When Josh Kozelj was 14 and about to start high school in Port Moody, B.C., he was anxious, depressed, isolated, and suicidal. Now 20, Kozelj is a third-year creative writing student and successful runner at the University of Victoria. On Thursday, an essay he wrote in the form of a letter to his younger self was published in the Globe and Mail’s First Person column, and is receiving kudos from around the country.
View this post on Instagram
With all the kind words and messages of support from Canadians across the country today, I believe it highlights the power of human connectivity. Mental health is a problem so many people in our country, and around the world, go through that even the simple act of talking helps reinforce the idea that you’re not alone in battling mental health.
With the Berkeley Wellness Letter recently quoting a 25 per cent increase suicides in the US between 1999 and 2016, his story is timely.
Kozelj was a bookish, introverted kid who had always felt different from his peers, and this feeling only intensified as his body morphed into teenagehood. He writes that counselling changed his life–that the empathy he felt from his counsellor, who had also struggled with feelings of isolation and social anxiety, filled him with relief and hope. But also that running helped take his mind off his problems, so much so that he started using it as an escape, something many runners can probably relate to.
He discovered running while playing basketball, realizing he could run up and down the court without getting tired. In Grade 10, his basketball coach suggested trying out for the cross-country team. But even though it was clear he excelled at running, Kozelj had few friends, and when he eventually dropped basketball, the feelings of isolation and of not belonging came back with a vengeance. He finally agreed to start counselling in Grade 11 when he saw how worried his mom was about him, but it meant leaving school early every Thursday afternoon, and he was terrified people would find out why.
Transitioning to university
The counselling helped, and Kozelj’s final two years of high school were better. But then came the transition to UVic and university life. And he would continue to experience emotional peaks and valleys alongside the events in his life. In the summer between first and second year, he finished third on the running team at nationals, became a Canada West All-Star, and qualified to represent team British Columbia. In the fall of 2017 he travelled to Ontario for the ACXC nationals with Team BC, finishing seventh in the junior men’s.
Ups and downs
Then, more challenges: his first romantic partner broke up with him. A high school friend committed suicide. A close relative was diagnosed with cancer. And things came crashing down once again. Running during the indoor track season was no longer an escape, since he was unable to perform well, and wanted to quit. But after a few days off from training, he missed it. So he started training again, and made Team BC for the third straight year. He went to the 10K championships in Ottawa, and ran 30:57.
Then, more devastating news: his parents split up. In retrospect, he saw the signs, but chose to ignore them. He says his parents have always been supportive of him, and now that he’s older, they have a good relationship, and he calls each of them from time to time to talk, though he hasn’t been home for a visit in two years.
Kozelj has come to accept that life is full of challenges. Regarding his depression, “I think I’ll always be battling it,” he says. “It’s learning ways to not get too down. Life is not always straight up, it’s like a roller coaster. Knowing when you’re going back down, it’s being aware and knowing, realizing it won’t always be like that. That’s when I put words to paper. Someone else might go for a run. I like to put headphones on, listen to music, try to get myself out of it, writing in my diary.
“I like to recap my day, try to recall things that went right. Little things, like I accomplished something. Reassuring myself that I did something.” He adds that he’s in a supportive environment at UVic, with teammates who are “awesome to me.” He worried about revealing too much about his family life in the Globe essay, but took a friend’s advice and told his parents about it before it came out last week. And they understood.
“If my story reaches just one person, it will have been worth it,” says Kozelj.
You can read his story, here.