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Soccer Practice

For almost 11 months, my soccer-obsessed son Hunter has been waiting to get back on a field and kick a ball. This weekend was his first opportunity, joining other elementary school boys who stood far apart on a field, contained within spray-painted circles, and wearing a mask. As he prepared to play, I could see his big smile forming under his mask. The parents stood solitarily around the huge field, excited and hopeful that their children were out there but afraid to come too close to another human being for fear of messing up this fragile joy that we had been able to give our children during a time of loss for so many.

A young woman, one of the coaches that had been working with Hunter on ball drills, ran past me, ripping off her mask and covering her mouth with a shaky hand. I’ve had enough dramatic exits and entrances in my day to know that sometimes it’s none of anyone’s business, but I noted the direction she ran off to and counted ten Mississippis and then walked calmly towards her. By the time I got her in my sight, she was in the parking lot, surrounded by a small group of adults, hunched over and taking labored, quick breaths. Her body was convulsing, and tears streamed down her panicked face. I walked into the circle, hearing shouts of “Give a thumbs up if you need the Heimlich” or “Sweetheart, whatever it is, it’ll be OK.” The adults looked at each other, unsure how to approach and full of well-intentioned assumptions of what she needed.

I spoke directly to her, bending down in front of her, and said, “My name is Maya. You are safe. Can I touch you?” and she nodded yes, so I led her to a nearby tree to sit down on solid ground, put her head between her legs, and take deep breaths. When she stopped gasping but her body continued to rock up and down with convulsions, we counted to ten, forward and backward, a couple of times. She repeated, “I have anxiety, no one knows. I’ve never had one here.” I sat on the floor with her until her mother arrived, helping her quiet her shaking body and trying to get her to laugh every once in a while. I reminded her that she is brave, she did everything right, and soon, she’d be on the other side of this attack, armed with more data about herself and her strength.

I could tell you more about her, but you’ve learned all you need to know; she’s an amazing soccer player, a strong and smart young woman, and a brave, resilient human being. I want to instead talk to the parents that huddled around her, those who saw her run by and quieted their natural urge to find out what was wrong.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health challenges in the U.S., affecting 40,000,000 adults over the age of 18, or 18.1% of the population. It will not come as a surprise to you that instances of anxiety and depression have increased during the past year as our world has struggled with dual pandemics; a global health crisis and the reckoning of systemic racism. The odds are — whether on the soccer field, in our workplaces, or as we return to our classrooms  — we’ll meet someone, or we’ll be someone, who lives with anxiety. One of the kindest things we can do is be there for others and ourselves.

  • Click here for 7 ways you can support someone experiencing anxiety.

  • Visit Jack.org’s BeThere.org to learn how you can identify whether someone is struggling with their mental wellness, how to lean into the tough conversation, and connect them with support — while protecting your own mental wellness.

  • Click here for information from Mental Health First Aid on how to identify if someone is anxious and how you can offer support.

The young woman and her mother both texted me later that day, thanking me for my kindness. To be honest, I’m so proud of myself that I could cry, but not because this is my work or because I evangelize for the reduction of mental health stigma, but because I helped someone else’s baby feel less alone during a moment where she was scared, panicked, and hurt. I can only hope that by the time Hunter is coaching soccer or my daughter Logan is performing in theater, that more of us are equipped to bear witness to strength, remind each other of our resilience, be prepared with resources to meet any of our challenges, and support each other through whatever comes next.

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