Through the pine trees: Christina Edwards shines light on mental illness

The Sun Devil soccer player reflected on her struggles and triumphs with depression

For years, Christina Edwards felt as though she was living in black and white. 

This persisted even as she found success on the soccer field in high school and in college, but only recently is she starting to see in color. 

"There's no face to depression or anxiety," said the ASU soccer junior forward. "A lot of the happiest people are the ones who are hurting the most."

With her personal experience battling depression and anxiety, Edwards is trying to spark a conversation at ASU about the stigma surrounding student athletes who struggle with mental health, including taking the initiative to approach her coaches about hosting a Mental Health Awareness game.

One in every four-to-five adolescents and adults met the criteria for mental health disorders within the past year, according to USA Today. But for student athletes, Edwards said it can be hard to open up about dealing with these issues.

"Young athletes might not be aware of the symptoms of psychological distress or where to seek help. In addition, young athletes are confronted with barriers that could stop them from help seeking," according to a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health.

Edwards, a Bend, Oregon native and the youngest of four siblings, was a standout forward at Summit High School, earning most valuable player of the state championship game her freshman year in 2012. She also went on to score 21 goals her sophomore year.

But, Edwards was battling a bigger opponent than the ones on the soccer field.

Edwards recalled some of her early struggles, which included self-harm.

"It started my sophomore year of high school," Edwards said. "I didn't reach out to anyone. I'm known as happy-go-lucky Christina, and that's a pressure in a sense too.

"It was on and off. It had gotten really bad (with self-harm), and some weeks were better than others."

It was difficult for her to reckon with this, as she was used to helping others more than seeking help.

"I wanted to be the one making other people's day better," she said. "I wanted people to ask if I was OK, but I didn't at the same time, because I wasn't ready to admit that I wasn't OK." 

Still, she was unable to pinpoint exactly what she was feeling sad about, though her parents’ divorce and her mother moving to another state could have played into those feelings.

This all played out while Edwards was leading her team to its third consecutive state championship and receiving Class 5A player of the year for her second straight season.

But things only became darker when the then 17-year-old was heading into her senior year of high school.

"I knew I could force a face and that's when I was happy," Christina Edwards said. "But then at the end of the day, when I'm in bed at night alone with my thoughts, that's when it was dangerous and I was scared."

Like many who deal with mental health struggles on a daily basis, some find different ways to cope or treat their illness.

She tried painting and running. Soccer provided an alternative outlet, but hiking and nature, something instilled in her as a kid, was what she found beneficial for her issues the most.

Nonetheless, at the time, the benefits were only temporary.

"When I was at my lowest with my dark thoughts, I was actually seeing everything in black and white," Christina Edwards said. "My life was just filled so dull that I hadn't seen colors anymore."

Then came the night of August 14, 2015 — the night that her longtime friend C.J. Fritz may have helped save her life.

That day, Fritz felt that something about her behavior that day was concerning, so he decided to check in on her after class. Unbeknownst to him, she was considering ending her life. 

But instead, following Fritz's intervention and the thoughts she had afterwards, that became the day that she started her healing process.

"It didn't seem like I was doing anything extraordinary by checking in on her later that day," Fritz said. "Obviously I had no idea, but I was talking to her at school and she's always very bubbly, she laughs a lot and she's a good listener when you're talking to her.”

Although it wouldn't be until a year later that Edwards would personally open up to him about her mental health issues, Fritz, a college soccer player at Whitman College, said the conversation had led to him working as a campus representative for Referral, Education and Prevention (REP), an organization on campus that provides first response to students with traumatic situations, or who are in need of resources for mental health issues.

"Just to hear what they have to say, and tell them that you believe them, or tell them that you support them," he said. "It can literally keep them alive, and that really left a mark for me."

Eventually, Edwards went to her family, specifically her father, John.

"I don't want to say get back to normal, but I wanted to feel like Christina again," she said. "I didn't know where to begin. I knew my dad was the first one I should go to, but in my mind, I saw that he had too much on his plate, and I didn't want him to think that my unhappiness was due to his poor parenting, because that wasn't the case at all."

With her dad's support, she began seeing a counselor and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Soon after, she was put on medication. 

"We forget about how many people really care about us, love us and are behind us in supporting us no matter who you are," he said. "The person (Fritz) that reached out to her, that's why those people are there. That one space in time where you never know what's going to happen."

As the end of high school quickly approached, Edwards would leave her mark back on the pitch, netting 70 goals and 29 assists. 

But there was something more that she yearned for. 

"That December of my senior year, I said when I'm OK and I feel like I'm ready, I'm going to paint over those scars in a different light," she said. "Two weeks before my high school graduation, it had been a full 20 days since I resulted to self-harm, and so I decided to finally get my tattoo." 

The Oregon native chose an image of comfort three pine trees.

Connor Child
ASU junior Christina Edwards shows off her tattoo in Tempe, Arizona, on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.

"Every time I look at my arm, it's more of a proud look," she said. "I don't like using the word cover-up, because I want to recognize my pain and my hurt because that's what molded me into who I am."

In August, Christina's aunt took her own life. That was when the ASU junior asked her coaches to host a Mental Health Awareness game that would hopefully start a conversation. 

"I'm so blessed and lucky that the coaching staff said of course, let's do that," Christina Edwards said. "During our warm-up, I remember hearing the facts that I had written up...It was depressing stuff while we were trying to get pumped up for the game, but I was like, 'No, this is good. This is exactly what I was hoping for. We're normalizing it.'"

While adorning maroon and gold on the pitch the last three years, Edwards has found a sense of comfort and family with her teammates. Her roommate, senior goalkeeper Sydney Day, was one person she said she could lean on.

"What I found most admirable about her (Sydney), she's constantly trying to better herself," Edwards said. "That's really helped me in light of she's doing that (going to a therapist) and we've kind of held each other's hand through a lot of things."

Despite her own battles and triumphs, she said more needs to be done at ASU to support students struggling with mental health.

Passing out bracelets and creating posters help spreads awareness for the issues but she said it is not enough to create change.

"The message I try to send out to others is that it's an ongoing process," she said. "You're rewiring your brain, you're rewiring your mental prophecies and your thoughts...it's really important to surround yourself with people who help you keep on track.”



Reach the reporter at Edith.Noriega@asu.edu or follow @Noriega_Edith on Twitter. 

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