No Shame: Why Michael Phelps Deserved to Carry the U.S. Flag

A man shows the greatness that can be achieved on the other side of depression.

Posted Aug 10, 2016

Rory via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Source: Rory via Flickr (Creative Commons)

"He’s a drunk," the woman wrote. "How could we make Michael Phelps America’s Olympic flag-bearer?"  

The writer was commenting on a newspaper column that opined the U.S. could have “done better” than to select Phelps to lead its Olympic team into Rio’s Maracana Stadium for the opening ceremonies. The columnist, citing the record-setting swimmer’s DUIs and the infamous bong photo, would have preferred to give the honor to an athlete without “self-inflicted wounds.” Another writer at a national publication proclaimed Phelps was an “outright failure” between Olympic Games. 

As a doctor who treats mental illness and its co-conspirator, addiction, I can’t think of a more fitting person to carry that flag. Sure, many other athletes are also deserving, but there’s only one flag and to say Phelps isn’t worthy is ironic. Not long ago, Phelps himself felt unworthy. He was a superhuman athlete who could not function on dry land because of crippling depression. Despite unparalleled athletic success, he felt life was no longer worth living. 

Anyone who has suffered from depression will tell you they didn’t sign up for it. Consider this: Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for people between the ages of 15 and 44. No one brings that on themselves. Even the most decorated athlete in Olympic history wasn’t immune. “I had no self-esteem. No self-worth,” Phelps told ESPN. “I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life.”

And just like the vast majority of ordinary people suffering with a mental illness, Phelps abused substances in an effort to escape that ungodly pain. He self-medicated, with alcohol, with pot. Blame him for that? Some surely will, but science is less judgmental. Studies tell us that once addiction takes hold, changes in the functioning of the brain greatly diminish one’s capacity to stop using without professional intervention.

Phelps got that intervention by enrolling in treatment. He confronted what led to his depression and was behind his substance abuse — the emptiness of not knowing who he was outside of the pool, the feelings of abandonment by his father after his parents divorced. Treatment allowed him to hit the reset button on his life. 

The same writer who saw Phelps’ wounds as “self-inflicted” added that the flag would better be carried by someone who has shown courage and resilience. If they awarded Olympic gold medals for courage and resilience, Phelps would have even more hardware to display in his trophy case. There is nothing more courageous than standing before the entire world and announcing that you suffer from a mental health disorder. As is evident from the coverage of his comeback, the stigma that a mental disorder is a sign of weakness is alive and well in the media and, sadly, in the court of public opinion.  

As for resilience, at 31 years old, after fighting the dual threats of debilitating mental illness and alcohol abuse, Phelps is back on his game and tearing up the pool in Rio, turning in some of the best times of his career

Standing on the gold medal platform this week, Phelps has had to fight back tears. We can’t know what was going on in his head at those moments, but we do know he was on death’s door just a short time ago. I’m guessing he was reflecting on that, too.

In the end, Phelps’ legacy may be more about persuading others who are at the end of their rope to ask for help. He’s put his struggles with mental health issues and substance abuse on display, for everyone to see. And misjudge. And some in the sports media will still suggest his great record as an Olympic swimmer will forever be tarnished by his “bad choices” outside the pool.

But those of us who know what he has been through see nothing but courage and resilience. No shame.

Jason Powers, MD, is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehab and The Right Step network of substance abuse treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in recovery.