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Lyndsey Fennelly talks mental illness

Finding a healthy, new rhythm in life

Basketball has always been a major part of Lyndsey Fennelly’s life. She grew up playing the game, even assisting her youth coaches at camps and tournaments. Her coaches inspired her to do her best — pushing her to work hard, never give up, and blow past her limits.

That hard work paid off. Fennelly played for Iowa State University (ISU), earning All-American honors, and led the NCAA in assists during the 2006–2007 season. She was even named one of the top-five point guards in the U.S. and was selected in the second round of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) draft.

“Pushing through things had been a way of life for me. I had an inspirational quote for everything, to fix anything,” she explains. “That is, until I encountered that rare thing in life that I just couldn’t push through, no matter how hard I tried. And believe me, I tried.”

That thing? Mental illness. But first, Fennelly wants to make it clear: “It does not define me. It isn’t who I am. But yes, it’s a part of my life. And in a way, it has made me stronger.”

Among Fennelly's many roles, she is wife to husband Billy, who she met during her time as an ISU basketball player. "He was the coach’s son. I was the point guard. I thought he was cute,” she laughs, “And for some reason, he couldn’t stop liking me.”

She is also a mom, trainer, mentor, sports enthusiast, entrepreneur, business owner and motivational speaker. Soon, she will be a published author. She is co-writing a memoir about life with mental illness, in hopes it will raise awareness and remove the stigma surrounding the diagnosis.

“While it’s hard for some people to talk about, for me, the topic of mental illness is always on the table. It’s close to my heart. No, it hasn’t always been this way. I have had to work hard to get to this point. But today, I can honestly say my mental illness is my superpower.”

Her struggle, and her superpower

To understand her superpower, it’s helpful to see Fennelly in her role as a motivational speaker. Her message about mental illness has audiences listening and responding.

“The reality is 1 in 5 Americans is living with mental illness Opens PDF. So I'm not alone here. In fact, I'm far from it. But most of us are not willing to share those personal experiences, because it’s perceived as shameful and embarrassing,” explains Fennelly. “I’d like to help change that. To know people are listening, it sure feels like a superpower."

Fennelly is open about the two hospitalizations she has had for her illness. The first took place a few months after a devastating miscarriage.

“I was so busy. Just so busy. I threw everything into building my business,” says Fennelly. “But it resulted in a mania, an extreme excitability, that lasted for four days. During that time, I didn’t sleep, eat or drink. And then, I broke down.”

When Fennelly reflects on this time in her life, she sees that she was hiding behind the pain of the lost pregnancy. She spent 15 days in the hospital before she was released. “When they told me about my diagnosis, I totally dismissed it,” she says. “I basically said, ‘Thank you, but you got it all wrong. Don’t talk to me about mental illness. I am trained in mental toughness. I will never take medication. I am never going to therapy. Goodbye.’”

Trying to be mentally tougher

After the first hospitalization, Fennelly did make a few changes to her life. But mostly, she thought she had to get tougher; better. Five years went by, and she and her husband, Billy, had two children, Will and Callie. She also co-owned a business called CampusCycle in Ames, Iowa. Everything was looking good, at least on the outside.

On the inside, she was barely holding on. She thought she needed some time away, a break. She went on a celebratory trip with a friend, and once again, the mania kicked in.

“In true Lyndsey fashion, I had to do everything 'big,'” says Fennelly, shaking her head. “Again, there was a severe lack of sleep. And it was like my brain short-circuited.”

She ended up in an ambulance and was flown back to Iowa, where her next hospital stay spanned three weeks. “One breakdown is bad," she says. "Two is worse. Three can put you in a vegetative state. And I had to come to terms with that."

Midway through that hospital stay, her husband was able to break through.

"I just knew he would do whatever it took to take care of me," recalls Fennelly. "As hopeless, scared and confused as I was, I knew I could get through each day, just because he would come visit me at night. His presence gave me a sense of calm and reassurance."

Surrender and acceptance were key

“Billy knows me better than anyone else," says Fennelly. "He knew I needed inspiration. Of all things, he brought me a People magazine. Mariah Carey was on the cover, and the headline was about her own battle with mental illness. I scoured that magazine. I thought, if she can sing, be a mom and be in the public spotlight with this illness, then I can too.”

Fennelly's son, Will, was almost four years old at the time. He hadn’t seen his mom in more than two weeks. “It was heartbreaking, and I missed him so much,” says Fennelly. “He wrote me the most beautiful note. It said ‘Mom, you are pretty. Mom, you are beautiful. Mom, I miss you. Mom, I love you.’”

She absorbed the simple, sweet words. “You see, I couldn’t be with my kids because I had no control over my mental state. I couldn’t even sit still. When I did sleep, I had horrific nightmares. I didn’t understand why I was in the hospital. Sadly, I really thought it had something to do with my character; who I was.”

To get her life back, Fennelly had to stop thinking her illness was a character flaw. “I’d always been taught to push through the pain. But this time, I couldn’t ‘athlete’ my way out of this. I had to change my perception about what it means to be mentally ill. In my mind, mental illness was associated with evil, deranged madmen, or some unhinged person in a TV crime drama. Not people like me. I had to see that I could be a whole person — and a mom and a wife — while also having a mental illness.”

She adds, “I saw then that I was living a dual life. One that was great on the outside, spectacular on social media, but marred on the inside, with trauma, loss, miscarriage and damaged family dynamics. I decided I didn’t want to operate this way anymore. I just accepted everything that I am, the good and the bad, including the mental illness. And that was the key. The surrender to the diagnosis was everything.”

Walking in truth

“Today, I’m walking in a truth that never before existed before in my world,” she says. “I just feel ready to face the daily challenges that come with my diagnosis.”

At its worst, Fennelly’s illness would have two extremes. The first was mania. She describes it as a tiger that can’t be contained. “When it hits, it feels impossible to escape. For me, mania made life fun and fast,” she says. “It’s like I’m driving an elite sports car with no limits."

The other extreme was depression. When it hit, it was like a slow, heavy freight train, hauling a load of darkness, worthlessness and hopelessness.

Today, Fennelly does everything in her power to prevent the two extremes. “I am happy to drive the speed limit in my Chevy Tahoe,” she laughs. “I want to avoid those extreme highs and lows.”

There are four non-negotiables she can’t do without

  1. Sleep. “Without question, it’s my number one essential,” she says. “Sleep deprivation affects everyone’s health, but for me, it is closely connected to my mental state. The lack of it can trigger an episode. I require at least 7–8 hours of sleep every night."
  2. Exercise. A daily dose of exercise is important for Fennelly, who hits the gym most days. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins External Site, the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals. “Exercise helps me cope with stress,” she adds.
  3. Medication. “I cannot handle certain situations without a mood stabilizer,” says Fennelly. “This doesn’t make me weak, it makes me strong.”
  4. Therapy. "I go every other week," she explains. "In therapy, we work through difficult feelings, discover how to repair relationships, create boundaries, and develop strategies to deal with certain situations and moods. It's an essential part of my life."

Finding balance and a healthy rhythm of life

One important distinction Fennelly outlines during her speaking engagements is the difference between the terms “mental illness” and “mental health.” Often, the words are used interchangeably. But they are quite different.

Mental illness refers to a variety of disorders that affect mood, thinking and behavior. It can affect anyone. People with mental illness often have trouble functioning at work, home and in social situations. It’s not something that can be overcome with willpower.

On the other hand, mental health is something we all have, to varying degrees. It is meant to be nurtured and protected. It helps us make sound decisions and have meaningful relationships. It helps with resiliency, stress and handling life’s challenges.

“Even if you don’t have mental illness, it’s important you do all you can to protect your mental health,” says Fennelly. "Some people are naturally good at this. I have to work at it. I was conditioned to believe I had to skip sleep and hustle all day to be successful. Now, I seek balance."

Protect your mental health with Fennelly's tips

  1. Don’t overcommit. “My schedule is a big part of my mental health. Some things simply have to wait. Also, I have learned to say ‘no’ to a lot of things.”
  2. Create boundaries. "Personal boundaries External Site tell other people what’s acceptable and what isn’t. One simple boundary I have recently put in place is to put my phone away for at least an hour a day. This is because I always thought I had to reply to texts and emails immediately. But it's just too much for me to be available to everyone, 24/7."
  3. Honor yourself. “This is something that may be helpful for people in the sports world who are often told to push past the pain. I used to do that. Today, I would say it’s better to recognize when enough is enough. Knowing your limits is honoring yourself."
  4. Find calm spaces in your life. "My husband was born with a congenital heart defect, so he has a pacemaker. When I lay my head against his chest, the easy rhythm is like a metronome to my spirit. It calms my manic behavior. It just works. And we all need to find something that works for us, whether it's breathing techniques, prayer or meditation."
  5. Be gentle with yourself and other people. “Practice more acceptance, grace and patience with yourself and the ones you love. These are words that aren’t used in the sports world, but I would argue that you can be gentle and kind while also being tough and hard-working.”
  6. If you need it, get professional help. “Whether you are living with someone with a mental illness, or you suspect you might have a mental illness, get help. I am all too aware of the lack of mental health care in Iowa. But when you have a mental illness, professional help is key. Find out whether your employer offers an Employee Assistance Program. Talk to your doctor about possible resources. Just do everything you can to get the help you need."

How to help a loved one with mental illness

The first six months after her release from the hospital, Fennelly recalls some painful, vulnerable moments. She sensed people walked on eggshells around her, concerned she was on the brink of a breakdown. This is part of the stigma of mental illness that she wants to help people get past.

She explains, “I’m medicated, getting the sleep I need, doing all the right things, so here is the deal: Are things more exciting for me? Yes. Are things more sad for me? Yes. And all of this is OK."

“Part of the reason I’m succeeding is because I have a partner in life who treats me like a normal person. With him, I don’t feel exposed or weird. He doesn’t judge me. He somehow loves me without conditions and without fear,” she says. “There is no doubt, my mental breakdowns were a significant strain on our life. But somehow, Billy always operated from a place of love. And as hard as it is sometimes, I think that's what we're all called to do."

“Billy is the first to know if I’ve forgotten to take my meds. But he still loves me when I make a mistake. Sure, he holds me accountable. But he doesn’t shame me. He has perspective. He doesn’t over-stress or worry. He has an underlying trust in me. And now that I’m all in, he is too.”

So, where is she now? Fennelly sums it up, “Tonight, I’m going to take my medications before bed. I’m going to see my counselor later this week. I will get some exercise tomorrow, and I will go to bed on time. If that kind of day used to be my greatest burden, then it has certainly become my greatest blessing."

Find accessible mental health care with Doctor On Demand®

More than 70 percent of people with mental health conditions External Site don't seek help. From shame to lack of access, many people find it can be challenging to reach out for help. But it doesn’t have to be.

A virtual doctor visit might be a great place to begin, for help with mental conditions such as:

If you are concerned about your mental health and need immediate help, use these resources provided by the Centers for Disease Control External Site.

Lyndsey's advice for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on many people's mental health. In fact, according to a poll published by Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half (45 percent) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted External Site due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.

You can follow Lyndsey on Facebook External Site, Twitter External Site, and Instagram External Site.