Alliance Profile – Samantha Arsenault- Livingstone
Samantha Arsenault- Livingstone
What life events that you’ve experienced (could be minor, could be major), physical traumas, or genetic predispositions do you believe you went through, that may have had any type of impact on your ability to feel the healthiest you can feel from a mental health standpoint?
Witnessing my daughter’s heart fail after her successful open-heart surgery when she was just 12 months old was in every way the rock bottom / spiritual awakening that sent me on this path of deeper healing. In those brutal moments, my perfectionist armor shattered. What happened to her heart is still a medically messy mystery – even for the world renowned Heart Failure Transplant Team at Boston Children’s. Healing from the excruciating trauma that unfolded in the early morning of November 21, 2013 has taught me so much – and it opened the doors for me to heal deeper wounds that I didn’t’ realize still needed healing.
As a young child and teen, I experienced and witnessed physical and emotional abuse, sexual harassment by my club swimming coaches and 9th grade math teacher and was surrounded by humans suffering from addiction. All pivotal, painful moments that impacted my psyche and drove me deeper into shame; perfectionism became my coping skill.
Addiction and intergenerational trauma runs deep in my DNA – as do codependency and enmeshment. Mix in the Irish Catholic shame from both sides and a long history of depression and anxiety – and so much makes sense.
How did those events impact your state of mind and overall psyche?
My inner magnetic self became silenced. I shut down parts of me to comply – and slipped into an inner loneliness, longing to be seen and heard. By 14 I sunk into a depression – experiencing sexual harassment from my coaches (while in a bathing suit), feeling so far away from my goals of becoming an Olympian – while watching the ’96 ATL Games, my big bro was off to college- I remember experiencing suicidal ideation at that point. Pulling away from things I once loved; withdrawing; writing out a list of people who might come to my funeral. I lacked the language and skills to say something.
Growing up, I believed that love came with conditions – that it was something that had to be earned. I felt responsible for regulating the emotions of the adults around me, yet nothing I did or said was ever enough; I internalized that message to mean I wasn’t enough.
I poured every ounce of myself into achievement – and trying to perfect myself enough to protect myself from experiencing the pain of shame, blame and judgment. And the explosive outbursts. I thought I could achieve my way to acceptance and love and belonging.
I graduated 3rd in my HS class and stood atop the Olympic podium at 18 – achieving my wildest dreams. And yet, the inner peace I thought would be there – the feeling of e”noughness” I was counting on wasn’t there. Because, there’s nothing out there that could bring us that inner peace.
Perfectionism was my addiction. Low self-worth despite all the external successes and accolades. A constant war with the inner critic – allowing myself to rest felt unsafe.
Formal diagnoses: clinical depression, eating disorder, PTSD, post-partum depression, anxiety, OCD. But the labels are just that – labels…born from the events I’d been through and the lack of coping mechanisms I’d never been taught.
Post baby #4, I struggled from bouts of mania and super deep lows – directly synced to my menstrual cycle. My OB told me that I most likely suffer from bipolar – I “knew” in my soul that wasn’t it. That’s when I turned back to my midwife who’s also a functional med doc – and we discovered my allergies to gluten, dairy and egg. Once I pulled gluten, I never had another month of high, highs or low, lows.
When and why did you decide to look for help to get relief from those feelings (or symptoms), if you did…or do you just look for coping mechanisms on your own?
Two months into the post-Olympic depression, pending shoulder surgery with 24/7 pain, battling a raging eating disorder and suicidal ideation – my coach sent me to the office of Greg Harden at University of Michigan (social worker). I went because my coach said so. I was so resistant at first – AND – deep, deep down, I felt so relieved. I worked with G every single week for 2 years until I moved into recovery from ED.
During Mia’s hospital stay, I connected with a social worker who helped me connect to a therapist once she was discharged. Therapy was my literal lifeline. With 3 girls (big sis and twins) under 3, and one on round-the-clock compounded meds to keep her alive, I could barely breathe. Those early months were all about survival – and I knew I couldn’t and didn’t have to do it alone.
What practices have helped you individually feel the best you can (whether from outside help or on your own)?
So many practices have helped me get to a place where I can feel free to be myself – my true magnetic self.
I have a list of daily vitals that allow me to show up as my best self – and truly live.
My daily vitals: Meditation, time in nature, face to face connection, herb blends from herbalist, vitamins + supplements, movement, hydration, nourishment, taking my inhalers as prescribed, breathwork, boundaries around screen time + work, music/dance party, writing and personal development of some sort.
My weekly practices: Yoga, chiro, lifting, running, being by or in water, art projects.
My monthly practices: Massage, CFT, MFR, biofeedback
Why did you decide to share your story (whether previously or on this site for the first time)? Who were/are you hoping to help and how?
I started telling my story moments after I arrived home from the Sydney Olympics. For 16 years, I shared my journey to the top of the podium to inspire young people – and to help them see that greatness exists inside all of us. I was the dark horse, blue collar kid from Peabody, MA. If I could do it, I wanted others to know that they could too.
The thing is – I shared my story – but not all parts of it. I talked about hard things – but never touched my mental health struggles.
After witnessing the destructive behavior of US Olympians in Rio – while healing from my PTSD and in the midst of my battle with post-partum depression – I felt a gnawing that wouldn’t relent. I knew I needed to share my struggles. I knew we were still underserving our youth and young adults.
When my daughters begged me to unbox the bins full of Olympic gear (sealed shut for 16 years), I found the logbooks of my 18 year old self. It was in that moment I realized how sick I was. Watching my girls play in front of me – so happy + healthy + free – I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell happens?
That moment ignited a fire inside of me to find a new way – for this next generation. Sure, they’ll experience pain because they’re human, but was suffering inevitable too. I hit the library and dove into research, seeking answers to the question – can we cultivate greatness and be healthy? Now, 5 years in, I feel so compelled to empower and equip others with the knowledge, skills and supports to achieve AND feel fulfilled.
So why share? Because like Maya Angelou so eloquently said – “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
WHY? To normalize struggle. To debunk the bullshit myths that still permeate so much of our society – myths that cause suffering. To pay forward what I wish I had known back then. To empower and equip our youth and young adults so they can learn how to heal + THRIVE.
Why? So others can embrace their inner magnetic selves – and live a full life.
How did people react when you shared your story of overcoming obstacles (if you’ve told it before)…if not, how do you think people will react now)?
Love this question. It’s been 5 years and a whole lot of keynotes and workshops since – and the reaction is so much different than when I shared the Hallmark version of my story. It’s often met with diverted eyes, tears, stillness, silence – and what feels like an inner stirring. And post-talks, I’m often met with messages of gratitude – and ‘I felt like you were in my head.’ I’ve had parents tell me it’s opened up conversations in there home that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Coaches have said it’s changed the dynamic of their team. And then there’s almost always a few who express the dissonance of ‘how did you struggle too’ – as they try to wrap their heads around this idea that the podium moments don’t protect us from being human.
Free Deep Dive– Taking Charge of Our Lives, One Step at a Time
My work with WholeHealth Sport