YOU PROBABLY HADN'T heard much about Rebecca Marino, at least not until she decided she wasn't going to be that Rebecca Marino anymore. The 22-year-old Canadian tennis pro has announced she's leaving the game again, having already taken a seven-month hiatus and mounting the briefest of comebacks, citing in part the twin devils on her shoulders: depression and idiots on the Internet. Before she held her mid-February conference call to talk about her second departure and her mental illness, she deleted her Twitter and Facebook accounts because she knew what was coming and that it would do her no good. "Social media has taken its toll on me," she said.
In some ways, Marino's story is a small one: Lots of young people decide they've taken the wrong path in life and try to correct it. They go back to school or change their majors or quit their internships. But what makes Marino's story larger is its counterintuitiveness, the seemingly envious job and existence she is choosing not to lead. She was a good player, once ranked as high as 38th in the world, with an overpowering serve and forehand. (After she faced Venus Williams during the second round of the 2010 U.S. Open, Williams said: "Now I know what it's like to play myself.") When someone is blessed and gifted enough even to approach that kind of spotlight, we assume she is going to try to reach the center of it. That's the natural order of things. Nobody chooses to stay in the dark.
Unless the dark is the only place that feels safe. I've also battled depression, and I believe I know what or at least how Marino is thinking. I've thought a lot about giving up my job and vanishing -- if I'm being honest, I've occasionally thought about vanishing in bigger ways too. When I'm in a good place, it seems insane to me that I've ever thought that way. My job is a dream job; my life is a dream life. But depression's worst trick is its powers of distortion. It takes the good and makes it nearly invisible, and it takes the bad and amplifies it. People with depression also have long memories for hurt. Stings linger and layer.
"With professional athletes," Marino told The New York Times, "people put them on a pedestal sometimes, and they forget that they're actually a person still." For someone like her, social media -- where she was berated for her weight or by gamblers who lost when she lost -- isn't the wound. Depression is the wound. But social media is the infection that makes it worse, and there are only so many ways to resist it.
You can choose to become callused and awful like me, the monstrous result of my finally having followed the easy advice and grown a thicker skin. An anonymous stranger on Twitter recently said that he'd like to see me "eat a shotgun." Not that long ago, I would have gone after that guy with all the rage I could muster, which would have been plenty. Instead, I made a joke about it. Later, a (real-life) friend mentioned the exchange and how messed up it was -- not just that someone publicly hoped I would kill myself, which is really something if you stop and think about it, but that I'd laughed it off. My friend was right. I don't like that I can't feel anything anymore, my newly flatlined self. And if my tiny spotlight has changed me this much, imagine the horrors that a larger one could do.
Rebecca Marino did that imagining, and it led her to make a different choice from mine: She decided it was better to try to change her world than herself. She doesn't yet know what she'll do instead, but she's talked about going back to school or applying for different jobs, quiet jobs, anonymous jobs, such as a cashier or restaurant hostess. Then at least the strangers in her life will always have faces.
I understand her decision. In fact, I envy her in a lot of ways because she's rescuing the best parts of herself before it's too late. A thick skin doesn't seem like something you would want someone you love to have. You would want them to be able to feel fully. You would want them to be warm and open, affected by the people and lives being lived around them. You would want them to have a big heart and for them to be able to keep it safe, even if that meant they had to hide it away in the dark.