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Michael Phelps: Life isn’t paved with Gold

FCBK 1By Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

“I feel fulfilled. It was what I wanted.” – Swimmer Michael Phelps after the 2016 Rio Olympics

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time; a man of wealth and esteem who is admired world-wide, has reached a state fulfillment, as the above quote attests. But the back story tells a far different tale. Phelps has struggled with mental disorders and conditions his entire life. Thanks to his strength, resources and wonderful family led by his mother, Debbie, a single mom, he seems to finally be in the clear.

What it says for the rest of us, is that living a human life is rarely easy, even for those who are fabulously successful and can afford the best professional help.

As a 9-year-old struggling to pay attention in class, Phelps was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that affects an estimated four million children and phelpsadolescents in the United States. He simply couldn’t sit still or pay attention.

In a recent blog I explained that I’m ADD, but didn’t have the “hyper” component and it didn’t greatly affect my school performance like it did Phelps’ and millions of others. Like Phelps, who took up swimming at 9, I’ve always had laser like focus – but only for things I’m interested in, which is a characteristic of people with ADD.

With the help of  medication and behavior therapy — and the support of his mother, Phelps channeled his energies into swimming, and by age 15 became the youngest male record holder in modern sports.  Debbie and his two sisters had become a team, paying attention to his eating habits by restricting things like sugar. They also instituted restrictions on some of his activities to teach him time management, and he began making choices that helped him use his time more wisely.

Fast forward 12 years to the 2012 London Olympics where, at 27, Phelps ran his medal count to 18. He was the undisputed greatest swimmer of all time, but in his private world, wrestled with inner demons that sapped his sense of self.

“I went in with no self-confidence, no self-love,” Phelps said in an interview on NBC’s “Dateline” following the London games. “I think the biggest thing was, I thought of myself as just a swimmer, and nobody else.” He also admitted that he had been struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse and that nobody except his closest friends and family knew about it.

“100%, I was lost, pushing a lot people out of my life — people that I wanted and needed in my life. I was running and escaping from whatever it was I was running from.” It took a life-changing run-in with the law in 2014 for Phelps to realize he needed help. He was arrested for driving under the influence for a second time and it provided a major call for self-analysis.

“I was in the lowest place I’ve ever been,” he told Dateline. “Honestly, I sort of, at one point, I just — I felt like I didn’t want to see another day. I felt like it should be over.”

depressionIn other words, a man who had achieved world fame as the greatest in history at his chosen pursuit was ready to commit suicide. It’s called depression, a condition Phelps shares with some 15 million, or 7% of his fellow Americans.

Phelps went into rehab in October 2014, where he says he cried himself to sleep the first several nights. In treatment he addressed many of the underlying issues affecting his health, including a turbulent relationship with his father dating back to childhood.

Before his recent Rio Olympic heroics, Phelps said, “I’m having fun again. This is something I haven’t had in a really long time.” His fiancée, Nicole, just gave birth to their son a few months ago. And becoming a dad has been the “best feeling” he’s ever felt in his life.

So, why was New Oakland created 25 years ago by Dr. Ismail Sendi? Because he realized that a staggering 1 in 4 Americans suffers from any number of mental disorders and illnesses such as those that plagued Michael Phelps. And Dr. Sendi also felt deeply that every child and adult deserves a loving family and competent professionals to guide them out of the woods to experience love, success and self-respect.

When celebrities speak out about their mental health struggles, it’s worth noting because their courage can be contagious. It’s why I wrote about golf and TV personality David Feherty recently for his wonderful interview on HBO’s Real Sports about his colossal struggle with depression.

It’s also why I feel that Phelps is equally worthy of universal admiration for openly discussing his struggles as he is his for Olympic medal haul. His courage allows him to symbolically say, “Out of the pool, I’m just like you. I admitted I needed help. You can too. And hopefully you’ll find the great personal and professional I support I had.”