Dealing with Depression: How I Got Past Suicidal Thoughts While Running in College

Obsession, Depression and My Running Career

By Nico Composto, Guest Columnist
July 6, 2015

Editor’s note: About two weeks ago, we received an email from Nico Composto. The former Loyola Academy (Illinois) and Columbia University (Class of 2014) distance runner*, who last year worked as an assistant at Bradley in his first year after school but no longer is pursuing a collegiate coaching career, wrote in part:

So basically since graduating I have been immensely confused about life and the last 6 months I spent coaching, which debatably has only confused me more. I was sitting down yesterday thinking of what I want to do with the rest of my life and I realized that I only know one thing and it’s that I want to help people. I know this might sound odd, but I have always liked writing and I have in recent years been really passionate about one topic, depression in distance runners. I myself have struggled deeply with depression and anxiety and was recently diagnosed with OCD. I wrote a piece today, it is 1500 words, about my experiences. I was hoping maybe you could help me in some way get this posted somewhere, maybe somewhere on LetsRun. I have no motives behind writing this other than a desire to let any kids struggling with these things know they can contact me if they need to talk or want advice from someone who has struggled deeply yet gotten through it. 

In recent years there have been many terrible stories of depression and anxiety in athletes. As a person who attended an Ivy League school, the tragedy that comes first to my mind is that of the young University of Penn girl who took her own life last year. I never knew that girl but it broke my heart in ways I can’t explain.

We read Composto’s piece, loved it and share it with you below. We want college students to know that if they are struggling, they are not alone. There have been tons of people in similar straits. Don’t give up hope. Talk to someone, get help, keep fighting. Without further ado, his piece appears below.

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Obsession, Depression and My Running Career

Life is confusing. Like the Hydra of the ancient Greeks, every time I find an answer to a question I have been seeking, seven more mysteries pop up in its place. I have spent the greater part of my 22-year-old life focusing almost exclusively on running. I began as a seven-year-old with no friends and a rotund stomach reflecting the massive amounts of pancakes and breakfast cereals I routinely shoveled down. Despite being, at the time, perhaps the slowest person who ever ran, I just wanted to keep going. I was never able to run faster than others, so I just ran longer. I suppose that is one of the two things, next to family/friends, that I have always had…the ability and love of just going forever.

By high school, running had consumed my life. As my times dropped, the more it consumed my existence. Every day I was so unbelievably excited to run and beat people and work hard. I was better at it than anything I had ever done before. It was amazing. But it was here, just after my junior year of high school, where the story of my running career and the course of the rest of my life would change.

My senior year of high school, my cross-country team looked like we were going to be pretty good. Although we had never cracked the top 10 at our state meet, we came into the season ranked third. As we continued to train and beat teams,  that rank gradually came down. The week before the state meet, we beat a York team ranked in the top 10 in the nation quite handily. On the car ride down to state that next week, I opened up Dyestat to see we were ranked number 1 in the country. Life came crashing down that minute. The next morning, minutes before the start of the race I had been dreaming about for four years, I turned to my coach and said, “Coach, I am scared.” That defined life for me for years to come.

I can still remember the way my chest tightened up when the gun went off. It was like breathing through a little straw you would use to stir coffee; like I had been a two-pack-a-day smoker for 25 years. No breath felt satisfying. I thought there was a chance I was dying. And all this time, one guy after another would pass me and I had to watch myself letting everyone down. We lost by 12 points and it was my fault.**

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After that state meet, my life existed entirely inside my own head. Nothing felt real anymore. I watched my hands touch things, but it was not because I was making my hand touch it; the world was moving around and the object must have fallen into my hand. I had no control over anything. Starting that year, every morning when I woke up and every night before bed, the first and last thing I would think about was my breathing. “Is my chest tight?? Why can’t I get a satisfying breath? If I can’t breathe when I am sitting down, how am I supposed to do it when I am running? If I can’t breathe, I can’t be a good runner. But running is all I have. I am no one without running. I love it so much. I just want to be good. Why is this happening to me?  Why can’t I be like everyone else?…” Those were the thoughts that took over my head, nearly every minute of every day. Sure, some days were better than others. But no day felt real.

Misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis left me crippled.

“Oh this is just asthma don’t worry, we’ll get you an inhaler”—wrong.
“Hmmm, this must be vocal cord dysfunction, we have some ridiculously unhelpful exercises for you to try.” Nope.
“There is nothing wrong with you physically this is all in your head, just figure it out.”

Needless to say, that last explanation was the most frustrating to hear. I moved on to college and found a group of people at Columbia University whom I loved with all my being, but things only got more complicated. Now I was letting down people I cared about deeper than anyone else in the world. Every day I would spend around five hours preparing myself mentally for the inevitable: on the day of our biggest race, I wouldn’t be able to breathe and I would let everyone down.

One weekend my sophomore year was particularly rough. My obsession with running was mixing with depression caused by a recent break-up and the anxieties of a school that I had come to dislike supremely. I was sitting in my room, living 100 percent in my own head, and I couldn’t stop looking at my 12th floor window and thinking how easy it would be to open it up, climb out and be done. Life is hard and confusing and it sucks sometimes, I know that. The hardest part was that the next morning, after a sleepless night of fear, I had to wake up, drag myself to an indoor track and run a race in front of tons of fans, my team and my coaches. It wasn’t possible for me to just sit in my room and hide until the period of depression passed. Instead, I was forced to confront my biggest fears head-on in the unforgiving arena of track. Running stopped being enjoyable in any way. Days and months went by, life shifted, things got better then worse, then better then worse, and so on and so forth, no end in sight.

The greatest joy in my life is that the story didn’t end there. But to climb out of the hole, first I needed to hit rock-bottom. That came one day during the dirty, snowy New York winter of my junior year. My previous cross-country season had been one disaster after another.^ I felt alone and mad. I got in a fight with one of my best friends and went for a run alone. I decided then and there to quit the team. I was resolved to that answer for approximately seven minutes, one mile, before I realized all the answers to my questions. Once, I read an essay about people who had survived jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge and their experiences. One man said “The second I jumped I realized all of my problems could be fixed so easily, except for the fact that I just jumped.” That was my experience when I hit rock bottom… I couldn’t get any lower, so why not just let go of my frustrations?

No longer did I think of letting down the team, because who cares, it was better than quitting. Who cares if I can’t breathe, that wasn’t my fault and I didn’t ask for that. As I let go of all these things, the world became more vivid. I was incredibly lucky at this time to also be introduced to a sports psychologist at Columbia. He helped me realize my breathing troubles were entirely based in anxiety and manifested themselves in the form of obsessive thoughts about breathing problems. After so many years of struggling alone, finding someone who understood my problems and offered positive feedback was liberating.

Composto (second from right) finished second at Heps in 2013 and helped Columbia upset favored Princeton Composto (second from right) finished second at Heps in 2013 and helped Columbia upset favored Princeton

Our team entered my senior year of college ranked far behind a very good Princeton team, so I just decided that winning conference didn’t matter. Why not just try our hardest and see what happened? Sure, I would get crazy before any important race, but I learned to deal with that madness and I am more proud of our team that year than anything else I have ever been a part of. Against pretty serious odds, we won our conference meet and it was amazing. That one day, that one race and that one success made every second of struggle worth it.^^

I was in the van home from that meet, music blasting. I looked at the seat ahead of me and touched it. It was me touching the seat, not the world pushing the seat to my hand.

As for my life now, I will be honest, it is still immensely confusing and crazy and I often don’t have any clue where I will be in a month. Two months ago, I went to a psychiatrist to learn more about the state of my psychological existence. His diagnosis surprised me, yet in many ways it ties together all the confusion of my past. He told me I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Upon hearing this, I thought, “I have seen every episode of Monk twice, I know OCD and I definitely don’t have that.” But as I researched OCD and explored it, I learned that it is significantly more expansive than simply a group of people who wash their hands a lot. To explain what OCD has done with me, it is easiest to think of running as my primary “obsession.” The compulsions I exhibit are all internal compulsions (unlike hand-washing or re-arranging things in alphabetic order, which are external compulsions that one can see). As I approach races, I begin worrying about that race, then I begin checking if I can breathe. As I feel slight inaccuracies in my breathing I panic about that, thus causing my chest to get tighter, causing me to check more frequently and I spiral into a vicious cycle that begins consuming entire days. Since that diagnosis, I have found a therapist I love who helps me deal with these struggles and life has become a little less confusing.

With my life back on level ground, I am searching for what career will make me happy, because honestly I don’t know. One thing I do know though is that I want to be here to help any person who is struggling, especially track athletes. Anyone who reads this, if you need advice from me, or just want to talk to someone who has experienced these types of struggles, please reach out to me. I am here for anyone who needs help. That’s the one thing I know.

Composto’s email address is:

Editor’s note. We didn’t want to take away from the power of the piece by dropping Composto’s PRs into the middle of the piece. But we’d be remiss as a running website to not point out the details of Composto’s running accomplishments as we know many people will look them up.

*In HS, Composto ran 4:14 and 9:03 and was 14th at FL MW (58th NXN). In college, he ran PRs of 4:07, 8:09, 14:13 and 29:42 and was an All-American (30th) in cross country in 2013.

**At the 2009 Illinois state xc meet, Composto was just 30th (24th in team scoring) despite the fact he won sectionals and would end up 14th at FL MW.

^Composto had finished 33rd at conference and 222nd at NCAAs.

^^At the 2013 Ivy League Cross Country Championships, which Columbia won by eight points, Composto finished as the runner-up behind eventual NCAA third-placer Maksim Korolev and ahead of studs like Will Geoghegan, Tommy Awad and Johnny Gregorek. He’d go on to finish as an All-American at NCAA (30th).

Did you enjoy this piece? Are you having a hard time in college? Perhaps you’ll enjoy this article: LRC Wejo Speaks: Why I Sucked in College.

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