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Simone Biles Owes You Precisely Jack Shit
We desperately need, now more than ever, to stop judging other people for struggling with mental health.
Mental health is never taken seriously in our society, and it gets in the way of happiness and, let’s be blunt, kills a lot of people. Compared to a physical health issue, a mental one is far less likely to be taken seriously. This is profoundly evident in the reaction to Simone Biles withdrawal from the Olympics — and Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open. A lot of people are not okay, because of the pandemic and because of other reasons too. We desperately need to let people take care of themselves.
I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a mental health condition that can make me anxious about anything, which, when they pile up, quickly become overwhelming. Furthermore, as a trans woman, my gender dysphoria has often taken a massive toll on my mental well-being. These matter. But often society made me prioritize performance over my health. It was never a good time to get the surgery I needed when a place hired me precisely because I was a tech badass — I had to keep coding. So often, I’ve put what others expected of me over what I need.
When I was younger, I was trained as a classical pianist. During a recital, I choked up, had a panic attack, and ran crying off-stage. Afterward, numerous people reassured me that what I had played, I had played well — that what happened did not reflect on my ability to play, my anxiety just got the best of me. However, I know if it were not such a minor recital few other than the parents of those involved cared about, I would be harangued for something I could not help.
And none of what I do is as dangerous as gymnastics. Code that does not run right can be fixed. A song can be replayed, even if I was too ashamed in the moment to do so. But a gymnastics move gone wrong can cause serious injury. Gymnasts in a bad mental health state sometimes report what is often called the “twisties,” where they lose their ability to sense their position in the air — a critical skill for being able to land from vaults or on the balance beam safely.
The first time I ever followed the Olympics was 1996 in Atlanta. Though I now live in the Atlanta area, I grew up in Chattanooga a couple of hours away. Still, it felt close. Though I was eight at the time, I already was in tune with the fact I was gender dysphoric. Much to the surprise of a lot of people around me at the time, I followed the gymnastics events closely — eight-year-old me caught up in a major “I wish that were me” moment.
The US gymnastics team won that year because Kerri Strug performed a vault with an injured ankle. Though quite an inspiring story, this demonstrates the absurd lengths we expect Olympians to compromise not just their mental but physical health. Kerri did not owe anyone that, even if she went through with the vault. Much of the anger at Biles withdrawing seems to be about frustration at her not delivering on something that was supposedly promised. But this is a woman who has already demonstrated she is the greatest gymnast of all time.
Instead, the promise we all need to deliver on to each other is accepting and supporting one another’s struggles — even those who are among the most successful and talented in their fields. Michael Jordan took off two years from basketball after his father died in the prime of his career, and we still regard him as one of the greatest.
We should not expect people to be at their best all the time. Policing people’s ability to keep it together no matter what just makes keeping it together harder. To enable people to be at their best the most often, they need support and self-care. Don’t get mad at people falling apart. At the very least, leave them alone. Ideally, help them, though that is often hard. This will lead to the best outcomes for all.