Florida lacrosse player Makenzie Mason: 'I have to keep fighting'

My name is Makenzie Mason. I'm a 19-year-old student athlete at the University of Florida, and I'm currently battling depression and anxiety. Back in early September, I chose to return home to Nashville to focus on my mental health because it was getting in the way of my ability to function. But when I got home I felt more hopeless than ever that recovery was possible for me.

I had just left a therapy session a few weeks after returning home when my mom told me about an article she had read about the suicide of NFL player Solomon Thomas' sister, Ella. I was in absolute shock. Before he became the head coach of Vanderbilt's football team, my dad, Derek Mason, used to be Stanford's defensive coordinator. I vividly remember when he was recruiting Solomon. I was about 12 years old. I always knew Solomon had a close relationship with his sister and remember seeing a picture of them together. She seemed so cool and beautiful to me.

But maybe I shouldn't have been shocked by her death. I know firsthand that depression is a deadly illness that most people can't see. That's why I decided to speak up on the issue from the perspective of someone actually going through it. If Solomon was able to share his heartbreaking story, then the least I could do was to share mine, so that those who are suffering from depression or love someone with depression don't have to go through what the Thomas family have endured. People too often only hear about someone's depression after that person takes their own life, then wonder what they could have done to help. That needs to change. I get why someone who has never gone through it would have a hard time understanding what would drive someone to commit suicide -- because it isn't rational. But that's just it: Depression is a disease that infects your brain to the point where you can no longer think rationally.

As a child, I was generally a happy kid. But I did not have a usual childhood. I'm very close with my dad, and I love what he does. I wouldn't change it for the world. I was like that little girl Sheryl from "Remember the Titans" -- I talked football with my dad, and spent the afternoons in his office doing homework and watching film. I would be in tears when my dad's team lost.

But due to his job, we were constantly moving, and it started to take a toll. I never quite knew who I was or where I fit. I remember when my dad got the job at Stanford and we moved to California, something changed. I was just beginning middle school and I was chronically sad for no particular reason. Nothing traumatic happened to me, but I would have uncontrollable crying spells and isolate myself from people. By the age of 12, I felt worthless. I wished I was dead.

Eventually, I settled in, and by the time I entered eighth grade and high school, I remember finally being happy. I felt like I belonged. But during my freshman year in high school, my dad left Stanford to become the head coach at Vanderbilt. I took it pretty hard. I had more friends in California than I ever had before, and I was finally enjoying myself. Moving to Tennessee made my depressive symptoms reemerge.

That first season was torture for me. I think the team lost more games that year than in my dad's previous four seasons at Stanford combined. It was awful to see things said about my dad on social media. I know that comes with the job but some mean tweets were beyond what my 16-year-old mind could handle, like having a stranger tweet that he hopes a coach's daughters get raped. This only made my frustration with moving and depressive symptoms even worse. But instead of addressing it, I isolated. I never went to a high school football game or any other school activities. I thought about killing myself. But I never thought I would actually try to do it.

I thought things were taking a turn for the better when I started my freshman year at the University of Florida. Growing up, I played every sport I could -- except swimming, because of my curly hair. Team sports gave me a sense of purpose and camaraderie. Exercise always helped quiet my mind, even if it only gave me a temporary break. I eventually began playing lacrosse and was offered the opportunity to play in college at the University of Florida. Growing up around athletics my whole life, the opportunity to become a collegiate athlete was a dream come true. I knew the adjustment to college and moving away from home would be difficult, but it started out well.

But near the end of my first semester, things took a turn for the worse. I was beginning to feel crippled by incredible anxiety and hopelessness. Our fall schedule looks like this: workouts at 5 a.m., then class, lunch, then more class. Practice from 3 to 6 p.m., then dinner, then study hall for homework or tutoring sessions. Then do it all over again the next day. On top of all this, you're trying to manage your daily life, relationships, and dealing with homesickness and the feeling of being alone.

When you're feeling depressed it's hard to even tie your shoes, let alone pull 18-hour days crammed with one thing after the next. I was always on edge. I spent the few off-days I had in bed. I knew something was very wrong, but I didn't feel like I could talk to anyone. How could they understand? I had a great family, good health, and I was getting to play a varsity sport at my dream college. I felt like I didn't have a right to feel sad, because so many people have it worse than me.

Back then, I thought the term "depression" was too strong to describe what I was going through, especially because I didn't want the negative stigma that came with it. I didn't start to think of what I was experiencing as depression until I attempted to take my own life in December 2017. That was a wake-up call -- I knew I needed to get serious help. But I didn't want to leave school before taking my exams and let my depression ruin all the work I had put in for the semester. After my last exam, I flew home and immediately chose to be admitted into a hospital. I did all of the therapy that I could over the break, because I really wanted to get back to school in January. I did not want my dream to be taken from me because of my illness.

In hindsight, I should have taken longer to work on my health and recover. I went back to school but took time off from lacrosse in order to attend intensive outpatient therapy three days a week during my spring semester. In the end, though, taking time away from lacrosse isolated me even further. I didn't know how to talk to my friends about it and ask for support. I didn't want people to think I was weird.

Feeling alone once again, I attempted suicide for the second time. I didn't let anyone know about this attempt until months later. I remember waking up the next morning so numb, wondering why I feel pain so deeply. Even at this point I felt like reaching out for help would be useless. I had already received counseling and still felt the same way. I was resolved to thinking that this was going to be the reality of the situation for the rest of my life.

"I have felt the deepest pain and I decided that if I'm going to live, I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure others do not have to suffer in silence." Makenzie Mason

I stayed in Gainesville all summer, and started school again this past September, thinking I could power my way through it. Finally, though, I knew my depression was getting in the way of doing what I loved -- and of being able to function. I knew I needed to come home and work on getting better, surrounded by my mom and dad. It wasn't easy. I would wake up with absolutely no energy. I was in so much pain I truly felt dead. My parents saw the life leaving me. My mom told me that at times she wouldn't leave me by myself for fear I wouldn't be alive when she got home.

When you are sick from depression you become afraid to talk about it, because some people just think you are being weak. My depressed brain told me I had lost all my friends, and this only made my recovery harder. I remember when I was at my lowest point I turned to my mom with tears rolling down my face, and said: "I know why people who have terminal illnesses continue to fight so strongly... It's because they have a village behind them."

When I was in the hospital after my first suicide attempt, I remember being surrounded by people who were struggling like me. You would think a bunch of depressed and anxious and bipolar people together would be an awful combination -- but we were a light to each other. We all had been in the same dark places, alone and hopeless. We all were healing by telling our stories and being open and encouraging to one another. The sad reality was that when some people left the facility, I knew they went home to a situation with no support.

I know I'm lucky to have so many resources available to help me -- not everyone has those resources or parents as supportive as mine have been. And even with those things, seeking and getting treatment can still be a challenge. It's a very long process and sometimes leaves you feeling even more discouraged.

Whenever someone dies by suicide I see well-meaning things on social media from people encouraging anyone who is depressed to reach out for help. But here's what they might not understand: When you are in a truly dark place, you don't think anything will help. So why would you reach out? I was at a point where I felt like I had tried everything. Medication is a lifesaver for a lot of people, but it did not work for me -- in fact, I felt like it made me feel worse. Cognitive behavior therapy is wonderful, but it only got me to a certain point.

It took a long time, but I feel like I finally found the right treatment for me. I wanted to give up, but my parents never did. My mom kept searching for treatment options, and eventually a therapist recommended neurofeedback. After a scan on my brain, it was discovered that there were parts of my brain where the activity level was too high and other areas where it was too low. This played a significant role in my emotional regulation, my ability to experience happiness, and my ability to multi-task. It also contributed to anxiety and sleep difficulties. Finding this out made a huge difference for me. It gave me a better understanding of why I felt like I did.

During neurofeedback, you wear a cap with electrodes that can record your brainwaves while you watch a movie. If your brainwaves are firing too fast or too slow, the movie stops. It teaches you how to control your breathing and your brain learns how to better regulate itself so that the movie will keep playing. In addition to neurofeedback, I was introduced to Alpha-Stim, an electro-therapy device that has been used to treat depression, anxiety and even PTSD. The Alpha-Stim sends alpha waves through my brain which allows my brain to calm itself when I am crippled with anxiety or too depressed. These treatments, in addition to regular appointments with a counselor, have been very helpful. I've seen results I never thought possible. I feel like I am getting a second chance at life and my life is becoming my own again.

When I left campus in September to go back home, I kept doing my coursework online, and that worked for me. Last year, I should have gone home to focus on my treatment, but I was afraid of falling behind. Now I want to tell everyone out there in a similar situation: nothing is more important than treatment. Do not feel embarrassed about stepping away from work or school to seek help. The most important thing is staying alive. Your life will be there when you get back. To friends who have a loved one suffering from depression, try to show understanding and compassion towards them. They are not truly themselves and do not always think rationally. They will need your support during these times, so do not give up on them. To the parents of those suffering from this illness, continue to have faith and be patient.

My coaches and teammates have been so supportive, which has been so huge for me. I just came back to campus for the first time earlier this month, and I'm easing back into my routine with classes first. After I feel more settled, I'll start back up with lacrosse. I didn't have any hope before, but now I do. I hope that my story can help other people who are struggling to reach out to others. I would like to help in any way I can so that we don't lose any more incredible people like Ella. My goal is to get the conversation of depression and mental illness more out into the open than it is now. This is a real issue and many people are dying because of the shame and stigma that comes along with it. That needs to stop.

My message to those who are suffering right now is this: Do not get discouraged. I have been where you are. It is dark and you can feel all alone. Depression steals all the hope we have. Depression has taken many things that I love away from me, but I have to keep fighting. Keep fighting for your happiness and your life. Just keep fighting.