Successful, Strong, and Survivable
A personal point of view by Seamus Harding.
I have been wanting to write something like this for a really long time. I also have never written a story this deep and personal about my sexuality and mental health. I am ecstatic to have been given this opportunity to write about my personal struggles and I hope this illustrates the painting that is my vision.
Before I dive into this journey, I thought I would provide a small introduction about myself. I was born James Matthew Harding Jr. to Jenifer and James Harding on August 1, 2002. Many of my friends and acquaintances know my nickname, Seamus, and I thought I’d share where it came from. Seamus is the Irish translation of James, and it is not on my birth certificate. My family has too many James’s, so my mother wanted to do something authentic. I never have felt like “James”; I have always felt like Seamus: one of a kind, and truly extraordinary. I am from a small town called Hillsborough, New Jersey, and I am from a large Irish Catholic family. I am one of four children, one of 15 grandchildren on my mom’s side of the family, and one of 7 grandchildren on my dad’s side of the family.
"Since diving has been in my life forever, I don’t even consider it my sport anymore. It isn’t a job, it isn’t an obligation- it’s a part of me."
I have been diving since the age of 7, and I am so happy that I decided to stick with it because I ended up at this amazing university. Aside from being a diver, my story has been a journey with its ups and downs, as I have grappled with my identity and my mental health.
Part 1: Coming Out to the Scary World
"I believe that being gay is something that just is: you are the way you are, and you should celebrate that in every way you can."
I am very open about my sexuality and my struggles with anxiety and depression. I never posted a “coming out” post on social media because I never had a desire to do it. If you know and understand me, then you know the designer baggage I carry. To me, being gay is something that makes me who I am, and it shouldn’t matter to anyone else. I always felt that I didn’t need to share how different I am from other people just because I happen to like men. I am a human being, and I deserve to be treated like one. As a gay man, I believe that it should be more normalized, and you should not be criticized for being different. I believe our generation has done a fantastic job normalizing our differences and I am thrilled to see where it takes the next generation.
I knew I was gay when I was in the seventh grade. Although you might laugh, I realized when I crossed a rainbow bridge in a dream. Suddenly, I woke up and figured it was meant to be. I kept it a secret until I was in the eighth grade, when I told some of my closest friends, and some of those people still have a very special place in my heart. As I went into high school, I realized how insecure I was about being myself, and I decided to go back into the closet for my own safety. No one in my family knew, and I did not know how to tell them since they are extremely traditional and religious. I didn’t want to be judged for who I am, and I thought it was the right decision for the time-being. I would learn that this was the beginning of my journey to the bottomless pit of hell where I felt alone, scared, and unwanted. Keeping my sexuality a secret was one of the hardest and scariest parts of my life. I didn’t trust a soul, and I felt empty. I ultimately put on a mask and hid my true identity, like how Stefani Germanotta concealed her true self with wigs and makeup to become Lady Gaga. Unlike Lady Gaga, I did not become a famous superstar out of the process, but it helped numb my pain for a couple years. This was also a period of time when I had little to no friends and would do anything to feel seen and heard at school. I was only known for being a good diver and winning awards for the school.
"I was just tired of living a lie. Now, people finally saw the real me."
Two years went by, and I still felt alone. I started to realize the urgency of the multitude of my unresolved issues building. Right before I started my junior year of high school, I realized that something needed to change. I decided that telling people I was gay may help with some of the internal loneliness. I wanted to announce it sooner than this, but I didn’t feel ready. I was hesitant to share this piece of information, but surprisingly, it was easier than I expected. Once I told that first person, I felt this weight lift off my shoulders, like I could breathe easier. After that, I just started talking about guys to my classmates and everyone was shocked that I didn’t make it public or drop any hints. I wasn’t nervous about the anticipated harassment or bullying. Instead, I was able to walk in my own shoes and be grateful for this life I’ve been given. Did I receive any backlash from being my true self? I’m sure of it, but I never gave into that unnecessary hatred.
When I told my family, my mother’s side of the family was so supportive. They already knew, like most of the world. My mother knew when I was four because I used to dress up in a Cinderella costume and put on performances in my backyard. I also used to wear a whistle around my head and pretend it was my long hair. On the other hand, my father and his family didn’t give me the same vibe. I always knew I was never going to be the son my dad wanted, and I gave up trying. The madness began when I wanted my own confirmation name, not his family’s confirmation name. After all, it is my life and it is my decision. The tension progressed when I decided not to go to his highschool alma mater and not to follow in his footsteps to become a public attorney. Specific members of his family are racist and homophobic, and they don't see an issue with the discrimination experienced by women, minorities, and gay people. I have lost respect for his family and for how they will never accept me for who I am. But at the end of the day, I accepted this reality, not succumbing to my dad’s judgment: it’s my life and my turn to follow my dreams.
"As I have grown up, I have realized that even though my sexuality isn’t the only thing I want to be known for, it makes me who I am and it is a special part of my identity."
Being different is amazing, and I am so happy that I have been blessed and born this way because my sexuality has made people understand the real Seamus better. As an extroverted guy, I may outwardly express my emotions with a smile on my face the majority of the time; however, it doesn’t mean that I am an unlimited battery of life that never needs to recharge. Just because I happen to be full of energy doesn’t mean that I am always this way, and sometimes I feel pressure from this expectation to be a happy, go-lucky guy all of the time. Although I am sick of the labels, names, judgment, and the looks, I know that deep down I am happy in my own skin, and those who judge me are uncomfortable with themselves. I hope they can realize their identity and become comfortable in their own skin, rather than projecting their discomfort and judgements onto me.
Part 2: The Start of It All
"I never understood what anxiety was until my sophomore year of high school. No one ever knew, but I had my first fight with myself then. And when I say “with myself”, I mean with my brain."
I had a panic attack at the USA Diving Junior Nationals at Ohio State University. I started hearing my head ridiculing my body at the meet, and I had no one to turn to. I was standing in line waiting for my turn in the event warm-up when, all of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. As I look back on it, I had psyched myself out because I didn’t feel like I belonged with the other boys in the age category. I wasn’t like any of them because I was smaller, gay, and insecure. I will never forget this moment because this was just the beginning of a long journey of learning to live with anxiety.
It has taken me a while to navigate how everything began, but I would say my anxiety started with my childhood diving coaches’ multiple accounts of verbal harassment. I have been screamed at, cursed at, made fun of, and even been in the presence of my coach throwing a chair in frustration because of me. I hope nobody encounters a coach who acts in this manner. I will keep these names anonymous, but I wasn’t the only one he did this to. There also was a period of time where my coaches purposely stopped making me better to have a rivalry with another diver on my team. They got into my head, and made me feel awful about myself so I would lose to my teammate. I had no one that I could trust. It took me 5 years of verbal harassment and endless nightmares to finally quit, and my goodness, it felt so good when I did.
This trauma ultimately led to low self confidence, anxiety, and depression in the beginning of high school. Once I switched teams and finally found a support system that encouraged me to reach for the stars, that anxiety and depression dissipated. Life was great for a while, not a single worry in sight. I was committed to Duke and super excited to start my collegiate diving career. Then, the 2020 COVID-19 global pandemic happened. I was actually in a really good place during quarantine. I was happy at home with my family, and I realized who was real and who was important to me. It was a very therapeutic time for me. Once I got to Duke, pardon my language, but shit quickly hit the fan.
Part 3: My Freshman Year of College
"No one knew how plagued I was due to my dreams, nightmares, and unfortunately, my reality. I wish people understood what I was going through at this time."
I left everything behind - my friends, my family, my dog, and my life - to start something new. Due to COVID-19 protocol, I was only allowed to spend time with my teammates and my coaches. I became very mentally unstable because I did not vibe well with my teammates. I felt extremely lonely. It got to a point where I had this pressure in my head and heard voices that told me how much of a loser I am, and I asked myself “why are you even on this team?”. I wasn’t sleeping, I stayed in my dorm room all day, and I cried almost every day. I questioned the world and why it had happened the way that it happened. I also hated the new life I chose: being 400 miles away from home, having no friends, and doing homework all day in my dorm room isolated from the world.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” I would ask myself during this dark, lonely time in college. I got to a point where I hated my own parents for making me do this. I wanted to give up and come home, but my anxiety seeped through my skin telling me that nobody would understand what I was going through. I had dreams and visions of checking myself into a mental hospital and giving up on collegiate diving. I also had nightmares about not living anymore, and I questioned if anyone would even care if I died. Like I said before, shit was really hitting the fan.
There was one time that I actually was ready to quit the team right on the spot. A couple of teammates decided to have a “hangout”, and they disinvited me because they could only have ten people there. I hung out with them earlier so I could have some time to socialize, but they purposely sent me back to my dorm. The amount of anger and frustration I had was unexplainable. I told my teammate that it was hurtful that she sent me home that night, and I was proud that I stood up for myself. This happened during our “Train ‘n Stay” that took place my freshman fall. "Ultimately, it felt like my coaches and teammates didn't care about my well-being. Socially and emotionally, it was such a lonely, challenging time because I hadn't found people who I got along with. The only thing I had to provide some happiness was music, and it barely worked. When I went home for Christmas break, I was determined that I wasn’t going to return back to Duke.
My mom and my pop convinced me to come back and give it a second try. I started seeing therapists and wondering whether I should start medication to help with my depression. My therapist helped, but it was not enough. What drastically improved my mental health was meeting new people and hanging out with other athletes. I hung out with the Track and Field team almost every day that spring, and my god, did they change my life. I became very close with three girls who I am still very close with: Hailey Williams, Jenna Crean, and Hannah Kelly. They are three of my angels who I have been searching for to lift me out of my bottomless pit of depression.
At this point in my freshman spring, I still felt isolated from my teammates. I would later learn that my brain was actually twisting reality, making me insecure because I was jealous that they seemed happy. My coach was very supportive of my decisions of meeting new people during the strict COVID-19 times because he knew how unhappy I was. He wanted me to stay for the summer and train, but I politely declined so I could go home and spend time reflecting on how to fix the damage caused by Duke’s isolation policies. Although I didn’t have the most amazing year mentally, I ended up qualifying for NCAAs and performed decently. That summer at home was just what I needed. I started medication, and my highs and lows evened out. To this day, I have a great relationship with my teammates that were here during COVID-19, and those who have joined the team after me. I also still have a fantastic relationship with my coaches.
Part 4: The Present & Concluding Thoughts
Although my traumas don’t define me, I thought the title exemplifies my life in three words: successful, strong, and survivable. I have been through enough trauma that could last a few lifetimes, but I am happy that I get to wake up every morning. I am most thankful for my mother because she is my superwoman. She has always been there by my side to help me through everything, and I will never let her forget it. I am also thankful for my three siblings: Liam, Maggie, and Rory for being my rocks and being 3 amazing shoulders to lean on. We have all been through enough trauma, and I am hoping that it will come to an end soon. Since we are over 400 miles apart, those FaceTime calls and texts mean the world to me. I know I am missing you guys grow up, but I am always there no matter what. I am just a quick phone call or text away.
I am also really thankful for my teammates, friends, and supporters for always believing in me, and for helping me keep a smile on my face. As for my mental health, it has been very stable the past couple of months. There have been a few ups and downs, but I am staying strong. For those of you who are struggling out there, seek help and don’t listen too much to those negative voices inside your head. My advice is to be your true authentic selves and never say sorry for being you. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. It is a long, hard process, but you will see and feel an unapologetic, self-worthy transformation in the end.
Photo Credits: Duke Athletics and Seamus Harding