Val Constien: Treating the Body and Mind
By: Ruby Wyles
Having recently returned from the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, an experience of a lifetime and something that seemed impossible only a few years ago, Valerie Constien sat down with The Harrier. Valerie (Val) joins The Harrier in our efforts to normalize the topic of mental health in athletics, bravely sharing how struggles with mental health have impacted her own life.
As is so common, mental health started impacting Val’s life long before it was something she was aware of. Struggling in silence, oblivious to any help available, for years Val accepted anxious and negative thoughts as part of the human experience.
VC: I didn't start to really realize what mental health was until I actually was dealing with depression and was forced to talk to a psychologist and a doctor. My junior year of college I was dealing with severe depression and suicidal thoughts, an eating disorder and all of these horrible things that nobody should really have to deal with. But the reality is, so many people do. It was then that I first realized what mental health was.
I had been struggling with mental health ever since high school, dealing with anorexia from the beginning, when I was 15. It became something that was always in the back of my mind or else something that I was actively engaging in. I had been dealing with mental health for so many years before I realized what it was. My junior year of college, I finally came to the realization that, oh, I have depression and anxiety, and it's okay, lots of people struggle with this too.
From that dark and difficult place junior year of college, Val opened up about how medication and therapy helped her start to see the light.
VC: I started to take some antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine and it really worked, I started to feel a lot better. Talking to the sports psychologist at CU (University of Colorado, Boulder) really helped me work through my negative thoughts, and I noticed so many positive changes after that.
I started medication and therapy on the same day, and then I saw the therapist really frequently for the first three months. The medication really started to help me a lot, and I didn't feel the need to see the therapist as much. I slowly started seeing a therapist less and less, until eventually, I felt good enough where I didn't need the medication, and I really didn't need to see the therapist as much.
Running at the NCAA Division 1 level can be cutthroat, and many athletes have recently spoken out about their experiences of an abusive or toxic culture. Val Constien was one of the lucky ones, however, and found herself greatly supported by her CU coaches, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. In her eyes, they saved her life.
VC: My coaches were actually part of what got me to see the therapist and the doctor to get me the medication to begin with. They were the ones who organized those first appointments because they started to notice that I was having some really introverted and negative thoughts. They initiated the whole thing, and actually probably saved my life. So I'm very grateful for them.
With mental health still being taboo and a topic of shame among many families and cultures, getting the right support can feel impossible. At times where sufferers could do with family and friends to turn to, this is not always the case.
VC: Depression and anxiety made me a bit of an outsider, so the team wasn't really a safe place for me at the time. And my parents are from an era that believe mental health is one of those dirty things like a disease. Even though there was the writing on the wall that I had been struggling for a while, when it eventually came out that I was seeing a therapist and taking medication, my family just didn't talk about it. As soon as I got to a place where they could tell that things were better, they just pretended like it never really happened.
For Val and us at The Harrier, these reasons explain why speaking out is so important: there is a stigma surrounding mental health, and with these internal struggles being so prevalent, barriers need to be broken down so help and support can be given readily to those who need it.
Mental health and physical performance are inextricably linked, and Val explained how mental health impacted her running.
VC: Before I got help, I was not very confident in any races that I did. I was working out really, really well, and I was able to crush every workout. But then as soon as we went to a big meet, I just didn't feel good enough. I started comparing myself to other girls on the starting line and it really didn't do anything good for my race confidence.
When I was in a super depressive state, it was even hard to go to practice because everyone else seemed so happy. I was just so miserable and it was hard to just be there.”
The ‘lighter equals faster’ logic is only true up to a point, beyond that, performance actually decreases and injury risk dramatically increases. Val Constien experienced first-hand the negative repercussions of being too light; since gaining weight, Val’s performances skyrocketed, and she now finds herself the fastest and fittest she’s ever been.
VC: My sophomore year when I was racing track, I was probably the lightest I ever was in my whole life. That season I ran around 10 minutes in the steeplechase. And then, as soon as I started to get into remission, and I gained some weight, and I was stronger and much, much healthier, by my fifth year in college I was running close to 9:40.
Now, a couple years out of college, Val has lowered her PR to a remarkable 9:18 for the steeplechase.
Unfortunately, Val’s body paid the price for years of under-fueling, but years into her recovery, she has noticed huge gains in her performance, recovery and injury-resilience. Well-fueled and in a great mental headspace, she looks forward to building on what she has accomplished this year.
VC: I'm very excited to get some more months of consistency under my belt. What I did to my bones through those years of my eating disorder I paid for through injury, even in the years after I was recovering and at a healthier weight. That can be a discouraging thing when people are in reform, but if people can just hang in there and keep in the reform cycle, it will all start to come back together and you’ll be better than before.
Isolation and introversion are common red flags that someone is struggling with their mental health, and deep in her struggles Val felt like an outsider from her team. Years removed from those dark times, Val has reconnected with her teammates and built up her support system.
VC: I’ve been dating this guy for three years now, and he's very, very supportive. Luckily, now if I ever have bad thoughts or anxiety, I can usually just tell him about it and he'll help me work through it.
A lot of the people that I wasn't super close with in college I've been able to reconnect with too, and now these people will be friends for the rest of my life.
Relationships can often be mended and new ones formed, but mental health struggles can also have very permanent, long-term physical effects, like the ones Val mentioned above; it is crucial awareness continues to be raised to prevent others struggling physically even once they are mentally well.
However, the reality is, being “mentally well” is not synonymous with being fully fixed or totally recovered, and many, like Val, continue to struggle to some extent with their mind years after their darkest days.
VC: There's always doubts in my mind, thoughts around anorexia, and it does sometimes give me anxiety, even today. I don't think that someone who's ever suffered with a severe eating disorder can fully get over that eating disorder. There's always going to be a part of your brain that's going to have some sort of anxiety around food, and I think that learning to cope with them is the best way towards a kind of recovery.
For anyone who's never dealt with this issue, it's easy for them to say that you can get cured. I think that it's really unfair to have that standard for people who have mental health, especially around food and eating anxiety. I would like to kind of bring some more attention to that, just because everything looks okay on the outside, and because they seem to have been moved past, it doesn't mean that they can’t still struggle.
Clearly, mental health still impacts Val and her athletic performances today, but developing healthy coping strategies and close supportive relationships, she feels confident in her ability to stay well and have sustained success.
VC: I don't know if I'll ever be to the point in my life where I won't have some sort of anxiety around food. And if things flare up, I do have people that I talked to, and I feel very supported in that way.
With mental health disorders being so hard to understand unless you’ve personally experienced them, what advice would you give to others who haven’t had their own struggles?
VC: Having a mental health disorder is not logical, it doesn't make any sense. There's something deeper going on that's overriding logical “oh, you're hungry, you should eat” to not be followed through with. I really hope that people can have some more empathy with people recovering.
Mental health struggles do not discriminate, nor do you have to suffer in silence: there is help available. Having a diagnosis or identifying a problem inside of you is not a sign of weakness, and it need not be a performance limiter. With the right support you can achieve your greatest goals even in spite of mental health struggles, but getting help and staying well has to be the first step. You are not alone.