USI student-athlete shines light on mental health awareness
EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- Cross country runners constantly push their bodies to the limits.
They give their all - fighting through physical pain, ignoring the idea of slowing down - until reaching the finish line. Races are as much of a mental challenge as they are a physical one, but quitting is not an option.
Darin Lawrence, 22, has always used running as his outlet to relieve stress. Now a fifth-year senior at the University of Southern Indiana, he was the Great Lakes Valley Conference Cross Country Freshman of the Year in 2015 and earned all-GLVC honors again in '16 and '17. He didn't compete for USI last year in what was supposed to be a redshirt season, but he still won the Evansville Half Marathon last October.
Shortly thereafter, Lawrence checked out. He fell into a hole of depression filled with self-doubt and bad thoughts. He eventually disappeared, leaving behind a suicide note for friends and family to discover.
The act was up.
Lawrence had long been embarrassed to admit anything was wrong. He'd always masked his personal pain with a smile, just like a runner pushes through the pain during a race. But after attempting suicide in the spring, he realized when it came to his mental health, he couldn't quit.
Darin Lawrence has since got his life in order, is still in school and will run in Saturday's GLVC Cross Country Championships at Angel Mounds.
He wants to share his personal struggles with mental health to help erase the stigma.
"It's OK to not be OK," he said. "It's hard to accept because everyone wants to be different in a positive way, but no one wants to show they're different on the negative side. That's not to say having a mental health problem is negative, but the stigma society puts on it makes it feel like a negative. You should be OK with not being OK.
"You'd talk to someone about a physical injury, so why wouldn't you talk about what's going on in your head?"
Lawrence was the popular kid as a student at, fittingly, Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis. He was homecoming king and a two-time state cross country qualifier.
When he felt vulnerable, he says he faked being happy. He disguised mood swings. When his parents divorced, at times Lawrence felt like he was the rope in a tug of war between them.
A few months into his junior year of high school, he felt depressed and that led to a funk - bad habits affected everything from his sleep schedule to his diet. One day after school, he tried to numb the pain by taking 8,000mg of ibuprofen, more than double the maximum daily limit.
"That was my first suicide attempt," he said.
Lawrence was at home with his middle-school-aged sister and after waiting for about two hours, he called his parents to let him know what he'd done. They were upset and scared.
Eventually, the incident passed over.
"We didn't do anything," Lawrence said. "It was like, 'Oh, it happened,' instead of like taking the steps to cure me."
By the time he got to USI with newfound freedom and better control of his ups and downs, he found other ways to numb his pain: alcohol and partying. He did well as a freshman on the cross country team, but in the classroom, he wasn't meeting expectations and was placed on academic probation.
That meant he couldn't run track in the winter and spring.
"Now I couldn't go to practice and my only stress reliever is gone," Lawrence said. "It got really, really dark.
"I didn't want to come to the realization that something wasn't right. I couldn't accept that something like this could happen to me or why it would happen to me."
Still, he kept smiling, but the happiness was just an act. Lawrence got his grades in order and remained relatively balanced until the end of his junior cross country season.
"He's always been as positive and upbeat as anyone on the team, but I do realize oftentimes people who are struggling mask that pretty well," USI cross country coach Mike Hillyard said. "Like all the guys on the team, he's like a son to me. It's been difficult seeing him struggle, but it's been wonderful to see him handle things in the ways he had."
A wave of depression crashed over Lawrence again in his junior year of college.
If something wasn't right or didn't go his way - no matter how minor - he said he would feel lifeless. He couldn't stand being alive. He didn't care about school. He over examined and overthought everything.
"There were times I would take a knife and literally just look at myself in the mirror," Lawrence said. "I could never do the physical pain to the point of stabbing myself, but it was always an option to do it slowly, like how I did junior year of high school."
He gained 25 pounds before eventually coming out of his funk and shedding the weight. He even began to go to therapy after talking with his family. Lawrence completed his junior year at USI, but that bad stretch led to him once again being academically ineligible, meaning he'd miss the fall cross country season.
The depression ultimately appeared again. He gained 35 more pounds last October and November after winning the Evansville Half Marathon. The bad thoughts consumed him.
You're fat ... You're not going to be good anymore ... You're throwing away your life ... You're not going to graduate.
"It's like whatever you think about, there's always that negative," Lawrence said. "Movies are famous for having the angel on one shoulder and devil on the other, but it's really like two devils on your shoulders constantly talking and you constantly have that thought you're a failure."
One night in the spring - amid a good week of therapy, his therapist later told him - Lawrence reached a breaking point. He turned off his phone and wrote a suicide note, naming all of his family members and close friends.
Then he got in his car and drove south toward Kentucky. Back in Evansville, his friends found the note and called the police. Everyone tried to track him down and he continued to drive.
"It was just rapid-fire thoughts," Lawrence said. "How am I going to kill myself? How am I going to do this?"
He again resorted to taking pain relievers before turning himself into Deaconess Hospital, too embarrassed to notify anyone firsthand that he was OK.
Lawrence was admitted into Deaconess Cross Pointe Hospital, a behavioral and mental health facility, for four days. He was 10 to 20 years younger than everyone else in the depression and alcohol abuse wing.
"It was an eye-opener to how I can cope with everything in different ways other than running," said Lawrence, who has been diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder.
Darin Lawrence is now on medication and goes to both individual and group therapy weekly. He's started to play golf more often and has even tried to learn how to play the piano. He also has introduced himself to meditation and yoga.
By talking to others who have encountered similar problems, he's learned new ways to better relieve stress and stay in control. He's no longer afraid to open up.
"Running is still my escape, but it's less now," Lawrence said. "I don't want to completely depend on running because if running goes south, I start to lose myself in a sense."
He's back at USI to finish a degree in computer science after medically withdrawing during the spring semester. A couple of months ago, the Eagles weren't sure whether they'd have him on the team again for his final season, Hillyard said.
Hillyard added that he believes student-athlete mental health issues are more prevalent than people realize, so he admires Lawrence for having the courage to be open and honest about his situation.
USI's Counseling Center is available to assist students with depression, mental health and other challenges they may face requiring guidance.
"For a lot of us, running can be a form of meditation and a time to just turn your brain off and focus on one simple repetitive task for a while," Hillyard said. "Running has always been that way for me - like mowing the lawn, leaf blowing. Just turning your brain off and focusing is good for anybody."
Lawrence thought his running career was over, and that pales in comparison to the idea his life could've already ended. He isn't taking any more days for granted, nor does he hope to go down that dark road again.
It's been a long journey, but he's realized he needs to approach mental health the same way he does his physical health.
"People treat it as you're sad rather than something a lot deeper than that when it's actually something chemically in your brain where you don't have enough serotonin," Lawrence said. "It's kind of hard to be happy when you don't have it."
IF YOU NEED HELP
If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency, go to your local emergency room or call 911.
Local suicide hotline: 812-422-1100
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Source: Evansville Courier & Press
Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com