Team Sponsor Becky Furuta on what makes Go4Graham matter so much to her.
By Becky Furuta
I had five minutes. That’s all the time the doctor would allow while she was under supervision. Five minutes to deliver her toothbrush and pajamas, a phone charger, and some slippers to keep her feet from freezing on the cement floors of the ward, and to hear her tell me why she had tried to kill herself. She couldn’t look me in the eye. She has slash marks on her arms and legs from years of cutting herself. And underneath a long hospital gown, my little sister disappeared – swallowed up by the darkness in her mind and her own, brutal thoughts.
Go4Graham is a community-based movement to shred the stigma surrounding mental health. We promote mental wellness through cycling and outdoor sports in Colorado and beyond. It was started to honor Graham Stingley who died in 2005 age the age of 23 after battling depression and anxiety for most of his short life. If you want to join this movement please check out Go4Graham.org or @Go4Graham on social media, or will@Go4Graham.org.
At the time, I couldn’t imagine wanting so desperately to die. I had no idea what it was like to silently drown in the shadows of life. The feelings that attached themselves to the most pivotal moments of her life defied any language I knew to identify them.
And then came December 2019.
I left for work around 6:30 in the morning, knowing I wouldn’t hit many lights. Wouldn’t be much traffic, either. I left my neighborhood and drove the highway along the Flatirons because I liked the view and because there was one section of road with a long, dangerous-looking rocky slope. If the roads were covered in ice, it seemed like everything could end right there.
And that morning, it was where I decided to kill myself.
I can’t explain how things had come to that point. I was successful. I owned three businesses, all of which were doing well. I was not unhappily married, and my kids were healthy. I had a career as an athlete, and people looked up to me. I was traveling the world, racing a bike, surrounded by fans. My social media was a sea of ‘likes.’ And all I wanted was to die on that stretch of road.
I was in the worst possible place when I called my team director, and slowly, I backed away from the cliff and toward the sound of her words as she promised me that we would figure things out. The team went to work finding me the resources I needed. They saved my life. Cycling saved my life. And it continues to every day.
Exercise has been proven scientifically and anecdotally to improve mental health. Cycling forced me to get up on days when I didn’t want to, and it brought me outside and into the world. It gave me a sense of connectedness and joy. I could stop thinking about everything else when I was on the bike, and focus on my body and my efforts. It was peace.
I was sitting at a tiki bar in Claremont, FL having just attempted to break a record on Sugarloaf when my buddy, Taylor Ross, started talking about Go4Graham Foundation. Taylor’s enthusiasm for the organization was palpable, and he talked at length about growing up not thinking about mental health or understanding that our mental wellness is dynamic and requires care. He spoke of people being trapped under the waves without seeing an end to the hardships, and how important it is to know that things will change in time. He talked about how sports and community can save lives. I was sold.
Go4Graham was founded following the death of Steven Graham Winter Stingley, who died in 2005 after a fatal interaction between the antidepressant medication he had been taking and an OTC cold medication. Graham’s brother, Will, founded the organization both to honor his brother and after confronting his own mental health challenges.
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that (depression) is something I will have to manage for the rest of my life. But it gives me perspective. It helps me prioritize my life. It has motivated me to adopt a healthier lifestyle.” And, although Will won’t say it so directly, his work with Go4Graham has given purpose to others.
Go4Graham has created a network of athletes and ambassadors who use an evidence-based program designed by the University of Colorado Johnson Depression Center to conduct training to help diminish the stigma behind discussing mental health issues and to intervene in times of mental health crisis. The foundation partners with mental health professionals to conduct workplace wellness programs around suicide prevention and stress management. Runners, cyclists, skiers, and other athletes get peer support and engage in storytelling to elicit mental health conversations and to erode the challenges of talking openly about mental health issues. They encourage the use of physical activity as a mechanism to improve mental wellness and gain a sense of community.
Team member Kit Hinders explains, “The unspoken bond between us all is a beautiful support system. We have all loved and lost someone to negative mental health consequences. That experience unites us to ‘Shred the Stigma’ that surrounds mental health. I wish we could walk around with swords slicing through cultural norms, but our athletes and ambassadors are much more tactful. Join us. You just might find out that it rewards you as much as others.”
It took me time and therapy and a lot of support to calm the chaotic thoughts in my brain. My first meeting with my psychologist was the most awkward staring contest of my life. Eventually, I unfolded the saddest parts of my life to her, learned some coping mechanisms, started eating better, and stopped focusing so much on the bike as a career and instead on finding my love of the sport again. And to be honest, I still struggle from time to time with a kind of panic I can’t describe, thoughts of inexplicable sadness, days of exhaustion and nights when I’m haunted in my sleep. My teammates with Go4Graham can often relate, which makes it easier to get through.
Go4Graham empowered me to share my challenges with mental health, and to do it in a way that helps build support for others struggling with mental illness. All of us, together, are conveying that mental health conversations shouldn’t be stigmatized, and that people shouldn’t risk suffering in isolation because they are either afraid to be vulnerable or unsure how to best access help. In so many ways, athletes within Go4Graham are reassuring people in their lives that we won’t let them sit alone with the thoughts troubling them. We’re making space for the emotions often pushed to the margins.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the team isn’t serious about sports. Hinders explains, “The variety of athletes creates a culture of acceptance and exploration. On any given ride, we combine roadies, mountain bikers, gravel specialists and elite cyclocross racers. Having ‘a little bit of everything’ helps us push our limits as athletes and as humans. I’ve never been part of any team that does so many sports so well.”
Athletes with Go4Graham consistently stand on race podiums all over the state. There are weekly training rides and team trips to race or train together. These events are marked by acceptance and support, but also a lot of laughter and the kind of silliness you would expect from people clad entirely in Spandex.
Four years ago, I decided to commit my business, Avenue Vision, to sponsoring Go4Graham. Last Thursday night, I hosted Go4Graham athletes and fellow sponsor, Cuore Cycling, at the office. We threw down hot carbs from Woody’s Pizza a few beers as cyclists and runners tried on kits to ensure proper fit and placed orders for new sunglasses. The kick-off was designed to guarantee that everyone had the apparel needed to start their season and to introduce new athletes to those who have been with the organization for many years. For me, it was an opportunity to hug old friends and hold hands with some of the humans who walked me through my toughest times and to talk about the season ahead. Athletes have lined up everything from marathons to the country’s biggest gravel races and a skimo challenge or two over the course of the next twelve months. There are big, audacious goals on the table.
I’ve been in this sport for so long that I don’t know what, exactly, is up ahead for me. I do know that Go4Graham will be part of that picture for a long time to come. I know how hard it is to pretend everything is OK when it’s not, and I know it’s no way to live. I know that running, cycling and skiing are my sanctuaries where things just seem to work. I am glad to have the opportunity to help change the way we all talk about and address mental health, and that purpose feels really good. Aligning that mission with my interests and my business feels even better.
If you’re interested in joining the movement or participating with Go4Graham, feel free to contact the organization. firstname.lastname@example.org