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Mental Health In Ultimate: It’s Not My Fault, But It Is My Responsibility

Taking personal accountability for my actions allowed me to become a better teammate, community member, and person.

In August, Ari Nelson wrote an article for our Clear Cut series, “You Think You Know Me But You Don’t,” sharing openly about her struggles with mental health and how they have impacted her relationship with ultimate and the ultimate community. That essay spurred a few other elite players to write in with similar stories, opening up about their own experiences. We share these stories to present different perspectives on the ways mental health struggles can affect those playing this sport and what it might take to create a safe, inclusive space for everyone.

Some of you may know me. Some of you may think you know me. Some of you have played with or against me. Some of you have no clue who I am. I am a cis-gendered bisexual white female ultimate player from an upper-middle-class family, and I struggle with depression.

I was diagnosed in high school after becoming increasingly irritable and lashing out at my family, withdrawing from them and my friends. I went to therapy,1 sometimes twice a week, for the remainder of high school. When it came time to go to college, I believed that I was “cured.” Then when I began experiencing those same symptoms a few years later, I didn’t recognize — or maybe even subconsciously ignored — them as a warning sign for regression.

I began my ultimate career in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I used the sport as a safe space. Like it is for many when they first find ultimate, it was where I always felt that I could be 100% myself, 100% of the time. Looking back, I may have been overly reliant on this space, this community, to “fix me.” When I got to college, I looked to the frisbee community in that same light: a safe space that was there to uplift me.

My regression started during my sophomore year of college, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Binge drinking was a weekly occurrence for me that I rationalized by saying, “this is just what college students do.” But the habit brought out some of the worst parts of me: I was outwardly rude, antagonistic, and inconsiderate to my teammates and friends. I lashed out at the team more than ever, not for anything they did, but because I was angry and hurt that I didn’t feel like myself. And then at the end of the night, I generally ended up withdrawing, walking home alone, and crying. Another warning sign I ignored.

By my senior year, I had lost a lot of friends and had fractured my relationship with my teammates. For a while, I didn’t understand why this happened. I placed a lot of blame on other people, refusing to acknowledge my own faults. In my mind, the frisbee community was no longer the safe place where I could be 100% me, 100% of the time. I realize now that I never really took true personal accountability for why this was the case.

Here begins a story that some of you may be familiar with, as I have been open about these events previously on Twitter. On the night of my 22nd birthday, I headed out in downtown Austin, already pretty drunk. I had a fight with my best friend, was kicked out of a bar, and walked home contemplating suicide. Thankfully, I called a crisis line on my walk, who sent the police to pick me up and get me some help.

Two years later, I am still on antidepressants. I am still struggling. But I am growing.

***

There is a lot of conversation around mental health in the ultimate community right now, and I think this is important. One aspect that I have come to understand as necessary to comprehend is personal accountability.

Let me be very upfront: this is not something that should immediately be expected of people struggling with a mental illness. People heal and work through their struggles on their own timeline; being able to take personal accountability is hard work that people, including myself, struggle with. Learning to listen and understand that I had caused others pain was an important piece of finally owning my actions. My struggles and my trauma did not give me license to act without consequence, but I spent a long time thinking that they did.

There are a lot of different ideas about what it means to be personally accountable. It can mean going out and trying to right all of your wrongs. It can mean setting pride aside to ask for help, or to apologize. Whatever it is, I believe it comes from a place of self-reflection. Being in therapy and getting to the root of my pain was an essential first step. But then I still had to grapple with understanding the pain that I had caused others.

On that unfortunate night of my 22nd birthday, my actions hurt my best friend. I cannot recall what really set me off, but at some point I turned to her and just started verbally lashing out and attacking her. I called her horrible names; I said things that targeted her biggest insecurities on purpose.

It took a while for me to fully comprehend what happened that night and what I said. I used my trauma as a crutch to explain away what happened and why I did it. At the time, it was common for me to say that, due to my mental illness, I am not at fault for what I have done and, therefore, I cannot be held accountable. But I hurt my best friend deeply and that is not something that could just be tossed aside. I had to take personal responsibility for how I treated her that night. Luckily, she has forgiven me.

A phrase that I recently heard really resonated with me when it comes to personal accountability and mental health: “It is not your fault, but it is your responsibility.” I want to break down why this resonates with me.

It is not your fault…” Mental illnesses are an illness just like any other. When you have the flu, it is not your fault for coughing or sneezing or having a fever. In this same vein, when you are suffering from a mental illness, it is not your fault for the symptoms that you exhibit, whatever they may be.

…but it is your responsibility.” Learning ways to cope and understand what your mental illness is and how it affects you and the people around you is important. We know that a cough or a sneeze can affect those around you, so we learn to shield those symptoms. In the same way, I began to see how my irritability and lash outs impacted those closest to me.

In the ultimate community, we take a lot of pride in being open and willing to talk about things. Sometimes I believe that we actually are, but other times I find it hard to believe we’re being honest with ourselves on that account. Being able to have open conversations about mental health is difficult, but it is needed to continue to move the sport forward and allow teams to grow and bond.

Spirit of the Game has a lot of facets to it, one of which is how you interact as a team. I think about how I talk about my teammates, how I engage with them at practice, and how I support them. I am not saying that it is always sunshine and rainbows. I am saying that I am always trying to understand my teammates and where they are coming from. To be able to talk about race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental health, and so many other things, you need to want to understand your teammates and help them. Being able to take time and check-in mentally and emotionally with the team is important, and while people need to take personal responsibility for their actions, the team has to create an atmosphere that allows them to.

When mental health is not talked about, and a teammate who is struggling is labeled as the odd one out or the one who makes things difficult, it makes it hard for anyone to feel safe to process their mental health struggles. Echoing sentiments from Ari Nelson’s article, always try to listen to teammates when they are struggling. There is so much more to a person than what is brought to practice and exclusion of those parts of their lives can be isolating — I know it was for me.

I also know that this community genuinely does have the power to uplift and provide a safe space for those struggling with a multitude of different things. But taking a level of personal accountability helps to make the most of what the community has to offer. I realize now that, for a long time, I was not giving anything back to this community, only ever taking — and I took a lot. Becoming personally accountable for my trauma took a lot of hard work, but it was important to me in my overall healing. It allowed me to become a better teammate, community member, and person.

We all come into this community with our own situations and experiences. Taking the time to recognize and embrace your mental health and your team’s culture around mental health means we can create and support an atmosphere where everyone can be 100% themselves, 100% of the time.

RELATED: Mental Health In Ultimate: Hating Myself For Hating Ultimate

RELATED: Mental Health In Ultimate: How Ultimate Figuratively Then Literally Saved My Life


  1. For those of you that are not familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I feel that it is important to this article to give a brief synopsis of what it is and my relationship with it. First, my experience with therapy has always been CBT. From the American Psychological Association, CBT is described as follows: “CBT places an emphasis on helping individuals learn to be their own therapists. Through exercises in the session as well as ‘homework’ exercises outside of sessions, patients/clients are helped to develop coping skills, whereby they can learn to change their own thinking, problematic emotions, and behavior.” 

  1. Domenica Sutherland
    Domenica Sutherland

    Domenica Sutherland was a handler for Texas Melee and Texas Showdown before graduating and moving to Pittsburgh, PA to pursue a DPT degree at the University of Pittsburgh. She is excited to play for Pittsburgh Parcha when ultimate resumes.

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