It’s O.K. to Fall Apart

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When I was a kid, we had a hoop in the backyard.

Common story, right?

But the hoop wasn’t just a hoop, for me.

Any time something was popping off in the house between my parents, that’s where I would go.

I would take my ball, turn the little boombox all the way up, and I would just be … out there….

Because out there, it was just me and the hoop.

Out there? Nothing could hurt me.

Basketball has always been that for me. That place where I could just get away from everything, be out of my head and in the moment.

I don’t really think people realize how much some athletes need their sport, mentally. I’m saying like really need need their sport. Like … I would do it right now for free. They could ask me to play basketball for free, right now, and I would because I love the game that much. That’s what it means to me.

It’s my seventh season in the league. I’ve been overseas every year except this year. My whole career it’s just been go, go, go — constantly training or playing or doing something. An interview here, a community appearance there. Everything always moving.

And at the same time, I didn’t realize just how much I had let basketball be the thing that carried me — freed me from dealing with the things that were actually going on inside my mind.

At least, until the world stopped.

And when that happened … dang. Things got bad for me.

All of a sudden I couldn’t shut it off. I had nothing to keep the dark stuff out. When I closed my eyes, my mind just became this, like, looping camera reel with pictures clicking by, of all the thoughts I tried to push away.

Courtesy of Kayla McBride

Erie, Pennsylvania.

My mom. My dad.

Their fights.

The boombox.

The hoop.

The hoop.

The hoop.

Try to stay calm. Try to stay calm. Try. To. Stay….

I’d get in the shower and turn the water up really hot and just stand in the steam. But I still couldn’t shut it off. I couldn’t calm down.

Imagine a dumbbell just sitting on your chest. After a while, it like sits into you.

It’s almost engraved in you.

That’s what my anxiety is like. That’s what I wake up with every single day.

I lost myself during quarantine.

There were days when I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t want to work out. I didn’t want to train. I didn’t want to be around anything or anybody. I couldn’t shut off the fact that I didn’t feel O.K. when I woke up and looked in the mirror. Some days I didn’t recognize who was staring back at me.

I lost myself during quarantine.

It’s hard to even talk about it, or write about this now, because my whole life, I’ve always been the one helping other people. I’m the oldest of four, so I’ve always been the one looking out for the people around me.

And now, it’s weird because for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m searching for somebody to look out for me.

To tell me that it’s O.K. to fall apart.

Because that’s what happened.

In May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, I told all of my followers on Instagram the truth: that I’d been struggling with my mental health for a very long time. I wrote about how my anxiety had gotten worse during quarantine. I confessed that the 100-pound weight on my chest was beginning to crush me.

But there was a lot I didn’t feel I could say, even then.

I didn’t really get into how not having basketball really affected me. I didn’t mention that not being able to go to the gym and just run and set a screen or come off that screen hard and take a shot — not having those moments to just be present — just really fucked with me.

I didn’t say that the only way I could get out of my head was to listen to the same song over and over and over again. It was like that song — whatever song it was at the time — gave me one tiny little constant. I knew it was coming, if that makes sense. I knew that the song was going to keep on playing. And that gave me comfort.

But that’s also a scary feeling. You don’t want to feel like that. You don’t want to feel like you can’t breathe.

Anxiety is really hard to explain.

But I’m finally at the point in my life where I can manage it and understand it better. And I want to explain. I want to be the kind of person who can be vulnerable and share what I’m going through.

But first, I have to start with where it came from.

And for me, it all started at 1122 East 28th Street.

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

I’m going to be vulnerable and share something really personal, but first, I need to explain my parents.

They came from two very different worlds. My mama’s white and grew up in rural white Pennsylvania. My dad is Black and was raised in the projects. They got together in the ’80s, and have been together since they were 18. Times were a lot different back then, and they did deal with a lot of b.s. about being in an interracial relationship. My mom, especially, got a lot of backlash for that.

I remember one thing very vividly about my childhood: the way that my dad handled things when he got angry…. He yelled. He cussed. He swore, and he — I love my dad, O.K.? And I hate doing this, but it is very much a part of my story. He would drink a lot, and he would get angry. And sometimes that would lead to him having these brutal and aggressive arguments with my mom.

He loves my mom, and they’re still together to this day — they’ve worked through their things.

But back then? It wasn’t like that, you know what I’m saying?

And I saw it all firsthand.

I love my dad, O.K.? And I hate doing this, but it is very much a part of my story.

I can remember these nights where they’d argue until two or three in the morning, and me and my brother and my sisters would have to leave and go spend the night at my grandmother’s house. The next morning we’d go back, and they’d act like everything was cool.

Walking on eggshells in your own home as a kid is scary, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t know what would happen on any given day.

I was still a kid, but I had to deal with adult stuff very early.

Looking at me you’d think, There goes bubbly, energetic Kayla.

But inside, I had all this anxiety and fear.

My dad was the one who put the basketball in my hands. He was a referee from the time I can remember, and he taught me who Michael Jordan was. He bought me every freaking DVD collection of all MJ’s highlights and everything. He drove me up and down Interstate 79 when I played AAU in Pittsburgh. He drove two hours there and back, two or three times a week, just to make sure I was at practice, make sure I was on AAU, and I could be seen.

So all these great things were spinning around in my head next to all of these negative things.

And I just had no way of talking about it with friends or therapists or anything.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk about what went on at 1122, so I just kind of became very shy and introverted. I didn’t really share things about my feelings.

But that 10-year-old Kayla, I mean, she loved to ball.

It became my way out. Out of my head. And eventually out of my hometown, which was a big deal. Where I’m from, people don’t really leave.

I love my dad to death. Anybody who’s come in contact with my dad loves him. He’s traveled with me, he’s been to all my teams overseas. He’s come to Russia, he’s come to Istanbul. He never misses a game.

But he had trauma and anxiety and things that had happened to him in his own childhood that had a huge effect on who he was able to be back when he and my mom were raising us. And as I got older, and learned more about mental health, I realized that he was a part of a cycle in his own family that he wasn’t able to break.

I’m sure a lot of people reading this know what I’m talking about.

You might be reading this now, and thinking about your own anxiety and mental health issues, or maybe even a negative cycle that’s persisted in your own family.

Or, maybe, you’re the one who finally broke it.

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When I was playing in Istanbul, in 2016 or 2017, my dad came to see me.

One night, we got to talking, and to be honest, I can’t tell you exactly how it went there, but I just remember that there was alcohol involved, and I was … angry. I was very angry, and I told him exactly what I felt about everything.

I unloaded on him.

And I broke down.

I waited for his reaction. I just knew he would get defensive or upset.

But he didn’t get mad. He didn’t get angry.

He said, “I love you. I’m sorry, and I’m trying to be better. I had a lot of things that happened to me that I didn’t heal from, and I’m sorry that I took that out on you and your mom.”

But he didn’t get mad. He didn’t get angry.

And that … oof. That hit me HARD. It took me way back to childhood Kayla. In that moment, I was looking directly at him, and seeing him look back at me, knowing that he saw me very raw — I just felt like I was 10 years old.

That for me was not only a huge step for our relationship, it was a huge step for us as a family, because things had always been rocky. Even when I was in college, I always had this, like, chip on my shoulder, where I was just trying to get away from all of this. I didn’t want to be around it. I wanted to prove that I could rise above it. I thought, I’m going to be the best version of me on the court. That was all that mattered to me. 

Having that vulnerable moment with my dad and him just loving me through it was a big deal. It didn’t fix everything, but it’s almost like … it released me.

But to be honest, I still struggle with it. It’s still a big source of that 100-pound weight on my chest.

That’s what this is about. That’s why I’m writing this.

This is just one step of me trying my best to break the cycle.

I want to have kids someday and I want to have a family someday, and I don’t want them to have to feel anxious about their home life. 

And I want to confront my triggers head-on.

I’ve always moved through life feeling like I couldn’t take a deep breath all day long. 

I want to feel like I can finally breathe.

NBAE via Getty Images

I feel lighter now.

I have a therapist and she gives me tools to deal with the extra weight I carry sometimes. During quarantine, she’d always recommend going to the shower and turning it up super hot, as hard as you can stand, and then turning it all the way down to cold. Weirdly enough, it’s very grounding. It just helps clarify for your brain that you’re in this space, you’re in this present moment, instead of being in your thoughts.

And you know what? Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s O.K. Mental health is a journey. It’s not a game that you either win or lose.

But I just want everyone out there, who is struggling silently, to know that you are not alone.

Those feelings you have, they are real, and they deserve to be heard and felt and worked through.

I’ve always moved through life feeling like I couldn’t take a deep breath all day long.

It’s O.K. to fall apart.

But YOU have to be the one that puts you back together because the only one BUILT for this fight is you.

And it’s not easy.

It’s actually hard as shit.

It’s so hard.

It’s fucking hard to take all this shit that’s happened to you, what other people have done to you, and try to make yourself into somebody that you want to be.

But step one is healing.

And healing is possible if you just keep working at it.

Step two?

I’ll let you know when we get there.

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