An Olympic Lesson in Coping

NOTE: What follows is a discussion of the psychological dangers of self-medicating with psychoactive drugs when coping with stress. The discussion uses the Acceptance, Accountability, Action model of coping that we have discussed in this blog over the past 4 years. This entry deals with psychology, and there is no attempt to make a sociocultural statement about marijuana use and laws in the United States, the World Anti-Doping Agency, or the United States Olympic Committee.

Sha’Carri Richardson is an up-and-coming US sprinter who won the 100-meter dash at the US Olympic trials. She was a definite favorite for a gold medal at the Summer ’21 Olympics until she failed a drug test, testing positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. THC is a banned substance under World Anti-Doping Agency rules, and Richardson was suspended for a month, which extended through the 100-meter event at the Olympics. The United States Olympic Committee also decided not to place Richardson on the team to possibly compete in other track events.

In an interview on NBC, Richardson, 21, said, “I want to take responsibility for my actions. I know what I did. I know what I’m supposed to do. I know what I’m allowed to do, and I still made that decision.” Good for her. She accepted responsibility for making a stupid decision. She embraced accountability, which is a cornerstone of the coping model we often repeat in this blog: Effective coping requires acceptance of reality, being accountable for your actions within that reality, and developing a realistic coping plan of action that includes humility and empathy.

But wait. Richardson went on to explain that she used the marijuana after being told that her biological mother had died, news, she said, that put her in a state of “emotional panic.” This comment raises a psychological red flag because it contradicted her earlier statement of responsibility for using the drug. Now she played the “entitlement card,” saying that the emotional burden of the news about her mother caused her to self-medicate. Psychologically, that’s an avoidance strategy that says, “It’s not on me.”

Applying our coping model, when Richardson brought in her burden-of-grief excuse she was avoiding accountability and not serving herself well, psychologically speaking. In general, when you’re all stressed out and emotionally overwhelmed, self-medicating with psychoactive drugs is a poor coping strategy. Counselors’ offices are filled with clients who have traveled the self-sabotaging road of alcohol, marijuana, hallucinogens, opioids, stimulants, and designer compounds. This road is paved with avoidance, denial, helplessness, dependence, and self-criticism, and it generally leads to the dead end of depression. In Richardson’s case, her action sacrificed something she values: winning an Olympic medal. Whenever you behave in ways that damage what you value, you’re in psychological trouble.

Richardson’s unfortunate action shows that being accountable for your behavior can be easier said than done. In last week’s post we described Grace, who was molested by a coach when she was 12. She also carried a heavy emotional burden, and for years she coped with it by adopting a sense of entitlement. Grace said, “The only way I could deal with it was to use it to gain sympathy from others. You know, ‘Treat me gently because I suffered abuse as a child. I deserve your sympathy and tenderness.’ That attitude of entitlement drove people away from me; my social and romantic life was a mess. Counseling helped me realize that I did not deserve to have the corners of my world padded just because I had a traumatic experience. It happened, and it raised a whole bunch of emotions that I let dominate me. It took me awhile, and I still process it, but the fact is I don’t deserve squat, and I have to be responsible for living my life now, not yesterday.”

Grief presents a special set of coping challenges, but Richardson could have met hers without seeking padded corners for her world. A world-class athlete like her could have discovered that her grief could be worked through by honoring her mother’s memory with hard training, and dedicating her Olympic performance to her mother. [See blog entry of December 24, 2020] When her suspension ends, she will have many opportunities and challenges ahead. I hope she finds an appropriate social and professional support network to help her realize that effective coping with those challenges must involve complete accountability, independence, confidence, humility, and self-esteem, none of which will be found in a drug.

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