By Becky Furuta
Every summer, someone shares it on social media: Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning. It’s an older article from the online magazine, Slate, and it cautions parents that there is no yelling or wailing, no screams for help and thick gasps of air. Drowning, they say, is a slow and silent sink to the bottom. A quiet suffocation that happens in plain sight.
That’s rather how it occurred.
I think it began in November. I had been traveling a lot, and often by myself. That’s actually quite normal for me, and I rather enjoy being in the space of my own head. That time alone is one of the reasons I love endless hours of solo training on the bicycle. So many professional cyclists and domestic elites settle in Boulder precisely because it affords them the opportunity to connect with other talented riders, to share long days spent in the saddle with those who have the same training demands, and to enjoy a sense of community in the sport. I like all those things, too, but constant companionship exhausts me. I enjoy meeting fans and shaking hands and swapping stories when I do events or make public appearances for the team, and then? I need an hour or two on my own to decompress. A time out.
Back then, though, it was different. I wasn’t stepping away to recharge. I was suffering from a kind of incurable loneliness that left a hole in me into which I had curled up completely.
By December, I was so far into my internal pit that I couldn’t see the light from above. Even now, I don’t know if what I was feeling was legitimate depression or just a kind of transient sadness, but I suppose it doesn’t matter, either. My job was stressful and my business partner was on leave. My son had just been diagnosed with a disorder of the central nervous system that left him choking for air in the middle of the night – one more condition in a long list of neurodevelopmental disorders. My father had just been informed that his colon cancer was back.
It was against that backdrop that the thoughts of dying began ricocheting around inside my head. It wasn’t that I actually wanted to disappear. It was just that I didn’t not want to.
It’s a hard thing for an athlete to admit to suffering. We’re taught to punish ourselves, to persevere through rain and wind and every imaginable condition, and to ignore the mental anguish of our entirely optional suffering. In a sport like cycling which is as much about mental toughness as it is about physical, showing weakness can be the end of a career. I’ve crashed and bled only to pick my body up off the tarmac and get back in a race. Those efforts are glorified. There’s no glory in confiding despondency. In that struggle, you just feel shame.
I believed I was invincible. Tough as nails. My friend, David, nicknamed me “Mighty Becky” both for my aggressive racing and for the way I could take over a room. I’d had a lifetime of slow drowning, but every other time, I managed to make my way back up to the surface for air, battle immense waves and swim to the shore.
As a kid, I grew up in a house with tremendous physical violence. My father used to beat the shit out of me. It sounds shocking to say it like that, but it is the simple truth. He would throw punches. It wasn’t like he was hitting a small child, but as if he were in a bar fight with a grown man.
When people hear “child abuse,” they don’t know how to conceptualize what that really means. The assumption is generally that it is physical discipline gone too far. They don’t imagine the four-year-old girl who wet her bed because she was too scared to get up in the middle of the night, being dragged down the hall by her hair with her father shouting obscenities, and placed in a bathtub of scalding water. I remember unconsciously screaming because it was so painful.
They don’t imagine the twelve-year-old, locked out of the house naked in the middle of the night, cold and humiliated, curling up to sleep in the dirt under the front porch. They can’t imagine the terror of being threatened with a kitchen knife while the child’s mother screams, “God, don’t kill her!” The same mother, who would use fear as a tool to keep us silent. “If you tell anyone, they will take you away, and you will never see your siblings again.”
That was my home. My only secure attachment was to my sister. We clung to one another like life rafts in the ocean. We saved each other. And when I was successful? It wasn’t gratifying. When I graduated Magna Cum Laude, I was furious to see my father in the audience. I knew that, in his heart, he believed all of his abuse was validated. He told himself that he was the reason I had gotten so far. I focused instead on my failures and the distance I had to travel to really win. I was a perfectionist with a regimented training plan and audacious goals and the desire to be the absolute best on and off the bike.
I realize now that I treated my entire life like I treated my training: It was painful, but I had to get on with it. My body hurt and I wanted to quit, but I had to finish it off. The cracks were starting to show, but I had to put on the face. It was exhausting, but no one seemed to notice.
In the car, I looked over at my husband and casually asked, “Do you think I’m depressed?” He laughed. Absolutely not, he assured me. “You’ve got a lot going on. Give yourself a break.”
My superpower in cycling and in life had always been the ability to hurt really bad, and to do it for a long time. On an afternoon in December, however, I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. I woke up and realized that it wasn’t that I had wanted to die. I had just wanted to find my way back to the surface. I wanted to be happy again. Back then, I thought I was lost. In truth, I was closer than I had ever been to being found.
I called my team director, and told her I needed to really focus on my mental health. It was a difficult moment for me to concede weakness, but she met me with the right answer : “I’m so glad you told me.”
When someone makes a vulnerable disclosure, we all too often want to soften the experience with “at least.” When I was first diagnosed with type one diabetes, friends would reply, “At least it’s not cancer.” When I had a miscarriage, they said, “At least you know you can get pregnant.” If there’s one thing you should take from all of this, it is to never start another sentence with the words “at least.” In our hardest moments, silver linings are bitter pills to swallow, and nothing another person says can recover us, anyway. What we really want – what we need – is connection.
“I’m glad you told me, and you must accept help. You have to be your real self and you have to let people – your people – support you. We want to.”
I spent the next eight weeks working with a team of mental health professionals, and things improved pretty quickly. I decided I wanted to start with cognitive behavioral therapy and not medication, and the approach was a good fit. It catered to my sense of resilience and my natural inclination to see the bigger picture instead of dwelling on the details.
I suppose I thought that bouncing back would require me to build some sort of ambitious existential vision of my place in the world. Instead, it was as simple as reimagining my future in more positive ways. “Of course you’re sad,” my therapist offered. “Watching your child struggle and worrying about him is a sad thing. There’s a lot of loss in your history, and you were able to reframe those experiences into something empowering, and create a story about overcoming challenges. You made your childhood part of your story instead of the whole story. Let’s see if we can do the same with your son and the stress you have now.”
By the time I showed up for team training camp in Spain, the darkness had lifted. I wasn’t just coping with life. I was living it. I set out for a ride along the water, up mountains and overlooking small towns. I remember feeling intensely grateful to be there in that moment. My teammates were with me, laughing and swapping stories and telling jokes. Some knew what I had just come through. Most didn’t. Regardless, they were the family I always needed. The guys were hopeful and supportive. They challenged me, reassured me and reminded me over and over again that there is a purpose and value to everything we do.
I emerged from my sadness a better, happier, more insightful version of myself. I’m oddly grateful for those most difficult days because, without them, I might still be clinging to the thoughts and ideas which don’t serve me well. I realize now that I had consciously chosen not to tackle some of the trauma I faced so early in life, and I had allowed those experiences to shape my beliefs in a way that impacted my relationships. I take time every day to remind myself that I am doing the best I possibly can, and so are those around me.
We’ve all had moments in life when things seemed really, really bad. We’ve all said we are ok when we are not. We’ve all kept parts of ourselves hidden because we are embarrassed or ashamed. Athletes maybe do it more than the rest of us. And that’s unfortunate. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pulled to the bottom of the ocean by a million tiny anchors when it is so easy to find the air up above. All of us have suffered at some point. Why spend one more day struggling unnecessarily when it’s possible to live your absolute best life now?
Long before I confronted my own issues, I was part of Go4Graham, which aims to use sport as a mechanism to raise awareness about mental health issues, and to use exercise as one of many tools to help individuals maintain good mental health. G4G works to erode the stigma associated with asking for help. It is because of my affiliation with that organization and my deeply held belief in the importance of having open, honest dialogue about issues of self-care that I chose to share my story in the first place. We’re all fighting something. Our individual issues might be different, but we’re all in this together.
For more information on Go4Graham, go to https://www.go4graham.org/