Julia Pearson gets out of bed every morning wondering if she woke up too late. On the drive to school, Pearson goes through her backpack, frantically making sure she hasn’t forgotten anything. Perhaps she forgot to pack a lunch? Or if she brought her lunch, maybe she didn’t pack enough food? And if she brought enough food, did she remember to pack enough water?
These type of thoughts are constant, and at times, almost debilitating. The San Benito High senior sought help recently and got it, but the battle rages on daily. Pearson suffers from anxiety disorder, and she was remarkably candid in a conversation with the Free Lance.
“It’s ironic because I don’t like my teachers knowing too much about me and here I am talking to the Free Lance about my anxiety,” said Pearson, the No. 1 singles player for the San Benito High girls tennis team since the start of the 2017 season. “But I know other people have it (anxiety disorder) and younger middle school kids have it, so maybe if one of them reads this and thinks, ‘Oh, a No. 1 varsity athlete has serious anxiety?’ Maybe they’ll realize there isn’t something terribly wrong with me. And maybe they’ll get help for it, and it’ll benefit their life.”
Mental illnesses have long been misunderstood and stigmatized, and awareness and education of the issue have finally come to the forefront in this country in the last couple of years. Still, there is a long way to go. According to research done through USA Today, roughly 44 million Americans experienced some form of mental illness in 2015 (the latest numbers available at the time of the report).
People from all walks of life suffer from a wide range of mental illnesses. Pearson, who has been seeing a therapist for four or five months, didn’t have to reveal anything about her anxiety disorder yet did so in lengthy detail. She simply wants people to be educated on the issue and hopefully give hope to those who are afflicted with it and other mental illnesses. That is why she was candid and forthright as she talked with a reporter, to help others who are battling mental illness.
“If even one person has a better life because they’re reading this, then I’ll be happy,” she said. “I’m tired of the stigma about mental health, and I wish everyone talked more about it so there wouldn’t be so many (messed) up people. We need to talk about it because when we don’t we’ll continue to have so many anxious and suicidal teenagers. I interact with them on a daily basis. … There aren’t nearly enough counselors at this school to help them all.”
Even though Pearson has bouts with anxiety on the court, she has persevered to become a solid No. 1 player for a Balers team playing in the Pacific Coast League’s Mission Division. Entering the week, Pearson had a record of 7-2 overall and 5-1 in league play. Not bad for someone who didn’t get to play in the off-season because of a shoulder injury.
“I didn’t get to practice at all in the off-season,” she said. “I’m not quite at the top of my game, but I’m getting there.”
Pearson possesses a solid all-around game, but her greatest strength might be her competitiveness. When asked about her only loss in league play—to the No. 1 player from St. Francis of Watsonville on Oct. 2—Pearson was already looking forward to the rematch.
“That loss burned,” she said. “But it only strengthened my resolve to beat her the next time we play. I’ve always been pretty competitive. I credit that to growing up with an older sibling who I always had to keep up with. He was always good with academics and I was always good with sports stuff.”
Pearson said her best match came in the season-opener against Soquel, a match she took in a third set super tiebreaker. Pearson rallied after dropping the first set, 6-0.
“I had only been hitting for a month prior to that because of the injury,” she said. “I didn’t find my rhythm until I was down 5-0. Then I beat her 7-5 in the second set and 10-4 I think in the tiebreaker. It was really exhilarating for me. Once it got to 5-0, that is when I really focused in and had a goal that I really needed to snap out of it and play some good tennis.”
During one changeover in the match, Pearson went to the back of the court and started muttering some choice words at herself “for a solid two minutes.” Most of the time, however, Pearson has a motto she repeats throughout a match.
“I tell myself I’m going to win this next point and the point after that, and I say that over and over again,” she said. “The focus one needs in tennis is hard to achieve and maintain, especially in high-stress situations. But I’ve learned to recognize when I need to be positive and pick up my game.”
Pearson has maintained a solid 3.3 GPA in the midst of anxiety disorder, which she first noticed in middle school. However, it wasn’t until recently that Pearson realized that she wasn’t supposed to be anxious all the time and hold everything in. The biweekly meetings with her therapist have been a fruitful one.
“Mostly she is working to help me manage my anxiety better with coping methods,” Pearson said. “Every time we see each other, she asks me how many anxiety attacks I’ve had in the last two weeks and I tell her seven or 12, it just depends.”
When Pearson has an anxiety attack, her breathing gets faster, her heart rate spikes, her chest gets tight and she starts to shake. Her anxiety attacks occur over anything, from giving a presentation in class or something as simple as not having a working/extra pencil handy. The attacks also happen on the court; however, at least when Pearson is playing tennis, the amount of movement required in the sport allows her to run through the attack and let it eventually pass.
With tennis being an individual sport, Pearson faces her demons every time she steps on the court for competition. However, the sport has also been a refuge and oasis for her, giving her a place to go in the midst of daily struggles. Life will never be quote-unquote normal for Pearson, but she is determined to march on and make the best of her situation.