Emily King: My Struggle with Depression and Cyberbullying

Emily King: My Struggle with Depression and Cyberbullying

Welcome to a new series on NoelleFloyd.com called "My Mental Health Story", where we're aiming to create an open, candid dialogue about mental illnesses and struggles in all of their various shapes and sizes. If you'd like to contribute a personal essay, email info@noellefloyd.com with subject line "Mental Health". 

I have a quite well-known mum in the equestrian world. This comes with many pros, of course, but some cons as well. When I was young and growing up, I think I was a little oblivious to her fame. I went to all the big shows with her and helped her out behind the scenes, but I was a bit naïve. When I was with her at all of the high pressure shows, the 5*s and championship events, I got to know the top riders very well and built a strong group of friend; they became the people I could turn to when I was struggling with emotions or pressure.

It wasn’t until I left school and started competing on my own that the darker side of the sport became apparent. 

A real wake-up call for me happened when I was 17 or 18 years old. Horse and Hound wanted to do a “day in the life” type of article, and at the time, I thought it was this great opportunity for exposure and sponsors (whom I was trying so hard to attract and secure), so I said yes, absolutely. And I was really excited about it. It was probably one of my first proper big pieces. 

I was quite amazed actually, when in response to the article, I started seeing comments from other riders, even professional riders that I knew, posting on social media with criticism or snide comments. They were saying things like, Oh, she has a rich and famous mom. She doesn’t have to work that hard. Easy to succeed when everything is handed to you. Must be nice to be her.

I guess it’s easy to be critical when you’re typing on a keyboard and not looking another person in the eye. But behind the screen, there are real people, and no one really knows the truth about their life or their situation. I was young; I had just left school as a sixteen year old, my parents couldn’t support me financially with horses, and the only way I could make things work as a professional rider would be to work as hard as possible and find owners and sponsors. It was a challenge to make the money work—teaching whenever I could, taking rides on any type of horses, selling horses and sending countless letters to companies and individuals, trying to ‘sell myself’ and find sponsorship. 

Despite what people might think, I do not come from a wealthy background. In fact, quite the opposite. I’ve had to work hard for what I’ve achieved. I remember being in Germany where I was training one winter, and I couldn’t afford accommodation so I lived in our lorry. I had heating for the first week or so but that broke... plus when the temp is -6 and colder, a little huffer heater doesn’t achieve much! I remember lying in bed after working a 5am - 7pm day (which was quite normal), with all my clothes on for the next day, plus a puffer coat and a beanie, covered in a sleeping bag and horse rugs, still too cold to fall asleep.

And as I’m lying there, those comments kept flooding through my head.

...The girl has everything in the world she could ask for. She hasn’t had to work a day in her life and has everything handed to her on a plate...

I remember not wanting to give any response to their comments, but also wanting to tell people how wrong they were. But also being scared that whatever I did share, people would still find a way of manipulating it and making horrible comments. At times, the online bullying felt very overwhelming, sometimes it was hard to even know what to do or where to turn. So I decided to keep quiet.

I was putting an enormous amount of pressure on myself to succeed and dealing with my own insecurities. Then when all these negative comments on social media started rolling in, it was amazing how influential and detrimental to my metal health they were and how every comment, no matter how big or insignificant it might seem, just started to chip away at me.

In that moment, I could feel the all-too-familiar cloud of depression looming over me.

***

Growing up, I was quite ill as a child. I had a condition called myalgic encephalomyelitis (more commonly known as ME/CFS), and it’s linked to depression. When I was 13/14 years old, I had a series of bad injuries. I broke a lot of bones, some from riding and others from sports at school. I broke my pelvis, numerous ribs, my kneecap, and fingers, and I had a disorder with my hip that would cause my iliotibial band to tear often when I was playing sports…I broke and injured so many things! This was all in a short space of time, and it meant that I missed a lot of school and spent a lot of time in and out of hospital.

How ME works, when you have an injury or a broken bone, your body produces the chemicals necessary to the healing process. Normally, the body will stop producing those chemicals, but with ME, even when you’ve recovered, the body continues on producing these chemicals that are meant to help heal you. But when you are physically well, the continued production of these chemicals actually starts to have negative side effects, and they can start to shut down your body, mentally and physically. I was exhausted and in constant pain, including awful joint pain and hypersensitivity in the skin and eyes to light. All this is happening after you have gone through the process of recovering from an injury, so you can imagine the frustration and mental toll it can take, and how easy it can be to spiral into a dark place.

I was bedridden for almost six months, going in and out of hospital for tests, and missed almost a year of school trying to get better. It was just a really hard time in my life, especially as a young, active and driven person. I managed to recover, but moving forward I was aware that I may be susceptible to forms of mental illness. 

"It was amazing how influential and detrimental to my metal health [the online comments] were..."

So by the time I was stepping out on my own and trying to make it as a professional sportsperson, I was familiar with depression and how it can hit and overtake your life. Because I had therapy and saw several specialized physiologists, I knew that I had some tools to cope, but at the same time, it’s hard trying to find your place in the world as a young person knowing that the crushing reality of depression is looming there in the back of your mind, questioning every choice and decision you make.

After the article from Horse and Hound came out, it felt like every negative comment was pushing me back into that dark place. As much as I wanted to use that experience as a learning opportunity, as someone who had already felt the dangers of depression, I also felt vulnerable. I wanted to bounce off the comments and turn a blind eye to the negativities, but I was also very susceptible to falling back into that hole. 

When it all piles up in your mind, it starts to escalate, and when we have these feelings, we need to get help. We can’t just keep these feelings to ourselves and let them brew inside us. Our emotions can be so inaccurate, and yet they feel so accurate. And we can’t deal with it by ourselves. You really must talk about it. To family, to friends, to someone who you can open up with.

"It’s hard trying to find your place in the world as a young person knowing that the crushing reality of depression is looming there in the back of your mind, questioning every choice and decision you make."

Depression tells you that you are alone. That everyone is doing better than you. That you are isolated from everyone else. It’s not true. Everyone struggles, some of us more than others. It’s part of being human. There’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to reaching out when we need help. Thanks to the help and therapy, I have better strategies for coping with these feelings when they start to take over. But I think it will always be something that I know I can fall into. It will never be completely in the past for me.

***

More recently, I had a bunch of quite ‘big’ and dramatic falls close together. I was fine, and the horse was fine, but I knew I was lucky not to be more seriously injured. They could have been so much worse, and I started dwelling on that, and I began to struggle again mentally. 

I remember, after that series of falls (all aboard my horse called Brookleigh), being at Gatcombe Park, where they run the smaller international, and my mum had a very bad fall. She was rushed to the hospital. I was told that she was ok, but we didn’t really know exactly what she had broken or how serious it was. I was on my horse at the time, and in the cross country warm-up. I had an Osberton coming up two or so weeks later, and I knew that I really needed to run Brookleigh cross country. Not only for him, but for me and for my frame of mind. It probably didn’t seem like a significant moment from the outside, but inside my mind was reeling. I kept dwelling on my previous falls and playing them back over and over again in my mind. I was at a very vulnerable point in my eventing career and personal life, and close to ‘bottling it’ and giving up.

I remember I was in the warm-up and all these thoughts were rushing through my head. Pippa Funnell was in the warm up at the same time and trotted over to me asking how Mum was after her fall. Once we got to chatting, she could tell that I wasn’t my usual self and that I was very much doubting my ability. I remember her saying, If you want to run Brook, run Brook. But by all means do not feel like you have to run. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Follow your gut, do what you want to do. But, if you do run, you must ride positively and ride how I know you can ride.

In that moment, I felt that, yes, I should keep going, I told that to Pippa, and she just said to me, Then go for it. But make sure to ride positively.

I remember I didn’t ride quickly for the win, nor was the result on paper anything eye-catching at all, but I did it. And it was like a cloud had been lifted from me. Pippa didn’t say I had to do it. She left it up to me, but she took that time to lift me up and sort of empower me when I felt so low on confidence and didn’t feel like I could make a decision. She’s a woman who has been open with her own mental health struggles, and she saw me as a fellow human and not just a competitor. Pippa might not have known exactly what I was going through or how my past experiences were threatening to take over and pull me down in that moment. But she didn’t really need to. She saw another person struggling, and she reached out. And this I will be forever grateful for.

What passed between us took a couple of minutes. It was a handful of words. But her kindness influenced me in a way I will never forget. Did her words magically make everything better? Of course not. But they got me through that moment, through that course, through that day. And if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have made it through the next two weeks, the next competition or through that season. It wasn’t a major competition. It was a busy warm-up ring. Someone watching from the sidelines might not have even noticed. But that moment was pivotal for me.

The lesson was this: Be kind. Tiny things can have huge, long-lasting and contrasting impacts.

More recently I lost my Granny, who was like a second Mum to my brother Freddie and me and played a huge part of our lives. Mum is an incredible  Mum, but she was obviously away a lot competing when we were little, and Granny used to take care of us the whole time. We absolutely adored her. I was alone with Granny when she died, and I had to take care of the whole process, which I found extremely upsetting and hard to get my head around. 

"Depression tells you that you are alone. That everyone is doing better than you. That you are isolated from everyone else. It’s not true."

So 2019 was an unusual year as it was the first season in which Granny wasn’t a part of. She was hugely present in both mine and Mum’s careers, whether it be helping to drive the lorry (even at 80 years old!), entertaining the owners at competitions, helping hand graze horses and generally just being there as a constant incredibly supportive and adored character. 

Then, after this enormous personal loss, I experienced a professional blow. For the past six years, my main owner had enabled most of my career highlights—Advanced/4* wins, National Titles, 5* successes, Olympic long lists. But in the Autumn of 2019, at Blenheim Palace, I was riding Dargun in the 4*L, I got a short text from my owner saying she would like to have a chat. As soon as I saw her that Sunday morning, I could tell something was wrong. She could barely look me in the eye and insisted we didn’t talk until we could all sit together in the horsebox. I remember my heart sinking, knowing something was up. She got straight to the point. Due to no fault of yours or your Mums, all of the horses I own are being collected by a transport company on Tuesday and are going to be sold.

I remember feeling physically sick and couldn’t really comprehend what was happening. 

Despite much attempted reasoning, we were not swaying her decision to sell nor her decision to let me have time to find new owners for the horses. My partner Sam was competing at Blenheim as well and was in a high position going into the final showjumping that day. I remember it being a weird feeling cheering him on and hugging all his owners and supporters as he came out of the ring, knowing he was unaware of what I’d just gone through. He’s incredibly supportive and an indescribably huge part of my life, so obviously I wasn’t going to tell him what had just happened before he went in the ring knowing it would jeopardise his focus. I remember wearing big sunglasses, despite it not being very sunny to cover my eyes as I didn’t want to draw attention to myself and distract Sam. 

I also remember thinking it was quite a well encapsulated scenario of the up and down cruelties of the eventing world and an example of how, in some cases, relationships within the same sport can be hard. Being so vulnerable from my Granny's passing, this huge hit to my career was quite difficult to swallow. I lost five top horses and six youngsters in an instance. Not only was this a huge impact to my career path as a young rider trying to make it, it was devastating financially and business-wise. 

I struggled, as I had done before, but I was stronger with the support from my partner Sam and my Mum and Dad. In 2018, I launched a crowdfunding campaign to secure the ride on a horse my owner was having to sell—Langford take the Biscuit. Owning an event horse is an expensive thing, and I was far from the position to be able to do that myself. It was still a fairly new idea to the eventing world, but I thought syndication would be a fantastic way to potentially secure him, and I’d seen it happen successfully in racing before. An incredible group of 556 people came together to form the ‘Hobnob Syndicate.’ I was blown away and extremely humbled by the support, and two years down the line we’ve formed a superb team.

And yet, as I’ve experienced this new kind of overwhelming support from people, my approach drew a lot of social media attention and the inevitable negative comments. And again, I saw a whole new, even darker side of social media. 

I found these public bullying comments extremely hurtful. And when seeing these comments popping up time after time, you start to doubt yourself, not only as a rider but as a person. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you not to read the comments and “Just have thick skin! Don’t care what people say about you!” When you’re on the receiving end, that’s a lot easier said than done. I’ve spent time working on my mental health, but online bullying will always sting. When it hits you on a bad day it can really pull you down, and for some people, it might feel impossible to get back up.

One little negative comment, even to someone who from the outside seems to have it all together, can be more detrimental than we will ever know. We toss out these hurtful words on social media…maybe we think we are being funny or clever…and we have no idea how the person on the receiving end repeats those words over and over again in their mind or how it plays to their insecurities and feeds their anxiety. We don’t see them feeling more isolated or sinking deeper into a more vulnerable state.

"We can’t be afraid to speak to each other, to reach out, to be a light for others even in a small way.."

But we can also accelerate one another, fill each other with confidence. We can reach out and talk about mental health. We can’t take away the pain another person is experiencing and there’s certainly no quick and easy cure for depression, but we can be kind and help in difficult moments. So many people around us are struggling with their mental health, and oftentimes, it is “invisible.” No one knows that they are hurting. But when we look closely, like Pippa did for me, I think we can see how much we need our community. How one kind voice can be a light in the darkness. Especially when we know what it’s like to experience depression and dark times ourselves, we can’t be afraid to speak to each other, to reach out, to be a light for others even in a small way. That’s why I think it is so important that we have these conversations about mental health, so we can open up these lines of communication with each other and talk about our experiences. I will always do my best to help anyone, and give them as much time as they need. Others have given me time, and I think that should always be passed on. 

I am sharing my story in hope of making the bullies just a little bit more aware of the consequences of their actions. And also to show younger riders coming up that even though it may seem like a sport for the elitist and for the wealthy, the real riders behind the glossy social media photos are just true normal people - relentless working, tough, extremely driven, determined and dedicated horse loving people.

As a rider and as a sportsperson, you must control the controllable. You cannot control if someone does a better test than you, or if a rider rides a quicker cross country round. But you can control your training and your preparation as a rider and as a team with your horse. You cannot control what people think of you or what they say about you, but you can control your actions and your mindset as a rider on the day of competition. And as a human being, nothing, no competition, no cross country round, no top placing, is more important than being a good person and lifting up those around us. 

You will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is sitting back and observing things with logic. True power is restraint. People will always make negative comments. But opinions are not facts.  If words control you, that means everyone else can control you. Learn to breathe and allow things to pass.

Control the controllable. 
Control your focus.
Choose your mindset consciously. 
Think of resilience as mental agility. 
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it.
Be the help others need. Be a friend. Be supportive. Be KIND.
Make our riding community a safer, healthier place for everyone to succeed. 


Mental Health Resources:

UK-based support:

Riders Minds: 0300 102 1540/ridersminds.org (24/7)

Samaritans: 116 123/jo@samaritans.org (24/7)

MIND: 0300 123 3393 to call, or text 86463 (9.00–18.00 Monday to Friday, except bank holidays)

SANEline: 0300 304 7000 (16.30–10.30 daily)

Papyrus HOPELINE (for un

der 35s): 0800 068 4141/pat@papyrus-uk.org (10.00–22.00 weekdays; 14.00–22.00 weekends)

The Mix (for under 25s): 0808 808 4994 (14.00 – 23.00, Sunday – Friday)

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM – for those identifying as male): 0800 585 858 (17.00–00.00 daily)

Switchboard (for LGBTQ+ callers): 0300 330 0630/chris@switchboard.lgbt (10.00–22.00 daily)

C.A.L.L. (for callers in Wales): 0800 132 737 (24/7)

SHOUT crisis line: text SHOUT to 85258 

US-based support:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to be directed to a crisis centre closest to you

National Hopeline: Call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) to speak to a crisis counsellor

The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ+ youth): 1-866-4-U-TREVOR (1-866-488-7386)

Crisis Text Line – Text NAMI to 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counsellor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message

Canada-based support: 

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (24/7) or text 45645 (4 pm to 12 am ET)

Kids Help Phone (for 5–29 year olds): 1-800-668-6868 (toll-free) or text CONNECT to 686868

Hope for Wellness help line (for indigenous people in need of crisis support): 1-855-242-3310 (toll-free) or connect to the online Hope for Wellness chat

Transgender Crisis Line: 1-877-330-6366

Military Mental Health hotline: 1-800-268-7708

(Thank you to Eventing Nation and Tilly Berendt for sharing this wonderful list of resources!)

Written by Emily King

Emily King is a British event rider who has earned two European medals, a U21 & U25 National Champion, and fourth-placed finisher at Pau CCI5*. She is also the daughter of eventing legend, Mary King.