Sacramento Bee Wake Up Call

 A wake-up call

By Scott Howard-Cooper - Bee Staff Writer

Last Updated 1:23 am PDT Monday, October 9, 2006
Story appeared in Sacramento Bee MAIN NEWS section, Page A14

The Bee's Scott Howard-Cooper can be reached at

She drank in the dorm room and after that at the bar, and she fell down enough times that someone who worked there finally told Jen to leave. Then she went to where a couple of friends lived and stuck a finger down her throat, and threw up until her insides had no more to return.

She also had taken a single Vicodin a few hours before, making for a dangerous combination of drugs and alcohol. Drinking to excess was abnormal, Jen said, and the unthinking act of adding an addictive pain reliever was intended because she didn't want to think. Escape from reasoned thought was the point.

It was not, she insisted at the time and repeats years later, a suicide attempt. It was instead the moment she would come to regard as her epiphany: a night of tequila shots that made her ghastly sick, which led to friends calling an ambulance and her mother being notified, which led to an assistant coach showing up the next day to take her to counseling.

Jen -- not her real name -- was a college athlete who would eventually be diagnosed with depression. Living away from home for the first time, she felt lonely. Laboring with an injury, she felt frustrated. Clashing with her head coach, she felt tension. A heralded athlete in high school, she felt pressure to similarly star at the next level.

And through it all, she felt unable to reach out for help, for fear of breaking a cardinal rule. In a campus environment where fitting in is a priority for almost everyone, and at a time when the ability to play with pain and fight through adversity is used to determine roles on a team, she felt the last thing she could do was show weakness.

Experts say her story is typical -- the high school standout who struggles with the transition to college, spirals downward emotionally while portraying herself as a determined, gritty competitor, and can't force herself to seek help.

"I definitely felt like that," Jen said. "If I'm in pain, I have to finish every test or every practice and take care of the rest on my own time. I was scared to death."

Scared of what?

"Of not playing," she said. "It's hard to say: 'I'm in pain. I'm going to sit this out.' It sort of transfers to your academic and social life: 'I can't let people see me like this. They'll think less of me.' You're sort of on your best behavior all the time."

While patient confidentiality rules prohibited Jen's psychologist from confirming details of her case, the two talked in advance and agreed it would not hurt her ongoing treatment to be interviewed. The Bee agreed to identify Jen only as a Division I women's soccer player to protect her medical privacy.

Jen said her mother supported the decision to talk, feeling that opening up has helped before and that it might comfort others in a similar situation to accept seeking assistance as a sign of strength.

"I think (Jen's) story could be written at every school and with most sports," said Robert Corb, a sports psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. "Especially the fall sports. They have to come in right away and practice and play. They don't even get the normal transition into college life."

Women's soccer is a fall sport, with games beginning in late August.

Jen's problems began soon after she arrived on campus, even though she said the athletic department at her school did a good job of making newcomers and returnees aware that counseling was accessible, as was tutoring and the training room.

She played a few minutes each game as a freshman, a common shock of an adjustment for many first-year players used to being a focal point of teams. At the same time, trusted friends were nowhere to be found, another typical factor in a new city.

She talked on the phone with her mom almost daily, with friends from high school who chose other colleges or were living at home, and her roommate, also an athlete. It wasn't enough.

The isolation built, and the fear of making a mistake on the field left her dreading going to practice, percolating emotions that manifested as rage. Though family members noticed the change in personality, no one saw it as a sign of mounting depression.

"I was angry all the time," Jen said. "I was angry at everyone. After my freshman season was kind of my breaking point. I sort of had an epiphany."

The dorm room, the tequila shots, the bar, the blacking out, the leaving the bar. A friend left with her and made a call. Two other friends picked them up and brought them back to their house.

Jen spent the next 2 1/2 hours pushing a finger in her throat and trying to throw up, and managed to at first. But after a while, she could only dry-heave.

One of the friends, concerned this was no ordinary college binge, called an ambulance. Jen spent a few hours at the hospital, was discharged and came back to the same house at about 7 a.m. to sleep, still ragged and spent.

When she awoke about noon, an assistant coach arrived to take her to a health-care professional -- involuntarily if that's what it took, Jen recalled.

After trying to convince those around her that it had not been a suicide attempt, Jen was taken to a counselor without much of a fight -- mainly to appease everyone else, she said. She remembers being quiet and angry and miserable that first session in December 2003 and saying how much she hated people and hated herself.

Other such meetings followed, and Jen said she eventually relaxed into acceptance of a problem and the belief that the therapy was helping -- even if part of the motivation to continue attending was to keep family members and friends off her back.

Even when she began to ask for help on her own, it was with a wavering commitment, until Jen began to skip sessions and other meetings that had been scheduled with support staff on campus. She supposedly overslept and couldn't make it to the appointment with the nutritionist on time. Or she must have written the wrong day for a session with the psychologist.

An injury before the next season aggravated the emotions as much as the body, a common reaction for people chained to depression, experts say, and a reason athletes can be at unique risk for mental disorders. Feeling detached from the team was the latest inner conflict. The rage bubbled back.

She said she considered killing herself, though not to the extent of formulating a plan.

"I always knew I wasn't going to hurt myself," Jen said. "But I thought about people who do and I could sense it. I could see, 'Yeah, that's why people do it.' "

Her good fortune was being in an athletic department that, Jen said, was supportive of psychological services, a development still uncommon among most major universities.

Jen, meanwhile, was pushed by the head coach, the same one with whom she had clashed over her status with the team, to continue seeing the psychologist since it had helped before.

"Coaches are kind of like surrogate parents, especially those first years," Virginia Tech sports psychologist Gary Bennett said. "If they set up a situation where you're not weak for asking for help, where it's not a failure to deal with emotional issues, that can only help. It's very important."

Jen said she has maintained the commitment this time, adding that her counselor "saved my life." She stopped calling home every day to cry, and she stopped hating practice. Speaking of her path with ease and confidence, she talks now of being happier and more goal-oriented, finally living a happier life.

A life as a success story.

"Yeah," Jen said, smiling. "Working on it."






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