Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 9/17/15
From Temple University
Kara Stroup, a Garnet Valley alum, is a senior defender on the Temple lacrosse team. She is a leader with a strong work ethic, is passionate about the sport, and always ready with a smile. Kara has started in all 49 games in her Temple career, twice ranking among the top three on the team in caused turnovers. To know Kara on the surface is to have no idea of what she’s been through, but such is the nature of mental illness. In telling her story, Kara hopes to help others find the strength to get help that eluded her for so long.
Last week, September 6-12, was National Suicide Prevention Week. I’m sure you have seen the links shared by people on your various social media feeds that serve as the way to shed light on the topic of suicide. The stories shared make it real, but even though we have been educated about mental health and told that the conversation is an okay one to have, there is still that hesitation to talk about it, especially before it’s too late.
I am currently a senior on the Temple lacrosse team studying psychology, and I think a story that really hit home with me and many of my peers was the story of Madison Holleran, the University of Pennsylvania freshman runner who committed suicide last year. Collegiate athletes are known for being mentally tough enough to manage their course work, athletic schedule, and personal lives. Just like every other student or person for that matter, some days are harder than others, and I think people have a really hard time asking for help, myself included. I love how the article about Madison addressed the fact that even though on the outside everything can seem perfect, the inside can be totally different. Mental health does not discriminate. Many people, if not everyone, have been touched in one way or another by the impact of suicide and mental health issues, but it is still not something that is easily understood or forgiven. Just because you may not be able to see it does not mean that it is not real; it is as real as any other illness. The thing about the stories we hear is that they are often about someone who has already taken their life. It is rare to hear someone speak out about a struggle of their own, and I think that comes with the fear of acknowledging this perceived weakness that comes along with mental health issues.
Usually I would just share the articles and posts on Facebook or discuss the topic with small groups of people, but today that’s not good enough for me. Today, I feel responsible to speak out about my personal journey with the goal to provide someone out there with some hope to hold onto. I know it’s scary, but speak up and let someone help you. If I could just help one person find the courage to get the help they aren’t asking for, this will be worth it.
In August of 2011 I had just turned 18. I was in the midst of my last summer preseason playing field hockey at Garnet Valley High School, and I had the weight of knowing where I was going to college off of my shoulders, verbally committing to Temple following my junior season where we had won the school’s first-ever PA state title. My next adventure was in sight, less than a year away, and I had it all together, right? Wrong.
One day after my 18th birthday, after weeks of fighting with myself, I finally told my mom that I had been hiding an eating disorder that had cycled on and off for seven years, the words coming out of my mouth as I uncomfortably smiled, not wanting her to think that I wasn’t okay. I was okay. I was always okay. There was just this little secret that nobody knew I had that I didn’t feel like dealing with anymore, no need to panic.
Honestly, part of me wished I could take the words back because after I put it out there, it became real to someone other than me. I hated the idea that I would be burdening my mom with problems that I thought I should have been able to deal with on my own. I hated that I was recognizing my own inability to take care of myself properly, which I perceived as weakness, when I was someone who was supposed to embody health. Even though I felt this discomfort about being honest, the thing I hate most is how long it took me to say something because the moment I did was the moment that saved my life. I was no longer alone.
Following days of me telling my family members and friends the truth, I went to an eating disorder clinic to be evaluated. Not a single soul had any idea, and that was of my own doing. My extreme love for exercise, curiosity about different diets, and my run until you throw up mentality were masked by the great athlete they saw. What athlete doesn’t strive for perfection? The specialist recommended intensive outpatient therapy which would consist of me going to the clinic three times a week after school, missing field hockey entirely on those days. There was no way to dodge the meeting of my worlds. Compartmentalizing was off the table.
As a captain, you are supposed to lead, to be someone to look up to, and the idea that I was not as strong as people thought, tore me up on the inside. When I rationalized this thought, I knew that it was the opposite. I knew that keeping silent would have been easier. The hope that if people knew I was working on something so personal, that if sharing could help make it okay for other people to admit struggle, was something that motivated me because if I could help one of those girls speak up, it was worth it to me. So, I talked to the team, telling them why I would be missing practices and games, assuring not only them, but myself as well, that it is normal for people to go through hard times where you need help, and so it began.
I started with my intensive outpatient program, working on the way I handled everyday life as I learned more and more about myself, my real self. The real work came after I spoke up because taking an honest look at my reflection was certainly not easy after I had buried so much. When you address the unhealthy coping skills that are not working for you anymore, you are put in a situation where you have to not only develop new ones, but use them instead of the unhealthy skills that you have always relied on. It’s like having to learn to use your non-dominant hand or change up a footwork pattern you’ve relied on your whole life. Coach is in your ear trying to break your habit because they know that once you get it, you’ll be so much better, but all you can think of is how you’re messing up trying it and you’re not as fast because you need more practice. Things got ugly.
Everything I had ever buried started to come out of me. I opened up about another secret that I had. There were times when I would get these suicidal impulses. It’s not that I wanted to hurt myself; it was just that all of a sudden out of nowhere my brain would tell me to do things that would end up hurting me or ending my life. To help, I was put on a mix of medication to ease my anxiety and the impulses, but then it became intolerable. The ideation got worse, becoming obsessive, and the impulsive thoughts would not leave me alone. Self-harm instances like cutting started to occur more often, taking the edge away from the suicidal ideation, but on one night in November, the impulses had overwhelmed me to the point where my family did not feel like I could be kept safe. I was crawling out of my skin. My family took me to the ER.
The thing about mental health is that the person’s perception of reality is skewed. The brain, an organ just like the heart or liver, when not functioning properly, requires medical intervention. A person does not need an event or a tragic story for why they are depressed or for why they want to hurt themselves. You could have everything in the world, and it would not matter. It is a medical issue just like diabetes or cancer. Terms like selfish and crazy are adjectives used to describe the symptoms and actions of those who are suffering by people who are in need of an educational wake-up call because there is absolutely no reason to publicly voice that kind of ignorance, in my opinion. Some people, not all, are less empathetic to the problems they cannot see or understand, and that is where the negative stigma comes from that keeps so many people from speaking up and getting the help they need, but I am here telling you right now that the best way to increase your chances of overcoming your demons is to use your voice. That cannot be emphasized enough. Tell someone.
I ended up spending seven days in the inpatient psych unit, allowing my medication to balance out, giving me the time I needed to stabilize. Not an ounce of me wanted to stay there that long, but family and friends kept my eyes on just getting better each day one step at a time, providing me with the hope that things would get better, that light to hold onto. The moment I was released, I was so happy that I had gotten over the one mountain in my life that everyone has at one point, that one big event. I had gotten over my mountain with enough time to get myself back to some sense of normal, all things considered, in time for lacrosse season, the goal of another gold medal in the eyes of the team. While slowly transitioning back into school, I was safe, but I was still balancing out. Outpatient therapy became as routine as getting on the line at practice, serving as one of those parts of my life that I didn’t love but knew would help in the long run, or so they told me.
Lacrosse season began with the start of spring, and then I was put on another medication. In less than a week, I had become depressed, something I had never experienced before. Even with the great life I had, the many people who loved and supported me, and a bright future, my brain told me that I wanted to die. Not telling anyone around me what I was experiencing, in denial that I was off-balance again, I kept pushing on with everyday life. Relapsing was not my biggest fear because I had not thought it was possible. I had already gotten over my one mountain in my lifetime, right? Breaking down after I played the absolute worst lacrosse game of my life, I told my coaches, family, and friends that I was drowning again, another perceived failure in my role as a leader.
Sitting down with my mom after the game, I verbalized the only two options that I saw as possible outcomes for what my life would be since I could not keep going with the one I had. Option one was move to Florida to start a completely new life with my mom. Option two was that in the event that option one was not on the table, I wanted to end my life. It sounds ridiculous to me now, but that is how upside down my reality was, and it was as real as the air you are breathing this very moment. Complete hopelessness is something that I have never felt before. Even writing down everything I had in my life and everything in my future that I had to look forward to, the hopelessness swallowed all the light in me, but I made them promise that I would not be sent back to the hospital until I had a plan to act on my ideations. No more than two days later, I was talking to my friend in the parking lot about how, “I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” and after she dropped me off, she warned my twin sister, Kate, to watch me. When Kate found me in my room, I was losing my grip again. I had just finished writing my final letter, and as strong as I always want to be and as proud of a person I am, a person’s pride comes second to their personal safety because at that point I was in no shape to make any decisions on my own. After reading the letter, my family made the decision for me, seeing the only way I was to be kept safe was to return back to the place I never thought I would see again.
Cue the second trip to the ER. This time we packed a bag. As I was evaluated by doctors at the hospital, my dad informed me with score updates from my team’s night game that I was missing. I only spent three days in the hospital that time, my team and friends away on spring break as I got off of the medication. During those three days, I had voiced a complete hatred for lacrosse, labeling it the reason for my depression, ripping up the signing day article just published about me and my now teammates that my dad brought to me. I didn’t want to finish out my high school season and I didn’t want to play at Temple. With a little time, the depression settled and some of my light was coming back. Getting my feet on the ground again, I was ready to get back to lacrosse, another championship still in view.
Slowly I transitioned back into lacrosse, figuring out how to play again, the physical aspect pulling my brain along with it. My first game back was hard to watch, I’m sure, like a toddler learning to walk. I had to accept the fact that I was not going to just come back exactly who I had always been, but the structure of the team and our values kept me on track, finding my way. My coaches and teammates kept me moving forward, a focus always on forward momentum for both the season and my recovery that proved successful. We ended up winning our second state championship, coming back from a seven-goal deficit, and I graduated the next day. The view from my second mountain was better than the first with two gold medals around my neck and a diploma in my hand. The relief did not mean my recovery was over as I still continued with therapy while I got ready to start my next adventure at Temple.
Since then, I have grown accustomed to mostly good days and rarely bad ones, but I am a constant work in progress, and I always will be. Through trial and error, I am always figuring out new and better ways of how to manage myself. The hard work is never actually over. Recovery does not have an exact end point and it is not a perfectly straight line upward. Sometimes I need to be reminded of things, and I make mistakes. I do my best to share when I need help or if I’m struggling with something, a skill that is still hard for me to execute to this day. Not a second goes by where I am not thankful for the people who surround me, always offering open doors in case I need them. One thing my mom has said to me since the beginning is that I have the choice of whether I am going to be a victim or a survivor. That is an outlook I try to carry with me always.
While there are people who will read this and feel like it may not apply to them, there is someone out there who is sitting in the same position I have once sat in. When I was in middle school, I remember reading this Seventeen Magazine article about a collegiate cross country runner who died losing her battle to anorexia. There is this weight that chokes your throat when you feel like you’re being called out for something you’re hiding, and I still remember that sick feeling in my stomach from worry about what I was doing to myself, and yet I kept quiet. While it took me a long time to confront my issues, I feel like the exposure of the topic helped push me to address it at a time when I felt like I was at a crossroads for picking the path to how my life would end up. If you’re sitting there right now torn about what to do, choose to be a survivor because it can get better. Speak up. You’ve got this. You are worth it. Your life is worth it.
This article is dedicated to my cousin, Bo Tkach, family friend and classmate, Colleen O’Donnell, and all those who have also lost their battle against suicide as well as their family and friends.
The Bo Tkach Foundation was created with the mission to “create awareness for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other mental health issues while providing essential funding for youth athletic programs, scholarships and otherwise inaccessible individual mental health screening and treatment.”
Visit the website: http://www.botkach.com/index.php for more information.