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Depression a constant presence for many closeted LGBTQ athletes

A gay swimmer on her struggles with depression and how it relates to being LGBTQ in sports.

Lauren Neidigh was featured in “Fearless,” Jeff Sheng’s photographic look at out LGBTQ athletes.
Jeff Sheng

There are certain pressures on student athletes that come with the territory.

You need to look a certain way, please your coaches and your teammates, and miss out on a lot of things in life. Sometimes you need to perform when you feel your worst, and it takes its toll.

Being a closeted athlete can make that even harder.

I’ve been lucky enough to ­meet other LGBT athletes through Outsports, Campus Pride and the Nike LGBT Summit. A lot of us have had similar experiences.

It’s scary to think that friends and family might look at you differently. It feels lonely when you don’t have anyone to relate to. When you look up to someone or depend on them, but you know they wouldn’t be OK with this part of you, it feels like nothing you do is good enough.

Coming out and figuring out who you can trust is a step in the right direction, but it’s not a complete solution to your problems. It still takes time to work through your insecurities and learn to be comfortable in your own skin.

Stepping back from practice and school isn’t usually an option. Taking even a few days off can set you a long way back. You can’t think twice about it. You just get up and do what you need to do anyways, even if you feel miserable.

I’ve been out and happy for almost six years, but one of the hardest things I had to do to get to this point was to learn to be OK with myself and to stop caring what other people think. I struggled a lot with depression throughout my athletic career as a swimmer.

Depression is something that a lot of people won’t talk about because of the stigma around mental health issues, but it’s something that needs to be talked about because it’s so much harder to get better when you treat it like something to be ashamed of.

The hardest part of my struggle was in my early years of college swimming. I had everything I wanted and loved every second of earning my place there. But I still wasn’t happy.

As a closeted athlete I was afraid of losing the people I was closest to if they knew there was something different about me. I would hear the way they would talk about other gay athletes and thought they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me if they knew that I was gay too.

I had enough self-esteem issues as it was. Growing up, kids in school would say I was too manly, my voice was too deep, that I looked ugly, or the way I walked was weird. I had school coaches when I was younger who said I would never accomplish anything athletic. It was enough to make me question everything I did.

Getting up every day and being around those people was extremely difficult and gave me a lot of anxiety, but I pretended not to care. I kept thinking if I pretended enough, then one day I just really wouldn’t care. I just learned to hide it well.

Throwing myself into swimming was a way to escape all of that. I moved schools a couple of times and ended up in a good place. I had coaches who were encouraging and helped me believe I could be better. My teammates were good people who made me feel like I fit in. It was nice to feel a little bit normal for a change. I kept my head down, did my work, and got to swim on scholarship at a university that I loved. I wanted that to make everything OK, but I was still struggling with who I was.

As an underclassman I was extremely depressed. I would walk into the pool and think about how lucky I was to be there, but something was still holding me back. I was working my hardest, but I wasn’t making any progress, and I got a lot of negative feedback even when I felt good about how practices went. I was in the shape of my life and should have felt proud of myself, but I was told that I wasn’t doing enough to have an elite body.

I wasn’t perfect by any means, but I didn’t feel like I deserved some of the things that were said to me. It wasn’t all bad and I still have some great memories from that time, but between being unhappy with who I was and not swimming well, it was too much for me to handle.

I eventually decided to start fresh in a new place, thinking that would make things better. But you can’t outrun depression. I came out to my University of Arizona team in my junior year, and that made things a lot better. It was easier to focus on school and swimming when I didn’t feel like I had to hide this part of me that I was ashamed of.

I wanted to believe that coming out had solved all my problems. I would love for it to have been that easy. For a while I felt good, but I still needed to deal with all the heartbreak and emotions I had felt.

Depression is tricky and a lot of people don’t understand it. You can tell everyone around you that you’re all good because you want it to be true, but part of you is still hiding something that makes you feel like you have to drag yourself wherever you go.

You can be surrounded by people and still feel completely alone. Sometimes it feels like everything is going to come crashing down on you if you admit to yourself how you really feel. It’s easy to hide from people and responsibilities when that happens. Don’t. It won’t just go away. You have to take steps to actively get better.

Lauren Neidigh

After college, I threw myself into graduate school the way I had with swimming. It made me feel good to prove to myself that I was smart and capable, especially since I had been called stupid so many times it had shattered my confidence.

Not swimming gave me time to figure out who I was and what I liked when I wasn’t staring at a black line all the time. It was healthy for me and I was able to take care of myself without worrying about how it would hurt me to take time off in the pool. I learned to talk about the things I went through without feeling embarrassed.

I spent so much time treating myself like a failure because things didn’t work out the way I had imagined when I was younger, but therapy and time have made things a lot better. I’m still in my 20s and it’s not too late for me to do the things that I love and that make me proud. I also get the chance to help other people, so they don’t feel like they’re alone.

A lot of time has passed, and I don’t feel depressed anymore. None of this has been a perfectly smooth road. There are times when those feelings will come back. That can be scary and challenging because I think I’ve made it through the hard part and moved on, and I never want to feel that way again. That’s when I need the people close to me to remind me that I’m not who I used to be, and I’m better for going through what I went through.

I had to learn to be OK with being afraid. It doesn’t change anything I’ve accomplished or set me back from how far I’ve come.

After everything, I think the best part of really taking the time to accept who I am is that I don’t have to pretend not to care what people think anymore. I just really don’t care.

Lauren Neidigh is a former NCAA swimmer at the University of Arizona and the University of Florida. She’s also an alumni of The Bolles School and a Florida 1A State Champion. She got her M.S. in Criminology from Florida State and seems exceptionally confused about which team she should cheer for during the college football season. She is now a swim coach and instructor for her hometown of Jacksonville, as well as a reporter for SwimSwam News. She can be reached via email at lneidigh2011@gmail.com, Instagram at @lneidigh, or Facebook.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski