When mental health issues sneak up on you

It seems there are no rules when it comes to mental health. Some people get warnings that things aren’t quite as they should be. They might start feeling sad or depressed; they might start worrying more than usual, or have difficulty sleeping – small, but noticeable signs that there’s an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

For others, like me, mental health issues can hit you out of nowhere. It could be an ordinary day, doing something you’ve done a million times before and then… WHAM. Out of nowhere, a panic attack comes and knocks the wind right out of you. Rendering you unable to move. Unable to breathe. And you have no idea what’s happening, let alone why.

Image of Maddie Steele and another person, smiling at the camera with medals around their neck.

Great expectations

The first time it happened I didn’t even know it was a panic attack. I had no reason to believe I would be susceptible to overwhelming anxiety – after all, I was an elite student athlete, seemingly smashing goals in study and my sport of cycling. I was back in Australia after a year racing track and road in the US collegiate system. From the outside, my life looked like a highlights reel of triumph after triumph – a success story of balancing a Bachelor of Architecture and the pursuit of my cycling dream. But there’s a downside to being put up on such a high pedestal.

It was my first training session after returning from the States when it happened. As I pulled into the Adelaide Super-Drome carpark – a place where I’d spent countless hours training and racing before – I felt a knot forming in my stomach. I hadn’t been here in over a year. I hadn’t seen my track cycling friends in just as long. The knot was getting tighter. I knew they expected me to walk in there and smash that training session. To be better than they’d ever seen me before. I couldn’t breathe. They expected greatness from me. I felt like fraud – a living, breathing social media-fuelled lie. I didn’t think I could live up to their expectations. I couldn’t face them. I called my coach in tears and told him I couldn’t get out of the car. That was the first time I realised something might not be right.

Image of Maddie Steele cycling at the Super Drome.

Getting help

A couple of years later, the panic attacks had started to hit in waves. I was juggling my new graduate career at Hames Sharley with the tail-end of my studies and a new tutoring position. I was also trying in vain to hold onto what was becoming the twilight of my cycling career. I had completely overcommitted. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. My life felt like it was spiralling. I was riddled with self-doubt and was overcome with the feeling that my partner didn’t, couldn’t, love me anymore. There was no logic to it. There were many nights, I kept us both awake in floods of tears - unable to breathe with that now familiar crushing feeling compressing my chest. All I knew was that every now and then, I was convinced he was going to leave me. He could see through this though – he knew it was quite the opposite. He suggested I see a psychologist to work through whatever it was that was making me feel that way.

I reached out to my GP who put me on a Mental Health Plan. She helped me locate a suitable psychologist and it was life-changing. We talked about the panic attacks and the worries in my relationship. Over time, it became clear that my feelings of dread came in cycles; around once a month. I was diagnosed with Anxiety and furthermore, it was suspected I may have Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) – a more severe, yet very rarely talked about, form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) that can wreak havoc on a person’s mental wellbeing. Having a diagnosis like that was transformative. It meant that the most awful part of my life wasn’t real. And that it could be treated! It was the first step on my road to recovery.

My new psychologist worked through some of the issues lurking in the background. He helped me to understand that after having dedicated so much of my life to cycling, the fact that I was now leaving it behind was hard for me to deal with. All my friends were still cyclists. My partner was still a cyclist. They spent so much of their week training while I was working and studying. Although I had mostly moved on from cycling, my world was exclusively filled with cyclists, which made me feel lost. I had attached so much of my own identity to being a cyclist, that I didn’t know who I was anymore without it. I was grieving.

Community and connection

The cure? My partner, psychologist and I all agreed I needed a new sport. One that wouldn’t demand 20-30 hours of my week to be in peak physical fitness. A sport that would give me a new focus, new goals and new feelings of accomplishment. I had always loved footy growing up, and with the wave of women flocking to the sport with the introduction of AFLW, I jumped on the bandwagon and found a local women’s football team. Everything changed.

They were so excited to have me on the team. There was so much positive energy and compliments about my sporting ability. It felt incredible to be good at something other than cycling; to be carving out a new identity for myself. And I was making new friends outside of the circle of cycling friends I shared with my partner. It was building a new life, a new identity. I was genuinely excited to get to training. That was a feeling I remembered from a long time ago. I felt myself for the first time in years. Today, I am proud to be joining the Women’s Training Squad of SANFL club Central Districts for 2022/23.

Image of Maddie Steel kicking on a footy field.

Another sign of the progress I’ve made is that I am passionately working on a project that has taken me back to the Super-Drome many times in the last couple of years – the National Centre for Sports Aerodynamics. To walk into the site of that panic attack, years later – and feel ok about being there – is a big deal and I should acknowledge that.

This personal narrative also informs my contribution as a member of Hames Sharley’s Sports and Recreation Thought Leadership Group. In a sector tackling the rapid decline of young people participating in competitive organised sport into their teenage years – a phenomenon dubbed ‘the participation cliff’ – my breadth of experience in multiple sports, across multiple roles and through a mental health lens has value. Whether its leading consultation for local sporting club facilities upgrades or designing more inclusive change facilities to cope with the influx of women into previously male-dominated sports, I can be confident knowing this is a sector I have lived and breathed my whole life – a sector that has fundamentally shaped who I am today.

This year, the RUOK day theme was ‘no qualifications needed’, which really resonated with me. Because it’s true - you don’t need to be specialised in mental health to ask someone if they’re feeling ok, you just need to reach out. My partner (now fiancé) encouraged me to get help, and normalised the seeking of help for me and I’m so glad he did. Since these experiences, I’ve had conversations with Family and Friends about seeking help. I use my own story to make sure they know they’re not alone. Mental health is so different for everyone. Some people know they’re not ok. But for others, sometimes it takes someone asking if you’re ok before you realise that you’re not. Once you realise you’re not ok, you can take the necessary steps to start feeling better.

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