Ironman,  Triathlon

The dark side of becoming an IronMan – mental health struggles (part 2b): 5 ways to support a loved one through it

Disclaimer: I have no medical background and nothing in this post should be construed as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before making major decisions that could affect your long-term health.

My 1st post in this mini-series spoke about what post-race depression (PRD) is and what could possibly have caused it. Next, I shared some techniques that you can use to overcome it as an athlete. If you haven’t read those posts yet, I would recommend doing so before continuing with this one.

The first step to assisting a loved one through PRD is to make sure they are equipped with the knowledge of what it is that they’re going through and how to manage it better, so share the previous posts with them as well.

Next, we are going to cover how you can actively support them through it. You get a 5-step plan too! Some of these techniques are things you can do, and others are things you absolutely should not do. Both aspects are equally important. So let’s get straight into it.

How to support a loved one through PRD

1) Do not ask “What’s next?”

After doing a 70.3 this question might not be that unreasonable, since you can usually recover quite quickly physically from such a race. But even then, there is a time that it is too soon to ask that question. However, after a full Ironman or another race that leaves one completely broken, the situation is very, very different. After doing Ironman, every time you bump into a new person that you know, the conversation is likely to start with congratulations on the achievement and asking how it went. About 90% of the time, the dreaded question that follows is something like this: “So, what’s next?”

100% of the time it would trigger anxiety in me and I would have to think about how to answer the question politely. What I really want to answer is, “Do you have any idea what I just put my body through? I have no clue what’s next. I can’t even run 10km right now!” or “You go do an Ironman and then see if you have a next on the calendar so soon.” or “Just go away and don’t ask me that.”. But I mostly try to not be a bitch in life, so of course I don’t respond with any of those answers. Rather, I just awkwardly say that I don’t know yet.

I know people mean well when they ask that. It shows interest in what you’re doing, and they more than likely just want to know what exciting thing you’re doing next so that they can perhaps follow that journey too. But the truth is that it is a highly inappropriate thing to ask at the time in a small-talk setting, unless you know the person is working towards something next. If you are really interested, rather take the time to have a deeper conversation with the athlete, perhaps over coffee or even just chilling out after a training session if you have no need to rush off anywhere, or take them for a walk to chat. Also, instead of asking “What’s next?” (implying that there has to be something), rather ask something like “Is there anything next on the horizon?” (which implies that it’s ok if there isn’t anything). That way, it gives the opportunity for the athlete to articulate how they really feel if they feel safe to do so with you. I don’t feel safe to open up a wound if it’s just a quick small talk and I know the person is going to scatter in the next 5 seconds, even if it’s someone I trust.

2) Reach out, check in, offer support

Even if you are a close friend or family member of the athlete, they will find it very hard to reach out to you themselves if they need help emotionally unless you make it very clear that you are available. Remember that the athlete feels that nobody understands what they are going through. Now that you’ve read these blogs, perhaps you do understand a little bit, so make sure they know that you are there for them if they need you. Be direct. Tell them you know about the possible mental struggles and tell them what kind of support you can offer. (e.g. you can call me any time, just message me when you need to talk, let me know and I will come over, let me know if you want to chat over coffee, etc)

Deliberately check in with them a few weeks after the race, and periodically afterwards, and ask them directly if they are ok. You can rather be that annoying friend that cares and asks even if there is nothing to worry about, than just wait silently while your loved one is suffering and doesn’t know who to reach out to, or worse…takes matters into their own hands to try and end their own anguish.

Also, recognise that if the athlete asks you to hang out with them, whatever form that may take, that is them reaching out to you in a big way. If they try to schedule something with you and you’re busy, that’s fine, but try and then arrange for an alternate time to see them. If they ask a few times and you’re always busy and never make an effort to try and be available, they will stop asking and assume that you are unwilling to support them. This point is actually not just limited to athletes, but just friends and family in general too.

3) Don’t use logic to try and make them feel better

When your loved one does reach out to you, do not think that you need to single-handedly turn their mood around right there and then. That is not your role in this situation. Don’t tell them that they need to be happy because they have everything going for them, and proceed to rattle off all the blessings in their life. That will just make it worse. Don’t try and offer solutions unless they are informed solutions, because if the solutions are ill-informed it will just create a block between you and them because they will feel the need to be defensive or to explain to you why the thing you suggested will not work.

The most important thing is to just be there for them, and I mean that in the figurative as well as the literal sense. Just BE. When I am experiencing an episode, all I want is for someone to just be there with me and comfort me, even if they don’t say anything. Just hug me and let me cry if I need to and tell me that things are going to be ok. That would feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. Sometimes all I need is someone’s company and to chat about completely different things, and that alone makes me feel better. Or to hang out with people after canal swim and talk shit over coffee for 30 minutes after we swam and before work on a Friday. The needs between males and females might differ quite significantly here too. There is no one response that fits all, so you need to do what’s best according to what you know about what your person needs.

Source: (@dinosandcomics)

4) Help them with social reintegration

This one is particularly relevant if you know the athlete from a setting other than sports. While they were training for the race they’ve recently done, they’ve most likely spent a lot of time with the people they train with and almost no time with you, their old friend who has been with them through thick and thin. Do not take it personally or feel that they’ve neglected you. Going all in is what it takes to successfully complete amazing feats of human endurance like they’ve just done. It takes an immense amount of sacrifice on the athlete’s part, and a lot of their relationships may have suffered due to the time pressures that comes with training for such an event. Now that the event is over, they can start to rebuild those important relationships again, and you can assist with that. They’ve missed you and would love to spend time with you.

Reach out to them to spend some pure social time together. They might be struggling to reintegrate into a normal social life again, because it is not that easy to do. Depending on whether the athlete is an introvert or extrovert, perhaps schedule a 1-on-1 coffee or lunch date with them or organise an outing with a group of friends.

This point is similar to point 2, but it is less overt in the way you are reaching out. In some instances, by spending time with the person in this way you might be able to pick up behaviours that do not seem normal, and then proceed to offer more direct support. It might also be a good segway into offering the very deliberate support outlined in point 2 if you do not feel comfortable being so direct right off the bat.

5) Assist them to get help

I’ve covered this one last because it is the most serious action. Ideally, it should not get to this point, but if it does then it is imperative that you step in.

As I’ve said earlier, PRD can range in severity. If your person is really suffering a lot, or if it goes on much longer than normal (like more than a year or two maybe), it is time to get professional help. For someone going through it though, it can be tough to get that help because they don’t know where to start looking. They’re also not in the mental state to do all the groundwork to find a good psychologist who will be able to give them the help they need. Here is where you can come in to assist – you can help them find someone. Perhaps do the research and see if you can find a therapist for them, find out about costs and affordability, make some calls to see if their medical aid plan will cover it, etc. Maybe even book the appointment and take them to it, and wait outside until they’re done. If they need to offload a bit after the session, you’re still there. Continue doing all the other support actions previously mentioned even when activating this step.

Those are the 5 steps I have to share, and I hope it helps. If you feel that there is anything else that should be added, please share it down in the comments below or send me a private message.

If you’re still reading, I would like to thank you for your attention and for making the effort to equip yourself in this way. On behalf of myself and all other athletes who have gone through this, and who will go through it in future, THANK YOU. We really need your support and any that you are offer is so much appreciated.

I hope I have done the topic justice over the past 3 posts, and I ask forgiveness for my inadequacy if I haven’t. Also, if you’re reading this, please know that I am always available to talk if you need to.

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