Thanks to Eliana Yankelev for contributing this story to our Project: Speak series on athletes’ experiences with mental health in their coming out stories.
Trigger warning: self-harm, sexual assault
When I got my invitation to the 2015 Sports Summit, my reaction was the complete opposite of what it had been in 2014. A year ago, I was elated to have finally been asked to attend. It was hugely validating for me as a young person trying to find her place in a quickly growing movement. I was nervous, knowing no one, but beyond excited to participate.
In March, when Chris invited me, I was surprised. I had been largely silent that year: I wasn’t speaking publicly; I wasn’t showing up to GO! Athletes conference calls, and I had lost touch with some of the people I had connected with at the 2014 Summit. I was angry at my sport, angry with the movement and the Coalition, and thought my time as an LGBTQ+ sports advocate was done. I had just left the track team at Penn, ending my career as an elite athlete, and wanting to check out completely and find something new.
Much of my anger stemmed from my anxiety condition, which began in September 2014. At that time, I was going through a stressful transition in my personal life, which culminated in a series of panic attacks. They would hit me during track practice when my heart rate was high and my breathing was fast, humiliating me in front of my teammates and forcing me to step away from my sport. With the current stigma of mental illness in our generation, especially at a place like Penn, I really didn’t know how to explain what was going on to my teammates. After the first panic attack, my coach sent me immediately to the doctor. My symptoms were similar to those of a partial pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung. But I knew that nothing was pathologically wrong with my body, I just couldn’t get my breathing under control. I remember being sent to the hospital for a chest X-ray and having another panic attack in the waiting room when the secretary couldn’t find my insurance information. I felt so alone, scared, helpless, and angry that my coach was demanding a whole medial workup for something I knew was completely in my head. She asked me to bring a doctor’s note when I was ready to come back to practice, treating me like a child and using manipulative and passive aggressive language to make me feel guilty for asking for some time off to recover. So, just like that, I stopped showing up to practice in the afternoon. I felt pushed away and that no one was trying to pull me back in.
But it didn’t end there. I remember about a week after the first big panic attack, I biked down to the track for our regular Tuesday morning practice and my coach yelled at me in front of the other girls, asking me why I had shown up. All I wanted was to see my teammates and work out. My coach had essentially threatened me with one of those “I’m giving you the time away that you need, but you better be ready to work when you get back,” speeches when I asked her for some time off, scaring me into keeping myself in shape. However, she would make me run my workouts on the opposite side of the stadium. It was alienating and embarrassing every day.
The anxiety continued to get worse. My attention span wavered constantly, and I would exacerbate my nerves with the frustration that I couldn’t get any of my work done. It would take me hours to fall asleep, I couldn’t stay asleep, and as a result I would be exhausted throughout the day. My hands shook. My appetite was suppressed. I would have compulsive thoughts, thoughts that scared me: thoughts about harming myself, hurting other people, breaking things. I was genuinely frightened by what was in my head because I had never self-harmed and didn’t intent to start.
I started seeing a therapist every Wednesday. I would bike downtown, desperate for the rush of exercise that I could no longer get with my team. The trip to Center City for therapy was one of the few times in a day where I felt calm. Granted, the first few sessions were difficult. But I developed a great relationship with my therapist and things started to get easier. I gradually became aware of everything that was happening around me. I learned that my compulsive thoughts about self-harm often coincided with anxiety, and that I could calm myself down when I felt a panic attack coming on.
However, in late October, the tables turned on me again. Seeking comfort and support, I entered into a relationship with someone who used their age and status against me, creating a negative power dynamic. This person abused me, both emotionally and sexually. This pushed me further into a state of disarray. How could my coach, who already refused to recognize herself or our track practices as triggers to my anxiety, possibly grasp female-on-female sexual assault – or understand what I was going through? I suddenly began dreading my identity as a gay woman after I had been out to my team for over two years. I was ashamed with myself for being ashamed. Above all, I was scared.
I continued to see my therapist to try and work through what happened. Slowly, things stared to get better. I joined a support group on campus for victims of sexual assault and increased the scope of my athletic advocacy to include victims of sexual assault as well as introducing the dialogue of same-sex intimate partner violence into the LGBTQ+ community. I wanted my community to talk about it, to acknowledge it, and to make it better for the people struggling with it.
The process wasn’t as quick as I make it out to be in this piece. Finding the resources to find a therapist who accepted my health insurance, rebuilding my schedule to accommodate for weekly sessions, getting through an academically rigorous semester, and living as a survivor of sexual assault, all challenged me immensely. I still struggle with my anxiety, but have learned how to cope with it and grow as a person regardless of my diagnosis. I never quite mended my relationship with my coach, but I understood that advocating for myself and owning the self-assurance that I could get through my day without breaking down was, in the end, more important to me than my track and field career. In April, I made the decision to leave the track and field team after a long process and did not look back.
Going back to the beginning of this story, I mentioned that I was angry. I came to the realization that I was angry because the LGBT sports movement was not actively addressing depression, anxiety, or sexual assault in a realistic way that could have helped or related to me – or anyone, for that matter. My experience with anxiety and sexual assault is deeply personal and triggering, but the story I am sharing with you now, and the dialogue I am contributing to, form the conversations I wished I could have been a part of when I was at my lowest.
At this summer’s Summit, I participated in one of the most beautiful conversations about the struggles we face or have faced as LGBTQ+ athletes. I listened to two of the most talented and kindhearted women I have ever met break down in front of me; for them, it was the first time they could open up about their story and feel safe, validated, and important. That moment truly made me realize how essential it is for us to have those breakthrough moments of sheer vulnerability in our community.
Eliana Yankelev is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and a former member of the Varsity Women’s Track and Field Team. Eliana was the previous Executive Director of Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia (PATH) and the Penn Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and has been a member of GO! Athletes since 2012.