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  • Anna Callahan

Never Alone

Freshman year is an exciting year with new responsibilities and freedoms. You meet new friends, forge new relationships, and begin your transformative introduction to the so-called “adult world.” For so long, young people yearn to grow up. They thrust themselves into new adventures hoping to find their way. But with all of this comes internal reflection and struggle.

That’s what no one tells you about freshman year.

My freshman year was plagued with injury, silence, sadness, and a lot of loneliness. In high school, I was known as the kid who never stopped talking, the one who was the most upbeat in any room, and someone who could make the best out of the worst situation, but freshman year was different. As Duke student-athletes, we have access to an exceptional support network - but even so, there are a wide variety of struggles that can act as silent oppressors. I suffered in silence. I missed home and the familiarities of my old friends. But at the heart of my suffering was my discomfort with who I am and my sexuality.

"I struggled to fit in because I was so afraid of standing out. "

Sexuality and the LGBTQ+ community is very widely discussed at Duke and is seen as an approachable conversation. Coming from my hometown, where this topic is seen as very taboo, this was a very new experience for me. Although most people were accepting with open arms, I struggled to accept myself with the same kindness. Even though people didn’t immediately label me as different, I still felt dissimilar to everyone else on my team when I came out. I struggled to fit in because I was so afraid of standing out.

I wanted to be like everyone else and I was so petrified at the thought of showing my true colors and being comfortable in my own skin. My internal monologue was begging for me to just talk to someone about my feelings and sadness, but as an athlete you are taught to “tough it out” and “keep going” even if you are hurting. So I did just that.

Every day at practice, I realized my quality of play declined and I was devastated because for better or for worse, I’ve always used my sport to measure my self worth. That self worth is contingent on my ability to compete and perform at the highest level. Although no one really knew my internal strife, my coaches finally noticed I was struggling athletically and emotionally. Someone suggested that I see Duke Athletics’ behavioral health specialist, Dr. Shawn Zeplin. I was absolutely beside myself at the idea of seeking mental health support. I thought to myself, I am not the broken kid. I am not weak. I am totally fine. At the time, I reflected upon my internal conflict and realized that I was not okay. This led me to eventually see Dr. Zeplin for the first time. His blunt sense of humor and realism paired well with my refusal to open up to a stranger. It took me weeks to fully open up to someone who had been so recently a stranger. I think that is the hardest step for everyone: finally going and opening up. After many meetings with Dr. Zeplin, I realized how strong I really was.

Strength comes from finding who you are. Strength comes from admitting that you need help. Strength comes from someone who can admit to weakness. I tell everyone, including Dr. Zeplin, that I owe so much to myself for being able to go out of my comfort zone. After weeks and weeks of conversations with myself, I started to sit comfortably with my sexuality.

"I can confidently say that this happiness wouldn’t have been possible without accepting myself first, and finding strength in being who I wanted to be."

Relationships are hard. Friendships are hard. Being 100% yourself is the hardest. But fitting in is so stupid. I have never gone back to the mentality of “fitting in” after my freshman year. When I returned for my sophomore year, I felt like a completely different person. My quality of play increased dramatically, and I could fully appreciate each of my relationships. My happiness was higher than it had ever been. I can confidently say that this happiness wouldn’t have been possible without accepting myself first, and finding strength in being who I wanted to be. My personality finally returned and I was the fun-loving kid everyone remembered.

I still focus heavily on my own mental health and work tirelessly on my ability to check in with my emotions after months of practice. Although I have come so far, I still have bad days where I question my ability to be happy and be myself, and that is okay. I am not perfect, but appreciating that was an invaluable step in a long journey towards realizing my own self-worth. I don’t want to paint this perfect picture without telling everyone how hard it was to get here. Mental health will always be an active, working process. I still see Dr. Zeplin once a week and constantly prioritize my mental health journey.

Although I did not struggle with a diagnosable mental health disorder, I know plenty of people that do. We tragically lost a teammate and friend the summer going into my sophomore year to suicide, and it was one of the hardest things I had gone through. After Morgan’s passing and reflecting on my own life, I realized that struggles with mental health are so often overlooked or invalidated, and I vowed to myself that I would never let anyone suffer in silence.

This has to start with removing the stigma surrounding mental health in athletics. As an athlete, you are taught, as I said, to “tough it out” and “just keep going.” This is one of the stigmas that must be broken. I worked closely with Dr. Zeplin to create an organization to de-stigmatize mental health for athletes at Duke. My mission came to fruition when Morgan’s family and friends started an organization called Morgan’s Message to honor Morgan and create a space for people to come to and feel safe. We connected with each other and I started a Morgan’s Message organization at Duke for athletes to join. This was the first ambassador program for Morgan’s Message and I was determined to make this group as successful as I could. This group works on education for athletes and coaches, connection, and de-stigmatizing mental health in athletics. I have done mountains and mountains of research related to mental health on my own time so I can successfully lead this group that means so much to me.

Morgan’s Message is more than a club. We hope to continue to educate and help anyone who may be struggling with emotional distress or mental health disorders. This group is designed to help people feel like they aren’t alone, and that they can share their stories with people who have similar emotions. Morgan’s legacy and story will help so many people recognize that they aren’t alone and they aren’t an outsider.

"If you are going to make a difference, you must stand out."

Now I am starting my junior year - another year with new responsibilities and freedoms - I finally feel 100% true to myself. Because of this, I have met so many new friends, forged new relationships that I wouldn’t have in the past. Being a part of a team or a university is one thing, but feeling pressured to follow a pack is another. I wish I could tell my freshman year self that following the pack is overrated. If you are going to make a difference, you must stand out. So, I will continue to stand out, and I can promise each person reading this that I will always stand up for mental health.


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