Steffen Peters Discloses Struggle to Overcome Depression So Severe He Feared Giving Up Competition
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
AACHEN, Germany, July 19, 2019–Steffen Peters, America’s top dressage rider for most of the 21st century with four Olympics on his record, has disclosed a struggle for much of the past year with depression so severe that he did not know whether he would ever compete again in the sport he has devoted his life to.
After three trips to the emergency room, treatment by eight doctors from psychiatrists to neurologists and hypnotherapists to help the 54-year-old rider, he admits now the impact was so serious “I knew for sure if this doesn’t stop I don’t want to live like that.”
As he was healing, a stroke suffered by his mother in Germany in March became amazing motivation for recovery for both as she told Steffen her wish was to see him compete again at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, the horse show that was one of the major accomplishments for Steffen.
His mother was in a wheelchair in a prime viewing location in the Deutsche Bank Stadium to watch Steffen perform for the Dutta Corp. United States team in the Nations Cup at Aachen, and hours later disclosed his mental health issues to dressage-news.com. His hope, he said, was to make known his experience that might help others, particularly youth riders.
Steffen’s initial success in dressage was on Udon, a gift from his father, before moving from Wesel in North Rhine-Westphalia to San Diego, California at the age of 20. He became an American citizen and with Udon was on the U.S. team to win bronze at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. On a succession of horses since, he competed for the U.S. at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics, winning another team bronze in Rio de Janeiro. He won team bronze at the 2006 World Equestrian Games at Aachen, individual and freestyle bronze medals at the 2010 Kentucky WEG and team silver at the Tryon Games last year. On Ravel, his 2008 and 2012 Olympic and 2010 WEG mount, in 2009 he became only the second American to win the World Cup Final then came to Aachen that summer to become the only American to ever claim the prestigious CDIO title. He also led the United States to team and individual gold at the 2011 and 2015 Pan American Games.
His top horses since Ravel, have been Legolas, Rosamunde and Suppenkasper nicknamed “Mopsie,” all owned by Akiko Yamazaki. Suppenkasper was bought as a prospect for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the homeland of Akiko’s family.
A verbatim transcript of the interview follows:
Dressage-News: Last year (2018) did not seem to be the best year of your life. What was going on?
Steffen Peters: It started out OK. The spring season was fine. It was still exciting to make the team. Training camp went well. Right around the time in Aachen I didn’t ride Rosie (Rosamunde) very well. Mopsie (Suppenkasper) was getting better. Rosie was officially on the team but she was getting a bit more tense and I didn’t ride her patiently enough. At that time, Akiko decided we needed to give her a break and I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. But coming out of WEG, especially after the Grand Prix Special with Mopsie 69% that was disappointing. I was super excited that the girls basically got me a silver medal but at the end of the day I was the drop score and I wasn’t very happy with that, either.
DN: Other people have been the drop score when you have done very well on teams.
SP: That’s a good point. I forgot that for a moment. The bottom line is that I was so negative about my riding and I still remember the exact words when I came out of the Special my words to Akiko were: “Akiko, I’m not sure I’m good enough for this horse.” Akiko was so supportive and said, “Look be happy that you guys got the silver medal. Tomorrow is another day.”
But I got into this really negative rut still doubting myself. Helen (Langehanenberg, previous trainer/rider) clearly did better with Mopsie. He was getting a bit more tense with me and before you knew it I took on that identity day after day after day of telling myself, ‘I’m too old. It’s not going to happen. It’s not good enough any more.’ There was so much negativity I took on that identity. I’ve never really experienced depression. There was nothing in my life if you really look at the big picture to be depressed about. But it became more and more negative and I never experienced the side effects of anxiety. I told myself, “Listen you’ve done four Olympic Games that’s a lot of pressure. How could you possibly be anxious and have so many side effects?”
I had terrible paresthesia—this nerve tingling—I had tunnel vision, the professional term is ‘derealization,’ I was not really able to focus.
DN: This was all a result of your anxiety?
SP: Yes. All of the anxiety. This was in October. October, November, December was my worst time. So now, since I didn’t understand the effects of my anxiety I went to every single doctor. I was convinced I had a brain tumor because my dad passed away from it. I talked myself into all of those diseases, into those life-threatening diseases. I saw everything absolutely the very worst. My family doctor sent me home and said, “Everything is fine, you’re looking good.” Finally, I got a brain scan done. That looked good. But I was still feeling awful. I had some very good mental coaches. Dr. Timmy Pollack helped me initially. Then I saw an anxiety specialist, Dr. Sarah Gilman. Things got a little bit better but not good enough that we made the decision to try some medication to get ride of that anxiety. That’s when you need to see a psychiatrist. Dr. Michael Larden in San Diego started prescribing me first a medication called Lexapro. All of those are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). I don’t know how people can possibly tolerate that sort of medication. The bottom line is I felt so bad it was worth a try.
DN: Not tolerated, why?
SP: The side effects. It makes you feel nauseous, some of them make the anxiety worse and on top of that the worst thing was I wasn’t sleeping any more. I got two hours a night, basically because of all that worry, “What the hell is wrong with me?’” I just didn’t understand it.
DN: Were you thinking this time about whether you would continue to ride and compete?
SP: Absolutely. Absolutely. Robert Dover (US team coach at the time) knew. I was in close communication with Debbie (McDonald, who became US coach after the 2016 Olympics). Of course, Shannon (his wife) was extremely supportive. Akiko knew. There were two weeks when I didn’t ride at all. I distanced myself, isolated myself, not really functioning very well in public. It was awful.
Since the Lexapro didn’t work the next medication was called Trintellix. It was $10 a pill and I was supposed to have one a day. I’m super sensitive so I took only a quarter of the recommended dosage. I took the first one and I felt so sick that wasn’t an option, either. Dr. Mike told me the’s a liquid form of Prozac and if you take five milliliters you’re not going to feel that. Knowing how sensitive I was I took one milliliter and I vomited all night long. That was the final straw. I knew I could not take the anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications. My good friend Debra Carter introduced me to some CBD oil (Cannabidiol), obviously non THC because we get drug tested. The CBD is batch tested so we know there is no THC in it. That helped me to slowly get my thoughts together. Meditation was huge at that tim. I did not get myself out of bed in the morning before I had a positive mind-set, a clear picture of the next day, the next week. Retraining my brain to go back to the positive guy that tells jokes, that loves to ride, that loves to crack up, that loves to enjoy life.
DN: Ride around on your golf cart with your dog?
SP: Exactly. The simple things. All the materialistic things at that time did not matter whatsoever. A huge thank you to Akiko, because when you do well for years it make it easy for the rider-sponsor relationship to work. When things fall apart that makes it very difficult. Akiko knew how bad it was so on top of that I was a bit worried about losing Mopsie as well. She kept assuring me and stuck with me through that time.
There was one moment that most people don’t understand this. There was so much self-doubt I still remember when it was right around Christmas I watched the World Cup from Las Vegas when Ravel won. I recognized the horse, I recognized the rider, I did not believe that it was me. That’s how terrible it got. It was actually documented below that it said my name, it said the name of the horse, it said the score, I actually had a trophy sitting in the living room and I said, ‘You know what? I guess that was me.’ My point was that’s how bad it got. When I saw, especially at the end of the Freestyle I very quietly took my hat off and saluted the judges. If I had a ride like that nowadays with a score of 84.8% I would jump on top of the horse and dance and throw my hat all over the place. At that time, things were going that well I didn’t even appreciate it that much. I really, really appreciated it when that No. 1 popped up on the board; you and I have talked about that many times. I remember celebrating with you out there. The bottom line is that’s how bad it got.
With more and more meditation also with some good hypnotherapy, a fantastic hypnotherapist in San Diego named Jill Thomas, I did a bunch of sessions with her. She records the sessions and you replay them over and over again. I was slowly able to keep my brain from racing into those negative thoughts. Since we think 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day if 65,000 of those thoughts are negative each day I truly believe it creates a network in your brain that’s very negative. I really believe that. I said to myself, You’ve got yourself into this rut. So many people said you weren’t in a good place. Nobody put you in that place. At the end of the day, the only person who put you there, that was me. Sometimes when you say you weren’t in a good place you’re blaming some people in your environment, sometimes you blame the judges, you blame a bad ride.
I said to myself, “I put myself there I’d better get myself out of this.” I set my body down like training a dog. In the morning I wanted to get up, I wanted to get my tea, feed myself. I said, “No. You’re going to sit down and meditate for an hour, two hours if necessary and you put yourself in a mind-set where you were before.” Anybody who’s gone through this and has started to meditate your mind still goes 2,000 different directions. I like guided meditations, there’s wonderful meditations on YouTube you can listen to. In the beginning I was able to listen for maybe five seconds, six seconds, 10 seconds before your brain goes into a different direction where it’s not supposed to go. But always bringing yourself back into the moment, really focusing on the present, not into the future what could happen, certainly not into the past what happened but into the moment. I had so many wonderful mental coaches but at the end of the day they were able to push me on to that path where you really have to get your act together again. My God, how supportive Shannon was during that time. There were dinners where we had to go home; I couldn’t be in public. I never had the classic panic attacks but that crazy parastesia where I felt my brain was on fire, all my nerves were on fire… anybody who’s experienced that it is an extremely uncomfortable feeling.
DN: At the very worst, did you feel you wanted to end everything, just give up? Were you suicidal at all?
SP: No, not suicidal. I wouldn’t say suicidal because I didn’t have particular plans as to how I would end my life. But I knew for sure if this doesn’t stop I don’t want to live like that. I’m not sure you can call that suicidal but that’s how bad it got. There was a time right around Christmas I considered going to The Meadows in Scotland, an anxiety specialist clinic that has a 45-day program that’s a minimum of $50,000. What I realized was that others had gone through what I was going through where everybody prepares you before the Olympics and no one prepares you for after the Olympics. Before, you’re constantly running on so much adrenaline, over the years there was always so much pressure to make the team, being the anchor rider. Dr. Timmy explained it to me, “You’re 54 and that braking mechanism to slow your brain down where you simply calm down after a lot of excitement or stress that doesn’t work so well any more. You have to learn to retrain your brain until that works again.” I had so many fantastic mental coaches who worked with me at the shows in California. When things started to get better I was feeling absolutely great at the show in the warmup and during the ride but as soon as I settled down afterward it was absolutely horrible. The anxiety kicked in and that was a bit of a puzzle to the doctors because most people deal with anxiety leading up to an event. Over the years I learned during the shows to calm myself down, focus so I was always fine competing then sleepless nights afterward because I simply couldn’t settle myself down. So even though Mopsie’s scores were exciting I still didn’t feel very good.
DN—Do you think your health issues in recent years contributed to it?
SP—Absolutely. When I look back to 2014 I think it really started at that time. I know Robert (Dover) doesn’t mind if I talk about it. At that time, Robert and I exchanged a bunch of punches, through 2015 and 2016. We ended up being really, really close friends and we still are. I consider Robert now one of my best friends because he understood me a bit more and he was always so supportive.
DN: When you say the gloves came off you mean you were fighting and angry with one another?
SP: More anger and holding on to that anger. At that time I didn’t understand that the anger itself doesn’t harm you but holding on to that anger is what harms you, looking for that next negative situation and bringing up that anger again. I look at this way, when you hold on to a bottle of water you can hold it for an hour, for two hours but after a week or two that bottle of water gets pretty heavy, your arm starts cramping and you before you know that bottle of water is going to make your arm pretty sore. And that’s exactly the same thing with the negative thought. I was the king of holding on to negativity, self-doubt and I did not know how damaging this could be. I understand it now. I feel absolutely terrible for people who deal with this for years. Thank God for me it was nine months. Right now I can handle this without medication and still a ton of meditation.
It was areally, really rough time. But I do believe in retraining your brain and creating a positive network in your brain. I believe in the placebo effect—when you really believe in something that it can heal you. I read this fabulous book named “You are the Placebo” by Joe Dispenza. It is absolutely phenomenal Joe Dispenza was one of the main people who changed my life because I listened to his seminars and studies over and over again.
It was terrible and I wasn’t quite sure I was going to return to the show arena. Now that Mopsie did great in Luxembourg and here in the Grand Prix in Aachen 75% even with two bobbles it’s fantastic. I knew already before even if it didn’t go well right here it is not any more that the world ends. The 69% in the Grand Prix Special in Tryon the world didn’t end, my whole universe fell apart. That’s how terribly negative I felt about this. I came home in this terrible rut. Thank God I snapped out of it and look at life a whole lot differently, truly enjoying Mopsie every single day. To give you an idea, at the training camp in Belgium this year it was the first time since September that I rode four horses in a row. At home, I rode Mopsie then I had to try to calm myself down and here and there worked with one other client, but I was not capable of teaching, there were no clinics, I didn’t travel, I was not capable of teaching at home. Thank God for very, very patient clients at home who stuck with me. After Aachen, I’ll spend a week with Mom before returning home.
DN: What sort of impact has your mother’s stroke had on you?
SP: It has had a HUGE impact, but thank God in a positive way. Mom had a stroke on March 26. I flew over on March 27. Dealing again with sleep deprivation and not knowing how Mom is going to do because the first 10 days did not look very promising. When Mom became more responsive I swear her first words were, “I want to watch you ride in Aachen.” At that time I still had my doubts that I’d be capable enough of qualifying for Aachen. But that was a huge motivation for both of us. Today she was sitting here in the wheelchair in the crowd, in the best spot in the house. That felt really good that both of us made it.
It was almost 76%, good enough for the top 10. A huge accomplishment. Sometimes you just take that step back in life, really look at the big picture and truly understand that a mistake in a flying change is not the end of the world, that standing still or not standing still, or not doing a good reinback in the test does not make your universe collapse. And a huge, huge thank you to Debbie who knew exactly what I was going through and always so reassuring every single time we worked together. Robert was the same. In training camp working with Debbie every single day was positive affirmation and watching videos together that made all the difference in the world again.
I would say I’m 95% better and know exactly what to do when a negative or toxic thought comes up, just catch the first letter of the toxic sentence. That’s how quick you catch yourself, how much awareness, how much consciousness it takes. I’m being so open about it, even about the medications and the doctors, if I can just encourage one young person maybe to take that step to learn to meditate not in pain and suffering like I did but learn to meditate and learn to think positive when they’re doing just fine. Or encouraging one other person who’s maybe a bit shy about seeing a mental coach or a psychiatrist, or seeing hypnotherapist that’s why I’m talking to you about it now, to share every detail about how extremely uncomfortable it is but also knowing deeply in my heart that you can snap out of this that it doesn’t necessarily take some horrible medication that some people might tolerate but let’s face it once you start taking that medication good luck getting off it. That’s another big challenge.
Quite a roller coaster but I’m super excited sitting here with you and seeing you without tunnel vision, having a clear conversation with the crazy parasthesia.
Life is good again.
DN: Did you wonder before you spoke out whether it was the right to do because people might look at you differently?
SP: No, I knew right from the beginning that if I ever come out of this—the question at that time was “if, when”–but it was more ‘if’—I knew once I got better I want to share this, especially with young people.
One thing I also did was excessive workouts in the gym. I got so ridiculously fit with an hour on the stairmaster, with interval training, crazy weight training and during the gym time that helped the anxiety. But a half hour after I stopped later it felt awful again. Being extremely fit masked symptoms for a little while but it did not help the anxiety. Without exercise it’s impossible to get out of that, too, but everything has to be at a pretty balanced level. For example, I started working at at 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock, then I went after lunch. I was getting tired about 8 o’clock at night but I knew if I went to bed then I would sleep for two hours and wake up so I would work out again from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock at night. Then try to get two or three hours of sleep and go at it again. Of course, exhaustion at one point kicked in. Thank God I didn’t get really sick because when people tell you stress kills you, I get it. Stress does because your body is not functioning in a balanced way. That’s when your immune system pretty much disappears so thank God I stayed healthy enough. But three visits to the emergency room, a total of eight different doctors, not just mental coaches, but regular doctors and specialists, neurologists… it was a bit of a mystery at first because the classic panic attacks, hyperventilation, high heart rates didn’t happen. But every other anxiety symptom I can write a book about. I personally think this can be one of the most frustrating sports in the world where everything works perfectly fine for two or three days when one and one is two but on the fourth day one and is not two because you’re dealing with another creature. What I understand now is I look at the subconscious mind as 90% of your brain. Your conscious mind is about 5%. For your subconscious mind if you built a computer it would be the size of a city block and need a nuclear reactor to run it. Your conscious mind at 5% probably has the capability of an old Motorola flip phone. You try to influence this giant computer of the subconscious with 5% of your mind. It explains when that gets out of hand how extremely difficult it is to come back from that.
But I’m back.