Jiri Pavel Ceska
For many years, my dream was to be an Olympic runner.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s still an ambition, but it’s one that’s been overtaken in recent years by something else, something more important.
I want to help people.
If running is a means to do that, great, but I want to share my past, my thoughts, so others in the same situation might find an easier path.
Because the road I took very nearly cost me my life.
The thing about having Asperger’s syndrome? You’re forced to learn how other people think, and why they behave certain ways. But when you’re not autistic? You don’t need to learn anything about how autistic people think. It’s not necessary for living your life.
But autism is far more common than most people think, affecting about one in a hundred people. But for the 99%, there’s still a lack of knowledge about what exactly it is, and how it affects us.
My message to those people? In a word: respect.
I believe everyone is inherently a nice person, but we act certain ways because of certain reasons or things that are done to us in our lives. Sometimes it’s not our fault, and the journey to understanding should always start by respecting other people.
For a big part of my childhood, that unfortunately wasn’t the case.
I grew up in a small village, about 40km from Prague, the capital city of Czech Republic, and was a rugby player at first before finding my way to running at the age of seven. In the Czech system, you do everything when you start in athletics so I did hurdles, long jump, pole vault, discus, javelin. But I always loved distance running.
It’s relaxing, it’s painful, and it seems like the most natural activity of all.
In the years that followed, it gave me a sense of escape from what was happening at school. When I was a kid, I had some issues with social contact with other children and I was taken to see a psychologist, who thought I could be autistic. But there was no examination, no diagnosis.
Up until the age of 14, my only friend was my cousin and I found it hard to fit in at school. It wasn’t just a problem interacting with other students; it was also an issue with teachers.
Other kids would target me, trying to provoke me, either physically or with words, and I would be furious, throwing over a table and reacting just as they wanted. The teachers didn’t believe me when I told them what was happening and, because of that, my parents didn’t believe me.
The kids would punch me in the stomach, or hold my head under the tap in the bathrooms and start the cold water. This was in the middle of winter, and I’d often end up getting ill because of it.
In the eyes of the teacher, I was a problem child so they’d protect the other children from me instead of protecting me from them.
I tried to escape any way I could, to switch off from what was happening. I loved books and would read novels or autobiographies. I loved movement, of any kind, so I’d go running or climb trees or buildings.
The bullying created major issues with my mental health, problems that didn’t go away even after it stopped. Over the years, I thought many times about taking my own life and, last year, I made my first serious attempt at it.
I had struggled with depression for much of the year and was on a training camp in Italy when the thoughts were getting stronger and stronger. I didn’t know what to do. It felt like nothing had meaning anymore.
I thought it would be bad for trainers, and other runners, if I tried anything while on the camp, but after I returned home, on a Monday night, I took a dangerous amount of medication in my room. I didn’t feel anything at the start so I went to sleep, then I woke up and felt wobbly. I threw up many times.
That was a turning point. I knew something had to change.
I told my trainer and my parents about what I had done, and the following day I went to a psychiatric hospital. I was supposed to stay there for six weeks, but it turned out to be three weeks.
There was a good doctor at the hospital but because she was in such demand, I couldn’t speak to her as much as I needed. Apart from her, it was a horrible place.
It wasn’t really a hospital. It was like a prison.
If you have cancer, the people in hospital try to help you as much as you can, but at this psychiatric hospital it never felt that way. It shows the progress we still have to make when it comes to mental health issues and treating them with the same importance as our physical health.
But there is hope. I realised that at the age of 12.
That was when I got to leave behind my primary school to enrol in an eight-year gymnasium school for more intelligent students. My new classmates didn’t know my past, they were nicer, and in the years before I got there, I put a lot of work into learning social communication skills which helped me adjust to a new life.
In the end, there were two big things that helped me over the past year.
Running was one of them, chasing my dreams on the track, from national level all the way to the World U20 Championships in Cali, Colombia. The second was realising that only I could ultimately help myself.
Since the suicide attempt, things have been a lot better. A big reason is that I have found my life goal: I want to help people who have similar issues.
I have two years left at school and, after that, I hope to go to university in the United States to study psychology. After experiencing the current support systems for those with mental health issues, I know a huge change is needed.
The only real way to do that is if you have power, so I’ve been considering pursuing a political career but I don’t want to only do politics. I want to work in mental health, maybe with a non-profit organisation that helps in hospitals or in schools.
I’m aware that many people with autism and Asperger’s have far bigger problems than me, and because of the position I am in now, with the improvements I made, I feel I can also help them to get to a better place.
If I had given up and was not in this world anymore, maybe this message could be lost. But now that I’m still here, I want to spread it far and wide.
To tell everyone to treat others with respect, regardless of their differences.
And to tell those struggling – the same way I was – that no matter how bad it seems, there is hope.
Photography: Oscar Muñoz Badilla/@fotografiadeportiva