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How I Went From A Nationally-Ranked Gymnast to Clinically Depressed

May 14, 2021

As I sat there in my parent’s bedroom desperately awaiting to see if my career would continue, my parents took one look at me and said the words that changed my life forever. Growing up in the Church can be this amazing time growing up, but I found it too be…well… what’s the word for it…Hell. Within the church there are many voices that state what you need to do in order to be holy. I am sure we all heard similar things before “pray more, fast more, do more, and be like Jesus”. Although these people may have good intentions, these words can sound a lot like “don’t go for your dreams, don’t explore the world, be a good kid, and don’t want more.

I do not know where this came from, but ever since day one I had this intensity that I could not tame. I loved giving my all; I just wanted to do as much as I could, see the world, and make something of myself. These desires were not too “make me look cool”, but rather I had this childlike desire to chase experience for the sake of experience itself. As a naturally rambunctious kid with large amounts of energy, my parents eventually put me in gymnasts. A decision that would change my life completely. 

When I started gymnastics, I knew this sport was for me. This was it, the opportunity I was waiting for. I knew I had to give this sport my all. Eventually I made it onto the Junior Olympic circuit and began competing at a national level, with no signs of backing down. Eventually, the sport began to consume me. Along the way something changed. People within the Church began to be scared of how seriously I was taking the sport. I had people “urging me to stop because I was thinking about Gymnastics more than God”. I started to feel a great amount of pressure. I loved God, but I wanted to prove these people wrong, I wanted to reshape their mindset. I wanted to show that you can love God while simultaneously being successful as an athlete. On one hand I had people urging me to quit, on the other I had people telling me that in order to achieve my dreams I needed to work harder than ever before in my sport. My goal became to prove these church people wrong and go for my dreams. However, I was a 12 year old who and no form of pacing myself. I began to over train myself because I desperately wanted people to see what I had to offer. While training I was battling excruciating knee, wrist, ankle and joint pain that doctors forecasted could turn into serious injury where my everything in my knees and joints could be torn if I continued training at this level, just as my parents were reaching dead ends with their finances. In the back of my mind in 2013 was “if I have to stop because of injury and finances, I will not know what to do; these people who doubted me and wanted to quit will get the last laugh. I will look like the biggest idiot on the planet and all they will do is give me a giant ‘see I told you so’, you were wrong all along”. Guess what, that is exactly what happened in December of 2013 My parents broke the news to me as I sat there in tears, everything I worked for was gone just like that.

As I started to adjust to regular life, people within the Church started saying “I am glad you have come to this decision, praising me for stepping down. Unfortunately, these people had no idea what pain I was going through. I began to spiral into an intense depression that have never experienced before and tried to shut gymnastics out of my mind, but I could never quite accept it. I had no purpose, I had nothing to put my intensity towards, I lost everything I wanted in life. I began to develop a severe hatred for God, I would cry out “why would you give me the opportunity to make something of myself, if I was only going to be considered an outcast, a reject,a delusional idot”. My life slowly began to unravel before my eyes.

In 2014 I was watching the Olympic Games, an event that I dreamed of attending and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I used to have everything I ever wanted, I had such a distinct purpose in my life, now I am nothing, now I am wasting away. I would carry this anger, depression, and frustration with me for years, having no outlet, no idea to cope, and what felt like no one I could turn too.

It is the summer of 2017 I was 16, and my parents sent me to the typical “Summer Jesus Church Conference”. Fortunatelty, something this time was different, I had a small group leader that I instantly clicked with. He was the cool 23 year old leader who loved sports and adventure as much as I did. I never told anyone my story of the religious trauma and severe mental health battle I experienced, but after getting to know him I finally opened up about my past. He was the was the first person in my life who was within the church who stopped and listened to all my pain. He took one look at my teary eyes and said “I am so sorry this happened to you”. “Just like sports, Jacob, you cannot back out when it gets tough and that is exactly what I want you to do with your faith, go into this conference and actually tell God how you feel”, he replied. I knew I had to give God a chance, I needed to have an honest conversation with the God I was Questioning. I started journaling about all the pain I went through, leading up to the conference. I was sitting there at this conference and for the first time in my life I met people that were excited about my intensity and passion for life, I began to see that God wants me to live out my intensity. I found the true Church. I said to myself “Oh my gosh, this is what it should be like in all churches, where we listen to peoples stories and pain. Where we don’t just pray it way but listen and give both spiritual and practical advice.”

I knew that I wanted to live my life for God but under one condition. I did not want to give people, the same BS that was given to me. I wanted a Christianity that had no BS. This journey ended up changing my life. I started getting involved in my youth group and people began to open up about their similar frustrations within he Church and how chained they felt. I began to see my own pain in so many other people. If you are anything like me, the stereotypical Christian answers piss the living daylights out you to no end. Although many mean well, when someone said “God has a plan everything will be better” I would cringe. When we say this we are treating the symptoms of one’s pain and ignoring the root cause of their suffering. 

To you who are reading this, I do not know why bad things happen, I wish I could tell you that there was a way to make the pain go away but the truth is healing is a journey, it is not instantaneous. You story and your experience matters. I would rather suffer and know the pain that others feel that to be some cookie cuter Christian who gives BS answers to all your questions. My challenge to you is to find one person who can mentor you; One person who you can be completely honest to without judgement; someone who can give you great spiritual advice in addition to practical keys to success, even within this Community. Life is hard, and often times people view God like “fairy dust that instantly solves your problems”, for all of you out there who know God is more than fairy dust, you are the ones who can make something of yourself. You are the ones who can break those barriers of what “we all think the ideal Christian should do”. It is ok to take risks, to live an adventure even if other Christians don’t like it. No two Christian lives look the same, but that is not your downfall, that is your power. God is not a formula, God is person, a spirit, a presence. The moment we put other Christian in a box of what innocent dreams they can and cannot achieve is the exact moment the dreamer feels like a limited being. Go for your dreams and be yourself, perhaps the Christian who truly lives like his/herself as they are meant to be can change the world while redefining the bounds of what everyone thinks a Christian is capable of.

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