Fast cars, money, adoring fans. From the outside looking in, it’s a glamorous life. Even after the roar of the engines fade away you can hear the echoes of battles fought, some won and some lost.
The news gives us our heroes and villains with sound bites targeted toward the fans who love nothing more than a good old fashioned rivalry. In a sport that is fueled by testosterone, adrenalin and bravado, it is never easy for a racer to admit to anything that could be construed as a weakness. NASCAR’s history is filled with tales of drivers competing with broken bones and concussions although these types of antics have become more a thing of the past as the racing culture has evolved.
But sometimes, the most difficult challenges come from within in the form of anxiety or depression. Hidden by smiles and tucked into the recesses of the mind, their attacks can be sudden and debilitating.
Based on a study done in 2017 by the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 17.3 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode or 7.1% of all adults. When you take into account all of the people who suffer in silence because of the stigma that surrounds it, the numbers are undoubtedly higher.
Depression does not discriminate. It affects people from all walks of life regardless of gender, age, race or stature.
Athletes are no exception.
Michael Phelps, winner of 28 Olympic medals admitted to bouts of depression, self-medication and thoughts of suicide. “After every Olympics, I think I think I fell into a major state of depression,” Phelps said in an interview with CNN in 2018.
Ricky Williams, a former NFL running back, told the Anxiety and Depression Association of America “I felt extremely isolated from my friends and family because I couldn’t explain to them what I was feeling. I had no idea what was wrong with me.” He was eventually diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder.
But in the racing community, the silence about depression has been deafening, with one exception.
Earlier this year at Kansas Speedway, Bubba Wallace was asked about the challenges facing his team as they prepared for the upcoming race. As he answered, he opened up about his struggles with depression, speaking publicly on the subject for the first time.
“You try to be the best you can, and sometimes it ain’t damn good enough,” he said. He added later that he has experienced “depression and everything with it.” One of the ways he copes is through racing but even that is only a temporary solution.
“I’ll be damned, It all goes away when you get behind the wheel. It’s 16 years of driving. It helps. But it’s tough.” As his emotions overflowed, he said, “I’m on the verge of breaking down. And I am what I am.”
Wallace went into more detail with Marty Snider during a rain delay at Chicagoland Speedway in June.
“Depression doesn’t care who you are,” he said. “It doesn’t care how much success or how much you’re down. It’ll just jump on top of you. You don’t expect it and it takes you down through a lot of deep and dark moments. And you sit there and contemplate a lot of dark things. And you talk to a lot of people and you try to do everything you can to get out of it.
“It’s not a day to night turnaround. It takes a long time and I’m still going through it. There are some days where I wake up and I’m good, I’m great. There’s other days where I wake up and I just want to sleep all day and I don’t really feel like I have a purpose.”
My husband was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his mid-twenties and has faced similar obstacles. He has described bouts of depression to a switch that is suddenly flipped and can blindside him when he least expects it. The worst moments for him are in the stillness of the night when his thoughts fill with doubts and insecurities, robbing him of joy.
It can affect all aspects of one’s life yet those not familiar with it can often be critical and dismissive, chalking it up to low self-esteem, self-pity, or immaturity. All of these factors emphasize the need for clarity.
Wallace’s honesty has illuminated an issue that has been in the shadows for far too long. As a popular public figure, he can have a huge impact on the perception of mental illness by encouraging others to follow his lead and share their stories to light the way for others who feel they are in this alone.
*Inspired by Bubba Wallace. Dedicated to my husband and everyone who struggles with depression every day. You are not alone.
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