Natalie is a Former College Football Reporter from some of the Biggest Conferences in the Country, and now the CEO of a Sports Media Company
Natalie is a Former College Football Reporter from some of the Biggest Conferences in the Country, and now the CEO of a Sports Media Company
What past life experiences, physical traumas or genetics do you believe have had an effect on your mental health?
Scars cover every inch of my body. Eighty-five percent of them are from burns. There are also areas like my feet, which are part of the ‘other 15 percent.’ Still, skin was removed from those areas to help cover my body in skin grafts.
Those are just the scars you can see. Emotionally, I have been collecting scars since childhood. For the most part, those have been a lot less visible. As such, they were easier for everyone else — including myself — to ignore or push aside.
Twice I have been sexually assaulted: First by someone who was supposed to be family, then at the hands of a coach who is supposed to be a leader of young men. Growing up, I was raised to be ‘strong’ in a disaster — to smile and act like everything was great, even when that was the furthest thing from the truth. We weren’t a family that showed affection, or spent much time together.
Volleyball was my outlet. If I was frustrated, I would train or try to find a pick-up game. Of all life experiences and physical traumas I failed to deal with or acknowledge, the one that hit me the hardest was my controversial resignation from my job as the Florida State football beat reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat.
Journalism — much like volleyball when I was younger — was my sanctuary. When I couldn’t, didn’t want to, or didn’t know how to deal with something in my life, I turned to my work. Maybe I didn’t know how to be in a relationship or deal with trauma, but I knew how to talk to people, write a lede and structure a story. If nothing else, I knew — I just knew — I would always have that.
That feeling of certainty disappeared as I moved from Tallahassee, Florida to Birmingham, Alabama to work as college football reporter at AL.com. Suddenly, I had to adjust how I defined myself. ‘Journalist’ was no longer enough. Shortly after starting work in Alabama, I reunited with my first love, Chasten. Our reunion came after seven years of living very different lives. I had gone to college, earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and spent four years covering big-time college football. Meanwhile, he had spent most of his time in prison.
It was not a logical decision. It was one fueled by a desire for more, since I now knew I needed to find purpose in something besides storytelling. When I was in high school, Chasten offered me space to be vulnerable. To others, I was newspaper Natalie, volleyball Natalie, tough Natalie or Natalie with the jokes. To him, I was just Natalie. He made it easy for me to open up and show my emotional scars.
Still, as the product of a disastrous and abusive relationship, I refused to be his — or anyone else’s — ‘girlfriend.’ Even with the walls I had become a master at erecting, I couldn’t help it. I fell for Chasten. In our initial conversations after our reunion, he vowed that he had learned from his bad decisions and was ready to be a better man. I wasn’t one to fall for most people’s crap. But Chasten wasn’t most people to me. After a few weeks of talking on the phone, it felt like old times. But this time, we were older and he wanted a commitment from me. So, he moved to Alabama to be with me.
Not long after he moved in with me, he questioned how committed I was to him. Having felt somewhat guilty for cutting him off when I went to college, and not being there for him when he was making one poor decision after another, I wanted to prove that I was going to be there for him this time around. So, we got engaged. When that wasn’t enough, we took a detour on the way to the gym one day and ended up at the courthouse. We walked out of the courthouse, in our gym clothes, and married to each other.
The thing about him knowing me better than anyone else when I was 16 years old, was still true when I was 25. The problem was, he knew that questioning my commitment to something I was clearly committed to would frustrate me and make me want to further prove my commitment. After we got married, my hope was that he would find comfort and security in the vows we took. Instead, things – predictably – got worse. When I wasn’t working from home, he insisted on coming with me to the newsroom and on work trips.
He didn’t want me with male coaches, athletes or colleagues without his supervision. When we would go out with friends, I would get yelled at for
the rest of the night if a man smiled at me and I didn’t immediately go up to him tell him to stop, while acknowledging my husband. If he saw I had recently spoken to a male colleague on the phone, he would call the number, put it on speaker phone and tell me to prove that I wasn’t cheating with them. On the rare occasion when we weren’t together, he would regularly blow up my phone telling me what an awful wife and person I was.
Most of the time, being around him made me angry. I felt frustrated, smothered and trapped in a mess of my own making. But more than anything, I felt like I was on an island. He managed to alienate me from my sister, Jeanette, because she was a voice of reason whenever I mentioned our relationship. So, he would find ways to manufacture fights between us. Eventually, we stopped fighting…or talking at all. With some of my other friends, he would befriend them. Every once in awhile he would call one of them to say he was concerned with how much I worked or my anger towards him. The way he treated me made some of my other friends so uncomfortable that they increasingly came around less.
In the early hours of my 26th birthday, we fought about my travel schedule for the upcoming football season. He told me, if I went to all those games, he was going to leave me, take everything I had, and do whatever he had to do to make sure I no longer had a job to go to. It was a variation of the same fight we had almost daily. But this one was particularly bad. That morning, during the car ride home, he kept telling me how I had made a huge mistake in choosing my career over my marriage. As I turned into our complex, he lunged at me. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do, so I ran off the road into a tree as a distraction. After I hit the tree, he got out of the car and walked to our apartment. I just sat there looking at my Jetta and looking at the tree I hit. I had no idea how I was going to explain any of this to anyone. I just knew there was no way in hell I could go home that night.
There was a half-bottle of vodka in the backseat left over from what was supposed to be a relaxing day at the pool. I grabbed the bottle, opened it and quickly downed it. As I sat there, I thought about how things continued to get worse. At the time, I couldn’t imagine what worse would have even looked like. I popped the trunk and grabbed a bottle of almost-gone wine–slugging it down like it was Gatorade and I had just finished a marathon. I was pretty sure that I had officially hit rock bottom.
How did the effects on your mental health appear in terms of symptoms?
My anxiety can be paralyzing at times. It is something I have struggled with for most of my life. I have written lengthy stories where the time I spent staring at a blank screen trying to come up with the perfect lede exceeded the time I actually spent writing the story.
Following my sexual assaults, my anxiety worsened each time. People standing behind me or walking up from behind me often causes me to jump — sometimes I involuntarily let out an audible scream. Impulse control is something else I have struggled with since childhood. After more than three years of working at the Tallahassee Democrat covering Florida State football, I was called into our executive editor’s office one day.
He showed me an article that had been published with my byline and then he showed me an article that had been published by a colleague from another outlet. The stories were too similar for this to be a coincidence, he said. The moment he showed me the two articles, I knew exactly what happened and how badly I messed up. I wanted to apologize. I wanted to explain. Before I could say a word, he began to yell. That was understandable. I royally f-ed up. In yelling at me, he mentioned the job security he recently provided me with while the newsroom was going through a restructuring.
Every other person who worked at the Democrat was going through the process of re-interviewing for jobs that some of them had been doing for 20 and 30 years. Even before that meeting, me not having to re-interview for my job when mentors I had great respect for were having to, made me extremely
The more he yelled — ultimately telling me I would be suspended with pay while they investigated what happened — the more I fixated on the current climate of the newsroom and how uncomfortable I felt. I had just made a huge mistake. Meanwhile, others who had done nothing wrong were preparing for the possibility of losing their jobs. Next thing I knew, it was my turn to talk. And I quit on the spot. I asked that my job please be given to someone currently in the newsroom.
After saying goodbye to some of my colleagues, as well as a few Florida State coaches and staff members I worked with, I called a couple of my mentors. I told them exactly what happen with the article. They understood. I told them how I quit. They didn’t understand that at all. They didn’t get why I didn’t just accept the paid suspension, and use the time to think and process. Honestly, I didn’t have a great answer for them. That impulsivity got me in trouble again 12 months later on my 26th birthday, when I hit rock bottom in my toxic marriage. After colliding with the tree, driving my car was no longer an option.
Going home, or explaining how the hell I got to where I was, also seemed like impossibilities. So, I walked a block or two to a gas station. I grabbed a bottle of wine and headed for the register. It was after 1 a.m., and I was told that they couldn’t sell me alcohol because it was too late.
What happened next honestly felt like an out-of-body experience: I grabbed a gas can, lighter and asked for a gallon of gas. I went outside, filled up the gas can, walked back to the car and called Chasten. I told him he could have all my stuff, if he just left me alone. His response was, “Fuck you,” and something about making the rest of my life hell. I told him I was done and couldn’t do this anymore. I told him that I bought gas and a lighter and that I really did love him and that I tried everything I could to prove it to him. I told him maybe he’d realize that one day.
I hung up the phone, poured the gasoline on myself and produced a flame. Ultimately, I suffered burns to more than 85 percent of my body. My experience is just one experience. But I can honestly say, I never thought about harming myself a day in my life — until I did. I broke.
At the time of my suicide attempt, I was taking Effexor for my anxiety. But I wasn’t talking to anyone or doing anything else to manage it. For a while, the medicine really helped. But when it stopped helping, I was left with all my issues on top of an emotionally abusive relationship. On more than one occasion, I asked my ex-husband to go with me to couples therapy. He not only refused to go with me, but he didn’t want me going alone either. During the year-and-a-half I spent in the hospital, I initially started on my traditional path of avoidance.
When and why did you decide to ask for help to get relief?
I watched football games on the TV in my hospital room and would provide analysis and talk trash to my nurses and physical therapists. When the season was over, I discovered all the TV shows I had never watched — which was pretty much all of them.
One day, I would start the first episode of Friends. A few days later, I was finishing up season seven and was on to the next. Really, it wasn’t until I was discharged from the hospital and moved to Miami that I started to truly heal emotionally. When I would go to the hospital to get my bandages changed, I would speak to a psychologist. In doing so, I realized that most of the stuff I needed to talk about was from my childhood.
What methods helped you individually get/feel better?
The more I processed my childhood, the easier it became for me to understand the walls I put up and how I would throw myself into my work as a coping mechanism. In putting all my energy into journalism and/or volleyball for the majority of my life, I had been neglecting everything else. To help me process everything, I began writing about things I had experienced and the impact those experiences had on me. That allowed me to figure out triggers for my anxiety and compulsivity. In doing so, I am able to better manage them. Now, when I am feeling triggered, I write, meditate, workout or talk to a friend. In doing so, my anxiety and compulsively are negatively impacting my life less than ever.
Why did you decide to go public with your story? Who were/are you hoping to help and how?
The week fashion designer Kate Spade died by suicide, I was at a hotel bar when a woman asked me if I heard about it. Before I could even answer, she started talking about how Spade had everything and how there couldn’t possibly be anything she was going through that would justify her taking her own life. ‘You never know what someone’s going through,’ I said. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to share my story and help to educate people about mental health. When I woke up later that week and saw that Anthony Bourdain was found dead in his French hotel room after an apparent suicide, I knew I needed to make time to tell my story that day.
It became my mission from that day forward to use my story to help others. It took a suicide attempt for me to understand just how important mental health is. Of course, now I look back at some of the decisions I made and wonder what the hell I was thinking. Truth is, I wasn’t. I was reacting and I was coping — until I wasn’t. I wanted to save face. I wanted to believe that I was ‘strong’ enough to navigate any situation I put myself in.
Now I know, true strength would have been acknowledging that I needed help, and having the courage to ask for it. My hope continues to be that people will connect with my story — that they will use it to give them the strength to ask for help, or talk to a friend if they need to. I also hope those who don’t personally connect with my story can use it as a reminder that sometimes the people who seem to be the strongest are the ones who need us the most.
How did people react when you went public with your story?
When I shared my story, the large majority of the reactions were overwhelmingly positive. Hundreds of people — some of which I knew, and a large number I had never met — emailed, DMed and called. Many of them shared their own personal struggles and asked for advice. Others simply told me that my words were significant and helped them realize that they need to make changes.
After sharing, friends, former colleagues and many others I know also reached out for the first time since my suicide attempt. Some admitted that they didn’t know what to say previously. But most of them thanked me for my openness and desire to help.
Working with The #SameHere🤙 Global Mental Health Movement, I look forward to continuing to share the story behind my scars — both the ones you can see and the ones you can’t. In doing so, I hope it not only helps others, but I hope it empowers people to join in the Movement and share their stories.