Editor's Note: The following story contains descriptions of depression and suicidal ideation.
In the summer of 2016, Alexi Pappas ran the best race of her life. Not only that, but she did it at the Olympic Games, clocking an impressive 31 minutes and 36 seconds in the 10,000-meter women’s race in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But by winter, everything started to unravel. As the months went on, the athlete, writer, and Tracktown filmmaker faced injury, tearing a hamstring; she wasn’t able to sleep, subsisting on a meager hour a night when she could get it; she torpedoed her shot at a shoe contract, too paralyzed to make any clear decisions about her athletic career or even what city to live in. When she heard the whistle of passing trains float by in her Eugene, OR, neighborhood, they struck her like a siren song. She thought about laying down on the tracks.
For Pappas, now 30, depression had always been lurking. She described it in the pages of Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas, her new memoir in essays, as an “invisible timer” she feared would eventually go off. Pappas's mother died by suicide when she was only 4 years old, and the specter of her death was ever present in her Pappas's young life. In Bravey, she wrote that she has only four real memories of her mom, who spent much of Pappas's early childhood in in-patient care for her mental illness. "Even though her goal with suicide might have been to disappear," Pappas wrote, "there are things about her I will never be able to forget." Each of those indelible memories are tinged in some way by her mom’s illness, and three of them are different shades of traumatic.
In one of the most disturbing and vivid scenes in the book, Pappas remembered stumbling upon her mother self harming in her parents' bathroom "After she was taken to the hospital, I tried to make sense of what I had seen," she wrote. "My dad never talked to me about this experience, maybe hoping it would fade on its own like a bruise, but it didn't fade and we never talked about it." While the details of Pappas’s story, like anyone’s, are unique to her, her experience is more common than you might think; according to 2018 data from the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, 54 percent of us have been affected by suicide, and more than 10 percent have thought about suicide ourselves.
While Pappas has never worked to obscure the fact of her mother's illness and death, Bravey marks the first time she’s delved so publicly and intimately into her family’s story and her own memories of it. She began working on the concept for the book before the 2016 Olympics, having no idea how her life or the story she would tell was going to transform over the course of the next year. In fact, she told me, she never gave her team a heads up that the chapter on her own depression — easily the most pivotal part of the book and her life story so far — was coming before she sent it in sometime in 2018.
Pappas knows that, for fans who are used to her inspirational, witty poems, like the one that inspired the word-turned-movement "bravey" in the first place — "run like a bravey / sleep like a baby / dream like a crazy / replace can’t with maybe" — the book might be slightly jarring. "I think some people might be expecting something a little lighter," she said a little ruefully when we caught up over Zoom in December. That’s not to say her book isn't filled with light — in it, she wrote about her nostalgic zeal for Jerry Seinfeld's stand-up, the pinnacle of joy she felt at the Olympics, and falling in love. But it also doesn't shy away from the shadows. Or, as she wrote in the book's introduction, from examining both the "gore and glory" of a life.
Pappas called me from the cabin she's staying in while she trains at altitude in Boulder, CO, her signature heaven-high messy bun framed by an appropriately rustic wooden-beamed doorway. She's back in the states after spending several months this year marooned in Patras, Greece, where she had been training for the Tokyo Olympics as the pandemic picked up speed. (Pappas is Greek-American and ran for Greece in the 2016 Games.) After it became clear Tokyo wasn’t happening in July, she took a new approach to her sport, learning to focus on her weaknesses and become the most well-rounded runner she could be. And while her eye is still on the Olympics — whenever they may be — she's never been the kind of person to put all her energy into just one endeavor. For better or worse.
"If I Could Just Be the Opposite of Her, I'd Be Ok"
Pappas's husband and collaborator Jeremy Teicher, whom she's been with since they were both students at Dartmouth more than 11 years ago, told me he didn't even know the future Olympian was a runner when they first met. "I knew her as an improv girl who was also into theater and writing and poetry," he recalled. "We're just both the type of people who live and breathe our work, and lived these lives where we did take professional risks to chase our dreams . . . Even when we were just college kids, we were both people who knew we were going to be having a more dream-driven career."
In a New York Times op-ed video published last month, Pappas describes growing up feeling like she could "never let my foot off the gas." That relentless drive was born from genuine passion, but also from a desire to distinguish herself from her mother — to not just survive, but to thrive in all the outward ways that make it seem like we're thriving to everyone else. Another medal. Another indie film produced. Another poem written. Another. Another. Another.
Pappas's focus and abilities led her to the kind of world-stage achievements most people can only fantasize about, but she realizes now her motivation was often misplaced. "I think I, from a young age, was trying to solve an internal problem with an external solution, and that isn't sustainable. I thought if I could just be the opposite of [my mom], then I would be okay . . . I could push myself in ways because I was driven by this trauma, essentially," she said. "I chased these external accomplishments, the Olympics being one of them, and I got them. I think the thing that you learn is, when you get there, you expect to feel a certain way — and I did . . . but I didn't feel that void get filled as I might have thought."
"A Scratch on Your Brain"
In late 2016, when the depression took hold, Pappas wasn't sure how to describe what was happening to her. She credits her father, John Pappas, with talking her into seeking help. The therapist she ended up working with three times a week for months on end was the first person to put her mental illness — diagnosed as severe clinical depression — in terms she could truly understand. "You have a scratch on your brain," he told her. As an athlete, thinking of her mental struggles in terms of a physical ailment was transformative. "It was as if he gave me the metaphor to see myself differently," she recalled.
Pappas thinks part of why athletes, especially professionals, have such a difficult time confronting and coping with mental illness is in part due to their relationship to suffering. "For athletes, I think the challenge is going to be that we have very high pain tolerances," she said. "I have been told that because I could do X, Y, and Z mileage or workout that my foot was not broken — and my foot was broken."
The problem is also urgent — a 2019 International Olympic Committee study found that 5 to 35 percent of elite athletes faced mental health disorders over a follow-up period of up to a year — and institutional. In The Weight of Gold, a Michael Phelps-produced documentary on mental illness and suicide among Olympians, several athletes point out that while their every physical need was attended to — massages, physical therapy, state-of-the art analysis on their golf swing or stroke or foot strike — mental health was not. "I found it nearly impossible to get a psychology [or] psychiatrist appointment, so I think that's still an issue," Pappas said. "That's not just for athletes. It's a tough thing for all of us."
I asked Pappas how much of her work to change the language around mental illness comes from her belief that things could have been different if her mother just had the right vocabulary to heal. "Oh, 100 percent. It's so sad to me that somebody would not have been given that basic image to reimagine themselves," she said. "It's wild because my relationship with my mom has so evolved. When I didn't understand, I was very angry with her — and we're getting along now just fine."
It struck me as surprising that Pappas talks about her relationship with her late mom as an ongoing thing, and I told her so. "I feel too lucky in life to not have her be somehow taking care of me, and also grounding me when I lose my socks," she said smiling. "But it is an evolving thing, and I think it's based on how well we can understand each other."
In Bravey, Pappas brings readers along on her journey to grown-up-hood and to that understanding, which involves coming to terms with not just why her mom left, but why she felt she could not stay. When looking through family artifacts a few years ago, Pappas found a worksheet her mother had filled out in therapy. The title on the page read "I Like Myself." Her mother had added the word "Will" to the phrase in pencil — a small and heartbreaking show of both willpower and desperation. She also unearthed a letter her grandmother had written her mother. In it, she urged her to try harder, misunderstanding her mother’s suffering as somehow a choice, which Pappas now knows intimately it was not. Uncovering those family artifacts and other documents about her mother's care made it clear to her just how much her mom's treatment — and at times, even those who loved her most — had failed her all those years ago. "I think a lot of people who have thoughts of wanting to die, they don't want to want to die” Pappas came to understand. "They want to want to live."
"The End of the Beginning"
It's been several years since Pappas sought treatment for her own depression, and now, with a new set of tools and perspective to help manage her mental health, she's thriving as an athlete and artist in new ways. But despite the years of remove, Pappas noted in the pages of Bravey that promoting the book will mark the first time many of her friends — even close ones — learn about her depression at all. Because even though she's lived a remarkably public life as an Olympian, actor, and on Instagram (where she has 71,000-plus followers) her depression required her to become intensely private. She discussed her treatment and recovery only with her husband, her therapist, and her father. Pappas said she didn’t feel it was much of a choice to protect her journey in that way. "It was just such an extreme situation, I had no bandwidth to do anything beyond [heal]," she said.
When the book was in its final form, Pappas wanted her father to be the first person she shared it with. "I really didn't want to hurt him and I was so afraid that I was going to hurt him. I didn't want to hurt my mom, because I didn't want her to seem like a villain," she told me, her voice breaking. "Because now I understand her, and I wasn't sure if I could find the right words so that people really understood."
She flew her father to the suburban LA home where she and Teicher live, and over the course of a weekend, read it aloud to him. "It was so magical because we've never really talked extensively about my mom, and he did not understand prior to hearing the book how poor her care was, because he couldn't understand it himself," she said. "He had never been depressed and he didn't understand why those mechanisms weren't useful. This was in the '90s, so I truly think it was the most cathartic experience for him and for me and we were laughing about it. He was like, 'Man, yeah, your mom was really smart and really sick.'"
Pappas's dad remembers the weekend well. "I think it was a pretty draining experience in some ways . . . but also, it was kind of a special time that she was able to share all that with me," he said. "During the time that she was experiencing it, I was going through it with her. It wasn’t easy. And then to hear it again, see it in print, was also difficult."
Despite this, he is supportive of his daughter sharing some of the most painful parts of their family history with the world, even if, he said with a small laugh, he probably wouldn't have made the same choice himself. "I probably did have some discomfort, but you know, I trust her and I don't want to get in the way of her," he said. "There are so many people who don't want to seek help for whatever reason. They're embarrassed, or countless other things. I think she's making it safe, and easier, and more relatable to lots of other people."
While 30 may seem young to write a memoir, Pappas called Bravey the story "of the end of the beginning of my life." And in a way, experiencing and writing about depression provided the narrative full circle the book — and she herself — needed. But her story has a different ending than her mother's. It's the kind of ending that Pappas now knows can be the beginning of the middle of something great.
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal ideation or are at risk, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has several resources and a 24/7 lifeline at 1-800-273-8255