Amaris Kobolak, Communications Chair of The Quell Foundation Jr. Board of Directors and a student-athlete alumnus at the University of Pennsylvania, was the first speaker to lift her mask for the 2019 Masquerade Ball. She spoke to the pressures of “being perfect” and the pain endured through losing multiple teammates to suicide.
To view a video of Amaris’ speech, click here.
I lay there. Staring at my ceiling. I’m nervous. Excited. Proud. The night before my first collegiate track meet. What I’ve worked for my whole life. The day I had been waiting for since I won my first race.
The next day I would walk on to the track with my team. My family.
We did everything together from day one. Lived together, ate together, trained together… and today we were going to crush it together.
But then an email notification appeared on my phone. Something so normal, so benign. A notification. But not this one. This would be the email that would change our lives forever.
Maddie had taken her life. My teammate. My friend.
I hear my teammate across the room reading the email aloud. Her sobs made it almost impossible to hear the words she was so desperately trying to say.
I lay there. Still staring at the ceiling. No longer excited and nervous. Paralyzed by shock. I was frozen. Unable to move, speak, react.
Not again. I can’t bear this again.
Almost immediately, I was taken back to almost exactly four years ago. The night before Freshman year in high school. I lay there. Awake. A ball of nervous energy, excited for my first day of school. Only to find out that our beloved track coach died by suicide. Then three more. Students and teachers.
What did I miss?
What cries for help were lost in silence? How much pain was masked behind their smile?
Did they think we would wake up in the morning, and go on without them as if nothing had happened?
We couldn’t. I couldn’t.
I fixated on those questions and the emotion attached to them. The depression I was already battling was magnified by the guilt I started to carry.
What did I miss?
I lost focus on the things that used to matter most to me. Soon after came failing grades, poor performances, and strained relationships.
I felt myself falling into this dark space. Away from anything that required the slightest bit of effort. Soon, getting out of bed became difficult.
What did I miss?
College is supposed to be fun, right? They tell you about new friends, new experiences and a new sense of freedom.
What they don’t tell you is that all of those new things are coupled with pressures and stresses you’ve never experienced before. Not like this.
Top student. Star athlete. Nice person. Good teammate.
No, not pick one. Achieve them all.
This pressure to be perfect can send you spiraling down. Imagine starting at 5:00 am. Train, eat, class, study, train, repeat. You’re exhausted. Drained and scared. Can I do this? If I can’t, I’m going to let everyone down. My parents. My teammates. My teachers. Myself.
We’re perfectionists already, student-athletes. Then, we’re pushed to our limit every minute of the day in every way possible. Mentally. Physically. That mix can be toxic. It was toxic for Maddie. And, it was beginning to become toxic for me.
Then we lost another teammate, Tim.
What did I miss?
Was he feeling toxic too? Is this my eventual end? Would the very thing I used to find solace in be my demise? How could something I loved so much create such devastation in my life? Track became a stressor. A reminder. A weight pulling me down into the darkness.
And there, I understood.
I understood their pain. Their sadness. I understood why instead of reaching out for help, they stayed silent. How you can spiral into self-induced loneliness. I understood the feeling of being untethered from the things that used to drive me. I withdrew. From everyone and everything I loved.
Because I was in that dark space.
Then, as if being held captive in a dark room, and suddenly freed, I saw a sliver of light. Of hope.
I understood. That I was only 19 years old and had lost 10 people to suicide. That’s this table right here.
Could this table please stand up?
These represent all of the friends, teammates, coaches, mentors that I lost.
I understood that if I didn’t ask for the help I needed, I would never be freed. I couldn’t just suck it up and push through. I had to face my innermost feelings and build myself back up. I had to find a new definition of success. Or I would become a statistic. A devastating statistic.
And, I wasn’t ready for that.
It most certainly didn’t happen overnight but over time. Rewiring is not an easy path.
First, you have to find the help you need. That can feel like trekking through the desert with no water for months.
Imagine breaking your leg and having to wait at least a month to see a doctor. Every move you make is painful. And, there you are. Trying to walk to class. Eat. Sleep. All with a broken leg. You’re in perpetual pain. Angry and sad. Will I ever get better?
Then you finally get to meet with a doctor and they put a cast on your broken leg. It’s not all better that day, but you have a plan for recovery. You have hope.
That hope shines a light where there was only darkness. You can breathe again. You can find joy again. You start to thrive again.
That I could redefine my life on my terms. Find happiness and peace within myself. Because a friend offered to sit with me in the dark and crack the door open where there was no light.
If more people could feel the warmth of that light in their darkest coldest space, we may just have a revolution on our hands. One that makes mental health a top priority. One that does not stigmatize, but instead supports our wellbeing. We’re not just a top student. Star athlete. Nice person. Good teammate. We’re also scared. Vulnerable. Giving and loving.
There is so much more to all of us than we realize. Athlete or not. Scholar or not. Depth that no one other than ourselves can see. And we need to embrace it all. The good, bad. No more masks. No more unrealistic expectations. No more stigma.
I’m here today to ask you to hear my story. Not because it’s easy for me to share, but because it’s hard. Not because it feels good, but because it doesn’t. Because I am a survivor of my battle with mental illness and because I am not a statistic.
And I am asking you not just to hear my story, but to act upon it.
By standing with The Quell Foundation, you are helping remove the stigma surrounding reaching out for help. You are turning scholars into mental health professionals. You are decreasing wait times, and increasing recourses. You are saving lives.
Be the change we so desperately need. Be the sliver of light in someone’s darkness.
Are you interested in sharing your story with The Quell Foundation? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.