Winning 28 Olympic Gold Medals Does Not Make You Happy
by John Lawrence
As a testimony to the false gods people worship, consider the case of Michael Phelps, the swimmer, who won 28 Olympic gold medals. Did that make him happy? No, He suffered major bouts of depression and even wanted to kill himself. Is winning at any price what it's all about? Is competition to prove you're the best in the world what makes you happy? I don't think so.
"You do contemplate suicide," the winner of 28 Olympic medals told a hushed audience at the fourth annual conference of the Kennedy Forum, a behavioral health advocacy group.
Interviewed at the conference by political strategist David Axelrod (who is a senior political commentator for CNN), Phelps' 20-minute discussion highlighted his battle against anxiety, depression. and suicidal thoughts -- and some questions about his athletic prowess.
"Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression," said Phelps when asked to pinpoint when his trouble began. He noticed a pattern of emotion "that just wasn't right" at "a certain time during every year," around the beginning of October or November, he said. "I would say '04 was probably the first depression spell I went through."
That was the same year that Phelps was charged with driving under the influence, Axelrod reminded the spellbound audience.
And there was a photo taken in fall 2008 -- just weeks after he'd won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics -- that showed Phelps smoking from a bong. He later apologized and called his behavior "regrettable."
Drugs were a way of running from "whatever it was I wanted to run from," he said. "It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was that I was trying to run from."
The "hardest fall" was after the 2012 Olympics, said Phelps. "I didn't want to be in the sport anymore ... I didn't want to be alive anymore."
What that "all-time low" looked like was Phelps sitting alone for "three to five days" in his bedroom, not eating, barely sleeping and "just not wanting to be alive," he said.
Finally, Phelps knew he needed help.
Phelps got help, and he opened up and talked about what was going on inside his head, stuff he had compartmentalized and repressed. Now he's trying to help others with the same problems. Could it be that the athletic activity itself helped Phelps keep his head above water, and that, when that activity was over like at the end of the Olympics, he sank like a rock? Perhaps exercise is good, but competition is bad. Or the stopping of exercise is bad once you're used to it. I wonder if Phelps swims at all now that he's retired just for the exercise and the salubrious effects it has on the human mind.
Phelps is working to try and raise awareness of depression and other mental health issues by telling others about his own journey. "I'd like to make a difference," he says. "I'd like to be able to save a life if I can. You know for me that's more important than winning a gold medal. "The stuff that I'm doing now is very exciting. It's hard, it's challenging but it's fun for me. That's what drives me to get out of bed every morning."