“Eloise” was from a small rural town in Ohio and in first grade, during reading time, her teacher found her deeply engrossed in an algebra textbook. By age ten, she had moved to live with an aunt in Columbus, enrolled in Ohio State University for Calculus and home schooled in all other subjects. Her “friends” were students in college and grad school, and she became the math department’s mascot. She was never invited to a birthday party, and had no friends her own age. She entered several math events, state and national, and became a local celebrity. Strapped in the back seat, she shifted in her new dress as her aunt drove to her home town for Eloise Day, including a parade where the entire population of 1,506 showed up to cheer. Then she was rushed back to Columbus for her Calculus midterm.
Eloise and I met in our first week of college, and we went out one night for a post-study snack at a family owned pizzeria across the street from our dorm. I told her I planned to major in psych, and take as many lit courses as I could fit into my schedule. She told me she didn’t know her major, but she was certain that it wouldn’t be math. I looked at her, puzzled. “Math ruined my life,” she said quietly.
When a child is tapped with a gift —academic, athletic, artistic — a dangerous rabbit hole opens up. The gift, not the person with the gift, threatens to become the focus. Achievement can eclipse the child who is achieving. Trophies, ribbons, medals and press releases can loom larger than the person herself. Her individuality can be pushed into a small corner, to create more space for her gift. Instead of the child’s owning the gift, the gift owns the child.
The rabbit hole becomes wider and deeper when others become involved. You’re the star of the class, so don’t let your school down! You’re the star of the team, so don’t let your coach down! You’re the star of the show, so don’t let your fans down! Over time, more and more pieces are mortgaged to the sponsors, the community, the country. The rabbit hole becomes more seductive (and more dangerous) with the allure of being The Star.
Often, the greater the gift the more choices are taken away. When too many choices are taken, the rabbit hole fills with anxiety and depression. In therapy, an important part of the work is for the patient to reclaim his own self, the pieces that he lost along the way, the parts others claimed for their own. The patient needs to reconnect with the emotional vital organs that were placed in cold storage. As the person reclaims his own self, he also reclaims his choices. As he reclaims his choices, he redefines his relationship to his gift. As he redefines his relationship to his gift, he owns his gift instead of his gift’s owning him.
I’m in awe of the athletic gifts possessed by Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles. But I’m even more in awe of their courage as they renew their vows to their own full selves, including their emotional wellbeing. Few will be able to follow their athletic footsteps, but many can follow their path towards mental health.
Today, looking back, I remember the cheese pizza that Eloise and I shared so long ago. At the time, I didn’t give much thought to her anything-except-math choice in majors. Now, I view that moment as her commitment to her full self, her refusing to allow her gift to consume her. I didn’t keep in touch with Eloise after college, but I hope she still enjoys poetry and ballet, Spanish and guitar — which she liked in college.
I hope she enjoys math as well — math redefined in her own terms, on solid ground, in the light above the rabbit hole.
*All identifying information about “Eloise” has been changed.
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
The Anxiety And Depression Association Of America
The National Alliance On Mental Health
The Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Association Of Black Psychologists