7)


Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


 

Brittany Johnson Todd, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Brittany Todd, Founder, and CEO of B Balanced Counseling & Wellness and Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, exudes a strong passion and purpose for the promotion of mental health awareness, support, and collaborative comprehensive care and treatment of diagnoses. Originally from Winston – Salem, NC, Brittany Todd was an elite swimmer for the Winston ‒ Salem YMCA and for the University of Florida. As a driven student-athlete, Brittany participated in the US Swimming Olympic Trials in 2000/2004 and competed in NCAA’s. Throughout this time, Brittany faced multiple mental health obstacles which continue to drive her passion in the field today. Brittany graduated from UF in 2007 to then achieve graduate degrees in Clinical Psychology | Clinical Counseling through Walden University. Brittany opened B Balanced Counseling in 2019.


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