Every two years, I become a sports fan, but only for two weeks. It’s an unlikely spell cast by the Olympics, and once the games are over, so is my interest in sports. Friends have commented that I am the least likely Olympics fan that they know.
My interest in mental health is constant, and when it showed up as the defining factor in a pivotal moment at the Tokyo Games, I could not have been more surprised. Or inspired. It was a revolutionary turn of events.
Shortly after Simone Biles withdrew from the team competition in gymnastics, I watched an interviewer talk with retired swimmer Michael Phelps – he of the 28 gold medals – who has had his own mental health challenges make headlines in the recent past. Phelps was deeply empathetic about Biles’ choice, and was quoted as saying “We are human beings. Nobody is perfect, so yes, it is ok not to be ok.”
The semi-annual festival of physical power seemed the least likely place for the conversation about mental health to gain such important ground, but perhaps it was the most likely. People who train their bodies to perform these feats also train their minds; that these disciplines are intertwined should not be at all surprising.
That our culture considers them separate is, to me, blatantly weird.
I recall the moment when, as a child, I heard the phrase “Healthy mind, healthy body,” I was a bit confused to be informed that they were two separate things. It was actually the Latin quote “Mens sana in corpore sano,” as the previous generation of my family was so ardently Catholic most of them had been educated to speak Latin. When they told me what that meant in English, it took me a long moment to understand that what they were saying was that people were divided into two parts. I did not agree, and privately decided that was only for Mens, and not for Girls.
My family has mental health problems – the kind that you can inherit, and the kind that develop in relation to environment and stress. One metaphor I can use to explain this is physical health – like if your family had a condition of the leg muscles or the ankle bones that you might inherit. I have siblings who have spent most of their adult lives in the equivalent of wheelchairs. I consider myself lucky in that I have a limp, and sometimes need to walk with a cane. But I’ve managed to maintain my mobility, and stay out of the wheelchair.
I also have relatives who have worked their way out of wheelchairs to run a metaphorical 5K race, and stayed strong. A set back is not a death sentence, and a gain is not a one way ticket to being problem-free.
There are occasions where my legs will fail me with no advance notice, and I fall flat.
When I discovered yoga, I knew had found a great way to maintain my metaphorical mobility. When I’m shaky, my practice always helps me find my feet. Yoga uses the mind and the body together, an idea that our culture still finds strange.
Throughout the pandemic, I have been noticing many people are allowing themselves to be a bit more honest, a little more forthcoming, with their mental health challenges. The automatic “I’m fine” is really no longer required. Many of us who have escaped infection and are vaccinated against COVID have had the chance to notice that isolation, exhaustion and stress can be just as taxing as a cough or a fever. Or even more so.
Would you be ashamed of having a cold, or a headache? So why be ashamed of having a phobia, or a neurosis? Stress is going to make all those things worse. Admitting you are not ok is a crucial step to take.
When the pandemic first struck, I got into reading a lot of plague literature; what people did in Europe during the Black Death was of great interest. As they did not have the concept of germ theory, they had no way of knowing how the infection was spreading, but many people got the idea it had to do with the air. Bad smells, night breezes, sneezing, were all held to be a possible source of the disease. They were in the right neighborhood, but still very far from understanding.
As we accept an invisible loss of balance to be a legit reason for deciding not to somersault through a competition, we are in the neighborhood. As we deal with the societal consequences of the insanity of those who refuse to be vaccinated, we may find an unlikely new understanding of mental health. If we could rid ourselves of this Roman idea that the mind and the body are two separate things, we may discover something just as game changing as germ theory.
It would be an Olympian insight.